Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Prima e Dopo...ancora

This time, we're starting with what the town looked like right after the flood, and what it looks like now. There's still so much to so, but as you can see, so much has been done - and it's not an exaggeration to say that everyone's support (financial and otherwise) has been incredibly important to us.

The Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, put this compilation together. The link to the pictures can be found here.

The Facebook Effect

I read something recently that said that due to Facebook and the popularity of social media in the world, we are getting closer. That whole "6 degrees of separation" is now something like 4.3. Being in the United States for a little while has meant many reunions with friends and family and former co-workers, many of which who have run up to me asking about the flood. A visit to the bar I used to bartend at turned into a sad reunion of sorts, as many of my former "regulars" spend the majority of our visit asking questions about Monterosso, Vernazza and the recovery effort and progress. I was really surprised and heartened, again, to see how many people are cheering us along.
What I was also really inspired to see was the amount of people that told me they forwarded an article, my blog, a You Tube link or Rick Steves article about our recovery to their friends, telling them to pass it on to THEIR friends, and so forth. When this all gets figured out and we're back to our beautiful little beach town, we're going to need all the visitors we can get. So, use that 4.3 degrees of separation. And I hope to see you all next summer :)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

One Month Ago.

A month of my life has now been devoted to this flood, and I know it's not ending at that. It's a little unbelievable to think that for a month, my feet have not left the muddy ground of Monterosso al Mare. We went to Levanto Saturday night for a pizza, and I didn't realize how much I psychologically needed to leave my flooded little town. It was strange, because the group of 11 of us wanted to eat a pizza at 9:30, and at this time and at this point in the season, you wouldn't expect every restaurant to be completely full. What we hadn't taken into account was that Levanto isn't just Levanto anymore - it's also the majority of evacuated residents of Monterosso and Vernazza. There was the surf competition, but there were no waves in Levanto for the past week, so they moved to another town where they could finish their constest.
We drove there again on Sunday, this time with Manuel's family, for a short stroll and some fresh air, and could barely walk half a block without stopping to talk to a friend that
was now living here. The sighs are the same, the comforting shoulder pats and hugs, as everyone checks in on each others progress in the recovery and rebuilding. But, after a month, the progress has been incredible. I can't stress that enough. The Cantina is at a bit of a stalemate, as it's completely empty and we wait to figure out insurance wise and so forth what exactly we can do. However, other restaurants have made progress that blows me away. Lorenzo's place, Ciak, as you've seen and as I've written, is more or less mud free. As you can see, in the photo, the flood revealed a beautiful brick wall that was covered up - and the lamps hanging from the ceiling give a reminder of how high that water and mud was.
I'm coming back to New York for a few days, then Thanksgiving, and it's desperately
needed. When you can step back from the strange reality you've been faced with, it helps give you a clearer perspective on how much we have to do still, and what we've accomplished. Still, looking at the photos from a month ago today shocks me. It's something I never thought I'd have to deal with here, and I'm obviously not the only
one who feels that terrible sense. The best way to deal with it is to simply work and try not to dwell on what has happened here, but I'm incredibly glad to see New York City and wear normal shoes for a little bit.
However, the forecast calls for rain. Go figure.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Normalcy and Nonna

The past few days have, for lack of a better word, sucked.

We've been emptying out more muddy, half-ruined stuff, but since it's the end of November, it's a little cold in the shade. We're bringing everything outside into the street, using a few buckets and a power hose, rubber gloves that get holes in 5 m
inutes, and old sponges to attempt to scrub off the sticky, oily mud before we begin the aforementioned cleaning cycle. Standing in cold muddy water all day is getting old, and it's hard for me to believe I've been doing this exact thing for about a month. We're keeping our spirits up as much as we can, and laughing a bit too much, which for me is an indication that we may be going a little crazy. We need a break.

Today, Manuel and I spent the day with his grandma. A bit of normalcy is what we need, and it's funny - even the moments when we're not knee-deep in the remnants of the destruction of the flood, it's all anyone can bring themselves to talk about. Manuel's grandma is 80 years old and fantastic, as most women who are that age are. The kind of woman who complains that she can't taste the liquor in her cocktail. More then that, the kind of woman who still goes OUT for cocktails with her friends, and has no problem navigating the flights of stairs all around this town. She cracks jokes and speaks a fluid and confusing mixture of Italian and dialect and cooks lunch, dinner and everything else with the motions of
a woman whose been doing it her whole life. She's a little stubborn and really strong, like everyone else here - I guess that's the mark of a Ligurian. Since the flood, she's been watching the news, like everyone else, but I can't imagine how it could be for her, having been born and raised in Vernazza, then having raised her family here in Monterosso. I couldn't imag
ine seeing what I knew my whole life in this condition.
It's people like her, the little old women I see sitting outside Franca's (the little grocery store on Via Fegina) or in front of the Church that really make me smile, and give me hope for what this town can achieve. These people are incredibly resilient, and they might sigh and shake their heads, but they pick up the pieces quickly and move on. Ligurians are a sturdy lot, and Monterosso, especially it's women, are a great indication of that.

