Spring Break

Biking in Lucca

Biking in Lucca

The boys completed another week of character building at their respective schools.  They finally made it to Easter Vacation, a ten day break.

Unfortunately, after school, I was called in for a conference with Tom’s math teacher.  I knew it was going to be a doozy, so I asked Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, to accompany me.  As a teacher herself, she is part of the inner circle of Italian educators.  Beyond that advantage, she is intelligent, fair, and understands Tom.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

By 1:15, we entered the meeting.  We got an earful, and with it, I gained a greater understanding of Italian culture, something I should be grateful for, I guess.  The good news is that Tom got the highest grade on his math test that any 6th grader earned all year.  But he still didn’t show his work, which she didn’t like.  And he complains about the uniform, which she also didn’t like . . . among other things.

Oh well, he still gets three more months to adapt.

That afternoon, we caught a train to Pisa and began our vacation.  As it turns out, it was New Years Day in Pisa.  (They celebrate once on January 1st and once on March 23rd.)  Completely by accident, we reserved a room on the second floor of a hotel overlooking the Arno where the grand firework display was held at 11pm.  We seriously had the best seats in town, especially considering the pouring down rain drenching everyone below.  It was a spectacular show with music and two barges (one on either side of our windows) blasting off fireworks for 25 minutes.

A room with a view

A room with a view

The next morning, we walked to one of Italy’s most famous monuments, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  We circled around, climbed to the top, and joined hundreds of others in assuming unoriginal poses in front of our camera.

Leaning . . . just like the tower

Leaning . . . just like the tower

Trying to straighten the tower

Trying to straighten the tower

Pisa is big and festive and famous all smashed into one town.  I loved it, but after one day, I was ready to leave.  It’s like a party and hangover all in one.

Next we went to Lucca, a sweet, soft, small, walled Tuscan town.  Not only the name of the city reminds me of Luke but the streets too.  They were full of pink bikes.  One of my favorites was similar Luke’s first bike.

The bike-renter's son owned this one.  I wanted to tell them about Luke.

The bike-renter’s son owned this one. (I wanted so much to tell them about Luke.)

Another pink bike I liked was owned by a woman who gave us an impromptu tour of the outside of Puccini’s house-turned-museum the day we showed up after closing.

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However, not all of Lucca is gentle.  We visited The Museum of Torture which I thought sounded entertaining, but turned out to be a huge bummer.  While it was a well-done exhibit, it left us all sick to our stomachs and hopeless.  It’s hard to believe that humans were (and still are) so capable of such psychopathic brutality.  It made my thumbs and tongue hurt, as well as my shoulders, bum and boobs.

A couple showcased devices from the first room

A couple showcased devices from the first room

We tried to calm the disquietude by heading, yet again, to Trattoria Gigi, maybe the most charming little restaurant we’ve met.  In three days, we ate there three times.

This afternoon we left Lucca.  After stopping in Florence for a few hours to look at Michelangelo’s house, we caught a train to Rome and met my parents at the airport.  They are spending the second half of Spring Break with us as well as two additional weeks.  In preparation for Easter, we are planning on soaking up Catholic monuments including the Sistine Chaple and tons of churches.  This Sunday we will return to Perugia for a traditional Perugian Easter celebration which includes an unusual breakfast of hard boiled eggs, cake with rainbow sprinkles, and red wine.

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

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Perugia’s Pantry

Federico and Antonio at Bavicchi Antica Spezieria e drogheria

Federico and Antonio at “Bavicchi Antica Spezieria e Drogheria”

In five days, my parents will be here.  They are staying for three weeks in the apartment next door.  For months I’ve been looking forward to their visit.  Like all our friends who have come to Perugia, they want to see more than the Etruscan Arch or San Lorenzo Cathedral.  They want to see how local life is lived. They want to see where modern Perugians do their grocery shopping, take their evening walk and get a great espresso.  So we’ll visit Cristiano’s pasta store, Rinaldo’s butcher shop and Marcello’s vegetable stand.  We’ll walk down Corso Vannucci and Corso Cavour.  And of course we’ll stop by Bar Alessi or Café Oscar along the way.

