Wednesday, June 15, 2011

settling & adapting

Well, where to start…?

Have I really been in Bra for over three weeks? Can I still not process everything that is going on? Is this actually my life? More importantly, is everything always closed? And did I actually eat that much cheese?

In a word, yes.

In the past three weeks, I have gotten over an ear infection, met 26 new faces with whom I will be studying, eating, and drinking for the next year, hiked from Alba to Barbaresco through rows and rows of nebbiolo, met Carlo Petrini, been spoon-fed fresh sheep’s milk from a contadino langarolo, tasted coffee caviar, been confused by the concept of coffee caviar, buried a classmate in aging Acquerello rice, tasted the first truly artisanal Italian beer (including one aged in a Laphroaig barrel,) been encouraged, discouraged, overwhelmed, frustrated, stuffed, elated, stuffed some more, and suffered a cheese-induced coma. Did that phrase make any sense? Probably not, but that’s how things have gone so far.

I should first say that studying food in Italy isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Coming to a young Italian university with an American (and Canadian) educational background can be frustrating, if not infuriating, especially when you consider the tuition all’americano. (Seriously, there are no student dining facilities…at a gastronomic university? The library is only open…during class hours? And there is one textbook available for fifty students? Touché.) In fact, when I first arrived and met most of the students from Section A - our program was divided into two sections; one began in March, the other in May - I was surprised by the responses I got when I asked, “so what do you think about the program so far?!” Let’s just say a sigh, followed by “weeeell,” isn’t quite what you want to hear after packing up, paying up, and settling down.

But wait just a minute. One of our Italian advisors told us on our first day to relax and “adapt to the flow of the Italian reality.” Revealing and astute observation, or awkward translation? I’ll go with the former. You can’t hold this institution up to the same standards as McGill University or any other American school. There are things that need to be improved upon, and it seems that many students are dedicated to working to do so. But I’ll take the bad with the good, and since I’ve lingered too much on the former, can I just repeat that I was spoon-fed raw milk from Mario the farmer? That never happened at McGill.

These past several weeks have been quite the practice in sense-memory. It’s the little things that have uncannily reminded me of different moments of my life, making everything almost entirely familiar, despite the new setting. To be crass, it’s been a bit of a mind-fuck. Take, for instance, my first olfactory impression of Bra: the almost nauseating scent of jasmine. Growing up, the only time I was exposed to its perfume was visiting my cousin Samantha (shout-out!) in Berkeley, whose home was surrounded by the flower. The comically large key to my apartment almost perfectly resembles the one I with which I opened my door in Bologna, where I would eat my oatmeal on the terrace just as I did this morning. I wake up early every morning to catch the bus to school, though Loch Raven reservoir pales in comparison to the hills of the Langhe. And Dulaney High is no Savoy castle. Each of these sensations have taken me back for a moment, and however brief it may be it stills makes me remember, and smile. It’s sort of like the flashes of recognition in the Lost finale. Yea, I went there.

But enough sentimentality, what have I been doing? Most recently – as in five minutes ago – I’ve been making bread dough. Apart from the fact that freshly baked bread is my favourite food, the pane di Bra – the bread of the town, which apparently has a consortium to promote and protect it – is so unpalatable it makes me angry. But after my anger dissipates, I think how sad it is that Italians are so accustomed to eating bad bread that they have come to accept it. (Would this qualify as the soft bigotry of low expectations?) Seriously though, I am the ultimate novice baker. I follow the simple no-knead recipe and bake it in an oven whose maximum temperature is almost 400 degrees. And it puts pane di Bra to shame. So I’ve been experimenting the past several days, and making some damn good bread, if I don’t say so myself.

Oh, and I also go to school. Our first class and exam has already come and gone; Food Environment and Sustainability with Dr. Colin Sage was a thought-provoking, if not depressing, way to start the year. It introduced the theme – most likely a recurring one - of a visiting professor parachuting in for a week, preaching to the choir, leaving earlier than expected with the exam administration in the hands of a tutor. After a couple lectures on terroir and photography we had our first stage (field trip) around our home region of Piemonte. I’ll save the details of our coffee-rice-beer-cheese-wine-filled week for another post.

So long story short, Mom – things are great! I’ll promise to write more often. And you should be so glad I’m not baking all this bread and making a mess in your kitchen.

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