Not surprisingly, she can cook. Ligurian food is something I'm still trying to get the hang of, since my kitchen experience oddly consists of a mix of latin american, southeast asian, indian and southern italian. Ligurian cuisine is an interesting experience for me, as many of it is familiar - think pesto and minestrone - but more of it is unique - have you tried farinata? Or can you even guess what it is?

Thought so.
Today we made fritelle di mele, which is Italian for apple fritters. As I followed her, taking pictures and asking for measurements, I encountered the same problem I have asking my own grandmother for recipes. These firey old women don't measure a thing. Is the milk hot enough? Stick your finger in it and find out. Watching me carefully whisk an egg white, Isolina took the whisk from me and laughingly chided, "You can't cook without getting your hands dirty". Manuel peeled beautiful apples, while I tried to pay attention to his nonna. She put together the batter of flour, butter, a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of oil, a spoon of sugar, a bit of baking soda, a pinch of salt, enough acqua frizzante for it to look "good enough", a splash of milk, an egg yolk, a whipped egg white (you see my issue with the measurements), we then fried thin slices of apple from Alto Adige in sizzling peanut oil then dusted them with sugar. The apple melted into the dough, and the whole thing was devoured by a hungry, flood-exhausted family at the end of a long day.

It's the same batter you use for baccala, or zucchini, or anything else fried. Just add sugar instead of salt. And if you don't have butter you don't need it, she added. Also, don't think too much about the water, you can use naturale. The apples are better if they are the green ones, she threw in, but don't worry. She shrugged about the oil, too, "You can just use what you have around". Singing quietly to herself as she leaned over the stove, frying happily away, I was again reminded that what we're working so hard to rebuild. It's hard to find
something so resilient that can also be so adaptable, be it an old recipe from a grandmother and her tradition, or a little village steadfastly reconstructing in the mud. The recipe will still cook, but you just have to work with what you have. Pick up the pieces, see what you've got, hum a tune and get to work. After 80 years, grandmothers have easily acquired this beautiful trait - and after so many centuries, clearly Monterosso has as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Surfers helping out

For those of you who don't know, you can surf here. In fact, the waves in Levanto are so well known that they merit the Bear Pro world championship in longboarding, which is going on until November 20th. Unfortunately, I've been a little preoccupied and haven't made it there, but the surfers instead came here. Or rather, to Vernazza, but the sentiment is really moving, and the video they made is great.
You can really get an idea of what happened here through the video, and appreciate how much we have to do...and there are some beautiful images of this great big sea on our doorstep.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Things we have...

Well-timed and creative rest breaks, as you can see by Ema's relaxing.
Fashion. La moda di Monterosso this month is rubber rain boots and jeans, and they have to be muddy. Yellow fishermen suits and fire or army uniforms are, of course, also very hip. On a side note, I hunted far and wide for beautiful rubber rain boots this fall that everyone wrinkled their noses at in disgust - "How ugly, Cri!" Little did they know what a trendsetter I'd become, just one week before.

Rhythm. As you can see, Ema and Piero are dancing while power hosing and cleaning the Cantina. Not easy on a slippery metal gate!A free Via Molinelli - the mud line still remains on the garage doors.
Beautiful fall foliage overlooking a stubbornly large and undraining puddle.
The world's most picturesque garbage drop off...
Soccer! (on the right)
And, clearly, a sense of humor to go along with it all.

more ways you can help us, besides coming here and showing your lovely face in 5 months


A big, muddy garage sale

Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Proof! The Church of San Giovanni Battista has made huge progress, but you can still see in the corner the line where the water rose to.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who was able to find and save a beautiful painting.

The things that can be saved...

