Sunday, June 12, 2016

The washing machine and the circuit breaker

Helpless. That's how it feels when "normal" problems occur in a foreign place where your language skills are minimal.  My Italian tends to desert me in emergencies. 
Two days ago the washing machine starts leaking. After much mopping and wringing we get our landlord to take a look. He says "technico". He then has me look on the Internet to find a repair service for our machine. I write down the number and off he goes. A vague hand wave about telling us when they will come. A few hours later he appears with a calendar. Wednesday or Thursday?  Is morning ok?  We ask for Wednesday morning. Wednesday comes and we wait until 2 pm and ring their bell.  They don't know, no call has come. 
At about 7:00 pm they come over and say "domani"- tomorrow!  Between 8-12. Progress. 
Thursday morning at about 9:00 the repairman and our landlord appear. I follow them to the machine trying to catch any words. Finally it is determined the is a leaking tube that must be replaced. They will be back in the afternoon.
Meanwhile the laundry is piling up.  We just had guests so there are sheets and towels and all our exercise clothes and the place is starting to smell like a gym on a hot day with no air conditioning.  
8 pm the daughter of the landlord comes bearing fruit (loquats!) and the news that they could not find the part- "domani!"  Tomorrow !  At this point we have stayed home for three days waiting.  I am amazed that this happens in other places besides the US!!
Finally today at 5 pm he shows up with the part. It took 2 minutes to remove it and 30 to replace it. 
We are ecstatic!!  We have 5 loads of waiting laundry.   
I finish one load and get it on the line.  I start the second load and dinner at about the same time. Right when I'm about to throw everything into the oven the power goes out!  
Yes, you've seen this here before. There's only so much wattage we can use at a time. So I go flip the main circuit breaker- this has worked three other times!  No dice. No power. I ask a neighbor who in the parking lot washing her car for help- she speaks some English.  First she looks at the breaker- not the problem, then she reads the message displayed on the screen.  She says "this is Italy. You used your allotment".   What?!?  How can that be?  It's only June 10?
I go try the landlord. Not home. We sit in the dark. I try the breaker again, no luck. We turn off everything. No luck. 
Finally I text our host family to ask for help. As before, Mom comes downstairs to see what's what. She speaks no English but she knows us and is comfortable with our bad Italian plus sign language. She gestures downstairs to the breaker box. I shake my head no, I did that already. She then says something I don't get and goes straight to the kitchen. She's pushing on the wall and I realize she needs to open up a panel there. I show her where to push. She pops open a small box and inside are two small switches. She flicks each up and there is light!!  
She smiles, says "buon appetito" and is gone. 
There is no way to express gratitude. There is no expression for the relief. 
It boils down to relationships. If we did not have a host family. If their parents didn't live upstairs. If our landlord was not as willing to help or try to overcome the language?...
We would not be watching Euro 2016 after a nice dinner. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

And now, about food!

The food in Northern Italy is fantastic. It tends to be simpler, with three to five ingredients in most dishes. Some typical items are Tortelloni, tortellini, polenta, risotto and of course a lot of different pastas.
Typical or "tipico" dishes would be Tagliatelle with ragu, tortellini con brodo, tortellini con burro e salvia.
The ragu is a mix of ground beef, ground pork and spices with olive oil (no tomatoes).  Tortellini comes from one place locally-Valegio- unless you make your own. Valegio makes amazing pasta and imports their Tortelloni and tortellini into the city fresh daily. All the small markets carry it in bulk and you can buy it by the serving. You have to be able to describe how you will serve it, with broth (con brodo) or as a primi (first course) with butter and sage. Both are local specialties. 

A disclaimer on the photo below.  It is not a typical dish with Tortelloni. It was explained to me after I sent this photo to our friends, that you are only to use the tiny tortellini in soup. It sure did taste good as pictured though!

Lamb is very prevalent here in spring. We have had it several times in several dishes. I'm looking forward to braising some lamb shank soon.

The fresh fruit and veg is just amazing.  There is a huge selection in the various markets here- there are three I shop from all within half a mile of our apartment.   I'm also growing fresh herbs on our terrace and using them daily on whatever dishes I come up with.

 There is a lot of condiment use here, all from local produce.  Sun dried tomatoes in oil, black olive pate, olives, pepperoni (here it means roasted red and yellow peppers in oil).

