Friday, July 31, 2009

Italy in Bits and Pieces

The past few weeks have been pretty busy so I put blog-reading on the back burner. But after just a week I started missing my normal haunts and feeling withdrawal symptoms. I initiated a sort of "rotation system" to try to read a couple a day, just to keep up with things.

Then yesterday I went on a bender. I sat down with my bookmarks and blissed my way through a few hours of unabated blog browsing! Ahhh, I feel so much better now!

Here are some of the highlights from my blitz:

A 23-year old Venetian has broken through the pink curtain to become her city's first female gondolier.

Sara Rosso, best known as Ms. Adventures in Italy, dished about the newest caffeine trend from the makers of Pocket Coffee. (For those who may not know, Pocket Coffee is an espresso-filled chocolate candy that has garnered a cult following.) Because of the melty nature of chocolate, they stop distrubuting their product in the summer. Enter Pocket Espresso, the new hot-weather alternative, a chocolate-espresso sippy cup. I ask you, can Pocket Caffe` Corretto be far behind?

Lola shares a fabulous-looking no-bake raspberry tart recipe at her drool-worthy cooking blog, Aglio, Olio, e Peperoncino.

The cool Rome blog, Eternally Cool, takes us on a tour of some astounding sand sculptures, in their article, Dante's Got Sand Between His Sheets.

Kathy at Dream of Italy tells us how to minimize the Monday Dilemma when traveling in Italy, and make the most of the day when many restaurants and museums are closed.

Read a poignant discussion of why la mamma is more than a mother in Italian life by Barbara at Savour the Sannio.

And finally, find out how a GPS error led a Swedish couple 650 km astray!

Now back to work.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Be Neighborly - Buy Locally

One of the (many) things we love about life in Italy is the sense of community. People gather in the piazzas, chat on park benches, and meet regularly for un caffe` or aperitivo in their favorite haunt. The mom-and-pop shop is still alive and well and steadfastly supported by neighborhood residents.

We knew that when we bought veggies at the mercato dell'erbe the person we were buying from was also the grower. My butchers (yes plural, one for meat and lamb, another who specialized in poultry and pork) were small operators who knew personally where the products came from, nothing traveling far to reach their shops. The folks at the salumeria carefully crafted the prosciutto and salami they were selling, and carried a wide range of formaggi from local farms. They were finicky when it came to which out-of-region cheese makers they would sell, opting only for the parmiggiano or mozzerella that fit their standards.

The supermercato in the centro that I frequented was locally-owned but aligned with a consortium for buying power, much like the Ace or True Value hardware stores around here. Ascoli has no chain restaurants in the centro (and even very few outside it) and while there are chain fashion stores scattered around town, there are still just as many (or more) sole proprietor businesses there, too.

We developed connections with the owners, so when we announced our departure they expressed how sad they were to see us go, and some even unabashedly cried.

Such is the way of life in many parts of Italy and we love it. They recognize that having shops in the neighborhood that you can walk to is an asset, and that having a chiacchierata (chat) with the owner or your neighbors while you're there is a nice thing, too.

We're fortunate that here in Cleveland Heights this kind of community spirit is still fairly well alive. A locally-owned (and very nice) grocery store is just two blocks away. There are two streets within a short walkable distance that boast many different ethnic eateries and coffee bars, and they organize street fairs and open-air movie nights.

Buying local feels good, and studies show that it keeps more money in the local economy than the corporate giants. Of course, in today's world you can't find everything you need at mom-and-pop shops. I realize that. But the rise of "town center" malls is disturbing to me. Why build a fake "town" when you can support the real one in which you live.

That's why I was happy to read about 3/50 project in a Plain Dealer column. The concept is simple:

3/ What 3 independently-owned businesses would you miss if they disappeared? Stop in. Say hello. Pick up something that brings a smile. Your purchases are what keeps those businesses around.

50/ If half the employed population spend $50 each month in locally owned independent businesses, it would generate more than $42.6 billion in revenue. Imagine the impact if 3/4 of the employed population did that. (According to US Labor Department statistics.)

For every $100 spent in local independently owned stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures. If you spend that much in a national chain, only $43 stays here. Spend it online and nothing comes home.

We are already committed to buying locally whenever possible. But I think this challenge of 3/50 is very doable for those who may not have thought about it in quantative (or quality of life) terms before. Spending $50 of your monthly budget in a local shop, restaurant, or grocery store is easy to do, and may just garner you some friends!

So will you join me? Visit those 3 shops that you would hate to see go away forever. Spend your date night in a local eatery. Make your neighborhood Ace or True Value your first stop for hardware needs before going to the big box store. Grab your pizza at the family-run pizzeria, or your burger from a pub instead of a national chain. Visit the area's farmers markets.

It not only makes you feel good about helping your local economy and supporting your town's business owners, it gives you real connections with people in your area. And being neighborly and helping to foster a sense of community is something we could all enjoy, don't you think?

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Small Place in Italy

Eric Newby was a wonderful travel writer who chronicled his experiences as an escaped prisoner of war being protected and housed by Italians in his famous book, Love and War in the Apennines. His sequel of sorts was A Small Place in Italy, where Newby tells of returning to Italy with his wife to buy a casa. With characteristic dry wit and descriptive character sketches, he recounts the restoration of the ruined farmhouse and the bureaucracy and friends they meet with along the way.

I pulled it out of a box in the attic because it's been several years since I first read his narrative. I enjoyed it a lot back then, more so than other (uh...shall we say more self-possessed? Pompous?) memoirs about buying and restoring property in Italy. I'm also paying more much more attention to the details than I did on my initial reading.

