Monday, January 29, 2007

A Sunday Drive to Deja vu

After a couple days of rainy, drizzly and dreary weather, yesterday brought us brilliant sunshine and turquoise skies. As we strolled home from the pasticceria where we like to have our ritual morning coffee and pastries, we were struck by the scene: between the Duomo and Baptistry was a beautiful portrait of the Sibilline Mountains painted against the azure sky, the bald peaks dazzlingly white. And thus decided to take a drive.

Now, sometimes these expeditions result in Bryan The Thrill Seeker wanting to take the narrowest path presented unto him, normally leading us into people’s driveways or onto dead-end streets, making us reverse and maneuver out of the tight spots with lethal-looking dogs barking wildly or small crowds of townspeople gathering to gape at the stupidity of the tourons. Thus I always approach Bryan’s suggestions for an exploration like this with a bit of trepidation and must decide what threshold of embarrassment I’m willing to endure that particular day.

But with such vibrant skies and eye-squinting sunshine, how could I resist the urge to explore. My penchant for crumbly hill towns and love of natural beauty normally win out anyway. The ancient via Salaria ribbons through a narrow rock-faced canyon following the Tronto River and is the scene of many rock slides, judging from the residue on the roads and the headlines we’ve read in the papers. This section of road reminded us of the Rio Grande Gorge on the drive to Taos, hillsides rising sharply from the road, river down below. And that was just the beginning of the feeling of déjà vu that would rest on us for the day.

Arquata del Tronto is the jumping-off point into the mountains and sits right on the edge of two national parks, the Sibillini, our destination, but also Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga, a very long name for the largest park in Italy, most of which sits squarely in the neighboring region of Abruzzo. We decided to go toward the dramatic summit of Monte Vettore in the Sibillini, the peak we saw standing so majestically during our morning stroll. As we zigzagged up the switch-back road into the pines-which had perfect little mounds of snow on the branches to make them the quintessential winter forest scene- we thought we could have been driving the Crest Road to Sandia Peak or the road through Santa Fe’s Hyde Park area. Craggy mountains and pines so familiar to us from home, we said.

(Above is Monte Vettore, and below is Sandia Mountain edging Albuquerque)

As we continued to ascend the slushy road with new snowfall and climbed toward the tree-line elevation, the feeling struck us strongly again and we thought of the higher reaches of Wheeler Peak outside Taos. When we stopped to behold the breathtaking views we could have been atop any crest in the southern Rockies. Except for the ancient stone villages tucked into crags and jumbled down hillsides. These brought us back to the pinch-me-I’m-dreaming feeling we often have when we stop to dwell on the fact that we are actually living in Italy. When the road sliced through a medieval borgo of stone blocks and narrowed in the center of town to a barely-big-enough passage through the buildings, we remembered solidly that we were in Italy after all.

The wind kicked up and was biting cold, blowing a steady cloud of snow off the peaks above us. The crisp air meant crystalline skies, though, and the vista before us stretched for at least sixty miles so we were able to gaze into four regions – our own region of Marche of course; Umbria; Lazio; and Abruzzo. (Yet another reminder of life in New Mexico as our everyday view stretched the sixty miles to Santa Fe; New Mexico is also one of the Four Corner states.) The majestic heights of the Gran Sasso seemed much closer than they actually are, and through a pass we could glimpse clearly the undulating hills giving way into Lazio. Unbelievably clear views that truly took our breath away.

No wonder we feel so comfortable here. Winding our way back down the mountain we reflected on how funny it is that this landscape is so reminiscent, yet so different, somehow more rugged-seeming, more timeless. Somehow the mountains seem older. Odd feelings that are wisps in the mind, elusive and difficult to explain. We are in a completely different place, so foreign from our home in New Mexico but holding similarities. I guess that’s why it’s called déjà vu.

Monte Vettore with Arquata del Tronto and its protective rocca in the foreground.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Things I Miss

After nearly eight months in Italia, we’ve become rather well acclimated to our new surroundings and feel we’ve assimilated pretty well (slow language skills not withstanding). Other than friends and family that we miss seeing and speaking to regularly, there aren’t many things from home that we’ve felt we really, really couldn’t live without.

