This past week I visited the ancient walled city of Lucca, just west of Pisa, in Tuscany. It was an amazing introduction to Tuscany. The weather was mild, the leaves were turning, and the roosters crowed every morning on the hills just outside of the walls of town. A climb up hundreds of very narrow stairs led to the top of Torre Guinigi, or known as the Treetop Tower, that provided a well earned vista of Lucca and the surrounding hills, hence my new photo header for this phase of the blog. Apparently, the tower was originally built for the Guinigi family, who once ruled over Lucca and protected the city against the Medici of Florence. It’s 44 meter high rooftop garden sprouts Oak trees that can be seen all over the city.
A fly-by stop in Pisa, on the way to the train station, offered a lovely view of the leaning tower and Duomo, no less impressive in real life, after years of only seeing pictures. I will have to go back when there is more time. Although the swarms of cheap-goods-from-China peddlers who get insistently in your face and don’t seem to want to take ‘no’ for an answer, were a bit of a turn off.
One also has to be deft at dodging the hoards of tourists stopping suddenly to snap photos of each other cutely ‘holding up’ the tower. I never understand this behavior. I can only imagine what it’s like in August. But wandering far down a side street, sufficiently away from the center of the action, a gem of a restaurant was found which yielded mounthwatering gnocchi with white fish cooked with I-can’t-even-begin-to-describe spices, Osso Bucco that fell off the bone it was so tender, and equally delicious and tender wild boar.
On the home front, homeschooling was resumed this week. I could not find an equivalent to Borax here in Italy so sadly, our science experiments thus far have gone splat, rather than pop. I tried replacing it witih copious amounts of baking soda, but clearly this did not work.
The struggle over math continues. This perhaps has been too painful to even mention previously. It might not be an understatement to say that L would rather endure having a filling without novacaine, or maybe even a week without the PS3, than math homework. After throwing up my hands and deciding to give it a rest for a while, a friend suggested the Saxons Homeschooling math series which, as a vetern homeschooler, she swears by. It moves incrementally, with lots of built in repetition, before moving onto the next concept. Perfect for someone to whom math doesn’t come easily. Although it is easy to get caught up in the worry of L falling behind, I am trying not only to keep in mind the macro picture, but also, remember that not everyone’s brain is ready to learn math at the same time. This isn’t just wishful thinking on my part. There has been some research to suggest that kids who are either homeschooled or in some form of progressive education and are able to postpone math until the middle school years, are able to grasp the concepts much more quickly than their younger counterparts, and move through it with much greater ease and competency.
On a final random note for this week, I have discovered that in Italy, you can have your pizza and salad all-in-one, thereby eliminating any lingering guilt for eating yet more pizza in the first place. It's called The Breruga at our local pizzeria, and is cooked with the usual tomato sauce, mozzarella, topped with bresaola ham. Then once out of the oven, it is thoroughly covered with fresh arugula and roughly grated parmesan cheese. The result is pure heaven!
a Prosecco Aperol outside at La Piccola Osteria
This is one of my favorite places in Vicenza. The perfect little Enoteca, or wine bar, where I can sit and write, and be familiar yet anonymous. Italian tumbles around me. The servers and owners know me by now. I am an island with my notebook and neon-looking Prosecco Aperol, yet I greet enough people as to not feel marooned. I watch the regulars and wonder whether my observations of their characters are as spot on as I think they are. I enjoy the sweetness of the apertivo against the saltiness of the complimentary bowl of chips they give me, against my far better judgment.
The 1980’s disco tracks provide just the right slightly ironic ambiance. The ceiling is framed by wooden beams, wine bottles line the walls, along with cobbled stones. The glass case by the bar displays all the mouthwatering tapas-style bites – or spunciotteria – available to pad your alcoholic intake. The door stays open no matter the weather so people can sit or stand outside or in.
This particular evening there is the dandy man in his silk suit and nearly wing-tipped black loafers sitting next to me who, after studying his iPhone and waiting for 45 minutes for his date to arrive, moved to the bar to make his eventual exit a bit less noticeable, or so I imagine. Then there is the couple – work colleagues perhaps – safely flirtatious, sharing a drink and smoke just outside. A house painter stops by on his way home from work to have a glass of wine and small plate of fresh anchovies.