My first experiment was with reconstituting sun dried tomatoes.  I had tried many times at home to do this with mixed results, usually too salty or too leathery.  I followed the instructions of a local and came up with the best marinated sun dried tomatoes ever.  The secret is to cook them briefly in a mix of white wine and water (50/50), then lay them out to dry on paper towels for about an hour.  After that you layer them in a jar with your choice of herbs, thin slices of garlic, capers etc.  The finished product is ready to eat in 24 hours and after the tomatoes are gone, the oil is divine for dipping crusty bread.

One evening we were invited upstairs for dinner with our friends parents (they live just above us).  It was a Calabrian meal- her father is from the south.  The antipasti included a black olive spread they called pate.  I asked our friend Chaira if she could give me the recipe and she says "my mother will teach you".  Two days later the doorbell rings- here is Chiara's mum with a big jar of black olives in hand.  She gestures upstairs and I follow her up.  In the kitchen she takes out a blender and two paring knives. We sit in companionable silence as we pit the entire jar of olives into the blender jar.  She then adds three large cloves of garlic, peeled and quartered.  She gets a bottle of olive oil from a cabinet full of bottles- all different sizes and shapes- the oil comes from a local collective they belong to so no labels.  Into the blender goes a big glug of the oil- probably at least a cup.  Pulse, pulse, whirl- add more oil from the top.  Pulse, pulse, whirl and by the time we are done she has added about 1/2 liter in total.  The pate is smooth as silk and fragrant from the olives and garlic.  She spoons some of into a small jar for me and sends me back home.  Since she doesn't speak English and my Italian is still very bad we don't converse much, but the companionship was wonderful and the cultural exchange will be a bright memory for me.

Every day I look for something new or an old favorite with fresher ingredients.  I'm sure there will be more food posts in the future.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Watching Sports in Italy- an adventure in geekdom

Have you ever tried to watch a game on TV (you pick the sport) only to find that your access to it is blocked?  By the network, your cable provider?
Picture coming to Italy, armed with a brand new Laptop, a cable package that promises you can see "your shows" on your devices and a love of European football (soccer).  We arrive during some of the most exciting League matches- English Premiere League, Champions League.  
So the first game we try to watch we find that our access is blocked.  We can't see it on Xfinity because we are "not in front of our home TV"; DUH!  So we try Fox Sports, NBC, CBS, ESPN- all blocked content.  
We ask our Italian friend and he says almost all the football games are on packages that have to be bought through one cable provider.  He can't even watch the Champions League matches because he subscribes to the "wrong" cable provider (which he does because it carries Italian Serie A, which is obviously most important to him).
Everywhere we go we hit a brick wall- "Access Denied"  or "Content not available".
I do Google searches, I check Wiki everything, I am SURE there has to be a way to do this!!!
Finally, I phone a friend in the USA.  "G" tells me that we need an US IP address.  As soon as we arrived and logged onto the local WIFI we got a new IP address based in Italy.  This allows blockage of content.  It also was preventing us from doing some basic housekeeping tasks like paying bills (some of our accounts at home would not let us in because they didn't recognize the Italian IP address).  He then explains how to change our IP address so that it appears our computers are still in the US.  A VPN or Virtual Private Network. This allows us access to US websites and also- Voila!!  Sports!  Many people use these to keep work information secure- I certainly have and Robb still does but it never dawned on me that we could get one as individuals and get the same kind of security! 
Now don't go thinking this was the final answer.  The Virtual Private Network we bought allows our computers to appear as though they are in the US, however there were still challenges to actually watching the games.
English Premier League (EPL) games and Champions League (CL) are carried by different networks.  Fox Sports 2 Go is how we access CL, NBC sports live extra has EPL.  When the time comes for NCAA basketball, we will need CBS Live.  Guess what- they ALL charge for the mobile services.  Fox is the highest at $19.99 a month and that is just for soccer!  CBS is $5.99 a month for all sports they carry- the MOST important of which will be the NCAA championship.  NBC has no fee but the screen is full of ads, and there are a lot of commercials we have to suffer through.
Now on to the geek part.  Luckily we have an HD TV here so I can hook up the computer through an adapter that allows us to stream the games onto the TV screen.  Depending on the WIFI signal this works pretty well.  If the signal is struggling (all the time it seems) we have to turn off almost every other WIFI device in the house (2 iPhones, 2 iPads, a netbook and our Apple TV- I told you it was geekdom!).  
What is the final outcome you ask?  We can watch all the soccer we want, and we are cautiously optimistic that we are going to be able to watch the NCAA tournament.  What more could a girl want in life?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Why don't Europeans like Americans?