We’ve heard many laments from expat acquaintances (and friends who formerly lived in Italy) about the things they just crave so much they must have these items brought to them (or incur costly shipping in order to procure them). Cheddar cheese seems to top the list, something that I confess confounds me a bit since there are something like 200 varieties of cheese in this country, and I’ve already found a few types that work well on Mexican dishes, the chief reason for wanting cheddar. Lest you think I’m not an aficionado of Mexican cuisine, refer to the title of my blog. I love the spicy stuff. I figure I’d be able to find replacement ingredients to get a “hot fix”, if green chile is not available to me. Of course, it may be easier for me to say that while I’m still hoarding a stash.

Chocolate chips seems to be a big one, too. My friend Cindy lived in Lucca for three years and complained about not getting the little, perfectly-formed chips. I just chop up a chocolate bar and call it good; I don’t think my cookies suffer. Some want a specific brand of mayo, yellow mustard, and cranberry sauce. I even heard about a lady who brought a whole turkey (the kind with the little pop-up timer) tucked into her suitcase!

But to each her own, and while there are not particular products I feel I need, there are two things that I just can’t obtain here and I can’t import them either: a good massage and a decent haircut.

The haircut thing I don’t understand. There are parrucchiere all over the place. I see women with gorgeous hair. Why can’t I find a competent stylist? I say, “just trim a little” and next thing I know I’m clipped into a retro-punk, spikey thing. Grazie mille. I’ve tried different stylists. I’ve looked up words diligently to make sure they comprehend and have repeated myself, then asking, “Ha capito?” Si si, they always tell me before hacking away. I’d consider flying to the States for a decent ‘do, but I’ve had issues there, too. I guess it’s my universal thorn to annoy me all my days.

The massage thing is a whole other ballgame. I went for monthly massages in New Mexico and had a talented masseuse who worked out the knots and kneaded the muscles to elasticity. Sheeting, draping, warmed rooms, relaxing music…you know, the usual professional massage.

Here, on the other hand, one must check her modesty at the door. Not only is there no draping, the therapist waits in the room while I undress. I must hustle across the cold tiles to jump onto the table, where no modesty sheet awaits. Let it all hang out seems to be the philosophy. Just a tad awkward and unnerving. The first massaggatrice I visited in Anzio allowed me the privacy to undress, but she handed me a little plastic baggy containing a white wad inside. I unfolded it to find a paper thong bikini that I was to put on. I cannot describe how uncomfortable that was. Oil is another issue. They use enough to fry a Thanksgiving turkey, and by the end the table is so slick I dang near slide right off. This is the routine at all three therapists’ I’ve visited so I’m guessing it’s just the way things operate around here. A massage is not the relaxing experience I’m accustomed to.

These are the things that I miss and can’t obtain, so I’ll not judge those who can’t get their coveted cheese or chocolate chips. We all have our comfort zone we want to maintain. Mine has slid away with the massage oil and the paper thong. I think I’ll give up the dream of relaxation and learn to live with a bit of muscle tension for the time being. If any traveling massage therapists or hair stylists happen to be coming this way, let me know if you’ll do house calls.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Chocolate-Hazelnut...Nature's Perfect Combination

Well! Now that I’ve caused a little furor in the ranks of the apparently passionate "Alfredo"-eaters across the US (please stop sending me email; eat the stuff, just don't expect me to!), I will turn my attention to a food item that everyone can agree upon…Nutella! A chocolate-hazelnut delicacy that is spread upon and squirted inside everything imaginable- from croissants, gelato, crepes, cookies, or a humble strip of toast, Nutella makes it appearance far and wide. It’s stirred into coffee cups, dipped onto fruit, eaten with a spoon right out of the jar (and apparently I’m not the only one to do this!) and drizzled over cakes. It is creamy, sweet, nutty and chocolatey…what’s not to like?

So, in honor of the First Annual World Nutella Day, so decreed by Shelley from At Home Rome and Sara from Ms. Adventures in Italy, 2 Baci is proud to participate in this momentous event. Since it also coincides with my mother’s birthday (hi Mama Jo!), I’ll be especially proud to concoct a confection in her honor (too bad she won’t be here to taste the treat for herself).

Read more about World Nutella Day. Participate in the event; together we can make the world a sweeter place!

While I get to work on the birthday recipe worthy of Mom as well as World Nutella Day, accept this contribution to tide you over.

