Not all those who wander are lost.

Italy

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.

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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!!!


FantaCalcio

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:

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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?