Remember in this post when I told you we made an impulse buy of a special keepsake? Well, we bought a house! Okay, actually it is a very small apartment, but it is a habitable piece of property nonetheless. We looked at it during our sojourn in Basilicata and debated over it for a few weeks. We made the decision to buy just 16 hours before we left the country. It may seem crazy to you, but it made perfect sense to us, and it definitely made it easier to board that plane, let me tell you.

Oh yeah, did I mention that we made the purchase agreement over the phone? We had already met with the owner, who resides in Rome, and she took a liking to us. We stayed and chatted with her for a few hours, talking about all manner of things, and by the time we departed she had invited us to her vacation home in northern Le Marche.

For some reason - now we are not sure why - we debated over it for another solid week (after meeting the owner) while we packed and stored our stuff. Finally, the day before we were due to leave we looked at each other and said, "Good grief, what is there to debate about? It's cheap, it's actually habitable, and it is in a location we love." And so that decided it.

That, along with the fantastic view from the windows. And, the key selling point for Bryan, it comes with two cantine, hewn right into the rock hillside, where generations upon generations have stored their vino and prosciutto and other goods. It is also in easy reach of my ancestral villages.

We are waiting on the paperwork, but we will soon have our own small place in Italy and we couldn't be happier about it. While our lives are currently in flux, the one place on earth we know we will return to for the rest of our lives is Basilicata, (the motherland) and we have a home to go back to.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Reunion Week Continues

We are still on the road; I guess we figured that since we’ve been living the life of vagabondi anyway, we may as well make it mobile for a while. There are lots of people we haven’t seen in a long time. Besides, since summer had not yet arrived in Cleveland when we left twelve days ago, we’ve had to go looking for sun and warmth. Strange how I don’t remember those weather quirks from my childhood there.

As I mentioned, our first stop was to hang out with cousin Celia. She lives in the woods along the South Carolina-North Carolina border, just outside two cute towns with a casual artsy feel to them. We spent time perusing cookbooks (well…Celia and I did, while Bryan and Rhonda perused financial websites and the latest issue of Garden and Gun magazine…don’t ask!) We cooked and ate and talked food and watch Big Night.

Then we all packed it up and took the culinary show on the road to Celia’s dad’s in Atlanta. George is my father’s first cousin. While the family certainly talked fondly about the southern Italian relations who lived in the South, I don’t remember meeting them, though I am sure I did at some point in my childhood. They were like the New York branch of the family that I grew up hearing about but didn’t really know, yet my grandfather would say, “You know Angela…she’s your cousin in New York,” and such-like things that indicated that familial connections, however tenuous, were still strands in the tapestry.

That makes George my second cousin, and he had some great stories about my grandparents that I had never heard before. I am pleased that I will have something to razz my grandpa about when I get back to Ohio, as he is a curmudgeonly kind of guy who loves nothing more than barking harmlessly and poking at people to get a rise out of them. Shoe’s on the other foot finally!

I met Celia’s brother for the first time, along with Leandra, another cousin a couple times removed, who I loved immediately. Her mother Rose came to visit us in Italy and we had a wonderful time. I heard Rose in Leandra’s voice. There we were, a group of cousins, who crowded the kitchen, cranked out cavatelli, simmered up sauce, and ate and interacted boisterously. You know, like any other Italian family.

We headed back to northern South Carolina to spend a few days with Bryan’s parents. It’s nice having family in southern climes! They live at the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains near a couple of pretty lakes, so we enjoyed a relaxed time picnicking on a shoreline, driving to a rustic mountain town, and sitting on their blessedly screened-in porch. I could see the mosquitoes lining up outside the finely-woven barrier, trying desperately to get to me while I remained uneaten, saying ‘ha-ha suckers!’ Mosquitoes love me and will travel great distances to swarm me.

Bryan’s mom, mindful that we didn’t have a true Thanksgiving in three years, cooked up a turkey dinner with all the fixings. (Yes, it tasted unbelievably good!) His parents were also very concerned for Bryan’s well-known caffe cravings, and purchased espresso for the moka pot he brought along, and had pre-screened the local coffee joints for him, too.

And that brings us to Washington for a couple days where we are reconnecting with some friends and – you knew this was coming – more family. We are meeting my aunt and cousins for dinner tonight. As I type this I am realizing that all our family activities always seem to revolve around food. (Is your family like that, too?)

We’ll be heading back to Ohio tomorrow. We need to be there for…ta dum…a family reunion! I know, it seems like there can’t be anyone else to reunite with, but there you have it. Two minutes after we arrived in America my grandfather informed us of the date of this reunion, stating how just once before he dies he would like someone, any one of his grandchildren, to go with him to the annual gathering of his branch of the family, and seeing as he is 96 he really thought it should be this year. Well, can’t very well ignore that kind of guilt, can we? Besides, I’m sure there will be good food involved.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Independence Day

For the first time in three years we will get to celebrate the 'giorno della indipendenza' in the company of our fellow countrymen. In our case, we are among la famiglia having a little family reunion of sorts. Not technically a reunion, I guess, since I met one cousin for the first time this weekend, and have not seen the other, my cousin Celia's dad, since I was about five years old. What fun! I have been hearing stories of my grandparents from way-back-when, and eating la cucina from the motherland, since George has been the keeper of the cavatelli maker for years.

Today we sweltered in the Atlanta sun to watch Celia complete the Peach Tree Road Race, and will be joining the ranks of millions of Americans in partaking in a barbecue this afternoon, albeit with an Italian flair (porchetta is on the menu!)

Happy 4th to you!

Need help celebrating? Here are a few ideas to put you in the spirit:

Read the Charters of Freedom which are held in our National Archives

Learn how many Americans will be having cookouts, and other fun facts from the Census Bureau.

How are you celebrating?