Nutella Redemption
Or, how to make a panettone edible. Panettone is an Italian fruitcake that makes its appearance during the holiday season. It is not like the weighty, fruit- and liquor-filled fruitcake with which we are familiar, but it is still rather bland. A few candied fruits and raisins in a high-rise bread-like textured loaf. Boring, really. So, what to do with a big round cake of the stuff? Redeem it with Nutella. Nutella makes everything better.

First, slice the panettone and put it on a baking sheet in the oven to warm.
Take about a cup of mascarpone cheese (or cream cheese if you don’t have access to mascarpone). Heat about 1/2 cup of Nutella with a few tablespoons of milk and/or rum (or liqueur of your choice) and pour it over the mascarpone, stirring until the cheese melts and they meld together. Spread over a slice of warmed panettone. Ahhh, much better, especially with a cup of coffee to go alongside.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Italian Food Myths

Everyone loves Italian cuisine, right? It’s the age-old classic, the restaurant stand-by for untold Americans, the cuisine everyone can agree on when dining out with a group. Trouble is, most Italian food as it is known in America isn’t really la vera cucina Italiana. Let’s debunk a few myths.

Spaghetti and Meatballs, the real classic dish
Actually, no. Sure, you find spaghetti all over the peninsula. It can be topped with the well-known tomato sauce (called a ragu) or with a plentitude of other tasty options. But with a helping of meatballs nestled on top? Never. You might find meatballs on a menu if you are in a rural, down-home kind of place, or dining a casa with a friend. But never the twain shall meet when it come to serving up the duo insieme.

Fettucine Alfredo
Never seen it in these parts. The fat-laden, creamy sauce globbed on so many plates across America is not to be found here. When I tried to explain this sauce to chef friend, Giorgio, he was very confused. “But, why? It's troppo grasso (too fatty). And who is Alfredo?” he kept asking. Nobody, Gio. There is no one named Alfredo. It’s a made-up dish marketed around the country. “But why?” If you figure out the answer, let me know.

Caesar Salad
This one really confuses us, because it is ubiquitous in so-called Italian restaurants, even those claiming true Italian roots. But the origins of this salad come from a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Go figure. Again, unless you are in a tourist trap in Florence, you won’t find this among the offerings in Italy. In fact, you won’t find any other dressing option except olive oil and vinegar.

Espresso wires you for days
While it’s thick and concentrated-tasting, espresso actually contains less caffeine that a cup of drip-brewed coffee, according to an article in National Geographic (January, 2005). It tastes better, too. The only downside is you down it in about three seconds, so there is no lingering over a cup of joe around here.

Pass the butter
Bread is put on the table as a tool…to soak up sauces and to help you push things onto your fork. Butter or dipping bowls of oil are not provided. And the bread is almost always at room temperature. No warmed bread as a prelude to the meal; no garlic toast either. Sorry to disappoint you.

Grate on the cheese
In the fancy (and mid-range) American Italian restaurants, the waiters come out with the wheely cheese graters to offer you a heaping helping of “parmesan”. Here you don’t get such service but they do bring a dish of pre-grated Parmigiano (or Pecorino, depending on what region you’re in). Unless of course you order a primo dish with seafood in it. You’re not allowed to have cheese on top of spaghetti with clam sauce or shrimp risotto. I think they say it masks the flavors of the delicate fish though I’m not positive on this one; I only know that it is against the rules.

Forget everything you think you know about pizza. It should never come with an inch (or more) thick crust. And while we’re at it, the crust should never be stuffed with anything. And it absolutely ought to be cooked in a wood-fired oven. Peperoni is not a meat; they’re sweet bell peppers. Roman pizza is very thin and crispy-crusted with minimal toppings…only enough to taste every flavor. It’s true that Napolitana pizza boasts a bit thicker and chewier crust, but not at all like most American pizza. They are usually served on a plate uncut, leaving you with the likes of a butter knife to tear through the pie and get it to your mouth. But once it’s reached the lips, its oh-so-good. (Yep, a butter knife but no butter provided for the bread. It's a mystery.)

