Wednesday, May 25, 2011

cacca di vacca è felicità

Or, cow shit is happiness.

And that's what Carlo Petrini told us today on our first day of class. And some other stuff, too. But due to fatigue and sensory overload, details will have to wait until I can more coherently write them.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Italia: ti voglio bene, ti voglio male

Well, I never saw that one coming.

After taking multiple planes, trains, and automobiles to get from Baltimore to Philadelphia to Frankfurt to the Turin airport and finally to the Turin train station, I find myself thwarted by one of those little inconveniences that makes living in Italy a total clusterfuck. Rather than settled in at a cozy room in Bra, my future home for the next year, I’m watching Bridget Jones’ Diary, dubbed in Italian, in a Holiday Inn across from the train station in Turin. Uno sciopero – a strike?! I shake my fists thusly at you, you scheduled 24-hour train workers’ strikes! Well, at least Colin Firth is still dreamy even when his overdramatic deep Italian voice doesn’t match up with his mouth movements.

As expected, once I finally stopped complaining about packing and locked myself in my room, it actually got done. Though it was hard to part with my multiple pairs of five inch heels and vintage dresses that only “weird – underlined, underlined, underlined” people would wear, I had to remind myself of how much of an asshole I would feel after towering over every Italian man and then having to ask for a hand after wiping out when a heel got caught in the cobblestones. Not that that’s ever happened to me. Despite streamlining my wardrobe, I still managed to overstuff two suitcases; yes, it would only make my multiple-leg journey more difficult, but I should have enough black shirts and dark skinny jeans to blend in with the Italians. Now all I need is to grow out my hair and ridiculously over-pluck my brows. Babysteps.

Long story short, I was ready to go. Yes, I was doubting my ability to physically handle one hundred plus pounds of luggage, and I was feeling like shit (shout-out to my cousin, Sam, for giving me a terrible cold days before I left - thanks, Sam! Soooo glad I came to your graduation, it was totally worth it.) but I was as ready as I would ever be. And then I was off.

So fast-forward to landing at the Turin airport: I’m relieved that my eardrums haven’t burst, though my head is ringing and I can’t entirely hear…anything. I’m excited to use my Italian again, but dreading this last and most difficult leg of the journey. I jump on the first train I see, expecting it to take me to the main train station in downtown Turin. That was my first mistake. After a twenty minute ride with a bunch of adolescent Italians whose combined hair gel would suffice to supply the entire state of California for a whole year, I get dumped out at some random non-Torino Porta Nuova station. A minor hiccup, I think, but nothing my facility with the Italian language can’t handle. Second mistake. Not only can I not really hear anyone, I can’t hear myself trying – and failing – to speak Italian. I’m pretty positive I sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Cue the strange looks. As if I already don’t stick out as the straniera, what with my cropped blonde hair and enormous suitcases. I’m also sweating profusely.

I eventually find the bus that should take me to the station, and of course run into a whole host of characters, most notably the older Italian woman who keeps yelling at me: “Devo scendere, come faccio a scendere con queste valigie? Dai, spostati. E che freddo che fa con l’aria condizionata!” Yes, I realize that my bags are slightly in your way, but do you realize that this bus is packed and no one is willing to help me move my suitcases to a space that doesn’t even exist in the first place? And I’m sorry to hear that this air conditioning is a little much for you. Forgive me as my back sweat drips onto your white linen pants.

At this point I’m peeved. Actually, I would say I’m incazzata. – pissed. And I still have no idea where this train station is. Thankfully another, kinder older woman sees my distress and points out to me that the next stop is mine, and then not so kindly yells at everyone else to get out of my way as I get off the bus.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I walk into the station, thinking that I would just have to catch a train and then be checked into my hotel within an hour. It’s these thoughts that distract me from the reality of a crowd of people staring up at the Arrivals & Departures board. Just staring, not boarding any train.

I patiently wait in line to buy my ticket, then kindly ask for a one-way trip to Bra. But ragazza, non ci sono treni. C’è uno sciopero fino alle 9. I have to ask again to make sure I have heard correctly; but yes, there are no trains until nine tonight because of a strike.

I suppose it was bound to happen at some point. There are strikes for every possible union in Europe, and train operators’ strikes are particularly frequent and usually scheduled, allowing for passengers to make alternate travel plans. Except when said passengers missed the memo. Throughout my entire year abroad in Bologna there were many strikes, none of which affected my travels. So yea, it was my time. But did it have to be today, when I’m jetlagged and sweaty and sick?