The other night I attempted to go to an English-speaking networking drinks-do at a bar in downtown Vicenza while L was at soccer practice. Apparently, my interpretation of ‘Happy Hour’ – when it was supposed to take place – needs an Italianesque revision. I showed up at what I thought was a respectable 7:15pm to find the place utterly empty. I found out today that it didn’t get started until nearly 9 and went until after midnight. Since I decided not to hang around waiting, looking like an adrift tourist, desperate to speak English, I left. My motive for the whole outing was to hopefully meet some other expats in Vicenza who either might have a lead on private Italian lessons, or even better, might have kids L’s age. But it was not meant to be last night, and I rode my bike back to the neighborhood where I stopped in at Piccola Osteria before heading home. It was of course, warm, bright, full of people and welcoming. The bartender poured me a glass of a new Montepulciano, which I savored, along with my own plate of fresh anchovies, before biking the rest of the way home.
Piccola Osteria, Via Alfonso Lamarmora, 147, 36100, Vicenza, Italy.
Some weeks I just don’t know what to write. It’s not that nothing is happening, but that what’s happening just doesn’t seem blog worthy. In the scheme of things, I’m still pretty new at this. And I have some old fashioned hesitation about ‘over-sharing’ my personal life and thinking that anyone would find that worth reading about amidst the information overload that is already every day life.
Our adventures have plateaued for the moment, as we are staying put in Vicenza for a while. I am trying to navigate the Italian bureaucratic requirements in order to enroll L in school while we are here. I’m also trying to sort out more insurance requirements so he can practice with the local football club and we’re both studying Italian.
I have found a wonderful indoor pool just down the road where I can swim laps while L is at football practice or with his new friends. I have continued to swim my laps (my personal sanctuary) in whatever country we have been in. So it is with this cross-country perspective that I do just have to note how much I have been struck by the fact that the majority of both men and women I see at the pool – of all ages – seem to be incredibly fit. The difference between what I have observed in Germany, the UK and of course, the US, is stark enough to make one pause and ask, “Where the hell if all that pasta going? Because it does not seem to be sticking to most Italian’s thighs, ass, hips, etc.!
It really is quite astonishing. I am tempted to attribute it to all the cigarettes that most of them still smoke. At a dinner the other night of 10-12 people, at one point I noticed I was the only one in the room not smoking – I am not exaggerating.
More likely it comes down to portion size. Italians will have a small serving of pasta of some various form, followed by a meat and vegetable. Bread is available but never served with butter or even olive oil, like some trendy American restaurants like to provide, for dipping. Or maybe it is still the relative scarcity of fast food available. It’s there – even in Vicenza there is a McDonalds (but no Starbucks) – but good, home-cooked food is still deeply embedded in culture and tradition here.
However, the highlight of the week for me was a lazy Sunday lunch at a trattoria on a hillside outside of town. Gnocchi with shrimp and porcini mushrooms, followed by an assortment of grilled meats, and of course, plenty of prosecco. For L, the highlight was a guided tour of my friend’s pharmaceutical factory (see above and below) where they make, package and ship everything from suppositories to high end skin and beauty products. It was a treat for L to get to see up close how everything works. Meanwhile, for me it’s back to the pool to work off the gnocchi as I am not so confident I am going to absorb the Italian’s Teflon girth-fighting ability!
A convention of Daleks?
Beautiful church on the way to Da Vittorio
And now for a little food diversion. Yesterday we went to a pizzeria here in Vicenza that lived up to its reputation as serving the best pizza in town. With L being a veritable pizza addict, we have already had a fair bit here to compare it to, and Da Vittorio
did not disappoint. L and I mapped out its location and rode our bikes to the south end of town, down near the steps leading up to Monte Berico
. It was on a non-descript little side street that I would never have found without knowing about it.
As soon as we walked in, I knew it was going to be good. The checkered tables bunched closely together were filled with Italian business people on their lunch breaks. The menu was simple – only Neopolitan pizza on offer and the prices were great. From 4 Euros for a Margherita to 7.50 for a Siciliana, this was a deal compared to the more touristy places near the center of town.
The walls were decorated with old photos and drawings from Naples and various kitschy memorabilia. The guy making the pizzas in the kitchen, half visible to the dining area, seemed to know most of the customers. His young son delivered cokes to the tables that ordered them.
The server tantalized L with arriving pizzas that weren’t yet for him, by passing them under his nose on trips by our table. He also tried hard to get me to order a beer, but as I contemplated the bike ride back in the hot sun, I safely opted for the Coke Light. The pizza arrived quickly and met L’s exacting pizza criteria: a thin, almost bubbly crust, with just the right amount of cheese and sauce, comprising the Margherita. I went for the Siciliana pizza. I should really branch out, but I never seem to get tired of the combination of anchovies and capers. This version came with fresh, lightly cooked and sliced plum tomatoes as well. Two pizzas (quite large), two drinks, and an espresso came to 15 Euros. Definitely my idea of a great value for money and a little bit of pizza heaven. Da Vittorio, Via Borgo Berga, 52, 36100, Vicenza, Italy.
