Travels at Home

One of my favorite routines during our year in Italy was packing a bag on Saturday and heading into a new town for the night.  Even though we arrived feeling disoriented, after a long walk and a good meal, we would begin to settle in and recognize the patterns.  While each place has its own traditions, history and culinary specialties, there were also similarities: there was the central piazza, the cathedral, the landmark fountain, the Renaissance masterpiece  and the acclaimed cafe.  With guidebooks, a map and notes in hand, we would hit the highlights.

Bevagna, Norcia, Siena and Assisi

Bevagna, Norcia, Siena and Assisi

We were missing the accessibility of weekend adventures until it dawned on us that we can travel and explore from our home in Washington. So last week, we bought a local guidebook on Pacific Northwest road trips and ticked off two from the list: Tom headed to Lake Chelan with some friends while Matt, Ray and I drove up to Mt. Rainier for wilderness hikes and sub-alpine scouting.  Meticulously following the suggested route of our book, we were often surprised to encounter parallels with a typical trip in central Italy.

Before we even entered Mt. Rainier National Forest, we followed the advice of our guidebook and stopped in the town of Elbe (pronounced like the Tuscan island!)  The towns claim-to-fame is an old church (of all things).  The on-site caretaker, Dick, showed us around and provided some history.  It turns out, this is one of the smallest churches in the world!

Before we even entered Mt. Rainier National Forest, we stopped in the town of Elbe (pronounced like the Tuscan island!) The town’s claim-to-fame is an old church (how familiar). The on-site caretaker, Dick, showed us around and provided some history. It turns out, this is one of the smallest churches in the world.

Meticulously following the itinerary of our Lonely Planet guide, we stopped in Ashford for espresso at Whitaker’s Bunkhouse.  We declined the tempting daily special written on the blackboard behind us, “Bacon Brown Sugar Latte.”

Next stop: Ashford for a shot of espresso at Whitaker’s Bunkhouse. We declined the tempting daily special written on the blackboard behind us:

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Italy isn’t the only place full of ancient beauty.  This tree was born in the 1200s.

The nature museum at Longmire.  Italy isn’t the only place full of old stuff; this tree trunk was born in the 1200s.

We picnicked on mozzarella salami sandwiches at Richsecker Point in front of a goose bump view of Mt. Rainier.

We picnicked on mozzarella salami paninis at Ricksecker Point in front of a goose bump view of Mt. Rainier.

While Ranger Anne didn't hold a candle to the engaging Signor Luciano of Rome, she did provide an interesting lesson on ancient history (albeit geological).

While Ranger Anne didn’t hold a candle to the engaging Signor Luciano of Rome, she did provide an interesting lesson on ancient history (albeit geological).

We never made it to Terni's famous waterfall Italy, but the cascading waters of Narada were spectacular.

We never made it to Umbria’s famous cascades in Terni, but the Narada waterfall under Mt. Rainier was spectacular.

There were also many moments that could never be duplicated in Italy.  Ray climbed trees on a hike at Longmire.

Singularly Washington.

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Fish

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Umbria is the only landlocked region on the peninsula of Italy.  It’s safe to say that Umbrians are not famous for their fish.

As an American, I’m used to eating fish or any other food that traveled many miles.  I’ve had Dungeness crab in Chicago, sushi in Idaho, and Rhoda Island oysters (in Seattle).  A few extra miles don’t bother me, so I was curious to try the fish offerings in Perugia.  Every day, we passed a beautiful fish market on the way to the fruit stand.  Clearly, they were Umbrian and didn’t seem to have a problem with the seafood.   So this spring, after nine months, I finally stopped by.

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La Perla Nera is a family business.  Signora Patrizia, Signor Franco and their son Michael are open four days a week.  I loved them immediately.  They were funny, confident and always generous.  They prepared my order with great care, always gutting, skinning, filleting and slicing it to perfection before tossing in a handful of parsley.  And they never let me leave without a detailed recipe.  I decided right away that I would try every fish dish they could teach me.  I started with spaghetti and clams.  Then I made fried calamari, salmon rolls, fish coquettes, swordfish sandwiches, fried filets, marinated squid with olives, fish with cognac, and fish soup.  I kept a list of the greats and politely forgot the not-so-greats.  The more I tried, the more recipes Signora Patrizia gave me.

calamari

calamari

a sword fish and zucchini sandwich

a swordfish and zucchini sandwich

I’m getting close to unpacking the last of our belongings.  The other day I found the stack of La Perla Nera recipes, and so tonight, with very, very, very fond memories of this awesome family and their fish market, I am going to make my favorite dish: fish balls (I promise, they taste way better than they sound.)

