Saturday, December 31, 2011


“I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.” - Dalai Lama

2011 brought me some wonderful things - I moved to Italy, finally got my visa straightened out, finished my masters at NYU with honors and started a new, wonderful life here that really made me realize how blessed I am. But, 2011 also showed me the worst it could have - friends and family with illnesses they don't deserve (does anyone?), hurricanes, and a flood that helped everyone realize how quickly your life can be flipped upside down.
This blog was originally for me to write about my experiences here, and, as I said in the title, a girl "living her dream" in the Italian Riviera. Sometimes your dreams don't go as planned, and it's true that when life twists its direction, all you can do is move on.
I wouldn't trade this year for anything, because you can't just think of the bad things that have happened, but I hope that 2012 will bring something just a little bit easier for us. A road that can be just as twisted and windy, but with fewer bumps. That's all I ask.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

There is no mud in Manarola...

...and they've got some intense Christmas lights.

Mario Andreoli, a resident of nearby Manarola, has spent the past several decades illuminating a hillside of the Cinque Terre with a larger then life presepe, or nativity scene, for Christmas. The display takes over 15,000 light bulbs and covers over 4,000 square feet of hillside, overlooking the winding streets and typical leaning houses of the "second" town of the Cinque Terre. Since I heard about this nativity scene and saw this youtube video, I've been a little bit obsessed with it. It looks staggering in the pictures, and I was eager to see it with my own eyes - plus the video makes me weep, for some reason. It opens in early December and goes until February, thanks to Mr. Andreoli's passion and is alleged to be the largest nativity scene in the world, according to this website. Tonight, we're in a bit of a slump between Christmas and New Years, and though we are fortunate to have a few bars and cafes and one restaurant open so soon after the flood, there's really only so much time you can spend drinking and eating inside them. We hopped on the 10 minute train southeast to Manarola, and explored a little bit.

Manarola, in between bigger Riomaggiore and beautiful hilltop Corniglia, gets a bit overlooked in my book. Monterosso is the big kid, with the resort like beaches and the long "boardwalk". Vernazza has been called the "cute little sister", with it's "typical" street (singluar) and castle, Corniglia's got some wild stairs and a hell of a view, and Riomaggiore is a twisted, bewitching, hillside tangle of houses crashing into the sea.
Manarola is sadly to me always the town next to Riomaggiore. The one at the other end of the Via Dell'Amore. A stop before Corniglia.
I can confess, though, that I never gave it a shot. I walked thorough it in 10 minutes, never up the hill, and my only lingering memory of it was the day Italy sent troops to Lybia, and a man who started his night of drinking far too early yelling about it in the streets. However, tonight, alone winding up dark, lonely streets peering into the inky blackness of the same ocean that transfixes me a short train ride away, I realized how wrong I'd been. The light display is huge. Staggering. I hate the phrase "you have to see it with your own eyes" really don't do it justice. Certainly not mine.
Manarola is just as charming as it's sisters and brothers, and has the same passionate residents as the other towns in the Cinque Terre, judging by one older man's devotion to lighting up his vineyard covered hillside for his fellow Manarolese. They've got their own thing going on here, their own tradition and passion, and though they might technically be considered a fraction of Riomaggiore, they certainly find their ways to stand out.

And they do it enchantingly well. Especially at Christmas.

Belgian Gifts

Check out today's post from Rebuild Monterosso about the truckload of goodies delivered from some wonderful people in Belgium.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Christmas Marathon