One of my favorite things to do in any foreign country is to go food shopping at a local supermarket. I thoroughly enjoy pouring over and deciphering the every day food options that I can take home and attempt to perform some sort of alchemy with. It is sometimes more successful than others. Yesterday my friend Marta took me to the Auchan to buy food for the week. Auchan is actually a French supermarket chain, which has expanded into Italy and probably far beyond.
It is as overwhelming as any American megastore chain and they sell everything from houseware products to foodstuffs from Croatia. It was also a late Saturday afternoon when we arrived and we were both quickly overwhelmed by the number of shoppers. Marta informs me that it is now considered trendy for Italian husbands to go and do the weekly shopping. They make ‘shopping dates’ with their friends and go for a coffee or apertivo after the groceries are loaded into the family car. So nice to know that progress in the world of domestic duties must come with a little back end bonus.
It might be an overused aphorism to say that soccer (or football, for the rest of the civilized world) is the universal game and transcends all nationalities and languages, but our experiences this week are definitely the proof in the pudding.
On Wednesday Lucas started practicing with a very diverse and international neighborhood team of 10-11-year old boys based in Mitte. The kids on the team hail from Germany, the Ukraine, Brazil, Portugal, and Iran, to name a few countries. Enough English is spoken that Lucas can chat with some of them but mostly they get right on with the game. The coach is of course fluent in English, which is a relief for both of us with our complete lack of German. It seems if you can kick the ball and just get on with it, you are accepted, at least on the field.
The kids straggled into practice which started at 5pm on a very well turned out pitch at the end of Klein Hamburgerstrasse in Mitte, with the Berlin Television Tower cutting a retro-futuristic backdrop to complete the scene. I could not help noticing that the majority of the kids - all 10-11 year old boys - turned up either on foot or by bike, and most all on their own steam. And they made their way home at 6:30pm the same way. Not a soccer mom with mini-van in sight (no offense intended to said soccer moms), but I do find it interesting that in the small towns and suburbs of the world it seems we tend to ferry and shield our children more than our urban counterparts. I notice the same thing when I am in London: kids are navigating the city at a much earlier age than we often afford them freedom to in the allegedly 'safer' suburbs.
The Pick-up Game
Today we took a long walk along the canals in Kreuzberg to a sporting area in a park, which has a small, caged soccer pitch, much like an urban basketball court. Lucas was planning on just shooting the ball by himself as I sat on the bench with my notebook and worked. But within two minutes of his arrival, six Turkish-German boys showed up, seemingly on their recess from a nearby school, and clearly eager to partake of the boy and his ball.
Lucas kept smiling and saying “I don’t speak German”, as they tried to talk to him. Finally, the one boy with a few words of English was pushed to the front of the group and within 30 seconds, they had organized themselves into teams and a game was underway.
I am always impressed to watch kids self-organize and it reminds me that we should spend more time getting out of their way and letting them get on with it. And of course, I cannot help being proud of my son for not letting the language, or feeling shy, get in the way of him playing, meeting kids, and having fun. The point being, speaking the same language is so clearly not an obstacle to the primary objective, which is simply – to play.
Once Lucas is involved with soccer he truly could be happy anywhere. He is already intent on staying here. However, there a few other pieces that need to click into place for us to continue to stay and explore Berlin beyond the end of this month – namely, a very affordable sublet and some work coming in for me.
Flamenco in the Turkish Market
This morning’s beautiful game outing was capped with a mouthwatering stroll through the Friday afternoon Turkish market where one can buy anything from buttons and zippers, to organic produce and Turkish food specialities, all at great prices. It was hard not to get carried away buying great cheeses, fresh gnocchi and hummus. But the pinnacle for me was a Spanish trio of buskers singing and dancing flamenco tunes. The odd synthesis of being in a Turkish market in the middle of Berlin and listening to passionate and gut-wrenching Flamenco music, did, I have to admit, rival the beautiful game for me. Lucas however, kept pulling on my sleeve so we could get home with plenty of time to get ready for his next football practice.
Eurostar Station, Lille, France
I consider myself to be a savvy traveler, a conscious American, a practitioner of assimilation, etc. but there are times when one just cannot escape the feeling of being a bungling tourist – and France is a place where it is easy to feel that way. I have just returned from a day out in Lille which is only 1½ hours from Kings Cross, London by Eurostar high-speed rail. My ‘Have Son, Will Travel’ status temporarily stayed as Lucas spends a week with his father who lives here in the UK.
Lille has a long history as a prosperous trading and manufacturing center that has been in the midst of an ongoing ‘renaissance’ (guidebook lingo for facelift) brought about largely by the Eurorail link and an influx of EU funding. Vieux (or old) Lille reveals its unique French-Flemish character and is the place to explore with much lovely architecture. It was fun to sample some of the local cuisine in which beer figures heavily in sauces and stews and seafood is fresh as the port of Dunkerque is not far away.
For lunch I went for the traditional moules marinerie et frites. Apparently, mussels are compulsory everywhere once a year during the Grand Braderie and the restaurant with the biggest piles of mussel shells out on the street front wins a prize. By mid-afternoon, there were brightly colored pistachio, lemon and raspberry macaroons – little cushiony explosions of flavor – that needed sampling and dinner was comprised of a local cheese tart, salad and chicken cooked with a very strong cheese (‘Maroille’).
My day out in Lille necessitated dining alone, since I was determined not to let my solo traveler status prevent me from enjoying one of the main treats of being in France, which is of course, eating. When I am traveling alone I like to determine my destination, in this case my restaurant of choice, before I leave the hotel. No meandering aimlessly and stopping to read menus along the way, leisurely and romantic as that might seem. I prefer to pick the place that interests me the most and is in my budget, map the route, and enjoy the walk there and then the success in actually finding it. Once there, it seems, my robust confidence departs me.
My son is spending an extremely rare 10 days with his dad and suddenly, I find myself with time on my hands. It is a bit surreal, and just slightly disorienting. To be more precise, I feel like I've temporarily lost a limb, but I'm coping. I keep thinking if I were back on my home turf I would have no trouble filling this sudden void with work and friends and any number of things. And since London is a city I already know well, sightseeing is not really on my To Do list, although I did partake of a very unique theater/film installation called Curtain Call
at the Roundhouse Theater by artist Ron Arad the other day. An in-the-round curtain of long silicone tubes form a 360 degree screen on which numerous artists' short film work is projected and supported by Dolby surround sound. It was pretty incredible and dream-like, and with a pay-as-you-can admission price, a great thing to catch between now and the end of the month if you happen to be in London.
While my days have mostly been filled with trying to not procrastinate too much and make headway with rewriting a script, then a bit of exercise, one has to eat, doesn’t one? Which leads me to the Portuguese Custard Tart (see above photo, bottom, accompanied by orange-coconut cakes). This indescribably lovely, little confection can be found, in its truest form, at the Portuguese Lisboa Patisserie on Golborne Road in North Kensington. My friends first introduced me to it the other night when they made their own version at home. It is a combination of flaky pastry crust which holds a not too sweet, yellow custard interior. It’s hard to imagine something so simple could be so good. Not only is the taste just amazing, but somehow it achieves the perfect balance of crunchy and smooth textures in your mouth which makes it truly, a little gastronomic epiphany. If you would like to try making your own, check out this Youtube video
from British celebrity chef John Torode – very entertaining as well - or his recipe below.Portuguese Custard TartsIngredients:375g shop bought puff pastry (or make your own)For custard:1 T. cornflour (cornstarch)275ml double cream (whipping cream)230g granulated sugar6 egg yolksMethod:1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Using a 9cm pastry cutter, cut out circles from the pastry. Press the dough circles into a 6-hole non-stick muffin tin. Remove and trim any overhang with the back of a knife so that the pastry cups are flush with the top of the tins.
2. Line the pastry with greaseproof (wax) paper and fill each pastry cup with baking beans. Bake for 5 minutes and then carefully remove the beans and bake for a further 5 minutes, or until the pastry has puffed up slightly, but is not golden-brown yet. While the pastry is baking, make the custard.
3. For the custard: dissolve the cornflour with 50ml of the cream in a mixing bowl. Add the remaining cream and sugar, and stir until the mixture is smooth and the sugar has completely dissolved.
4. In a small bowl, lightly beat the yolks with a fork until smooth. Add the yolks to the cream mixture, stirring gently to combine. Ladle the egg mixture into the partially baked pastry cups, filling to two-thirds capacity.
5. Bake until the edges of the custard are puffed and the middle is still wobbly (it shouldn’t set completely) - this will take 20-25 minutes. Leave to cool slightly, before removing and placing on a wire rack to cool. Serve. Enjoy!