To make fish balls, you need an assortment of fish.  I can’t find the Italian fish that La Perla Nera sells, so I’m using ling cod, Alaskan rock fish, and Petrale sole.  Combined, the fish should total a pound.  To prepare, lightly sauté them in oil and garlic.  Gently break apart with a fork as they cook.  Then add about 4 or 5 gulf prawns that have been whirled in a food processor.   Add salt to taste.  Remove the cooked fish and prawns from heat and allow it to cool.  Then add a tablespoon or two of chopped parsley, an egg and bread crumbs until the mixture just starts to hold together.  Mix with your hands and then form into rounds the size of golf balls.  Fry the balls in oil and then add to a pot of marinara sauce.  Cook for a few minutes.   Serve as is or toss with spaghetti.

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La Bottega

The physical year in Perugia is over.  The inspiration to write and photograph has taken a monumental dip, but I’m not quite ready to end the blog . . . almost, but not quite.  There are a couple places I especially miss and a few corners of the city that I’d still like to post. Like this:


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La Bottega is one of our favorite spots in Perugia.  It’s a tiny four seat sandwich counter that serves the best selection of cured meats and cheese we ever had.  The selections are titled in Perugian dialect with Italian translations.  The offerings are simple and pure.  The menu includes 16 sandwiches and two combinations of meat and cheese boards.  The only variation was on Thursday when Signor Geraldo added slices of seasoned, roasted pork to the menu.

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We ate here more than any other place in town.  Matt and I stopped by at noon way before most self-respecting Italians would consider eating lunch.  There would be a couple stools available where we could watch the meat being sliced and assembled between a nice Umbrian bun.  We would order a glass of wine or a local beer and feel outrageously lucky for this perfect Italian hour before the kids came home from school.

Translation:  happiness is a sandwich and a glass of wine.

Translation: happiness is a sandwich and a glass of wine.

It became a special occasion place too. On November 22, when every American we knew was waking up to Thanksgiving (and not a soul in Perugia recognized its significance) Matt and I walked down to La Bottega and ordered a plate of dried sausage, prosciutto, capocollo, ciauscolo, coppa, mortadella and pecorino cheese. We felt very thankful.

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During the last week in Italy, when our bags were packed and we were preparing to close the door on our year in Perugia, we took the kids to La Bottega for their first time and then ate there three lunches in a row.

And now that we are back, La Bottega’s menu sits in our kitchen inspiring me to search out the best available ingredients and begin to assemble a repertoire of sandwiches that I can recreate at home.  So far, I’ve found one product that makes the cut, salamis from Olli Salumeria.

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Culture Shock

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We’ve been back for three days, but sometimes, Italy seems like it never happened.  It’s like a book we read or a dream we had.  Time feels distorted.  I feel disconnected.  It’s as if half of me missed the connecting flight.  Sometimes I can picture the windows overlooking Via Mazzini or the green tiles in the bathroom or the handle on the refrigerator door; it’s all so vivid. I am there.  But it disappears quickly when I open my eyes.  Then there are phantom sounds.  Yesterday, I thought I heard an Italian police siren in the distance.  This morning I thought far-off church bells were ringing.  But usually, it’s just very, very quiet here.

A friend pointed out that culture shock is more acute when one returns home after a long trip.  I think I understand.  When we left for Italy, everything was disorienting and different.  We expected it, and the adjustment came gradually and unnoticed because our brains knew they had to learn how to function in new surroundings.  Then, when we came back to our old home, the familiarity registered instantly and subconsciously; these past few days, I defer to rote movements when turning on the kitchen burners or unlocking the door.  However, these little tasks can surprise me.  My hands are used to pushing the knobs of the stovetop before turning.  When that doesn’t work, I need a moment to catch up and make sense of it all.  My brain says “home” but my muscle memory says a different home.  And in that moment, the colors of our Perugia apartment surround me.  And my heart dips as I realize again that we are no longer there.  I’m surprised when the clerk bags my groceries for me or when pencils have erasers or when there is no hard  mineral residue in my pot of boiling water.

I’m trying to figure out how to bridge the chasm between the two lives.  I want to make the experience of our last year part of me.  I want to stay connected and remember everything, but I don’t know how.

I had two wonderful encounters at the grocery store today.  The first was with Sara.  When I called her name, we ran into each other’s arms.  It was emotional and a little loud.  It was happy and exciting and full of disbelief that here we were together after a year.  It felt really good.  Soon after, when I was in the dairy department, I overheard an older couple looking for pecorino cheese, and they were speaking Italian.  So I quickly jumped in.  I told them I had just returned from Italy.  I asked where they were from.  We talked about Sicily and Umbria.  I helped them find the right cheese.  Then I helped them find Italian rice and Italian flour.  We kept talking and talking.  Then we made a coffee date for next Monday at 10am!  They are my new friends.  When I walked out of the store, I was feeling alive and hopeful.