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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!!!

Wandering Ancient Palaces – Split

Pedestrian-only streets paved in white marble, lively bars built within ancient walls, boats cruising the glittering Adriatic, old men strumming mandolins to the tunes of classic folk songs, what’s not to love about Split??

The Roman Emperor Diocletian seemed to agree.  After 21 years of ruling the world’s largest empire, he decided it was time to cash in his pension and enjoy his golden years.  He chose Split as the location for his retirement home and spent 10 years building a massive palace right on the sea. After Diocletian’s death in 313 A.D., Roman Emperors continued to retreat to this heavily fortified paradise across the Adriatic. Not a bad vacation spot, eh? The only problem was that the Empire eventually fell, and the palace was abandoned.

Having lived in Rome for a year, I’m used to being kept at a distance from monuments. These treasures of antiquity are usually preserved and protected behind glass panels, bars and railings. Not the case for Diocletian’s Palace. After the fall of the Empire, people from neighboring villages sought refuge in the palace and over the centuries, a city literally grew from within its walls. Markets, shops, art galleries, hostels, and restaurants flourish today within the architectural framework of the ancients.

Favorite Split Moment: while strolling the narrow streets after dinner, we stumbled upon a central piazza filled with people; naturally we planted ourselves on a marble step and took in the scene. It was such a mixture of culture and generations: little British kids running in circles and playing tag while their parents plan the activities for tomorrow, local teenagers awkwardly trying to flirt, old men chatting over a drink, street performers dancing to live music…I could have stayed for hours.

The following is a collection of my favorites from Split:

Slowly Answering Questions

Last Thursday marked the 20-month anniversary of the day I left the U.S. on a one way ticket. And I’m now starting to feel pressure from my loved ones across the pond…surely you can’t keep hopping around forever, when are you going to settle down? When are you coming home? Aren’t you interested in finding a job that’s more secure?  You’ll be turning 30 soon, when are you going to start laying a foundation for the family you say you want to raise?

My answer is exactly as it was this time last year – I don’t know. In the past year, I’ve become much more comfortable with the fact that I don’t have an answer. I don’t know what my life looks like in 2 years, 5 years, or even next month. I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. But I do know one thing for certain. The life that exists for me back in the States is not right for me, certainly not now and possibly not ever. I am doing exactly what I’ve always dreamed of doing: wandering this great world of ours, open to anything that comes my way. If I took myself off this course so that I could prepare for the future, I’d be forgetting everything I’ve learned since I left home.

To look at life as a question to be answered or a goal to be achieved is missing the point of living. Life is about finding your passion and pursuing your dreams, wherever that may take you. And that is precisely what I’m doing. So if living paycheck-to-paycheck with a free spirit and a happy heart today means that I might struggle more in the future, so be it. Onward!!

Foto del Giorno#4 – Family Distractions!!!

My sorellina (little sister) brought some much needed good luck to the stadium!!

My sorellina (little sister) brought some much-needed good luck to the stadium!! Roma 2, Torino 0!

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!!!

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.

Croatian Islands – Done Right

Croatia has over 1,100 islands along its coast. So how are you ever supposed to choose which ones to visit?!?  The lack of a personal yacht and the limitations of a seemingly random ferry schedule can certainly help narrow down the criteria. Still, with the sheer number of islands between Dubrovnik and Split alone, it’s tempting to chart out an island-hopping adventure to give you a little taste of everything. But the more I thought about it, the less the idea appealed to me. Like a meal consisting of only samples, I was sure that a “3-4 islands in 5 days” type of adventure would leave me unsatisfied and still feeling hungry.

So after much thought and deliberation, I determined it would be better to plant on one island and really experience it rather than spread ourselves too thin. And it was by far the best decision I made in those 5 days. We decided on the island of Korčula – best known as the birth place of Marco Polo.  While Korčula town can be seen in a matter of hours, the island itself is massive with numerous hidden beaches and fishing villages waiting to be discovered.

We rented a scooter for three days (60 euro) and found just about everything Korčula had to offer: wine & grappa tasting in Smokvica, agritourismo dinners, the sandy beaches of Lombarda, stargazing in Zrnovo, discovering all the shades of turquoise & aqua at Vaja beach, tropical beverages on top of a medieval city wall, and the sleepy fishing villages of Račišće and Zavalatica.

These photos highlight my time in Korčula, with the addition of a few from Mljet Island (an easy half hour ferry ride from Korčula town).

On ignorance, culture, and technology

I don’t usually write about current events, nor do I like to express my political and religious views outside of dinnertime conversations.  My writings are focused more on my experiences and observations as I dive into other cultures. That said I refuse to stand in silence as the Middle East erupts in anti-American riots and attacks US Embassies. I am disgusted by this anti-Muslim film and I’m incredibly saddened that it has prompted violence which will only add to the Western fear of Muslims and of Islam.