But there’s another place I can’t wait for them to see. It’s Bavicchi, the spice/bean/chocolate/and so much more store.  It started over a hundred years ago as a shop selling cleaning supplies and dried legumes. Bavicchi has maintained its roots while offering some of the most delicious standard and specialty ingredients in the historic center of Perugia.

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Owner Antonio Galli runs the small shop with his employee Federico Roselli.  The space is a mere 320 square feet, but it’s bursting with variety.  The walls are covered floor to ceiling in exquisite, colorful, aromatic, and even exotic goods.  Besides beans (over 80 kinds)  and spices (nearly 100), Antonio notes that many of his customers come in looking for nuts, dried fruit, and other ingredients for Italian desserts.  Wines, honey, and chocolate are some of the other big sellers.  Antonio also pointed out some of his more unusual offerings including maple syrup, tahini, powdered mustard, soy sauce, curry, and one jar of cranberry sauce (for the occasional American . . . in November).

vinegars, wines, and preserves.

vinegars, wines, honeys and preserves.

beans

beans

Teas and dried grains.

and everything else

This is the house brand bitter. Like other amaro in Italy, this drink is served chilled and sipped after dinner. It's dark, strong and herby; and the ingredients are top secret.

This is the house brand bitter. Like other amaros in Italy, this drink is served chilled and sipped after dinner. It’s dark, strong and herby; and the ingredients are top secret.  Bavicchi is the only one who sells it.

Bavicchi also has chocolates. The most popular brand  is Perugina chocolates which are made in Perugia’s oldest chocolate factory. Perugina began production 90 years ago and established the city as Italy’s chocolate capital.  Since then, the company has been bought by Nestle.  Vanucci is another brand on Bavicchi’s shelves.  This is a high quality artisan chocolatier that tries to create what Perugina once made.  They even have their own version of the famous Perugina Baci, only better.  Then there is Augusta Perusia Chocolate.  This is the smallest of the local companies.  Beyond these three, Bavicchi sells lots of other Italian and European brands.  With Easter just around the corner, a lot of the space in the store is used to display chocolate eggs.

Federico offered me a banana chocolate that turned out to be surprisingly good.  While hazelnut chocolate is everyone’s favorite, banana chocolate is popular too.

Federico offered me a banana chocolate that turned out to be surprisingly good. While hazelnut chocolate is everyone’s favorite in Perugia, banana chocolate is popular too.

Sometimes I come in not knowing what to buy and needing a suggestion.  When that happens, Antonio gets his red box of recipes off the shelf and hands me an idea.  Today he gave me a copy of crostini con fagiolina del Trasimeno, an appetizer of toasted bread topped with beans grown near Lake Trasimeno, just 20 minutes away.  We made it for lunch today and will make it again when my parents get here.

Antonio looks for another recipe for us

Antonio looks for another recipe

While the beans are probably impossible to find back in America, one could make a similar spread with a creative substitute.  Note that these beans from Lake Trasimeno do not need to soak before cooking while many other beans do.

Crostini with Bean Spread

250 grams of beans

1 carrot

2 stocks of celery

1 small onion

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons of tomato puree

hot pepper flakes

salt and pepper

fresh bread

Cook the dried beans in salted water with the carrot, celery and half the onion for 40 minutes.  While they cook, sauté the other half of the onion in the olive oil until it is soft and translucent.  Add the tomato puree, salt, pepper flakes and pepper to taste and continue cooking for 5 minutes.  When the beans have cooked, add them to the onion/tomato sauce mixture.   Add a cup of water and cook for another 20 minutes.  Spoon the beans on top of toasted bread and drizzle with olive oil and more salt. Serve as an appetizer.

Or as we did, eat it as the main course.

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Domenica

Corso Vanucci with the Cathedral of San Lorenzo just as mass ended.

Piazza IV Novembre with the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (just as mass ended).

For most Italians, the weekend lasts a single day, Sunday.

Kids get a one-day break from school.

Stores are closed (except the cafes and bakeries).

Families go to church and then meet relatives for Sunday lunch, the biggest meal of the week.

There is an elegance and energy on the streets.  It feels like a holiday.  In fact, a common greeting in Italy is “Buona Domenica!” (Happy Sunday).

