Vinegar gunk and tasty weeds

June 30, 2008 - 5 Responses

I am always learning the most random things here.

Some relatives were at our house a few weeks ago. We had invited The Italian’s mother and step dad, a cousin and her husband and daughter for an outdoor BBQ. We started with some olives, chips, cheese, salami, Crodino, spumante and wonderful bruschetta. Bruschetta is one of my favorite foods and is best, in my opinion, when you toast the bread on a grill. We rub fresh garlic over the hot toasted bread, drizzle our olive oil (from our olive trees!) over it, sprinkle on some salt and then, if desired, chopped tomatoes with some fresh chopped basil mixed in….mmmmm. Heaven.

I think I could live on just red wine and bruschetta for weeks. I should start a new wine and bruschetta fad diet on the internet. I wonder what results people would have. I am not a big drinker, or dieter for that matter (except for a random ‘baby food’ diet my friend Sarah and I went on when we were about 10 just because we thought it would be fun to eat baby food. I think we lasted around 12 hours…until the Solid Gold dancers came on TV and we got hungry for real food after dancing up a storm on the couch), but it would be worth a try….red wine, olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and bread are all good for you, right?

After the bruschetta we started in on the meat. Since I have been with The Italian I have never had the in-laws over without his mother bringing something to eat. I try to explain that I’ve got the meal under control, but they always arrive with arms full of bags. Once it was a huge watermelon and veggies, at Christmas it was fish, clams and a live eel (yup!). This time she said she would bring the meat . We had steaks, sausages and pork coming out of our ears. There are always leftovers for 2-3 days after they come over. The steaks aren’t usually thick like Iowa steaks or Italian Fiorentine steaks, but pretty darn tasty on the grill. Our Cocker Spaniel, Lily, was glued to the side of my patio chair making cute, sad eyes at me for a handout. I can never resist her and she ended up with an entire bruschetta and good portion of a steak.

We had some peas with bits of pancetta (ham), onion and oil mixed in as a side dish…

Peas with pancetta

and then it was time for the salad which always comes at the end of the meal here. Cleans the pipes, I guess. I had prepared it in the usual way (no Ranch dressing here…sniff). Olive oil, salt and vinegar. I often add a bit of chopped onion for extra flavor when I don’t have to talk to anyone for the next 24 hours or when I have already ruined the fresh breath factor with garlicky bruschetta. I had not put in too much vinegar in this time because some people don’t like much, so I brought out a bottle in case anyone wanted to add extra.

Now, I use vinegar pretty sparingly so I think I have had the same bottle for at least a couple of years (don’t worry, the expiration date is in 2009, I checked). As I put it on the table I embarrassingly noticed a foreign substance floating around at the base of the bottle. It looked kind of like a brown jellyfish. I was sure the vinegar had gone bad! Before I was able to take it away, my mother-in-law pointed at the mass and said, “Guarda!”  Great, I thought. Too late, she’d seen it. 

Her cousin also noted the mass and they grabbed the bottle for a closer look. I said, “Scusa, che schifo. Vado a buttare.” (Sorry, that’s gross. I’ll go and throw it out).

Vinegar gunk

“No!”  they both exclaimed. They went on to explain that the weird gunk inside my vinegar bottle was a very good thing and very difficult to create. You need to store the bottle at a certain temperature with a certain amount of light, etc., to achieve it and using that ‘stuff’ I could actually create more vinegar. Who knew?! Without even trying I had accomplished something that many only wish they could do. I’m sure now that I’ve got Italian cooking instincts in my Danish-Norwegian genes somewhere. 😉

We then had our Vienetta ice cream, coffee, and limoncello.

After the meal and a bit of rest and talking, my mother-in-law, her cousin and I took a walk in our large yard and once again I heard, “Guarda!”. They had spotted bunches of cicoria growing everywhere (a vegetable that I guess grows in the wild). I been stomping on it with the dogs for weeks thinking it was just a weed. We spent the next hour gathering great bagfuls for them to take home.


Sheesh. At the rate I’m learning this stuff, soon I may never have to go to the grocery store again.


Gas and artichokes

June 6, 2008 - 8 Responses

Many of my fondest memories in the U.S. were spent in cars. Going to movies or parties with friends, awkward drives on dates, road trips to the Twin Cities or Des Moines to see a concert or go shopping, singing to tapes I had pre-recorded while heading out for weekend visits with friends or family in other states, happily argueing with my brother in the back seat of a mini van during cross-country family vacation treks (we were the tame Griswolds) .