Look, the debate between free speech and incitement of imminent lawless action is nothing new. There are numerous U.S. Supreme Courts cases in which we’ve established limits to the extent of one’s ability to speak freely.  Fear, intolerance, and hatred of another person’s beliefs are also nothing new. We’ve seen the Inquisition, witch-hunts, the Holocaust, and the recent genocide in the Balkans. What is new is the ability of an individual to broadcast their views to all corners of the earth in a matter of seconds. The fact that a low-budget, poorly made and little known film in California can spark riots halfway across the world is unprecedented.

We are more connected now than ever before. Not just with friends on Facebook or to our families via Skype while we travel, but as a people across languages and nations, technology has brought us closer together. We have gained an incredible ability to share ideas and learn from one another; we also have the means to share our experiences with loved ones back home who don’t have the ability to travel themselves.  However, in an effort to become connected as one global people, we are losing our own individual cultures. The McDonaldization of the world means that any capital city in any country around the world feels less foreign. Rome feels more and more like Paris, New York, Beijing or Dubai every day.

Walking along the boardwalk in Split, Croatia, my boyfriend and I saw a group of elderly Croatian men and women sitting together, sharing wine, strumming a few mandolins and singing classic Croatian folk songs.  We sat and listened for the better part of an hour, taking in the beauty of their song.  Eugenio commented that Romans used to do that in Rome too, but it hasn’t been around for decades.  Sadly, it’s a dying tradition in Italy and likely in Croatia as well.  There are so many trades, crafts, songs, and traditions that will die with the passing away of a generation. And these customs are being replaced by a desire to have an iPhone in one hand and a Starbucks coffee in the other regardless of whether you’re in Istanbul, Singapore, or San Francisco.

The beauty of humanity is in our differences; they are to be celebrated, not feared. The Taj Mahal, Pyramids of Egypt, Coliseum, and Angkor Wat wouldn’t be as majestic if they were all built by the same hand in the same style.  And that’s what we’re risking here. By seeking the familiar and fearing the unknown, we’re turning into a homogenous, boring society.  And that is nothing short of tragic.

We have to try harder to go off the beaten path. We have to seek out uncomfortable conversations with those who don’t share our ideas. And we must do so with an open heart and an open mind, ready to accept our differences and respect each other.

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Sarajevo

I have encountered numerous American travelers who’ve told me of their fear of Muslims. A friend of mine even dared to say that it wasn’t his fault, that he didn’t know any better; he said the U.S. media was to blame for his fear. Anyone who knows me can imagine my outrage at that statement. It’s one thing to be ignorant and unaware of your ignorance. But if you’re ignorant, you acknowledge your ignorance, and then you proceed to blame the media for giving you a bias, then that’s just being lazy and stupid. It’s this laziness that is perpetuating the American fear of Muslims, and it makes me sick.

With regard to the film and subsequent riots across the Middle East, I have no immediate solution to offer.  Clearly the film was founded in hatred and was produced with the intent of inciting rage. It worked. Further, the film is protected by the first amendment, as are numerous other forms of distasteful and hateful ideas. It’s not the first video of its kind, it certainly won’t be the last, and we can’t expect or allow the government to censor every piece of information circulating the internet to determine whether or not it may spark riots.

On both sides, I believe it all comes down to ignorance. Ignorance on the part of the West for failing to study and appreciate the Muslim culture; for all the Muslims I’ve met, whether they were Egyptian, Moroccan, Bosnian, Turkish or American, have been the most generous and humble people on earth. Ignorance on the part of the Muslims for failing to study the principles on which America was founded; if they learned about the sacrifices made by our Founding Fathers in order to give us the gift of free speech, no matter what our beliefs may be, perhaps they could understand why this film is protected speech.

If the problem is ignorance, then the answer is education.  Don’t simply buy into what the mainstream media portrays.  Dig around a bit, do some fact checking of your own.  As Malcom X warned, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”  Whether it’s reading, watching, listening, or debating, we have a duty to seek information to destroy our own bias and prejudice.  Exercise that brilliant organ residing in your skull. Rather than devolve into a world of fear and hatred of all that is different, let us use the technology at our fingertips as a means to learn about one another so that we can love, preserve and appreciate those differences.

~Rant of a Wanderer, 9/18/2012

Third Time’s A Charm

While preparing for my semester abroad in the Fall of 2006, I learned that I had a one-week break in September. Having already backpacked the majority of Western Europe, my first thought was “CROATIA!!” A newly independent nation untraveled and, better yet, unheard of by most Americans. Cheap and off the beaten path? Just my style.

My initial research started as it always does – a search on Google Images to get an idea of some of the natural wonders of the region. My search for “Croatia National Park” led me to this photo:

Sold.