Now, I know when Manuel told me they EAT at Christmas, I laughed it off, and knew it would be like the holidays I was used to.
Having said that, it's like going from running a mile every day to running the New York City marathon. I haven't left the table in 3 days.
After Christmas Eve, there is Christmas lunch, which consisted of salted anchovies, lemon anchovies, smoked salmon, russian salad (assorted vegetables in a mayo-like sauce with beets and pomegranate seeds), stuffed eggs (like deviled eggs, but filled with chopped giardniera, mayo, capers, and so forth), fresh oysters, raw scampi, shrimp salad, cappon magro leftovers, crostini, crackers with a salty cheese spread, goats cheese with herbs, a special Christmas cocktail Manuel and I invented (lychee, mandarin orange, vodka and prosecco)...and then we ate our fist course. That was just the appetizer. Ravioli with ragu followed, then steamed monkfish with oil and salt over greens, then dessert - tiramisu. Then figs, dates, torrone, cookies, panettone, pan dolce, pan forte, chocolates. Then we had dinner.
I wish I was kidding.
We sat BACK down at the table for tortellini in brodo, cima, roasted potatoes and fruit. We started at about 1, and finished at a little after 2 in the morning.
Today, the 26th, happens to be the birthday of Manuel's uncle, as well as Santo Stefano Day, the name day of his cousin, Stefania, and his grandmother, Stefanina. So today consisted of the same again, just with different dishes. Risotto with scampi, fried lamb, and flaky, fresh soglia over sauteed Tropea onions and pomegranate seeds. These people do not kid around.
For dessert, I fashioned a birthday cake in Italian-American style - chocolate chip white cake with a Nutella buttercream frosting, shaved chocolate and whipped cream. Definitely delicious, but now I'm entering a food coma that I have never before experienced.
The mood here for Christmas is truly incredible. For a community that has been through so much, everyone is in remarkable spirits - it truly reflects the feeling of how lucky we are to have something still after so much loss and such a few hard months.
It's never far from your mind, though, as every turn through town brings another image of the flood - but this time, instead of sighs, it's accompanied with a surprised face of progress. Even on a drive a few days ago to La Spezia to finish our Christmas shopping, we drove over the destroyed highway, through buried tunnels and the land on either side, in Brungato and other towns, where it looked like a bomb went off. Trees swept into piles on either side of a mild-looking river, the only sign of its hidden danger and strength seen in the debris swept forcefully down in the current of October 25th. But though we were driving, I let out a light whistle of astonishment at the damage this whole region sustained, then a few seconds later quickly realized the road we were driving on was perfectly fine, trucks slowing traffic and closing a lane as they painted the new asphalt on the road.
It's one thing to see the incredible damage, and be blown away by it, it's another to realize just how far we have come in rebuilding Monterosso as well as the region, though I know there is still so much to do.
The next few months after Christmas will be hard, but it's comforting to see this area during a season full of people realizing their blessings, and how incredibly fortunate we are to still have a community, a family, a life - and something we can rebuild, and one so worthy of the effort.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas and Cappon Magro

It's my first Christmas in Italy, and due to a number of reasons, it's much different then I anticipated - in being that it doesn't feel that different at all. Yes, looking out my kitchen window to the big blue ocean stretching below, squinting in the sun reflected off it's glassy surface, it's hard to believe that this is a day where I hoped for snow for most of my childhood, albeit several thousand miles from here. But thanks to Skype, I can have an "e-Christmas", a few hours off, with my family. And growing up in an Italian American home, most of the foods we eat and then having to run off to a midnight mass isn't that foreign either. Especially the part where everyone loses track of time and hurries to mass late. That's definitely a scene from my childhood.
Cooking all afternoon, then sitting down to eat at a table crowded with family, mismatched chairs to fit everyone, rubbing elbows and shouting to pass the bread - that's the same too. However, my introduction to cappon magro is something quite different, and something I'm incredibly happy about. Cappon Magro is an incredibly traditional Ligurian dish served for Christmas eve, and an insanely labor intensive one at that. Manuel's cousin explained to me that the dish, a huge platter of fish and vegetables, steamed and served in a large tower atop vinegar soaked crostini, dressed with a vinegary salsa verde, is something of a fisherman's joke. As in the old days, the fishermen were too poor to afford to eat a turkey or a large bird of Christmas (a cappon), they made this with old bread soaked in seawater and vinegar, and whatever fish they had around. Magro means skinny. Get it? A "Cappon Magro".
Regardless, there's nothing skinny about it now, and Manuel's Aunt remarked to me the irony in that this dish started as a poor, humble fisherman's food, and now, due to the amount of time and fish in it, has turned into quite the opposite. Bread is soaked in vinegar and water, and placed at the base of the platter. Then a "napoleon" of sorts is fashioned, consisting of steamed vegetables (potatoes, carrots, zucchini, green beans, cauliflower and even beets) and fish (whatever white fish and shellfish are around, and in large quantities) are layered carefully, dressed with oil and salt and lots of salsa verde, which really makes the dish. It's a mixture of cooked egg yolk, salt, parsley, oil, vinegar soaked bread, capers, cornichons, salted anchovies, and cocktail onions, blended until it's a smooth, vividly green topping for the whole delicious pile. Manuel's family kindly made me my own little cappon magro with just fish, since I'm allergic to shellfish, and though it was huge, I ate the whole thing. It's annoying to make, as every ingredient needs to be steamed separately before assembling, which is time consuming, but in my opinion, worth every minute. This is one Christmas tradition I'm ecstatic about.
What does make it feel definitively like Christmas is the same spirit I've felt intensified since the flood. That warm spirit of community has been everywhere, and now it's reflected even more in the sense of the holiday. Our faithful A.N.P.A.S. tent in the Old Town, that has been a dining room, a concert hall, a meeting place and so much more since the 25th of October was last night turned into a church, as midnight mass was held inside, spilling out to the street. We finished with a procession to the cleaned up church in the Old Town, where we crowded inside, saying our final prayers and blessings. Trying to keep my eyes on the service, it was hard not to wander over to that water line, stretching high on the inside wall. You remember the flood, but then look around at all the faces, the smiles and hugs wishing you a Merry Christmas, stop to have a cocktail after at one of the bars open in the Old Town underneath some twinkling lights, and realize that especially now, Monterosso feels so much more alive. It's residents are here, celebrating - a town with a family, a past and a future. Christmas, wherever you are in the world, makes everything sparkle just a little bit more brightly.
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Just in time