I get this question all the time. Along with statements like "I won't go to .....(fill in the blank), because I heard they are mean/rude to Americans.
I have been traveling to and in Europe and Eastern Europe now for a long time- close to 20 years now and I can count on one hand how many times someone has intentionally been rude to me or us as a couple "just because we were American". I have lost count how many times I have seen traveling Americans be rude, albeit sometimes unintentionally to those serving them. 
Americans talk a lot about how people from other countries need to learn English, yet when we travel, the most effort I usually see is a pocket dictionary. The worst is screaming at a waiter, sales person, taxi driver to try to make them understand. 
Today we saw the worst kind of American visitor. He pushed past us at the door to get into a busy restaurant ahead of us.  He then loudly ordered his food and wine in English.  They then proceeded to talk loud enough for the rest of the place to hear, mostly in "leadership" buzzwords and cliches. They competed for the attention of each other, never stopping to breathe and talking constantly over each other.  Every time the server approached the table, they ignored her unless they wanted something. As the meal progressed and the wine disappeared from their glasses they just got louder and more competitive. This was a man and a woman who appeared to be new business acquaintances.
It was horrible. It was also kind of like being in a Woody Allen movie. The angst from the man especially was almost visible.  
I know first hand how hard it is when you don't speak the language. However I always make an effort and it is always rewarded with kindness. I don't get offended if it's pointed out to me that by now my French, Italian, Polish should be better than it is. They are right.
We are an abrupt culture by nature. Always in a hurry.  It's not bad, necessarily- just who we are. If we could just slow down and enjoy a place. You're on vacation in a beautiful place. Enjoy the church you are in before you rush off to photograph the next one. Talk to people about their town, learn a few basic terms, tell them how much you enjoyed your meal.  
Even if people can't understand you it's no reason to be rude, shout or ignore them.  
So that's my soapbox, born of yet another Ugly American sighting. 
Don't be afraid other people in other countries will be rude to you. If you are nice to them and at least try to navigate the language you will be surprised how gracious people really are. They will also make much more of an effort to help you. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sunday Dinner in Italy- with a minimalist kitchen!

Our cuchina (kitchen) is a tiny galley space with very little equipment in it.  The place we are staying is a B&B with a shared kitchen so there is stuff to make coffee, tea, toast, etc. and there are plenty of beer and wineglasses.
We have purchased some additional items like sharp knives, good corkscrew, veggie steamer and grater but it still is very much a minimalist kitchen.
Inspired by all the "one pan dinner" recipes on Facebook, I decided I would try my hand at making one with fresh Italian ingredients.  Here is the result, and the recipe to go with it.

Roasted Pork Tenderloin Medallions, Roasted Mushrooms and Fennel, Brown Butter with Sage Pasta and Tomato & Basil salad.

Use 1/2 tbs fennel seed, toasted in a dry frying pan until just browned and fragrant.  Be careful not to burn them.  Grate or finely mince 2 cloves of garlic.  Place the fennel seed, garlic, salt and pepper to taste and 1/2 C olive oil in a small bowl.

I used about 3/4 lb Pork tenderloin cut into 3/4" medallions. Pat dry with paper towels and place in a large plastic bag with the fennel seed mixture.  Using the outside of the bag knead the meat until the spices adhere and the olive oil is absorbed.  This can be done ahead of time or just before cooking.  I added a fresh sprig of rosemary.

I used a disposable foil baking pan (because it what I had!) with olive oil spread liberally on the bottom.
Then I cleaned and trimmed fresh button mushrooms cut to approximate size and sliced a small fresh fennel bulb.  Toss these with more olive oil, salt and pepper.  The fennel bulb is all the spice you need.

Put the veg on one side of the pan and the meat on the other.  I added a float of red wine to the bottom to keep the pork moist at high temperature.  We have a convection oven so I preheated it to 450 and put everything in at the same time.  Cook 15 min or until the veggies are browned and the meat is at 140 using a meat thermometer.  It will continue to cook after you take it out so don't leave it in too long.  You can also grill this or saute it in separate pans if you want to brown the meat.

While the meat is cooking, halve cherry or grape tomatoes, tear a liberal amount of fresh basil and combine with salt and pepper to taste.  Dress with Balsamic vinegar and Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  Set aside.