I took an overnight ferry from Italy to Croatia and spent that mid-September week exploring Split and Dubrovnik, hoping to take a day trip to see Plitvice Lakes National Parks. I should have looked better at my maps. With the limited time I had and the infrequent bus schedule during “low season,” I couldn’t get there. Disappointment.

Croatia Round Two – I had 3 days in Croatia at the end of August, 2011 and I put Plitvice Lakes at the top of my To Do list thinking that this time around the bus schedules would be to my advantage. But the downside of travelling in peak season is that you’re subject to peak season pricing. Croatia had been discovered and prices had skyrocketed in the booming tourist economy. To see that National Park I would have spent 5+ hours in the bus each way, for no less than 100 euro, no thank you.  I opted instead to take a day trip to Mostar in Bosnia, an experience that moved me more than I expected. Still no waterfalls.

Croatia Round Three – I found myself approaching August, 2012 with a gaping hole in my work schedule. Most Italians take their 1-3 week vacation in August and head for the beaches; those who stay in Rome aren’t too interested in English lessons. I took the opportunity to head to the Balkans for 5 weeks, making Plitvice Lakes National Park my absolute #1 priority. It wasn’t easy to organize, but I’m happy to say that after 6 years, I finally made it to those waterfalls!!! And they lived up to their hype, see for yourself (and imagine their beauty & power in April when the water’s high):

Photo of the Day – Bosniak Cemetary in Sarajevo

Sunset in Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) Cemetary overlooking Sarajevo

Some statistics:

1,425 – number of days Sarajevo was under seige by Serbian forces wishing to create a Bosnian-Serb state

11,000+ number of deaths in Sarajevo alone

1,500+ number of child deaths

500+ estimated number of people a skilled sniper killed during this time

329 – average number of shells fired per day (maximum was 3,777 in July, 1993)

159 – number of grams of food distributed per person per day (for nearly 4 years)

67 – number of people killed by a shell fired into an open-air market

16.5 – number of years that have past since the Dayton Agreement which ended the war

4 – number of religions that co-existed for centuries in Sarajevo (Eastern Orthodox, Islam, Catholic, Jewish)

Sarajevo is currently considered to be safe and has quite a thriving atmosphere. The city has tried hard to show the world that it is once again a place of multi-cultural acceptance and religious tolerance. But I can’t help but wonder how much pain and hatred remains in the hearts of its people. After what they endured, I can’t say that I blame them. They surely won’t forget, let’s hope nobody does, but can they truly forgive?

Copy Paste

Zadar, “Zara” for the Ancient Romans, is a small port town in the northern Dalmatian Coast.  It is classically Croatian with blinding white marble streets, narrow alleyways, and charming cafes. The city is not exactly a “must-see” as the main attractions are few, but I chose to stay a few days to catch up on some reading, researching and relaxing.

I covered all the tourist sites on my first afternoon stroll through town. The cathedral, the ancient forum, the sea organ which hums a few notes with every passing wave…check, check, and check. And just when I thought I had seen everything, I stumbled across a fast food joint that made me do a triple take. Identical in logo, color, and slogan; this was a photo opportunity not to be missed.

The worker asked me something in Croatian. Having no idea what he said, I simply pointed to the name written on the awning and said, “very famous in the USA.”  He laughed and responded in very broken English, “Yes. Google. Copy Paste.”

Image

Without a doubt, the internet has made the world a smaller place. Because of it, we can now add In n’ Out to the list of Fast Food joints operating internationally.

No, I didn’t eat there. Tempted as I was, I didn’t think it would quite live up to the name.

Kids These Days

A Croatian Experience

The old man started his work as soon as the wheels of the 8am bus rolled out of the Zadar station. As he worked his way through the front half of the bus, I realized that his work day started 3 hours ago in Split and he still had 7 hours to go until Pula. Quite a long day for an elderly man, I decided to forgive him for his lack of warmth when asking me for my ticket. Without a word, he moved on to the person sitting next to me.

I know precisely 6 words in Croatian: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, wine and beer. Hey, I have my priorities. But I didn’t need fluency to gauge the gist of the conversation that unfolded between the ticket man and my seat-mate, a teenager in every sense of the word. It went a little something like this:

Ticket please?

       Yah. Look here. (holds up his computer with confirmation of online purchase)

Fine, but do you have a ticket?

      Yes, it’s here. (Points again to computer)

No, I mean a ticket. Holds stack of bus tickets he’s collected from the front half of the bus.

      Yes, look. See here? I paid using visa.

NO! A ticket must be on paper.

      But here is the logo of the bus company, and a confirmation number of my purchase!

The ticket man, shaking his head and muttering under his breath, wrote down the boy’s confirmation number and continued to the rest of the bus. A half hour later, he came back with a receipt in his hand, nodding his head that the company confirmed via telephone that this crazy “purchase confirmation” was in fact valid. The boy is free to ride the bus without a fine.

Kids these days.

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.