Newly liberated from mud - as you can see from previous pictures, this used to be completely submerged.
Look inside the supermarket on the left - people are working so, so hard and it shows
When I look to Vernazza, in the distance, I have such sad feelings. The day of the flood, talk was on Via 4 Novembre, then turned to the Old Town, since we could only speculate how everything fared. At one point, that night, we looked towards Vernazza and saw the lights in the harbor and up to the castle. We all had grim thoughts, but no one knew that they had suffered as horribly we did. Now, when I look over to the harbor, I see construction, even this far away (you can probably see the crane looming over the town), and again, that's a great sign for me.
There is such a thing as the "fishbowl effect". It occurs when you are in a situation that results in being observed from the inside-out, similar to a little fish in his glass abode, with big human eyes staring in.
This is a feeling I felt a little bit yesterday, as I noticed a handful of tourists filming and snapping pictures as we worked outside hosing off our muddy kitchen and bar, and the framework that we can save from the inside of the Cantina. It's a feeling that I also get when I see a train pass by overhead of Piazza Belvedere in the Old Town - not as much now, but a few weeks ago people crowded the windows of passing trains with curious faces, observing what the flood had done to the lives of this little town. Now, I'm so happy that people are looking down at progress and construction and at the dramatic difference. There's mud, yes, but it's coming from cleaning up this mess. With everyone hosing off and cleaning what can be salvaged from the newly freed storefronts and businesses, the affect is similar to a muddy garage sale. Belongings littering the streets, and everyone pitching in as the walk by - for a minute, for an hour, for a day or two. We have people I never saw before helping us in the Cantina. This is just as heartwarming as the comforting smell of bleach and ammonia. It means "clean", and it means progress - and it means that the people have something to see when the look out the windows. I hope this muddy garage sale effect has the same positive feeling for them it does for me. And I hope those pictures that the tourists snapping get sent home with stories to accompany them of a huge flood and devastation - and a community working hard and fast to eagerly move past it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

For those of you not already following Kate, please check out her post today about Marco, who has helped us so much the past 20 days - and his beautiful quote about Monterosso.

And the mountain keeps growing

This morning inside the Cantina...we got everything out, as you can see
What our "ocean front" dining looks like now.
What we can save in the kitchen. Ha.
All of this needs to be taken out.
Two days after the flood - the water still hadn't gone down.
Happier times this summer
Ema and Elia at our mojito party in August behind the bar
One of our dinner and concert nights this summer
Terra Mia release party and concert
What the entrance used to look like...and will look like again :)

Just when it seems like we've really started to make some progress with cleaning up this flood mess, the work pile keeps growing. We're closing up the restaurant and have cleaned five of the six rooms in the bed and breakfast, which was a nightmare. We had to go through every single thing - lamp, picture frame, foot of a chair - and clean it. Then bleach it. Then clean it again. Then dry it. Then sanitize it. Then move it to another room that had already been cleaned and sanitized. Then clean the walls. Then clean the ceiling. Then clean the floor. Then bleach the walls...

You get the idea.

So, now it's more then a little daunting to tackle the Cantina, which sustained the most damage. Though we didn't have mud, we had water that didn't drain for a few days, which as I've said, ruined everything. The effect is the same - mud or not. All we have an empty space we need to build again, and we've started with the kitchen.

I wanted to post these pictures as we rebuild, so you guys can see what we started with, what we have left, and how much we need to do. Then, when we have our fantastic reopening party in April for next season, you can all "oooh" and "aaaah" at how much work we did to fix everything here. I have no doubt we'll do it. It's not easy work, but it's getting done - together. And I'm learning all sorts of handy words like bleach (candeggina) and ammonia (ammoniaca) as well as learning to work a power washer. Certainly not things I thought I'd learn when I moved to Italy, but again, the word of the year is "adaptability".

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Carne Asado - the great Italian dish

Our last communal meal in the New Town was the world famous Italian specialty - asado.

This needs explaining in two respects. First, it's happily our last meal in our homey little tent set up in the movie theater on Via Fegina. I love the feeling of community that eating together on long
picnic tables, rubbing elbows - literally - with friends and strangers fosters, but not "needing" to do so is a great sign. It means that everyone in the New Town now has power and water and is in a bit of a better situation to prepare food for themselves and access supplies, so we're trucking all of our donated food over to the Old Town, where meals will be prepared for all of Monterosso. It's really hard, preparing up to 200 meals twice a day that consist of sides, two
courses, dessert, fruit and snacks. Manuel's father and two other cooks from Ristorante
Miky have been there full time, all day, working to prepare the food, and without the need to feed people who can't feed themselves, this frees them up to help us in the Cantina and A Ca'
Du Gigante. The bed and breakfast is coming along nicely, but the basement is a nightmare, and the Cantina we haven't even started,
so we need all the help we can get.

So, our last meal was a long Sunday lunch, and starting pretty early in the morning, you could smell the wafting smell of burning wood and slowly cooking, smoking meat waft across Via Fegina.

"What IS that?" I asked, mouth watering.

"Asado," responded Manuel, as if it was obvious.