Boil the water for the pasta as you make the salad.  Cook 100 grams of pasta per person.  I prefer to use pasta that will hold onto the sauce like Rotini or Farfalle.  Heat a frying pan with a good size blob of butter.  At least 1 tbs.  Bring the butter to brown swirling it to keep it from sticking or burning.  Add fresh sage leaves or dry sage.  The sage will quickly absorb the butter, pull the pan before the fresh sage turns brown.  Drain the cooked pasta and add it to the frying pan with the brown butter, stirring to coat.

Pull the meat from the oven, plate the meat, veggies and pasta and serve with an Italian red wine.  I suggest a nice Ripasso.  Buon Appetito!!!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The morning coffee ritual

I could buy an electric coffee maker, or get an espresso machine like I have at home.  I'm not going to do that-yet. I've learned how to use a mokachino stove top Italian coffee maker. It's a little complicated, and if you don't pay close attention it makes a mess, but it makes really good coffee.

Step one- gather the parts of the pot and any other supplies.  I love the little steel milk warmers. 
You do have to use Italian coffee, everything else is ground too coarse. 

The coffee goes loosely into the filter basket. If you pack it, it will explode!  It's all about steam pressure. 

Get the flame just wrapping the bottom of the pot. I leave the lid open until the chamber is half full just so I am in control. I think I will eventually learn the noise it makes and won't have to do this anymore. The down side to the open lid is distraction. If I go off chasing a squirrel the coffee splutters out in every direction making a ginormous mess. As a veteran squirrel chaser, I know this all too well.  

When the pot gets to half full, lower the lid and turn off the gas.  The built up pressure will finish the pot.  Now to steam the milk. 
A teeny tiny flame is all you want. Unless you like milk skin in your coffee. (Gross).

About the time the coffee finishes, the milk will be warm. Now for the tricky part. Both pots will have hot handles. One potholder per hand. Pick up the coffee and the milk and our them together into your cup until your coffee reaches the color you like your coffee to be.

Now, this process takes about 15 min total. And it's a lot to ask of someone who hasn't had their coffee yet, but it's traditional and yummy. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Shopping for groceries Italian style

Here is a story about my first night in Verona. We arrived at about 3:30 pm. Our friend Ivan picked us up and brought us to our apartment. He said he was going grocery shopping for his family at 5:30- did I want to go? He was going to the big grocery up the hill. I said sure and after he left we did our best to come up with a list. Here's what it looked like: a Walmart/Target super center. After work and before dinner so it was crowded. Ivan shows me how to read sale signs and weigh produce and we're off!!!!
Ever see the game show where you get an empty cart and have just so much time to fill it?! That was me! Racing up and down aisles trying to finish quickly not to be an inconvenience. At one point I was trying to turn a corner and my cart went sideways in a skid. I'm sure it was hilarious to the other shoppers! Plus I'm trying (haha) to read Italian labels and make good choices. In the end, my cart was overflowing. I had to hand carry two 6 packs of 1 liter bottles of water. I wish I had been with it enough to take a picture of that cart!
As exhausted as I was, I'm amazed I didn't miss more than I did on the list!

Everyday we walk down the hill or around the corner to get supplies.  The apartment kitchen is rather small and is set up for B&B traffic, not daily living so we needed a lot of things.  There are two grocery stores near by and down the hill there is a vegetable/fruit store and a bakery.  Most things we need for everyday can be bought in these four stores.  There is a "supermarket" about .5 miles away that we went to once and the big grocery store where I went with Ivan the first night.  I'm going to sign up online for delivery of groceries from the big store which will help a lot with the heavier items like bottled water, basics like pasta and hopefully canned cat food.
What we have not been able to find so far is Oatmeal.  Today we are heading to the fancy grocery in town- they have an international selection and I'm sure we will find it there.  We will also pay three prices for it....  Oh well, gotta have what you gotta have!

I went to three stores trying to find ice cube trays. Granted Europe is not famous for using ice, but the cocktail culture is creeping in. There is a cocktail bar now in Verona (you heard right A cocktail bar). So I figured ice isn't far behind.
Finally yesterday as I was unsuccessfully looking for Ziploc bags I found these! And they work! Whoopee!! In fact they are great, the ice stays sealed so it picks up no odors and you just cut off each cube as you need it!

Vivienne Frankel's photo.