So there you have it. The truth about some of America’s popular notions regarding Italian food. I hope you’re not disappointed. Believe me, the real deal is far better than you could expect based on your experiences at home. We’ve never seen a disappointed face when they’ve tasted their first bite of true cooking here.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Every Day is New Year's Day

You know how it is when you get a song stuck in your head. It replays methodically, often with songs you don’t even like, and stays ingrained there until you either pass it off to someone else or can replace it with another. This has been the case frequently during the Christmas season as there were loudspeakers blasting music into the Piazza del Popolo and surrounding streets. Not charming music, mind you, but American disco tunes sprinkled with a smattering of Christmas standbys. It was rather annoying.

But come New Year’s Day I exorcised the grating strains of George Michael’s “last Christmas I gave you my heart…”, which had unwillingly infiltrated my brain, with a more pleasant tune, Carolyn Arends’ Every Day is New Year’s Day. It has a catchy melody and is sort of an anthem song. I also like the simple, sensible lyrics.

I buy a lot of diaries /Fill them full of good intentions /Each and every New Year's Eve /I make myself a list /All the things I'm gonna change /Until January 2nd /So this time I'm making one promise
Chorus: This will be my resolution Every day is New Year's Day This will be my resolution Every day is New Year's Day
I believe it's possible /I believe in new beginnings/ 'Cause I believe in Christmas Day And Easter morning too /And I'm convinced it's doable /'Cause I believe in second chances /Just the way that I believe in you
This will be my resolution/ Every day is New Year's Day /This could start a revolution/ Every day is...
One more chance to start all over/ One more chance to change and grow/ One more chance to grab a hold of grace And never let it go
Repeat chorus
(Listen online here)

I found it uplifting and motivating, and had been happily humming it for about a week when we received a card from Bryan’s cousin offering us New Year wishes with the message, “Seize the year”, which she highlighted and wrote, “This seems to be your motto!” How true! And that set off a new song in my head, also by Carolyn Arends. Clearly it was time to dig out the CD and give it a replay. The other meaningful song: Seize the Day. (Seize the day, seize whatever you can/For life slips away just like hourglass sand/Seize the day, pray for grace from God’s hand/And nothing will stand in your way/Seize the day. Well one thing I've noticed, wherever I wander/ Everyone's got a dream he can follow or squander/ You can do what you will with the days you are given/ I'm trying to spend mine on the business of living...) It seemed apropos and befitting the season of the year and this season of our lives.

Together these two songs are going to be the soundtrack for my year, reminders to live each day fully and gratefully, to love, and to embrace every opportunity. What is your life’s soundtrack this year? I hope that you will seize the year, and that each day be New Year’s Day for you, too.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Monday, January 08, 2007


Yesterday marked the final day for the demonstration of the Nativity. All around Italy the scenes were erected – from simple mangers to elaborate, functioning towns – in honor of Jesus’ birth. In Assisi, the town where the nativity is said to have originated by the hands of St. Francis, we had the opportunity to view many mangers from around the world, displayed in the heart-felt church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Set in the valley below Assisi’s steep streets, the basilica was erected around the humble little chapel where St. Francis preached. We have found this structure to have much more soul than the grander, well-known church up in town with its frescoes and the saint’s remains. Here we encounter chapels filled with joyful music, groups of teens participating in Bible studies and Mass, and an air of lightness and spirituality. It feels warm and welcoming.

The manger scenes on display ranged from large, ceramic villages to simple, hand-knit figures. Those from around the world contained symbols and materials to denote that country’s culture. They were charming. In Rome, we toured the exhibit in Piazza del Popolo of 100 Presepi, again from around the world. Here we saw many whimsical representations, including a scene fancifully cut from CDs and DVDs and fashioned into stars, a stable, and the figures. Sounds strange, but it was adorable. Another was made from pencils, and there were several made by school children from various pasta shapes. I was glad to see that the tradition of macaroni-art is still alive and well.

But the best one by far was on display right here in Ascoli Piceno. In a little-known church on the edge of the centro storico we found the delightful presepe that comprised all of Israel and showed Egypt in the background. There were villages grouped in the background. In the fore, Bethlehem bustled with activity – the shepherds moved among their sheep (and even the sheep’s tails wagged); a blacksmith pounded iron; a woman baked bread while another mopped her floor (with the rag and brush action I’ve previously written about); someone drew water from a well and a man was grinding olives into oil while next door the mill turned to grind flour. In short, the entire town was busy going about their normal lives, while we had to search among all the activity for the cradle that held the babe. Much as we imagine the real event to have transpired.