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By 11:00 this morning, Corso Vanucci was full of people.  Many stop by Sandri, one of the oldest cafes in Perugia, to buy pastries for dessert.  In Italian bakeries, trays of sweets are wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons. (I love seeing people carrying presents down the street.)

Pasticceria Sandri.  A popular spot on Sunday

Pasticceria Sandri

Two women with their Sunday desserts

Two women with their Sunday desserts

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Residents from the outskirts come into the city to take walks and meet friends in the piazzas.  Some go to church.  As usual, Italians know how to look good, even when they are all bundled up.

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Because no one has to work today, meals are a little more extravagant and take longer to prepare.  A traditional Sunday lunch may includes lasagna or another pasta al forno (oven baked pasta).  Because Ray was especially interested, I asked around and found a couple recipes.  Most of them require a ton of ingredients and take all afternoon to prepare, so we try to make enough to serve on Monday too.  One of our favorites is made with sausage meatballs, béchamel sauce, tomato sauce, hard boiled eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs, fresh penne, parmesan and provalone.

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The meatballs are ready to add to the tomato sauce where they will cook before becoming one of the layers in the baked pasta

The meatballs are ready to add to the tomato sauce where they will cook before becoming one of the layers in the baked pasta

Ray adds a layer of sliced hard-boiled egg and cheese then I cover it all with the pasta.  Once it's assembled, the trays of pasta al forno cook for a half hour.

Ray adds sliced hard-boiled eggs and cheese, then I cover it all with béchamel sauce and tomato pasta with meatballs. Once it’s assembled, the trays of pasta al forno cook for a half hour.

While the four of us often spend Sunday visiting cities outside Perugia, the boys prefer to stay here where the pace is less dependent on train schedules and restaurant reservations.  There are times when I agree.  Cold winter days like today remind me how easy it would be to settle into the comfortable Italian pleasures of relaxing at home with the family while cooking lots of good food.

Three More Months

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Last weekend we caught a train to Florence.

Whenever we leave Perugia, I try to imagine what it will feel like the last time we pull away from the station and watch the walls of the city shrink in the distance.   Sometimes I think I’ll be ready to leave.

Like when the hot water doesn’t work.

Or when the space inside this apartment gets so cramped that I want to scream, “Go outside and play!” (but can’t because there isn’t a backyard; there’s not even a park nearby).

Or when Tom tells me some of the discouraging comments his teachers say to him.

I’m 100% positive that I wouldn’t want to live here permanently.  Our life is rooted deep back home.  It is where we belong.  It’s who we are.  It’s where we are truly understood (literally). So I guess twelve months is the right amount of time.

However, I’m not ready to go yet. I want to be ready to go.  I hope I will be ready to go.  But I’m just not ready, and June seems right around the corner.

When we leave, I wonder if it will be unbearably sad. I wonder how we are going to say goodbye.  Of course we can visit Perugia again, but when we part, we permanently say goodbye to this apartment, to these neighbors, to this experience.  We will permanently say goodbye to the details of our daily life.  (When I think about that, my stomach hurts.)

Sunrise filling the archway to Piazza IV Novembre.

Sunrise in the archway to Piazza IV Novembre.

One of our favorite walks.

One of our favorite walks.

Mirella and Cristina, the sisters who own Bar Oscar across the street from our apartment.

Mirella and Cristina, the sisters who own Bar Oscar across the street from our apartment.

Italy is good.  I love the ancient stone walls, the churches filled with candles on every corner, the pecorino cheese and the Umbrian sausage.

I love having everything right outside our front door.  I love not driving.

I’m going to miss it.  I will miss speaking Italian.  I will miss living downtown surrounded by city life.

I will miss evening walks, cobblestones and aqueducts.

I’m even going to miss the bell towers constantly ringing outside our bedroom window.

I will miss the sound of an Italian police siren

and the 89 steep steps leading to our front door

and really good espresso

and being able to just catch a train to Florence for a couple days.

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This is where I want to be right now.  In Italy.  Not forever, but for the next three months.

Curds and Whey, Making Cheese

Signor Marco with a wheel of pecorino cheese

Signor Marco with a wheel of pecorino cheese

I met a cheese maker this week.  His name is Marco Sotgia.  He lives on a 400 acre farm outside Perugia. He has an olive orchard, a vineyard, a cow, a horse, three pigs and 250 sheep.  For three generations, Marco Sotgia’s family has been raising sheep and making cheese.