Now, as an American with a very good Mexican friend (Hola, Rocio), I'm aware that Carne Asada is a Mexican dish. You can probably make the argument for American Southwestern. South American. Latin American. But Italian? News to me.
However, I did a bit of research and found that Asado (senza the "a" in Italian, and without the need to specify that it's meat) was actually the product of a bit of a circle of immigration. At the end of the 1800's, many Ligurians left Italy and moved to the Americas in search of a better life. Though many Italian Americans today can trace their roots to Calabria or Sicily, immigrants from Genoa and Liguria were by no exaggeration, the first ones on the boat. The thriving Italian American community in New York City was originally based in the Greenwich Village area, and the famous Our Lady of Pompeii church, on the corner of Carmine and Bleeker, is a great example of that. According to Gerald W. McFarland, in his book Inside Greenwich Village: A New York City Neighborhood, 1898-1918, over 90% of the couples registered to marry in the parish in 1893 were from the Genoa region. This number dropped dramatically to 30% in 1908. There are many reasons for this, but one incredibly oversimplified way to put it is that they simply went back home.

Italian immigrants throughout history have represented a strong ethnic presence in South America as well as New York, and those who lived in New York City or Buenos Aires traded recipes as they moved to or from their home countries. A dish exists in Peru called Tallarines Verdes, a creamier version of Ligurian pesto without pine nuts, which aren't readily available in Peru. In many parts of Argentina, foccacia and farinata are widely consumed. So, the Genovese immigrants left their mark, packed up and went back to Liguria, but they brought back some Latin American flair. One of their new favorites? Carne Asado.

Now, in South America, the whole animal is usually cooked, but here - especially in contemporary times - cow head isn't the easiest sell to a group. Pancha is universally delicious, and Asado is now a huge part of Ligurian culture. Also, these hard working immigrants were poor, and the stomach is a cheaper cut of meat as opposed to the whole cow, and fortunately, it's one that really shines when cooked in this manner. Like the tradition
of an American BBQ, making an Asado is more then eating - it's getting together, cooking over an open flame for a few hours, then eating at picnic tables. The slow cooked meat over an open flame is basted with oil using rosemary as a brush, rendering the meat tender, fatty, juicy and the skin salty and crisp.

It seems fitting that our last communal meal in the New Town took place embracing something so incredibly unique about Liguria, something from a long history that was gently twisted, as Ligurians do best, to their own ways, adapting a tradition for their own countryside. As we grilled the meat in the midst of a field of muddy debris, people smiled in the sun and toasted each other, the chefs, and the day. Wherever asado originated, in this way, it is truly Italian.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A festa in the fango

Observation: Whoever said Italian people don't get drunk has clearly never been to the festa dei becchi.
The Festa Dei Becchi is another Monterossini tradition, but one a little more difficult to explain. A party for the huge lemons reaching down from the trees lacing the countryside, a celebration of the silver anchovies that sweep through the Ligurian Sea - these are things people are grateful for and it makes sense to rejoice in them. A party for the patron saint of cheating on your spouse, however, is one that still has me scratching my post-festa-wine-foggy head.

I did some research as to the tradition behind this, and without going too overboard, November 11th is San Martino Day (that's St. Martin for us - and there's 2 - I'm talking about Martin of Tours), which is celebrated with various traditions in many countries. In Malta you get a bag of nuts. In the Czech Republic you eat a goose. In many other countries, you go "trick-or-treating", asking for sweets door to door. The feast day coincides with the day that most of the fieldwork turns to harvesting, and the wine ready for drinking. It's for this that San Martino is the patron saint of vintners and, conveniently, alcoholics. He's also the patron of victims of adultery, and it's this that Monterosso turns to. Becchi (the plural of beccho) are "cheaters", commonly referred to by making a horn sign with your hand, which explains the significance of the horns (cornuti) paraded around town last night. The cornuti are, in dialect, becchi. What started as a traditional "calling out" of those unfaithful in the town, rattled off by a local man who gives this speech at the steps of San Martino, in the Old Town, has turned to more of a "making fun" of anything that happened all year. Hung on signs, paraded around with candles, palm fronds, and adorned with large animal horns, it's a bit like a "roast", and targets commonly include the National Park of the Cinque Terre, locals,
and, of course, Berlusconi. The huge banner hung on the train tracks reminded everyone, again, about adultery - "Remember, you're always the last one to know". It's apparently hilariously funny, witty, off color and a bit risque, and in dialect. What follows the speech is another all night party, which traditionally serves chestnuts, roast sausage, pasta fagiole, and lots and lots of local red wine.