When I call home or surf the Internet, I am constantly reminded that people are now thinking twice about the frequency of these trips because of the ever-increasing gas prices. I even noticed the other day that the media is starting to promote ‘staycations’ where you take your time off work and relax in the comfort of your own home or area. Here is an example from Wisconsin:

As I see it from Italy, although a few years ago drivers in America really had it made, it could be worse. You could have to buy gas here.

As long as I’ve lived here, Italy’s gas prices have been lots higher than U.S. gas prices. The last time I was at the gas station the cost was around Euro 1.50 per liter. Considering that there are 3.8 liters in a gallon, that’s Euro 5.70 per gallon. Now we have to convert Euros to Dollars. As I write this, on the current exchange rate is 1 Euro =  $1.55903.

So right now, a gallon of gas in Italy costs about $8.89. Or your firstborn child.

The Italian pumping gas

The Italian oh-so-happily filling up our tank

Smaller cars and scooters are obviously popular here. Not just for parking on narrow streets and in cities, but for mileage. My personal favorite that I see used in some rural areas is the Ape (translation: bee). I want one! Italians were heavily buying diesel-fueled cars until recently because diesel used to cost significantly less than gasoline. Now they are about the same.


Italy does have something in it’s favor.  Public transportation. There are trains that run to every corner of Italy, and if there is not a train station nearby, you can usually get there by bus. Or by boat. Or tram. Even small towns in the middle of nowhere have a bus that will pass eventually. There are many people here who have never tried to get their drivers license or have taken their drivers test later on (the legal age for a ‘car’ license is eighteen) because they really haven’t needed it.

Guy filling up

Guy filling up his Smart car at our local gas station (maybe going to a P-Diddy party?)

Sure, the trains are sometimes full. The buses are sometimes old. But they get you where you need to go.  And there have been vast improvements recently as far as quality is concerned.

I remember living in a small town called Sezze, south of Rome, for a few months during my first year here. The town on a small mountain was famous for its bountiful carciofi (artichokes) festival. I was teaching English in Rome and it took me an hour by train to get there, but first I had to take a small orange bus from the town down to the train station at the foot of the mountain. The bus was usually filled with little old ladies for some reason and, as we took the first curve of the ten-minute ride down the mountain, I noticed that all of these ladies were making the sign of the cross. How odd, I thought, looking around. Are we in danger? The next day I figured out that there was a little altarino (tiny religious shrine) built into the side of the mountain after that first curve.

I like to think that they were praying that cars would start running on artichokes.

Dusty teeth

May 30, 2008 - 6 Responses

I have read Under the Tuscan Sun. I’ve seen the movie. So it seemed natural to me that, living in Italy, the adventurous thing to do would be to buy an old house and remodel it, right?

It seemed like such a romantic and exhilarating idea in the movie theater while munching away at my Twizzlers.

We did it. Kind of. We bought a house last summer in the countryside north of Rome. We have lots of olive trees. We’ve got a few grape vines and fruit trees. Lots of land. A few curious insects. The house is pretty darn tiny, though. It actually used to be a cattle stall. It was built in 1933 and has foot-wide walls built of solid rock. During the second world war, it stood strong while troops of Nazis were camped literally next door. It is teeeeny tiny. Quaint and interesting, right?

When we first moved in we had more than enough to do to make it liveable. To start, we bought a house on a sloping hill with no driveway (still no driveway, actually) that doesn’t give you enough traction on the grass to get up the hill after it rains. The house also had a marble floor, for some reason covered with a green felt material that was superglued on (we tiled over the marble ourselves with the help of a Romanian the first few weeks we were here…hey, there were Romanians in that movie, weren’t there?!). But the most important thing to do was to transform a large cement and rock room (previously a storage room for tools, empty wine barrels, etc.) into our bedroom.

It took us approximately three days this fall to hammer through the rock and cement wall dividing the ‘future bedroom’ and our living room.

The room has a small window (i.e. hole with no glass) that we wanted to open up and turn into a beautiful, large window looking toward our town and a hillside. After a few hits around the window with a huge hammer, we decided that we were not quite up for that particular job and didn’t really want to take responsibility for a ceiling collapse. We needed a professional.

The window - before

The problem was that it’s not always easy to find someone in a small community who is: A) good and B) available to do the work. We would have to wait. We decided to cement a screen over the hole and nailed a large Persian rug over it on the inside. Every cold wind seemed to sneak into the house easily throughout the winter. The Italian and his bout in the hospital with bronchitis a few months ago were proof of that! We could even see our breath some days. It was kind of like camping. In Antarctica.

Little window - exterior

Today, a mere seven months later, we finally have two local men in the house singing, swearing and working on both the window and the door!