Hence the title of this entry, which I’ll translate as “Italy, I love you, I hate you.” Most foreigners, and many Italians for that matter, have a love-hate relationship with this beautiful but broken country. I obviously love Italy; this year is not my first studying at an Italian university. But it’s always a challenge living in Italy, one that’s even bigger than the challenge of physically getting here. And it’s not just the inconvenience of a strike, but other “details” that I won’t get into as the loopy-ness of my jetlag and cold start to settle in. I’ve always hated the question: do you like living in Italy more than living in the US? Things aren’t better or worse here, they’re different. Sometimes comparisons are useful, but more often than not such statements give no real insight and help no one. I’ve gotten used to the ups and downs enough to recognize that this moment will soon be forgotten when I finally get to Bra, and that reality finally sets in. So I can deal.

I really enjoy the expression ti voglio bene. You hear people say it all the time to friends and family, and though it’s one way to say, “I love you,” in my mind I’ve always translated it as, “I want good things for you.” It seems more complete. I’ve never heard someone say, ti voglio male; in fact I’m fairly sure it’s not an expression and means nothing, but in my mind it means “I want bad things for you.” It would be a dickish thing to say. But it also succinctly describes my mood this afternoon when I heard that there were no trains to Bra. I figured I was nearing my breaking point, and that it was only a matter of minutes before I curled up in the fetal position and rocked myself to sleep. Rather than make a scene in the station, I went across the street and checked into a Holiday Inn. It wasn’t the most budget-friendly option, but this way I’ll be able to recuperate tonight and head to Bra tomorrow morning…hopefully.

So Italy, I love and hate you, and I wouldn’t have you any other way. In the end Colin Firth’s dubbed Italian voice was right: mi piaci molto cosí come sei, I like you just the way you are.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


It all began with Bologna.

It was prosciutto and parmigiano, aceto balsamico, lambrusco and san giovese.

Or maybe it began before, on my first trip to Italy. Maybe it began with family feasts in a medieval Tuscan villa, and whole spit-roasted chickens in Sunday markets. And gelato. Yea, it was definitely gelato.

Or did it start even earlier, on my first trip abroad; was it the warm summer evenings on Parisian rooftops, or carpaccio and cow’s tongue? Was it the solitary clandestine morning treks for a fresh pain au chocolat?

As I anxiously anticipate the start of my next adventure, I find myself looking back, trying to determine its genesis: how and when did I decide that gastronomy was for me? Though the more pressing question is, why the hell haven’t I started packing? Yes, in four days I am once again leaving the States and going to Italy, this time to complete a year-long Master degree in Food Culture & Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences.

Of course there was no easily traceable and definitive moment when it all began. It’s been many meals and people and tastes and memories: empanadas de trucha in hidden Patagonian villages, Carmen’s perfectly braided repulgue and the squeak of warm chipá; one late summer’s tomato lunches with Fiamma in Cilento and many summers’ outdoor crab feasts in Baltimore; hearty cavatieddi al ragú di cinghiale on Easter and Graziella’s cocoa tagliatelle on Thanksgiving.

My hope for this blog is – oddly enough – to be the opposite of everything I’ve just written. (It seems I’m off to a great start.) Actually, I don’t know how this blog will turn out, just as I’m not sure what to expect from this next year. But I enjoy writing, and people (also known as my Mom) said I should start a blog again. So hi, Mom, and I’ll try to avoid writing more pretentious laundry lists devoid of any context or explication. This one was just for me, to remind myself of why I love what I’m about to study, and how fortunate I am to have had all these experiences.

So here goes. Here’s to writing and eating and drinking and sharing and remembering and conviviality and more varied and developed sentence structure. Here’s to working hard and doing something well once I’ve finally gotten started (this applies to both my blog and my empty suitcases.) Here’s to warm nostalgia and overwhelming gratitude, and many more reasons to feel so in the future.

It’s exciting yet odd to know that not only will this year be very different from the last, but to be fairly positive that this year will be uniquely amazing. Not that I have high expectations or anything. But come on, what could possibly be bad about studying food culture in Italy??*

*student debt, inevitable weight gain, the clusterfuck that is living in Italy, and don’t even ask me what I intend to do with this degree. Seriously, don’t ask.