The boys and I spent the entire afternoon at his farm with a group of students from my Italian class.  We witnessed the magical transformation of sheep milk into two of Umbria’s most traditional cheeses:  pecorino and ricotta.

Keeping the temperature under control.

Keeping the temperature under control.

When we arrived, Marco was just filling up a vat with the day’s milking.  We gathered around while he lit a flame underneath and scooped a spoonful of brown paste from a container to add to the milk.  This brown substance is rennet, an enzyme harvested from the stomach of a cow.  Rennet is the ingredient responsible for separating the solids from the liquid (thus creating the curds and the whey).  Not all sheep cheese is made from the insides of a cow’s stomach; there are vegetarian enzyme as well including lemon juice and cardoon extract.  Once the rennet had dissolved, the warm milk started to become thick and gelatinous.  Marco then broke up the solid substance with a long wooden stick all the while slowly increasing the temperature until it reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit.  At this point he turned off the heat, and the solids settled to the bottom.

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Then Marco rolled up his sleeves and reached deep down to collect the curds.  He packed them tightly into a cylinder shaped colander and pressed it all together so that any remaining liquids could drain.

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By the time he gathered all the curds, he had filled six colanders.  After a while,  the rounds of cheese were firm.  Then Marco removed them from the containers and added them to a salt water bath where they would bob around for the day.  The salt coats the cheese, adds flavor and most importantly, preserves it. Then the cheese rounds sit in a cool, dark room for a month aging slowly until they become pecorino cheese.

rounds of cheese floating in the tank of salt water

Rounds of cheese floating in the tank of salt water

The cheese cellar

The cheese cellar

Back in the work room, Marco started production of second type of cheese.  Returning to the whey, Marco made ricotta.  For the second time, he turned on the flame and heated the liquid, this time to 169 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it thickened,  he spooned it into plastic mesh containers and let it cool.  Unlike pecorino, ricotta does not need to age.  This soft, mild cheese can be eaten immediately.

ri=again; cotta=cook

A steaming batch of ricotta cheese  (ri=again; cotta=cook)

Before leaving, Marco gave us samples of pecorino and sent us home with a fresh bowl of ricotta that we ate the next day in class.

Of course, both cheeses are great on their own, but we’ve learned that there are many alternative ways to enjoy each one.  Pecorino is found on nearly every menu in Umbria.  It is served at room temperature often with several accompaniments including honey, red onion compote, fruit preserves, spicy apple jelly, and green tomato jam.

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Ricotta is even more versatile.  Mixed with spinach, it’s the most common filling in ravioli. It’s also the main ingredient in many desserts.  It can be served as a snack with sugar, salt, or with sweetened coffee on top; or it can be spread on toast with jelly or honey.  Most often, we eat it for lunch with tomatoes, lettuce, salt and olive oil.

a pot of sweet coffee poured over a plate of ricotta

Experimenting with local flavors:  a pot of sweet coffee poured over a plate of ricotta

My favorite way to eat ricotta

My favorite way to eat ricotta

“Italy is Ungovernable”

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This week, Italians went to the polls to vote for a leader.  The results were hugely disappointing for Italy as well as the entire European community.  There is no winner and not a lot of hope for clarity, stability or change in the coming days.  The headlines read, “Italia Ingovernablile.”

To me, the entire Italian political system is confusing and, at times, wildly ridiculous.  Fortunately, everyone is willing to voice a heated opinion.  Just yesterday I ordered a coffee and needed only to glance at the barista’s newspaper before he started talking.  Slowly, between newspapers, friends, teachers, strangers and a little internet, I’ve gained enough information to piece together the system.

Luca's short lesson on the election

Luca’s short lesson on the House of Deputies

How it works.  What is takes to “govern.”

While the US has a president, Italy has a parliament; Americans vote for a president, Italians vote for a parliament.  Then in Italy, the parliament, rather than the people, choose a prime minister.

The polls are open for three days during which there is a media blackout.  No politician may publicly discuss or campaign for the election.