Rocky window

The window under construction

Working on window


Working from home is usually great, but today I am sitting at my desk a mere five feet or so from the action. Since 8 o’clock this morning rocks have been flying and thick dust has been slowly coating every inch of the living room. My keyboard feels chalky and I am afraid to drink the glass of water I grabbed only five minutes ago.

I am being coated too. I used to wonder what I would look like with grey hair, but since I turned 30 and actually grew a few real ones I’m really not that curious anymore. I feel dust coating the inside of my nostrils (that can’t be good) and when I open my mouth my teeth even feel dusty. I wonder if this is how Indiana Jones feels most of the time.

I’m sure the time will come when we will just sit back and feel like it was all worth it, but for now, I think I need to go out and get some fresh air. Maybe I’ll take a stroll down my imaginary driveway.

Bunnies in my cappuccino

May 21, 2008 - 6 Responses

The first job I had in Italy was teaching English in Rome. I mostly gave private lessons to CEOs, managers and politicians in their offices. The school I worked for was based near the central Termini train station, where the two Roman subway lines meet, and I often spent hours passing the time between my lessons in that area.

I think I managed to have something at every bar (‘bar’ meaning coffee bar) near Termini during that period. A cappuccino here. A caffè there. An afternoon snack consisting of a tuna and artichoke tramezzino (half sandwich) and glass of fruit juice somewhere else. I quickly learned that no one drinks cappuccino after lunch and that if you come too late in the morning all of the good pastries are gone.

During my first couple of years in Italy, my husband used to tell me that I smiled too much with strangers. He was right. Rome is a big city and there are plenty of gypsies and lunatics that are ready to take advantage of a friendly person. I couldn’t help it. I have lived in New York, London and Hong Kong, but have always probably been a bit too friendly with people I don’t know. You can take the girl out of Iowa, but you can’t take the ingrown desire to let other people know that you are a nice person out of the girl. I’m a bit more careful now.

The fact that I was usually pretty friendly and spoke little of the language probably endeared me to many of the baristas. I became a regular at certain bars. I loved walking in and hearing, “Buongiorno, signorina!” My favorite thing to order was a cappuccino because four out of five times I would get a bunny rabbit or a heart design in the foam from a barista. It would always make my day to get one.

For some reason, that doesn’t happen anymore. I haven’t had a heart or bunny in my cappuccino in years. Maybe it’s the wedding ring. Or maybe I look more Italian or my accent is less noticeable.  Maybe I’m just less friendly. Kind of a bummer.

I still love the culture of Italian bars. It is a meeting place. It is a place to take a break, forget everything for a minute and treat yourself.

There are people who pop in, down an espresso, pay and pop out in less than a minute. Most Italians have their breakfast standing at the bar with a cornetto (croissant) or ciambella (sugar doughnut). The majority of people do not sit, although some bars do serve lunch. There are those, usually in smaller towns like mine, who sit and read a newspaper or talk about work or the weather with their friends for a few minutes. If you sit long enough in a small town, someone you know will pop in to say hello to. If a bar in a small town has tables outside, often you will find a group of retired men playing cards or just watching the world go by.

In the afternoon, there may be someone having their after-lunch espresso (a necessity for most Italians, which I have adopted), a mid-day coffee break, a Crodino (non-alcoholic bitter – see video below) with peanuts, or something alcoholic.

You won’t see any students doing their homework or young professionals working on laptops or reading romance novels for hours in an Italian bar. They come in, but they are there for a quick breakfast or an afternoon break with coworkers or friends.

These days, I like to pop over to the local bar with The Italian a couple of times a week. I always have a cappuccino and a warm cornetto with white chocolate. Mmmm. We sit for ten minutes or so and just watch people (the Italian is usually done with his breakfast after about a minute, but my American habit of slowly sipping my coffee is slow to die). It’s a good way to start the day, with or without frothy bunny rabbits.

It’s spring again

May 16, 2008 - 5 Responses

I’m exhausted, but happy.

Last night our little dog, Lily, had six puppies of every color combination imaginable. I know that 99% of the time, Cocker Spaniels take care of everything during labor, but I felt that I had to stay nearby for ‘moral support’. As she was having her contractions for the first puppy, the poor girl just looked up at me as if to say, “Well, don’t just sit there with that damn flashlight pointed at my booty, do something!”. Her grunts were eerily human when the first pup finally came out. Lily then started to lick the newspaper under her instead of the puppy….not exactly a good start. I let the sac sit there a moment, but when I saw that Lily wasn’t taking care of business, I gently broke it open for her and cleaned out the mouth and nose of the puppy inside. Lily finally started licking it and cut the umbilical cord with her teeth.