Monterosso needed a party. The significance of what happened the last few weeks wasn't lost on me as we crowded around a dumpster eating off our paper plates. Dancing isn't easy in mud boots, and the revelry also included some mildly confused Italians from other parts of the country who are workers here helping fix the village. Since the Old Town is still not in an condition for a huge mass of people, ranging from very young to ancient, to go trooping through for a speech, a brief one was given in the piazza instead. It was more heartfelt then full of cutting wit, but it was important and moving for everyone to hear.
One of the local men stood up on a pickup truck from the fire department and gave his speech - but instead of starting by addressing his dear, "brothers of the becchi", he amended it to his "dear flooded brothers of the becchi". He went on, laying out that the were unsure weather it was right to have the festa this year in light of the flood and the huge losses felt by Monterosso, but the community was stubborn and wanted it, and, he said, in our opinion, this is right. This is who we are.

Much of what he said mirrored what I have been thinking about Monterosso and what I've seen and written about since moving here, and especially after the floods. It is more important, he noted, to have your friends at your side then to think about the money lost. One who only thinks about the past can't move forward, and, he yelled to huge applause as everyone screamed in approval - "We WILL move forward. To a Monterosso stronger and more beautiful then before".

What followed was a fun party with too much wine (I'm really catching on to these Italian street parties) and friends - dancing, singing, and having fun even with the mud and construction equipment surrounding us. It certainly wasn't a normal festa dei becchi, but it was what it was. We adapted, and it's incredible to see that in spite of everything that's happened, we can still keep close traditions like this.

These are the important things to keep in mind as we work, our speaker roared
to the crowd, long days "in the mud, without water, without our houses - with nothing". The most important about this festival wasn't lost on me. It's these traditions that make a community, and it's remembering what we're trying to save.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Walkin' on the street never felt so good

Like nothing ever happened - view up by the start of the trail to VernazzaAgain, a beautiful sky and sea...
Bright shiny new clean street
Only remnant of what it took to clean this is the broom - across from Ristorante Ely

I'd say this means that stuff is getting done...
The simple looking but incredibly functional method of diverting water through the street - except now it's hose water used to clean off Monterosso
Power washing Ciak...you can see on the wall on the left how well this thing works

Ta-Da! Monterosso's still here!

It’s finally happened.

We’re walking on the street. More or less – there’s been so much done in the Old Town. Since we have so much to do here in the Bed and Breakfast, and haven’t even really started at the Cantina, we really only have time to go to the other side of town for a little bit every afternoon. This is actually better, for me, because sometimes when you work at something or do something everyday, you don’t have a chance to step back and actually see the difference. That something is happening.

I have this advantage of seeing the town every 24 hours, and though it might feel like it’s moving unusually and frustratingly slow, the important thing is that it’s moving. I don’t think it could go any faster, and now, we have the advantage of having streets to walk on and doors to walk in and out of. It’s incredibly uplifting to see such progress. The mud has been removed from most of the businesses in the heart of the Old Town, and they’ve started power washing, mopping, sweeping and resuming a semblance of normalcy. I even have hope that I might be able to wear something other then rain boots this week. Monterosso is unrecognizable from two weeks ago, which is amazing since two weeks ago I was under the impression that we no longer had a town. It’s staggering what a group of determined, hard working people can do. There’s still a huge, dramatic hole in the middle of Via Roma, but there are 3 backhoes working on it, and though it might seem like a messy construction site, that’s a good thing. Things are getting done.

What I think we need to keep in mind is that we’re still here, we’re still working, and for us, the only news is this flood and building this town again. Kim Kardashian’s divorce, Michael Jackson’s doctor’s trial, Justin Bieber’s baby (I looked on CNN entertainment earlier, that’s how I got these incredibly important news updates) – they don’t exist for me here. There are more important things in my life, and it puts it in perspective, but I wish I could get over my frustration as to why the events of two weeks ago were so lightly covered in the American news cycle. It’s just as important for the tons of people who care about this area as much as I do to keep the word out that we are still here, and we need help. People who have been here or dream about coming need to keep passing it on that we need exactly that. Donating to Monterosso, Vernazza and the Red Cross are great ways to help, but one of the best ways is to pass the word and come visit us next spring.

We’ve still got everything that made this place so special before. The sun still rises and sets, covering itself with streaking, vivid shades of sky and clouds. The tides still roll lazily in on a beach that’s slowly becoming clean again. The mountains still slump into the sea, and we all still gather together, laughing and sharing stories and, depending on the time of day, wine or coffee (albeit for less time). Monterosso “non c’e piรน” isn’t true. I’ve seen it. I walked on its streets again today.