Each voter receives a ballot that includes two categories:  the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. (Together, these two houses comprise the Italian Parliament.) Under each is a list of more than 15 political parties.  Voters mark their party of choice. The goal is for a political party to win a majority in both houses.  Only then, can that party name its prime minister.  (To vote for the House of Deputies, one needs to be 18 years old; to vote for the Senate, 25.)

When the polls close, the votes are tallied.  The party who earns the most votes in the Chamber of Deputies automatically get majority; that is, they are granted enough representatives to dominate the house.  The Senate is more complicated: Representatives are awarded based on how well the political party fared in each region of Italy.  Regions with a greater population are granted more representatives. Therefore, winning the vote in Lombardy or Sicily is more politically lucrative than winning the vote in Umbria.  A majority is reached in the Senate when one political party makes up over 50 percent of the representatives.

The Players.  Even though Italians vote for a political party, underneath it all, they are really voting for the face of that party.

While there are over 15 party leaders, here is a list of the most important, the top four.

Silvio Berlusconi is the leader of the People of Freedom party.  He is a self-made media billionaire and a three-time former prime minister who resigned in 2011 under a crumbling Italian economy and an avalanche of scandals.  He is famous for his mansions, mistresses, legal troubles and social gaffes.  He owns the biggest television stations in Italy.  He also owns one of the best soccer teams in the country, AC Milan.  Just before the elections, he signed world famous Mario Balotelli to his team which boosted his ratings.

Beppo Grillo is a comedian and blog writer.  His 5 Star Movement was created in opposition to the current political mess. He is outspoken, irreverent and foul mouthed.  His political symbol includes a predominant “V” which stands for vaffanculo (the Italian equivalent of the “F” bomb.)  If the 5 Star Movement managed to win the House and Senate, Beppo Grillo cannot legally assume the position of prime minister since 20 years ago, he was convicted of manslaughter on three counts.  (It was an accident.)

Pier Luigi Bersani is with the Democratic Party.  Early in his career, he affiliated with the Communist party, but now sides with the center-left.  Until Beppo Grillo’s 5 Star Movement gained such surprising momentum, Bersani was projected to become the next prime minister.

Mario Monti of the Civil Choice party is an economist who became prime minister when Berlusconi resigned in 2011.   While the rest of Europe seems to approve, Italy finds his economic plans to be too punitive.  Italians are in favor of lowering their astronomical taxes.  Monti is trying to lower the debt.

The Count

When the votes were tallied, the Democratic Party won the majority in the House of Deputies while no party took the majority in the Senate.  Instead, it was divided mostly between Berlusconi, Bersani and Beppo Grillo’s parties with other parties earning smaller percentages.  This is a disaster, and unless a couple parties form an alliance, the country has no succeeding government or prime minister.

Berlusconi, Bersani and Grillo

Berlusconi, Bersani and Grillo after the results

A Couple Causes 

Italians have good reason to be fed up with how their government and all the “rich, lazy, lifetime politicians” have been running the country.  Beppo Grillo has good reason as well.  But the problem is that his non-traditional political party gained so much popularity that it weakened the other parties without winning enough votes to dominate.  Some say that a vote for his 5 Star Movement is a protest vote against the other parties.   While he succeeded in damaging the system, he doesn’t have a way to rebuild it; that is, Italy is now in gridlock.

Another problem is that Italy has too many political parties.  I lost count of how many times people spoke enviously of America’s two party system.   They ask: How can any party in Italy gain a majority in the Senate with votes being spread between so many?

The Results

Depending on who you ask:

Everyone lost.

Everyone won.

Italy is screwed.

The Future

Some say that Italy will need to have another election.  Others hope that alliances can be made between parties to ensure a majority in both houses.

In the meantime, there’s the business of daily life.  There is school, work, meals to prepare, walks to take, children to care for and parents to visit.  And while the level of conversation has taken on a more emphatic tone as Italians shake their fists at this mess, the elections seem to color just the surface of one’s routine.

A window display at Sandri Cafe on Corso Vanucci: Their famous desserts covered with a sugar design of the major political party insignias.  All of them equally delicious.

A window display at Sandri Cafe on Corso Vanucci: Their famous desserts covered with a sugar design of the major political party insignias. All of them equally delicious.