There are Christmas trees all over Italy - some of the most impressive and beautiful are at the Vatican, the Colosseum, all the usual places. They're huge, immaculately decorated and every square inch (centimeter) is lit perfectly. However, I'd wager none of those trees have as much heart as this little guy that just got decorated in my living room.

Santa Claus is Monterosso

My return to Monterosso for Christmas apparently coincided with Santa's as well. Last night, after a long trip home and a longer side trip to Ikea (which is in Genoa and on the way home from the airport. It's a nightmare every time), I was finally alive enough last night to leave my unpacking and cleaning and able to go down to the ANPAS tent in the Old Town for a bit of Christmas cheer. It's hard for it to really "feel" like Christmas for me here. Even in the U.S. it seemed a bit forced, but maybe it's the sunny weather, or my Christmas garland I twisted over our terrace overlooking the sea, but something about the ocean doesn't really yell "It's Christmas time!" to me.
Last night, however, it really started to sink in. The Lion's Club of Chiavari and the folks helping us so, so much in Levanto painstakingly read (with Santa, of course) every letter written by every child in Monterosso. After a Christmas sing-a-long, Santa appeared with a gift for every child in town, and more then that, it was exactly what they'd asked for. Nothing compares to the grins of children who have just received exactly what they wanted from Santa himself, except maybe the hilarity of watching these children then turn into toy obsessed zombies.
Regardless, it was nice to see smiles and hear the incredibly deserved applause of the volunteers and people helping out Monterosso, especially at Christmas. Maybe there's no snow on the ground, and maybe I don't have to angrily scrape off frost from my car this year, but I think the spirit of the season is even stronger here. Certainly Santa thinks so - he's here almost every day.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Packing Essentials

I'm trying to cram my life into 2 suitcases for my flight Monday, and I have the uncomfortable feeling that I'm heading straight into an overweight baggage fee. Even with two suitcases. This will be my first Christmas in Monterosso, and I'm excited and anxious to get back. A sea storm hit yesterday sweeping in much of the debris that was so painstakingly cleaned out, and damaging the soccer field. As much as I've really psyched myself up and geared myself towards seeing a "new" Monterosso, the thought of taking a step back is disheartening, but I'm trying to put aside any expectations until I get there. The real work will start after Befana.
So, some of the things I'm deeming indispensable for my next year in Italy are a bit odd, and I'm wondering what customs would say upon opening my suitcase. Manuel brought the Christmas stuff when he flew back Thursday, and is now busy getting the tree ready, and I'm in charge of bringing a bit of Southeast Asia to Liguria.

Some of my more random items include:
Preserved lemongrass
Jarred kaffir lime leaf
Jarred Thai Basil
Cellophane Noodles
Spring roll rice paper
Green chili paste
Brown Sugar
Cream of Tartar
Rose water
Smoked paprika

Now, I know I could find these with some effort in La Spezia or Genoa...but when the craving for pho hits, who wants to take a train to go shopping to satisfy it? I'm far too lazy for that. I might actually cave in and mail most of this, as I don't think the Italian Christmas season will grind to a halt for lack of a Northern African spice blend, and I'll still be able to save my back health by not trying to tote this across several states and regions. I'm in Northern NJ, flying out of JFK, flying into Milan but live in Liguria, which is a bit of a trip, and it's also a bit difficult wrapping my mind around the fact that I most likely won't be back in the USA for another year.

I'd better buy more kaffir lime.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


For those of you into Twitter, Rebuild Monterosso has started a Twitter account, at

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Trails Open!

Thanks to fellow Monterosso ex-pat Megan, I discovered this article - the National Park is planning on having the majority of the trails open by Easter of 2012, and is going to start a website to monitor it's progress. The article is in Italian here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Too lazy to click a link?

It happens. I'm not here to judge.

But, from, here is what your donation goes towards, and what's going on...

"The administration of the township of Monterosso is diligently working towards restoring the social and economic life of the village.
The immediate concern is to restore the town to a point where the residents will be able to return to their homes comfortably. Already utilities of primary necessity have been reactivated. Most of the village now has gas (for cooking, heating and hot water), telephone service, electricity and drinkable water in their homes.

In the coming weeks, efforts will be concentrated on the following projects:
  • Reactivating the Volunteer Firefighter’s headquarters
  • Cleaning and opening the Senior Citizen’s Activity Center
  • Securing and reopening of the preschool as well as the street that it is located on, Via Gioberti
  • The extreme renovation and reopening of the middle school, as well as securing the containing walls that surround the school complex
  • Restoring the sports field on the new side of the village
  • Rebuilding the playpark and gardens in Piazza Garibaldi
  • Replacing the greenery, street lights and public benches in the historic center, all of which were washed away during the flood
  • Reactivating immediately the public medical clinics
  • Cleaning and making available the public exibition areas located within the town hall building.
These are just some of the projects that your donations will go towards- each one of these listed above will benefit every resident and many will benefit visitors as well.
Obviously a great deal of money will be needed to complete these and future projects. Therefore, every donation, large or small is important- both in the financial support of the village, as well as the moral support of the population."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Beautiful photos of the "before"

I found this photographer, Elia Locardi, and his amazing work on the internet, especially his incredibly beautiful photos of the Cinque Terre...his website is here.

Paypal donations

Rebuild Monterosso, the English version of the site started by the town, has posted a paypal link with very detailed instructions. The paypal donation site on the website of the Comune of Monterosso al Mare is in Italian, but VERY detailed instructions (and photos) are available on this link to explain every step to you. You can reach the link to donate with english insructions here.

The total damage from the flood is over 1 billion euro. Government money has been earmarked to help us clean up, but it's not nearly enough, and most people and businesses don't have insurance that covers natural disasters. That's not anyone's fault- it's standard in Italy, but what it means is that every little bit helps. I know it's Christmas and the economy isn't the best in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, but for those of you who have been to Monterosso al Mare, please try and donate what you can, and pass it along. The memories and moments you experienced in this little slice of paradise won't fade away, and whatever you can give will help us rebuild to the town you so fondly remember.

Grazie mille!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Digging away...

I'm really eager to get back to Monterosso. As I've said, I'm not sure still if I feel like I'm coming home or going home, but I think it's totally fine to have two places that you can feel the same warmth towards. The updates we're getting several times a day from Manuel's family (mothers are the same everywhere in the world) and our friends paint a different picture from a few weeks ago, in many ways. As you can see on the blog of Kate Little, another American living in Liguria, the streets have been pretty much demolished in the old town, specifically Via Roma, which has been the most photographed. However, the other streets (like Via 4 Novembre, which the B and B is on) are in the same situation. The asphalt and road that was covering the small canals underneath had to be hacked away so that the underground canals could be cleared of debris, and the above roads rebuilt safely. What remains are streets that are now fully of gaping holes stretching down to the area below, but, to mirror Kate's sentiments in her blog post, in a disaster situation, progress can wear many different and surprising masks.

What I'm happy about is that they're doing this now. Most things grind to a halt in Italy over Christmas and up to La Befana (January 6), so I'm glad everyone really did as much as they could until this period, when everyone can take a nice, well deserved break. At least a little one, especially considering the situation. The well deserved four month vacation most Monterossini take in the winter obviously isn't happening this year, and there is nothing more disheartening then working yourself to the bone with the end in sight, only to have the end turn into the beginning of a nightmare. I was reluctant to leave Monterosso for Thanksgiving, but the tickets couldn't be changed, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit relieved to get away from it for a few weeks. I'd even have settled for a day or two.

Another great development is that Monterosso has also focused it's efforts on what needs to be done in order of importance. As the blog of the Comune lists, the majority of the work will be focused on helping rebuild the basic infrastructure of the town, such as Via Roma, Buranco, Molinelli, 4 Novembre, etc. It goes without saying that streets are imperative in the functioning of a town (unless you're Venice), but the other things we're missing or throwing together are just as important.

Schools are another big one that the Comune has listed as an important step in the rebuilding of the town. Monterosso is small, and compared to an American public school class size, laughably so. It doesn't mean that the kids here have any less of a right or the town any less of a responsibility to education, and they embrace this head-on. After an understandable week off, the children were moved to a makeshift school on Padre Semeria, but for children in the middle of a grown-ups worst nightmare, it's not an easy transition. The headaches ranged from the big (where can we have a school?) to the small (Manuel's nephew left, OF ALL THINGS, his english workbook in the flooded, muddy old school. I tried not to be offended).

Just keep peeking at the blogs around the internet, and as I've said, though we're off the front page of the paper, we're still working just as hard. When I see people around me, lamenting about what size Christmas tree to buy, or where to put the lights outside, I can't help but realize how truly thankful I am to still have a house, friends and a family - in two countries.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Cinque Terre everywhere

As I've been here in the NYC area for a few weeks with Manuel, what's going on in my other home is never far from my mind. Calls to family and messages from friends a few times a day ensure that though technically we aren't standing in the mud, we're still surrounded by it's aftermath. It's like a mini-vacation to my home from my home, but it's deceptive. I know what we have to return to.

But first, there's Christmas.

As you've seen in some previous photos, we lost all of our Christmas decorations Man
uel's family has acquired through the years. This means that some serious shopping has taken place around New York City markets and those "pop-up" Christmas warehouses on Route 17 in Northern New Jersey, where I was born and raised (i.e. the opening of The Sopranos). I'm pretty jaded to the suburban jumble of lights and reindeer, but it's nice seeing it through the eyes of another person who grew up without front lawns. Manuel loves the stuff that I rolled my eyes at - think an inflatable 12 foot Santa that plays music on your front lawn - and it's a little contagious. I'm just as excited as he is to have a little bit of a celebration and holiday normalcy after a nightmare-ish autumn.

As we were wandering through one of these giant, generic Christmas stores mobbed by
housewives scrambling for the last icicle lights, we were laughing and talking about electric voltage conversions, lawn ornaments and our shopping for family in what is sure to be a downscaled holiday. We had a moment to just be caught up in the spirit of things. As we rounded the corner of the store, completely out of place amidst the fake evergreen and dingy shopper-worn carpeting, we were faced with our reality again.

This picture of Vernazza, labeled simply as "Italian Town" (and, of course, waterproofed for outside hanging for only $199) was hanging nonchalantly
on the wall. Manuel laughed in surprise, and we stood for a few minutes, shocked at the complete randomness of it all. Now, I could look at this as just a strange coincidence, or even as something simply unexpected. After all, the Cinque Terre is famous, especially with Americans. And shopping in an American store, should I be that surprised?

Maybe I read too much into things, maybe my imagination is a little wild, or maybe I've been taking my yoga-esque philosophy too seriously, but for me, it was a sign. Like a little smile or a wink, or a curtain peeking slightly back from the window into the future. Like my new home popped into my old one, stubbornly, just to say again, "I'm still here. And I'm not going anywhere. See you when you come back!"

That's exactly what I hope people are taking from my blog the past few months, or weeks. After things move off the front page, and we get swept back up in our own madness of the holiday season, just remember - Monterosso and Vernazza are still here. And when you least expect it, when your mind wanders, they're still inviting you to come back, in the middle of everything else.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Manuel's Mom on TV...

...along with the rest of Monterosso, courtesy of a video I found posted on the Monterosso blog, Manuel was most excited about the image of an armchair he found in the garbage that he hopes we can salvage somehow. Those of you that have been following the blog know my feelings about this.

It's in Italian, but the video and images need no translation. The woman in the beginning of the video is Manuel's mother, and you can see what a mess the B&B is BUT keep in mind, this was a few days after the flood. It was much worse. And before I came to the US for Thanksgiving, those muddy floors were spotless, thank you very much.

You can watch the youtube video here.