Ten minutes later, as the first puppy was starting to recover from Lily’s lick-a-thon and trying to find some milk, the grunts started again. A few good pushes, me holding my breath with each one, and….swoosh! Puppy number two! Lily took care of this one like a pro. Aren’t animals incredible? I wonder why humans don’t have the instinct to lick our babies and cut the cord with our teeth….or maybe we used to, back before any language was formed, when a sign of affection might have even been licking another person’s right eyelid.

It actually only took a little over three hours for Lily to give birth to the five puppies we were expecting. Another surprise puppy came during the night sometime after I had gone to bed, feeling a sense of unmerited personal accomplishment that all of the puppies were alive and well.

Lily\'s pups

Now, as I listen to the little whimpers of puppies trying to get comfortable next to their mommy, I sit outside on my laptop in the warm spring sunshine and just want to relish the spring. There is nothing more exciting than new life and I am being overwhelmed with it this year. This is the first spring that The Italian and I have experienced in our new house in the middle of the beautiful Sabina area, north of Rome. We satisfactorily planted a garden after five hours of back-breaking hoeing last weekend, and these past couple of weeks I have been playing with snails, holding kitties (yes, we have six of those, too), smelling every new rose that has bloomed and just feeling optimistic about life. Spring just has that effect on most people.

Contemplating snail

You know the sad thing? I have had only one song stuck in my head while doing all of these things. No, not ‘Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong unfortunately. I am in a beautiful country, a romantic country, but which song has crept into my head and won’t get out as I smell the flowers and kiss the snails?

‘Spring Again’ by Biz Markie.

Yep, that’s the theme song to my life this season. Figures. The chorus kind of sounds like labor pains.

Standing room only

May 12, 2008 - 4 Responses

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The meaning of ‘Boh’.

May 9, 2008 - 7 Responses

My mother-in-law used to be a mystery to me, and I’m sure I was to her. She spoke no English when I first arrived in Rome, Italy in late November of 1999 (still doesn’t actually, except ‘table’ and ‘fork’, pronounced ‘fok’). My Italian was limited to a few words and phrases that I had crammed into my head during lunch breaks for about a month before my arrival.

I entered her household, her world, invited by my now-husband-then-boyfriend. Let’s call him ‘The Italian’ (a privacy technique I’ll steal from other blogs I’ve read). I had no idea how the welcome would be from the rest of the family, The Italian’s mother, step-dad and grandma who came by during the day to help out at the house. As it turns out, his mother, a slender, lovely dark-haired woman with obviously good Italian fashion sense welcomed me immediately with a hug. She touched my face and said, “Bella!”. She told her son that she loved me, which he translated to me immediately. We were all smiles and I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of affection and immediate acceptance.

It was all a confusing blur from there. The Italian and his mother chatted away and they could have been speaking in tongues for all I understood. The Italian had to work for a few hours on the day that I arrived and I was left alone with his mother to pass the time. I tried, really tried, to converse. She would talk to me in Italian and point to things and I would shrug when I didn’t understand (95% of the time) and laugh nervously, a sometimes bad habit of mine.

“Vuoi un caffé?” she would ask, pointing at the little metal espresso maker.

“Oh! Yes! Si, I mean. Grazie,” was my reply. What followed was me sipping my first espresso ever for about five minutes and making yummy noises (I was desperate to communicate something. Anything.). She had downed hers in about 3 seconds.

I remained in a caffeine-induced state of jitters the rest of the afternoon. I was never really much of a regular American watered-down coffee drinker, so this was too much for me. I was so tired from my flight, yet felt like bouncing off the walls at the same time.

The television was on in the background and someone was singing. In my last efforts to communicate with my future mother-in-law. I starting singing the only song I knew in Italian. “Volare, ohhh. Cantare, ohhhh.” Then I tried to ask her if she liked the song, but didn’t know how.

“You like?”  I ask, smiling and nodding. Nothing. Um. I gave her the thumbs up.

She just looked at me, smiling, and said, “Boh.”

She has used that word often with me since we first met. I eventually learned that it is basically a ‘verbal shrug’. Kinda means, “I don’t get it” or “I don’t know”.

This pretty much sums up my state-of-being since moving here. I am still often learning new things, witnessing odd traditions and ways of life, and often just not quite relating to certain cultural aspects. I am a 32 year-old from small-town Iowa, finding my place and flow in Italy. ‘Boh’ has become kind of a theme word for me over the past nine and a half years. 

This blog is a verbal shrug of my experiences and thoughts, with a smile on my face. Boh.