Amazingly, though, they also had a lake with moving waves and ships with beacon lights sailing atop, and beyond were the barely-distinguishable outlines of the sphinxes and pyramids of Egypt. It was enchanting and captivating and elaborate.

These intricate displays obviously took much time to construct, but were only unveiled for display beginning on Christmas Eve. We missed out on many of them as we were gallivanting about the country with friends and family, so when we discovered yesterday to be the final showing, we high-tailed it around town to take in as many as we could. We became charmed by this annual tradition; we agreed walking from church to church was much more relaxing and culturally edifying than getting in our car to drive around neighborhoods looking at lights, as we’d done in Albuquerque. Granted, we missed our traditional luminarias, but this was a more than ample substitution. We loved the ingenuity, the simplicity of the scenes being played out in elaborate displays, and the chill air as we strolled. What a beautiful tradition.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Every Day's A Holiday

The holiday season is pretty much over. The ornaments are carefully packed away, the tree gone, and the New Year’s resolutions made. The usual grumblings about having eaten too much, drank too much, and spent too much have begun, and the festivities have given way to business as usual once again. That is, in America.

Here in Italy, the festivities continue. Today and tomorrow are holidays known as Epiphany or Befana. The piazza is packed while children await the appearance of La Befana, the quasi-witch-like peasant woman with a broom who gives treats or coal depending on the child’s behavior. She has long held the position occupied in the US by Santa Claus, who has only recently made his appearance into the Italian culture as Babbo Natale.

Epiphany is the last in a long string of celebrations that started with Immaculate Conception Day on December 8. Since then, we’ve had so many holidays involving celebrations with bells peeling, people gathering, and food to be enjoyed, that we’ve begun to lose count. For nigh a month it seems that every day is a holiday in Italy. There was La Vigilia, Christmas, and Santo Stefano, followed by San Silvestro and Capodanno. And now Befana. The party never ends!

These days are extended into long weekends, just to make it even more interesting. They call this “making a bridge” (fare un ponte) and so a holiday like today turns into a three or four day event.

The problem with all these holidays is that some are obscure to us and we don’t know until it is too late, because, of course, the fact of it being a festa means that most shops are closed. Including the food stores. You’ll remember my bare cupboards during the Immaculate Conception Day; this was repeated on New Year’s and the day after. We returned to Ascoli with visiting relatives on New Years’s Eve, too late to find any groceries in the centro open. We jumped in the car and headed to the centro commerciale (mall) and the ipermercato. We barely made it; they were crating up the produce and meats to store in the back as we tried to shop. “Uh, I need some lemons,” and the guy would rummage through the crates to dig some out. “Salsiccia?” “Tutto finito,” I was told. All sold out. “Try mixing some ground pork with seasonings instead.” (Which, by the way, worked well as the filling for my stuffed turkey breast dinner.) But within five minutes of our arrival the announcements were being made to bring the purchases to the registers as the store would be closing. San Silvestro is apparently an important saint to warrant such a holiday.

New Year’s eve lunch was a problem, too, as all the restaurants were closed in preparation for their grand cenone (big dinner parties) and didn’t want to bother with pranzo. The one restaurant with a door ajar was mobbed but we didn’t have much of a choice, so we wedged ourselves into the free table gratefully.

New Year’s Eve was spent in the Piazza Arringo with my uncle and aunt. Bryan was tucked into bed with a wretched cold and missed out on the mediocre band, the mayor doing the countdown, the fireworks (in the air overhead as well as right in the piazza), church bells clanging in 2007, and strangers handing us glasses of champagne. Ya gotta love Italia! The atmosphere was unlike any New Year’s I had celebrated and we loved it, even the very jetlagged relations.

And that brings us to Epiphany. I’m not sure what the traditional foods are for this big festa, but I at least knew it was coming and was able to make the rounds to procure provisions for the weekend. I went to the pasta all’uovo for the treasured ravioli, the butcher for spezzatino, the frutteria for veggies and fruit, and the bakery for bread. At least this holiday we won’t go hungry. I’m not sure, but I think this one marks the end of the season and soon they will begin the same routine with which we are familiar, of removing the decorations and getting back to work. But we had a heck of a lot of festive fun while it lasted.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider