Tresette – the world’s best and most confusing card game (part 2)
Now that we’ve mastered the 40-card Italian Deck, we can start to learn the basics of Tresette.
While the game can be played with only two players, we’ll stick to the four-player version to keep things simple. The pairs sitting opposite one another play together as a team. The cards are dealt out counter-clockwise (so unnatural!!!), ten to each player. The person to the right of the dealer leads with any card of his choice. The play continues counter-clockwise, and the other players must follow suit. If they are void (no cards in that suit), they may play any card of their choosing. The player with the highest card in the led suit takes the trick and leads the next trick with a card of his choice.
The play continues until all cards are finished, concluding a round. The teams combine the tricks they’ve taken and count their points. There are 11 points in each round, the first team to 41 points wins the game. Not too bad, right?
Now for the complicated part:
Card Rankings: the 3 is the highest card, followed by the 2, then ace, king, horse man and page boy. Then 7, 6, 5 in that order and finally, the utterly worthless card, the 4.
Points: while the 3 is the highest card, it is not the most valuable.
- The aces are valued at one point each (4 total).
- All 2s, 3s, kings, horse men, and page boys are worth 1/3 of a point each (6 and 2/3 total). And just when you thought 3rd Grade mathematics wasn’t useful!
- All other cards have no point value.
- An additional point is awarded to the team who collects the last trick of the round.
- Total points possible each round is therefore 11 and 2/3. However, teams may only score a whole number (ex. a team with 6 and 2/3 points has scored only 6).
Bonus Points: when the cards are dealt, if a player has the 3, 2, and ace of a single suit (called “Napoli”), or if he has three 3s, three 2s, or 3 aces, he may call “Buon Gioco” (good game) which awards his team an extra three points at the end of the round. Upon declaration of “Buon Gioco.” the opposing team may ask the player what his buon gioco is. If asked, the player MUST declare the cards that make up his buon gioco before the start of the 4th trick (ex. “three aces – all but the ace of coins” or “Napoli in cups”). If he fails to declare his buon gioco before the 4th trick, his team is not awarded the bonus points. If the opposing team fails to ask, he does not need to reveal his buon gioco.
Communication Rules: Tresette is known as il gioco dei muti (the game of mutes) because it’s considered cheating to communicate with your partner. No special signals or motions are allowed. There is one exception: the player who leads the trick may make one statement about the suit that he plays.
- “Volo” – I fly. Means that it is your last card in that suit.
- “Ho l’asso” – I have the ace.
- “Ho altre 3 lisci” – I have another 3 low cards (in this suit). Could be used with any number.
- “E’ buono” – it’s good. Means that the led card is the highest remaining in that suit.
Instead of revealing what you have, you may instead choose to command something of your partner.
- “Voglio il tre” – I want the 3. If your partner has the 3 of that suit, he should play it. Basically, it implies that you have the 2 & the Ace; with the 3 out of play, your 2 and ace are the highest cards in that suit.
- Similarly, “Voglio il due” – I want the 2 – implies that you have the 3 and the ace.
- “Gioca il meglio che hai” – Play the highest you’ve got. Your partner will play their best card and if they take the trick, they should return with the same suit.
While it’s an opportunity to tell your partner what you do and don’t have in your hand, you need to be careful not to reveal too much information because your opponents are listening too. There are situations in which it’s best not to say anything and just see how the cards play out.
And that’s Tresette!
The beauty of the game isn’t in the rules, it’s in the strategy. A good memory is crucial – you must pay attention to how many and which cards of each suit have been played.
Since the aces are the most valuable, the strategy revolves around playing the aces when you know your team will take the trick. If you know your partner is void in a suit, lead with the highest remaining card (saying “e’ buono”) and it will give him an opportunity to dump an ace of a different suit and score a point for your team. Likewise, if you have the two & ace of a suit, and the opponent leads and says “ho il 3”, then you can safely play your ace knowing that it’ll take the trick.
But don’t forget all the other cards that’ll earn points as well. If you’re void, don’t throw away a page boy unless you know your partner will take the trick. That card is still worth 1/3 a point, and all those little thirds add up!!
Now let’s go back to that evening that Eugenio “offered to teach me how to play a classic Italian card game”…imagine trying to learn the new deck of cards as well as the rules in the same evening. All in a foreign language. I had no idea what I had signed up for and to be honest, there were moments where I had to hold back tears out of sheer frustration. But Eugenio, patient and loving as always, has since played hundreds of games (the two-player version), always walking me through the strategy and explaining my errors or incorrect assumptions. I won’t say I’m a master, that would be his brother, Jonny. But I will say the realization that I had grown confident in my ability as a Tresette player was a moment I will never forget. A moment of utter triumph in my conquest to immerse myself in a foreign culture and language.
Tresette – the world’s best and most confusing card game (part 1)
A quick way to earn an Italian’s respect is to tell them you know how to play “Tresette.” A favorite among old men and commonly played during the holiday festivities, this is not just a card game. It’s a fierce competition in which the smallest error, be it a memory lapse or bad assumption, can result in endless agony.
I love cards and board games, just ask my neighbor growing up. We spent all our rainy days battling in games of Gin Rummy, Monopoly, and Poker (remember what life was like for a kid before the internet?!?!?). So when Eugenio offered to teach me how to play a classic Italian card game, I naturally jumped at the offer. But before I could learn the game, I had to learn the cards. Should be simple, right?
We aren’t dealing with clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades anymore. Oh no, that would have been too easy. We’ve got the Italian deck which has Denaro (coins), Bastone (clubs/sticks), Spade (swords), and Coppe (cups).
And you know how our decks of cards give you the hint in the upper right and lower left corners? The number and symbol so that you don’t need to see the whole card to know what you’re holding? Yeah, you can forget about those too. Non-existent.
The card makers love to mess with you by adding all sorts of random décor, just to distract you from being able to determine the value of the card. The ace of swords comes complete with a flying angel and ribbons while the ace of coins would makes his debut on the breast of an eagle. Um, what?
And don’t even get me started on this card:
There are 4 clearly visible swords plus an additional horizontal sword in the center. But what are those other half-swords popping out of the two vases??!?!? Are they plants or swords??!?! Why on earth are they blue?!?!?! I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was playing the 7 of swords when really it was this damn 5.
Are we having fun yet?
So rather than 52 cards, there are only 40. Ten to each suit. Ace through 7 and then the Italian equivalent of Jack, Queen and King…which I’ve affectionately nicknamed Page Boy, Horse Man, and King. The Italians just call them “8, 9, and 10.” While the horse man is easy to identify since he’s got his four-legged friend, the page boy and king are confusing. Hint: you have to take a look at their headgear. Only the king wears a crown, the page boys are stuck with feathers.
Quick review: we’ve got well-decorated aces through sevens, page boys, horsemen, and kings in swords, cups, sticks, and coins. Right. And now that we’re all thoroughly confused, we can start to learn the rules of Tresette. To be continued…
April 8, 2013: A.S. Roma vs. S.S. Lazio, 20:45
Ask any Romano what he was doing last night, and I guarantee he’d look at you as if you were crazy. It’s a stupid question with an obvious answer. Last night was “il Derby.”
Technically, the term is applied to any game between two teams of the same city. Northern Italy has the Inter vs. Milan Derby and the Juventus vs. Torino Derby. But in the capital city, there is only one Derby worth talking about: the matchup between A.S. Roma and S.S. Lazio. Both teams call Rome’s Stadio Olimpico their home stadium; the Laziali occupy Curva Nord and the Romanisti claim the Curva Sud. The curve you choose is a lifelong decision that defines you.
“Ciao, mi chiamo Katie, ho 29 anni, e tifo la Roma.” Hi, my name is Katie, I’m 29 years old, and I support AS Roma.
This rivalry runs deep in the blood of Roman veins. To a Romanista, there is no greater insult than “Sei proprio della Lazio” – you truly support Lazio. I’m sure there’s a similar insult for a Laziale, but I’m not friends with anyone who wears sky blue and white…so I couldn’t tell you.
The Roman Derby not just a game, it is THE game. It’s an opportunity to prove who is the dominate team of the Capitale. The years of unwavering dedication and love for your team combined with a deep-rooted loathing of the “other” team, means that the Derby is 90 minutes of sweating, screaming, cussing, nail-biting, hair-pulling, stress and frustration. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows so close together, I’m convinced that it’s going to give me a heart attack, or at least take a few years off my life.
Last night’s Derby was no exception. In the 15th minute of the first half, Lazio’s Hernanes scored to give Lazio the lead in the first half. A missed penalty kick by the same Hernanes in the second half gave new life to Roma. Less than 10 minutes later, we had a breakaway and the last Lazio defender committed a foul against our forward – automatic penalty kick for Roma! And with that, our beloved Capitano Francesco Totti, a 36-year-old demi-God who has worn a Roma jersey his entire career and can do no wrong, set yet another record: 9 career Derby goals.
To give just a hint of the fanaticism of a Romanista, compare the reaction of commentator Carlo Zampa when Hernanes scored to his reaction when Totti scored. You don’t need to speak Italian to understand who he’s rooting for:
Much to the frustration of all tifosi (fans), this Derby ended in a 1-1 draw. A bit of a let-down, but it does set everything up nicely for the end of the season as both teams are in the running for the Coppa Italia – Italy Cup – a single round, knockout tournament played by Italian teams from all levels (Serie A, Serie B, and Serie C). The winner gets the Cup title and a ticket to next year’s Europa League.
The final is played at Stadio Olimpico, regardless of the teams, but this year there is a very strong possibility that we’ll see another Derby for the Coppa Italia title. With Lazio’s win over Juventus in January, they secured their spot in the Final. On April 17th, AS Roma faces off with Inter. In the event that (read “when”) Roma wins, the Coppa Italia Final on May 26th will be yet another Derby. Please pray for my health.
Parola del Giorno #7 – La Seppia
A few weeks ago, my printer ran out of ink which meant it was time to learn a bit of new vocabulary. At this point, my Italian is good enough that I can work my way around an unknown word, I could easily walk into a store and ask, “Excuse me, do you sell………..the black stuff that a printer uses to write?” While it’s a pretty effective way to get your point across, I still want to improve my vocabulary.
When my printer flashed the dreaded low-ink light, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “Fra poco mi servirà la seppia.” I’m going to need ink soon.
“Non ti preoccupare, ci sono tanti locali che la vendono.” Don’t worry, there are a lot of places that sell it. I continued to mention my need of “la seppia” for the better part of a week, until I finally had a free morning to run some errands.
I called Eugenio to ask him exactly where I could find “la seppia.” He told me that there was a shop next to his bar, but he didn’t give me much more detail. No problem, his aunt & brother were working at the bar that morning so I could get the rest of the information from them, all while enjoying my usual cappuccino and cornetto.
“Dov’è quel negozio qua vicino che vende la seppia per stampanti?” Where is the shop near here which sells “la seppia” for printers?
No response. I was surrounded by blank stares and puzzled faces.
I’ve become used to this reaction though; it usually means that I’ve been sloppy with my pronunciation. I repeated my question, paying special attention to my cadence and careful to correctly roll my rrrrrrrrrs.
Again, blank stares. Okay is my accent really that thick?!?
“La seppia per una stampante?” asked Eugenio’s aunt.
“Si!” relieved that finally someone was able to repeat what I was trying to communicate. Once someone with a native tongue repeats what I said, everyone is usually on the same page.
But no, everyone still remained confused. Okay, something’s not right.
I heard Cico, a regular at the bar, say “Bella, dovresti andare alla pescheria per trovare la seppia.” You’d have to go to a fish market to find la seppia. And at that point everyone busted up laughing.
And then it hit me. I never actually consulted a dictionary to determine what the Italian word for “ink” was. I used “la seppia” because it’s always written on the menu for squid-ink pasta. If I had paid more attention, I would have realized that the dish is called “pasta al nero di seppia” – literally, pasta with the black from a seppia.
“Nero” refers to the ink.
“Seppia” is the animal that produces the ink.
Which meant that I was essentially asking for a place that sells squid for my printer.
After a good laugh at my expense, Eugenio’s aunt informed me that the word for ink is “inchiostro,” and with this knowledge I was able to buy a new printer cartridge. But first I made a quick phone call to my darling boyfriend to chew him out for not having once corrected me. I must have used “la seppia” incorrectly a dozen times.
His defense? “Well, I knew what you meant…so I let it go.”
And therein lies one of the challenges of a life in a foreign language: you make mistakes, and you make them often. People don’t want to correct you because they find your errors endearing. You don’t want to be corrected too much, or else you lose confidence.
But at the same time, you also don’t want to walk around asking for squid for your printer.
While I have no answer for how often one should correct a non-native speaker, I will say that I learned a critical lesson: to learn a new word, I need to consult a dictionary rather than a menu (or my boyfriend for that matter).
Viva Viva La Befana!!
La Befana (Americana)
La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Con il vestito alla romana
Viva viva la Befana!**
We decided to throw party for all the neighborhood kids last night and yours truly played the role of La Befana, an old haggard woman who goes from house to house delivering stockings full of candy (if you’ve been good) or coal (if you’ve been bad).
A loud *CRACK*, a cloud of smoke, and a flash of red light announced my arrival on the terrazza. I got off my broomstick and dragged my sack into the kitchen where nearly 20 kids waited eagerly for their stocking which, by magic, had their names written on them. Half woman, half witch, La Befana is old, extremely ugly, and known for startling children by coughing and sneezing when they attempt to give her a kiss…which they must do in order to receive their stocking.
This was by far my favorite of the Italian Feste during the Christmas Season, and it’s really too bad that La Befana never made it into American culture. I know a few dads & uncles who would leap at the opportunity to dress up as an ugly witch and scare little kids!
**Translation: La Befana comes at night with completely broken shoes and Roman dress. Long live La Befana!! As with most poetry, this chime is ten times better in its original language.
Buon Anno 2013!!
Last night, after eating more than I thought was humanly possible (again!) and drinking copious amounts of prosecco, we decided to venture up to Piazza Garibaldi on the Gianicolo hill to ring in the new year. It seemed like a brilliant idea, a panoramic view of the city at midnight, but I can say with certainty that I will never do that again. The reason: I value my life.
Italians don’t appear to have any regulations on the types of fireworks available for purchase, and even this pyromaniac was unnerved by the intensity and frequency of explosions. Fireworks were being launched in every direction, even from the windows of apartment buildings 3-6 stories above, which made it incredibly unsafe to walk in the street. Open spaces, which I normally seek out to get away from the crowd, now seemed like minefields. You’d have to be stupid to walk across one, that was where most people lit/threw their fireworks. And shortly before the countdown to midnight, I saw a green flame streak above our heads and land in a group of people under the statue of Garibaldi. They were able to put the fire out, but I couldn’t tell if anyone was badly injured.
We were a group of 7 in a crowd of thousands, so the odds were in our favor, but it definitely wasn’t the sort of risk I like to take. But now that I’m safe at home and the worst of my battle scars is a throbbing headache, I can say that it was absolutely worth it. Firework shows in every piazza and neighborhood in the city, bursts of color for as far as the eye could see. Definitely a once in a lifetime view.
AUGURI DI BUON ANNO!!! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
Foto del Giorno#4 – Family Distractions!!!
Please excuse my absence…I’ve been hosting visitors over the past month! I’ve got many posts coming, including my photos from the Balkans, my arch theme, more fun with the Italian language, etc…stay tuned!
Parola del Giorno #6 – Cappuccino
The cappuccino: Italy’s favorite breakfast beverage. One part espresso, one part steamed milk, one part foam. Though the simplicity of its ingredients should not to be taken lightly; it’s all too easy to burn the espresso or overheat the milk. In this country of food-snobs, a great cappuccino is an acceptable reason to be late to work while a bad cappuccino is an acceptable reason to boycott a certain bar. Considered to be a delicate form of art, the cappuccino is most enjoyable when your favorite English student demonstrates his confidence in using the Present Simple and Object Pronouns:
But what does the word “Cappuccino” actually mean?
We know that the suffix -ino is a diminutive which communicates the smallness of an object. And the word Cappuccio means “hood” in Italian, as in Little Red Riding Cappuccio. So what does a little hood have in common with a coffee drink? A 16th century Order of Catholic Friars, obviously.
The Cappuccin Order was a group of friars who broke off from the Franciscan Order. St. Francis of Assisi renounced all material things and in dedicating his life to serving God, he lived in extreme poverty. The Cappuccini took these ideas to the next level: the monasteries were not allowed to possess anything, the friars practiced regular fasting and were only permitted to store food sufficient for 2-3 days. Everything was acquired by begging and the friars were not allowed to touch money.
Still, how does this all relate to coffee? Their dress code. The Cappuccini were so named because of their unique tunic from which hung a large pointed hood – a cappuccio. The tunic was a rich, warm brown color and accompanied only by a wool cord wrapped around the waist.
The combination of colors, the brown tunic and the cream-colored cord, was the inspiration for the name of our favorite frothy cappuccino.
Foto(s) del Giorno #3 – Sagra dell’Uva
Last weekend, Marino threw a party and everyone was invited. The tiny, medieval town 20 minutes outside Rome hosted its annual Sagra dell’Uva – Grape Festival – in honor and celebration of the Battle of Lepanto (1571). How that relates to grapes or wine, I have no idea. But if there’s one thing Italians know how to do, it’s throw a street party.
Local vendors set up stands offering porchetta (a regional specialty), arrosticini (grilled lamb skewers), cheeses, cookies, and of course wine…lots and lots of wine. On Sunday afternoon, after a weekend full of jousting tournaments and parades, all attention is turned to the central piazza as thousands wait anxiously for the “Miracle of the Fountain.” Water turns into wine, literally, and chaos ensues. The thirsty crowd, armed with plastic cups, pushes their way toward the front hoping to get their share of the golden nectar.
I know, I know…Only in Italy.
While a very healthy glass of wine could be purchased for 50 cents at any of the stands surrounding the piazza, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drink wine directly from a city fountain. Eugenio and I braved the masses and we squeezed our way to the front to take part in the miracle. And believe me, the happiness of holding a half liter bottle of fountain-wine was worth every minute of the panic and fear of being trampled!!
Marino’s Sagra dell’Uva goes back to 1925, with the most infamous year being 2008…the countdown to the miracle…10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1 AND………………..water. Imagine the disappointment on the faces in the crowd and the embarassment of city officials as this miraculous fountain ends up giving water. A few minutes later, a woman ran to her balcony overlooking the piazza and screamed “Miracolo!!” A plumbing error resulted in wine flowing into the pipes of neighboring houses instead of the main fountain.
Marino, where wine is so abundant that it flows from your kitchen sink!!!
Question: What do 13 Italian men do in the back room of a café/bar from 10pm-2am on a Thursday night? Yes, it’s perfectly legal…and no, it has nothing to do with the mafia (at least I don’t think so, though I’m learning that the mafia is a part of everything in this country).
Answer: They draft their FantaCalcio teams.
Seasonal depression hits Italian men hard during the summer months. The heat, the humidity, the mosquitoes, and even the tourists would all be bearable but for the fact that there is no soccer from mid-June until late-August. No Sunday or Wednesday games. No Champions League. No betting. No Derbys (games between rival teams). What is a poor tifoso – fan – to do but slip into a state of utter apathy? In fact, it must have been clinically advised by American doctors to overlap the football, basketball, and baseball seasons so that no American man would have to suffer this between-season slump.
But all is not lost!! August comes and the country shuts down for vacation. After a week or three of soaking up all that this Mediterranean sun has to offer, Italians return home to prepare for the FantaCalcio draft. These soccer fanatics dedicate hours upon hours to the careful study and assessment of the 450+ players in Serie A – Italy’s highest national league. I imagine that this transition from absolute ambivalence to freakish obsession is the #1 cause of autumn breakups, marital disputes, shirked responsibilities and missed appointments in the country.
If only girlfriends and wives could understand the significance of the FantaCalcio draft! It cannot be underestimated; you’re bound to its outcome for the entire season. And in your tight circle of friends, cousins, and brothers, any mistake will likely haunt you for an eternity. My poor boyfriend is still the butt of numerous jokes for a player his “co-manager” chose several years ago – a no-name rookie who was believed to be “a secret weapon.” This player proceeded to enter his first Serie A game, played horribly, and remained on the bench for the rest of the season, a dead weight his FantaCalcio team. Despite the years that have passed, I’ve witnessed numerous occasions in which, one way or another, this player’s name comes up and everyone has a good laugh at Eugenio’s expense.
Sidenote: he has since decided to fly solo and manage his own team.
But back to the draft. Being the ragazza of the bar’s owner certainly has its advantages. In addition to cappucini with my name written in chocolate syrup, I was granted “press access” to this intense, testosterone-only, annual FantaCalcio draft.
The object of the evening was to place 26 players on each of the 8 FantaCalcio teams – 208 players total…TWO HUNDRED EIGHT!! Given that number, it should come as no surprise that the research and analysis starts weeks in advance. These guys carefully create their strategy, giving every desired player an appropriate value and maximum purchase price; after all, with a limited amount of money, it might be prudent to pass on a phenomenal player if you can get 2 or 3 great players for the same amount.
Next, each manager needed to decide which players from last year’s team he wants to keep. A responsible manager should evaluate each player’s performance, age, health, attitude (red/yellow cards count against you), and liklihood of seeing a lot of playing time. In order to keep a player, the manager must pay the same price as last year. All other players are sent back to the market as free agents. Once the market is set and everyone knows which players are available for purchase, the draft begins. Each team has 800 “euro” to spend (likely representing 800,000 euro), less the amount paid to keep players from the previous season.
Starting with goalkeepers, one at a time a manager calls out the name of a player – any goalkeeper on any Serie A team. It’s then an auction process, and the player goes to the highest bidder. The next manager calls a goalkeeper of his choice and there’s another bidding session. This continues in a circle until every coach has 4 keepers on his team. At this point, it’s time for a cigarette and definitely an espresso…the night is young and we still have 176 players to go..
After strategies have been assessed and tempers calmed, the bidding process starts for the defense. Same protocol as before until every team has 8 defenders. Another cigarette, another espresso. Then the auction for 8 midfielders…smoke and/or caffinate…and lastly 6 forwards.
Finally every manager has his dream team. Sleep deprived, red-eyed and mentally exhausted they leave the bar holding onto the hope that this year is going to bring them glory and bragging rights. And thus begins the FantaCalcio season, a “friendly” competition which lasts the duration of the season and just another reason why Italians are out-of-their-minds obsessed with the sport.
What I learned at Summer Camp
How does a Wanderer end the school year and kick off the summer? She heads for Umbria to teach English at a Summer Camp for three weeks. Just me and five others against an army of 30 of Italy’s most darling little angels. In addition to losing my voice, teaching the importance of sportsmanship, and pulling out 8,000 splinters, I made several observations about the lifestyles and habits of Italian youth.
Things I learned at Summer Camp:
- Italian mothers are master packers – daily outfits, including morning and evening attire, are put in separate plastic bags and labeled with the day of the week.
- While Marco Polo was Italian, the swimming pool game named in his honor is not internationally recognized.
- Six kids will overcome two grown men 100% of the time in tug-o-war.
- All Italians fear death from the phenomenon known as “La Congestione” (no available English translation), caused by swimming too soon after eating. And most kids will tell you that they know someone who died from it.
- If the Azzurri (Italian soccer team) are playing, you better be prepared to reorganize the week’s schedule so the kids can watch the game.
- For every 30 kids, at least 1 will actually like the flavor of Marmite (same as Vegemite).
- In a Bake-the-Cake competition, the real battle is a debate over who’s nonna – grandma – has the best secret recipe
- Any means of retaliation (physical, verbal, or psychological) is fair game if someone has insulted your mamma.
- As a counselor, your best weapon to prevent attempted room-escape is a deck of cards or a magic trick.
- Any Italian can tell you that there are only 6 continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, Antarctica, and America. North, South, and Central are all one.
- Mascaccia – means tomboy, and according to the kids, I am still one of them.
- Everybody loves dodgeball.
Italia mi ha rovinato – Italy’s ruined me
The next time you come across an Italian, ask about their experiences eating food outside of Italy and be prepared for a half hour rant about the horrors of foreign cuisine.
It’s a well known fact that Italians are masters of the culinary arts, and we love them for their ability to take an empty refrigerator and somehow come up with a mind-blowing first & second course meal. For the past year, I have had the pleasure of listening to many spontaneous lectures on topics ranging from “Pasta: the proper way to boil water” to “Food Pairing Nightmares: a sure and sudden death when mixed.” Seriously, just the thought of adding a glass of orange juice to your breakfast yogurt is enough to give an Italian a side cramp. Apparently acidic foods and dairy should NEVER mix in your stomach.
And when it comes to eating non-Italian cuisine, Italians are the worst. Food Snob or Picky Eater doesn’t even come close to describing their attitude toward foreign food. Plain and simple, taking an Italian to a restaurant outside of Italy is like trying to make a 5-year old eat caviar. A simple cheese plate appetizer in the fisherman’s village of Racisce, Croatia resulted in the following look of disapproval:
While he is a trooper and quite an adventurous eater for an Italian, I knew that it would be difficult to meet my boyfriend’s expectations when it came time to eating in Croatia. For that reason I did my homework, consulting and cross-referencing 3 different guidebooks as well as Trip Advisor – I was careful and deliberate in my research and was very excited to show my Roman that fish can be cooked well outside of Italian coastal towns.
What I did not consider was the fact that the authors of the books and internet reviews were all American or British – it doesn’t exactly take much to impress us. To a Brit, a gorgeous red tomato is about the best thing on earth. But that same tomato is finto – fake – to an Italian, lacking not only flavor, but also the proper texture and juiciness. The result of my hard work was 4 consecutive nights of looking at the same Italian face of utter disappointment.
But the incredible thing was that Eugenio was not alone. I found that I was also surprised at the fact that our grilled fish had been coated in salt and olive oil – fresh fish on a grill has a flavor so brilliant that it needs no seasoning. Why would they destroy that flavor with herbs and spices? Was it to mask the fact that the fish wasn’t fresh? Our scampi, squid-ink risotto, and calamari were all decent, but certainly not of the highest quality. Come on, this is Croatia! It doesn’t exactly take much to pull fish out of the Mediterranean. They practically jump into your boat, begging to be eaten! And don’t even get me started on the octopus salad, a staple dish on the Dalmatian Coast. We ordered it 3 times in 2 different towns – the octopus itself was usually good, tender instead of the rubbery texture you often find in the States. But after I finished the salad, I found myself with a mountain of red onion on the side of my plate. They put WAY too much onion in this dish, and it completely overpowered the flavor of the octopus. UGH!
Now wait just a minute…what am I saying?!?!? Too much red onion? Olive oil and salt to mask the lack of freshness? Here I am, in Croatia, reluctantly ordering from a menu with my fingers crossed, hoping that perhaps this time the dish might meet my expectations. Damn it – I am criticizing foreign food like an Italian!!!! Italia mi ha rovinato – Italy has ruined me. Am I ever to enjoy food outside of Italy again?
The answer is yes. The best meal I’ve had so far in Croatia was night #5 in Korcula. The restaurant: our studio apartment. The food: mussels, scampi, and spigola (sea bass) purchased by yours truly at 6am on the docks. The chef: my Roman. I suppose I better get used to eating better at home than I do in a restaurant.
Parola del Giorno #5 – Tiramisu
Every once in a while I have a moment when something just clicks. And it’s always something incredibly obvious. Call it a brain fart or a blond moment (because by Italian standards I am actually considered blond, seriously) but for whatever reason it’s a connection I never made before. In retrospect it’s always “oh duh, how did i never think of that?” But in that one moment, that moment when it clicks, it’s an incredible discovery.
My most recent revelation happened on a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the park. I was having a picnic lunch with my ragazzo Romano (roman boy) and he was in the process of cutting some fruit. His sleeve was falling down and since his hands were sticky, he asked me, “Puoi tirarmi su?” Without registering the words he used, I helped him pull up his sleeve.
And then it clicked.
Tirare, the verb “to pull.” The imperative form tirami means “pull me,” and su simply means “up.” Tirami – pull me – su – up….tirami su…pull me up. Tiramisu…….yummmmmmmmmmm. The dessert that never sees an oven, impossible to consume without feeling instant bliss. Key ingredients include espresso, chocolate, mascarpone cheese, and a liqueur of your choice (my favorite is Chambord). Delicious. Or in the words of a dear friend in San Francisco, amazeballs.
So there you have it, my “oh duh” moment was the discovery that Italy’s most famous dessert is appropriately called a “pick-me-up” in Italian.
Day Trip: Underground Narni
Rome can be excruciating in the summer months. Scorching sun, scalding pavement and unbearable humidity – it truly is an inferno. So what do the Romans do? They leave their city to the tourists and get the hell out of here. And being the groupie that I am, I followed suit. Last week, my Roman and I took the train one hour north to the Umbrian hill town of Narni.
I had never heard of Narni. I suppose when competing against Assisi, Orvieto, Perugia, and Spoleto, Narni doesn’t exactly make the cut as an Umbrian “must-see.” But after having spent the afternoon wandering its charming medieval cobblestoned streets, I can truly say it made an impression.
Most notably was the Narni Sottoterranea – Narni Underground – tour, an eerie glimpse into Narni’s hidden past. Our guide explained that these underground chambers were discovered in 1979 by a group of amateur spelunkers (a.k.a. bored teenage boys). The boys thought that there may have been something of interest beneath the existing Church of San Domenico and asked permission from a local farmer to knock down a wall of his chicken coop to start digging.
They were right. Almost immediately, they discovered an 8th century church with frescoed walls and ceilings. Further excavations have revealed human bones under the church floor – our guide casually informed us that it was a common practice to use dirt, rocks, and bones as filler. To describe it as unsettling is an understatement. The last time I saw human bones, they were on display at a museum, protected by several inches of glass. I’m not exactly accustomed to walking over human skulls or femurs sticking out of the ground. This tour had already sent chills down my spine, and we had barely begun.
From the wall of the chapel, the boys continued digging and ended up in an ancient Roman cistern used to store the city’s water. The replicas of the tools used to ensure straight and level digging is testament to the Roman genius in architecture and design.
While the discovery of an underground church and ancient cistern would be enough for me, the boys thought there could still be more. They dug from the cistern along a corridor which emptied into a dark, windowless room.
The Inquisition was here. That dark period of history in which prisoners suffered through inhumane and excruciating torture methods in the name of uncovering the truth. A few of the devices, including the infamous “stretcher,” were reconstructed to give us an idea of the setup of the Interrogation Room. The imprisoned was placed lengthwise on the table with his hands and feet bound, the ropes wrapped around a wheel. During the interrogation, the wheel would be cranked slowly and methodically to dislocate or completely sever the limbs. Amazing what the human race is capable of, isn’t it?
Adjoining the Interrogation Room was a small, dark cell which held prisoners for what must have seemed like an eternity. What our amateur spelunkers found in the cell was straight out of “The Da Vinci Code.” The walls and ceiling of the cell were completely covered in graffiti. Their artist was a soldier accused of ties to the Freemasons, equivalent to heresy in the eyes of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition.
My knowledge of the Freemasons is abysmal at best. But the repetition of cryptic messages, key numbers, and Masonic symbols in that room, along with their undeniable connection to Christianity, left me wanting to learn more.
Puzzles and cryptograms aside, one of the more interesting historical aspects of these two rooms is the amount of effort and luck it took to unveil their purpose. In 1979, there was absolutely no known documentation of their existence. Imagine digging underground with your friends, stumbling across a prisoner’s cell filled with Freemason symbols and then not being able to find anything in court documents, town records, history books, niente, zip, zilch, nadda. It seems as though the Catholic Church tried desperately to erase all evidence of this chapter in Narni’s history.
It took some pretty incredible coincidences involving the right people at the right place and time to locate documents detailing the trials which took place in that room. A team of researchers were able to link papers in the Vatican Archives with the Narni municipal archives. But oddly enough, it wasn’t until they were connected with a professor at Dublin’s Trinity College that they were able to really put the puzzle together. It really makes you think about what other stories have been hidden underneath Italy’s hill towns. Anyone feel like spelunking?
Spiaggia di Notte – Beach Nightlife
I have a lot to thank my grandmother for: my height, my love of crossword puzzles, my addiction to travel, my thirst for knowledge, and my appreciation of a good stiff drink. One thing I am less than thrilled about is my fair, Irish skin. Sure, I can build up a tan, but it takes several weeks (if not months) of patient sunscreen application…slowly but surely working my way from SPF 50+ to 30 to 20 and finally to 15. I will let Nivea thank my grandmother for that.
While I can’t partake in the #1 Italian Summer Pastime (spending hours at the beach worshipping the sun gods), I am lucky in that the Roman beaches are also fantastic at night. A quick ride on the trenino will take you to Ostia, and to a boardwalk packed with people taking a passeggiata – evening stroll. Stop by any of the beachfront establishments to enjoy a drink, dinner, or discoteca.
If you’re looking for a mellow evening and just want to chill on the sand with a group of amici, head to Vittoria Beach Bar. The bar itself is a mere 15 feet from the sea, and they’ve wisely chosen to keep their umbrellas open and lounge chairs out all night. Throw in some good music and the sound of Mediterranean waves and you have yourself a little slice of heaven. Let’s just say it’s swiftly becoming my late-night favorite.
And who wants to do laundry on a Sunday night when you can go to Apericena at Tibidabu Beach? It’s an aperitivo, turned into dinner – 15 euro gets you a drink and access to an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet, complete with prosciutto, salami, pizza, grilled veggies, and pastas. Once you’ve had your fill, head to the dance floor which really gets going at 10pm. Romans of all ages, shapes, and sizes get their groove on to the best of the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s. It is pretty much impossible not to dance when you see a 70+ year old man imitate his teenage grandson doing the YMCA. The fun ends at midnight, and you’re at home and asleep by 1am. A perfect way to end the weekend.
p.s. I am fully adjusted to the Italian practice of eating dinner at 9pm (or later), going to sleep at 1am, and waking up at 8am. In the case of a later-than-usual night, or one-too-many drinks, well…that’s what cappuccini are for.
Parola del Giorno #4 – ino
And now onto the fun suffixes that have proven to be crucial for the expansion of my Italian vocabulary:
Parola del Giorno #4: the little “-ino” or “-etto”
Think about the English use of “-y” or “-ie” to make something small, young or cute…as in “it was an itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie yellow polka dot bikini.” But imagine a situation where you could add that “-y” suffix to any word and not sound like a mother blubbering over her child in that affectionate, yet somewhat gag-worthy, “wuvey-dovey” way.
Enter the Italian -ino or -etto. Two diminutive suffixes that serve as perfectly rational, grammatically correct ways to make an object smaller in size or age. And best of all, you don’t sound like a fool when you use them!
- My roommates pay much more for their rooms as I have the cameretta – the small room – in our apartment.
- Despite the fact that my mammina – little mamma – is 5’1″ on a good day, I am 5’9″ and tower over most Romans (the height comes from my father’s side).
- When going to my boyfriend’s house, I take the trenino – the little train – which is used by commuters to get from the city center to the surrounding suburbs. (and yes, it’s official. Despite my best efforts, I’ve fallen victim to the classic story of an Italian stealing my heart)
Parola del Giorno #3 – the un- “s”
I am definitely not a linguist, but I must admit that I have developed quite an enthusiasm for prefixes and suffixes. I never considered what an impact they could have on someone who’s learning a language. My Italian vocabulary is growing at a fairly steady rate these days, but with the simple addition of 4 new prefixes or suffixes it has quadrupled in size. I’ve struck language gold, and I thought I’d share the wealth:
Parola del Giorno #3: the un- “s”
The “s-” prefix is similar to the English “un-” or “dis-” in that it basically turns any word into its opposite.
- When gambling or playing sports, it is always better to be fortunato (lucky) than sfortunato (unlucky).
- Don’t forget to blocca (lock) the door on your way out. If you forget your 4-digit code, it’ll be impossible to sblocca (unlock) your iPhone.
- In the morning, si trucca (we put on makeup). At night, si strucca (we remove makeup).
And finally, a personal favorite: sgrassatore. The root “grasso” means fat, and the suffix “-ore” turns it into an action done by someone or something. Add that “s-” to the mix and you have something that un-greases. So when your attempt at Spaghetti alla Carbonara goes all wrong, you’ll need a sgrassatore (a degreaser) to help you clean the oil splatter off the counter.
In an effort to de-fragment my brain, I have started applying the “s” prefix to English words. As in “A.S. Roma has had a slucky season” or “My hands are full. Could you slock the door for me?”
Try it out at home, I promise it’ll make your conversation a little more sboring.
Parola del Giorno #2 – post-menapausa
Can you still call it a Parola del Giorno – word of the day – if you don’t post #2 until four months after #1 posted? I vote yes. Therefore, I bring you…
Parola del Giorno #2: post-menopausa
While the literal translation is obvious, I have been informed that the term “post-menopausal” has more comical alternate use. I discovered its meaning during a lesson with my 60+ year old, cigar-smoking, Orthopedic Surgeon, pre-intermediate student. Yesterday we were talking about the Spice Girls (don’t ask) and their various Spice names. He was not familiar with the word ‘ginger,’ so I had to explain that while it is actually a spice, Ginger Spice was so-named for the fact that she’s a redhead.
The doctor proceeded to tell me that redheads are called ‘post-menopausal’ in Italian. Random, I know. But bear with me.
Have you ever seen a redheaded Italian? Not likely. Along with freckles, fair skin, and the ability to talk without gesturing, the red hair gene was weeded out of the Italian gene pool long ago. It can only be accomplished by chemical means, which presents another problem for the Italian Ginger-Wannabe: any red dye would be masked by the typical dark brown-to-black Italian hair color tones. Therefore, the only ‘true’ redheads are the women who’ve allowed their hair to turn grey or white before attempting the red dye. Or in the words of the doctor, “The only Italian women with red hair are those who have gone through menopause.”
Post-Menopausa: Italian slang for ‘ginger’
Disclaimer: I did absolutely no research or fact-checking on this and I have no idea if this is a well-known or commonly-used term. It could just be the doctor’s quirky sense of humor. Regardless, it was too good not to share.
Mi dispiace – I’m sorry
Today is March 15th, the Ides of March, and it has been well over a month since my last post. The hiatus this time around is not due to writer’s block, it’s simply that there are not enough hours in the day. I’ve been dividing my time between teaching (score update…Miss Katie: 12, Italian 3rd Graders: 4), showing my sister around (yay for visitors!!!), keeping my New Year’s Resolution (read 1 book in English & 1 in Italian every month), and trying to speak more Italian than English every day.
However, the biggest culprit for my lack of updates is the fact that spring has sprung in Rome. Trees are blossoming, the snow has melted, the markets have strawberries on sale, roof-tanning has commenced, the flea market vendors have started selling pastel-colored clothing, and this Wanderer is twitterpated (editor’s note: if you don’t know what that means, it’s time to watch “Bambi” again). Long story short, I’ve been distracted.
However, I am still a list-maker; I have a mile-long list of topics I want to write about. They include:
- the origin of the words “cappuccino” and “graffiti”
- the Italian Grandmother
- a Carbonara recipe, courtesy of one of my students
- creative ways to make money in a down economy
- dreaming and sleep-talking in a foreign language
- the benefits of living with Art Historians
- la bella/brutta figura
- the derby
- Ostia Antica, Viterbo, Cesano, and Spoleto day trips
- International Women’s Day – Italian style
- Roman pollution control
- traffic violations & fines
- heating & gas bills
- ………….and the list grows every day
I’m not lacking in inspiration, I’m simply lacking in time. I live in one of the most spectacular cities in the world, rich with art, history, architecture, mythology…and it’s sunny and 72 degrees outside. Can you blame me for not writing? Anyway, I’ll try to be better about writing more frequently. But for now, take a look at one of the best-preserved bathrooms of ancient Rome (in Ostia Antica):
Roman Snow Photos!!
I just finished editing and uploading my favorite photos of last week’s Roman snowstorm. Check out my photo gallery: https://wanderingbychoice.com/photos/roman-snow/
Foto del Giorno #2 – Ancient Bricks
I’ve taken my fair share of history courses and at this point I’ve walked through the Roman Forum and Colosseum more times than I can count. Yet I find that as I wander throughout this city, I regularly learn something fascinating about the ways of the Ancient Empire:
While walking through one of the oldest churches in Rome, we stumbled upon a wall displaying some interesting bricks from the 2nd century A.D. My roommate (an expert on all things Rome) informed me that these bricks were “stamped” for taxation purposes and were placed every 10-15 bricks in a wall. The stamp would typically indicate the name of the Brick Maker, the brickyard where it was produced, and the name of the current Roman Consul. Since the Roman Consul changed every year, these stamps have given archaeologists the ability to precisely know the date a particular structure was erected. Brilliant.
The 26th of December is often a bit of a let down in America, all this excitement and energy building up to Christmas and then in the blink of an eye it’s finished. Over the following week, lights and decorations are taken down, store displays are back to normal, and the Noble Fir is removed from the Endangered Species list.
Not in Italy, oh no. Christmas lights, markets, nativity scenes, and trees are left exactly as they were on December 25th. There really are 12 days of Christmas you see, and Italians remain in the Christmas spirit for all 12 days until January 6th, the Epiphany – the arrival of the Three Kings (of Orient are, bearing gifts, they’ve traversed afar) in Bethlehem.
And what Catholic holiday is complete without a middle-of-the-night-down-the-chimney visit from an imaginary figure?
Enter La Befana, an old woman with a crooked smile. For many Italian children, including my 24-year old Roman roommate, the excitement and anticipation of La Befana’s visit greatly exceeds that of Babo Natale – Santa Claus.
On the eve of the Epiphany, she arrives barefoot via broomstick and she enters every child’s house through the chimney, seeking the newborn Son of God. While Babo Natale places gifts under the tree, he leaves the task of stuffing the stockings to La Befana: a lump of coal for naughty children and candy for good children.
This morning, I woke up to find my very first stocking from La Befana, even she recognizes that I am becoming more a part of this culture every day.
And yes, I’ve been good this year.
Day Trip to Frascati
December 29th marked the 9-month anniversary of the day I left America in search of something new, something better, something a little more “me.” And 9 months later, I still have absolutely no idea what any of that actually means. But being my father’s daughter, I am a stubborn ass; I refuse to step foot back on American soil until I figure “it” out.
I’ve been in Rome now for over 4 months, and in those months I have accomplished quite a bit. I’ve mastered the public transportation system (metro, bus, tram and train), and I firmly stand behind my boss’s statement, “it’s impossible to get anywhere in less than 30 min, but you can pretty much go everywhere in an hour and a half.” I’ve scouted out the best pizza, gelato and aperitivo joints. I’ve learned the English language (and how to teach it). I’ve discovered that old Roman women have very strong opinions about wearing scarves and socks once the weather turns cold (more on this later). And most importantly, I’ve become a local – I am part of a community in this crazy city.
While I love the culture, cuisine, and chaos of urban life, after a while it sucks the energy out of me. I am the sort of person who can’t walk for too long on pavement before it wears me down; and apparently cobblestones are no exception. I have always been connected to nature; in order to recharge and maintain clarity, I need open space, fresh air, the smell of pine, and the sound of silence. During the past few months, I’ve been so preoccupied with getting myself set up that I forgot to seek out my retreat, and that lack of “me time” was really starting to weigh heavily.
So with that in mind, I decided to celebrate my 9-month anniversary with a day trip to one of the small towns outside of Rome. As I am officially in the business of not making plans, my approach to a “non-plan” for a day trip went something like this:
- Look at a map.
- Find small towns around Rome, preferably on the regional train line.
- Pick one that looks familiar (or throw a dart, whichever is least likely to result in injury)
- Wake up earlier than 9am and go to the train station.
No plan, no research, no agenda. Wandering at its finest.
The Choice: Frascati.
Things I Knew about Frascati:
- Most vini della casa – house wines – in Roman restaurants are from this area
- There is apparently a local obsession with Porchetta, no idea why.
Wine and Pork? Okay, twist my arm.
A 30-minute train ride and 1.90 euro later, I found myself in a quiet town perched high in the hills southeast of Rome. Frascati is darling – local artisans sell their goods along the main street, alleyways wind into small piazzas, locals take an afternoon stroll at what seems to be a snail’s pace. And best of all, waiters & restaurant owners don’t hassle you claiming that theirs is the “best pasta/panino/pizza/gelato… in town.”
Life in Frascati appears to be a bit more mellow and peaceful, not unlike what I experienced in Lucca over the summer. It’s the way of life that we Americans always have in our mind when we think of Italy: la Dolce Vita e Dolce Far Niente – the sweet life and the sweetness of doing nothing. Frascati was precisely the breath of fresh mountain air that I’ve been craving; I can now say that I’ve found my retreat from Rome.
Nine months and still going strong: Onward!
Oh, the wine and porchetta were both phenomenal = Happy Katie.
Buon Natale from the heart of the Catholic Church (photo above: Jesus & his posse on the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica)