Thursday, April 26, 2012

Miracles, new beginnings and old supporters

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Rick Steves himself the past few days, as he followed up on his promise to come visit the Cinque Terre and see how we have recovered from the flood 6 months and one day ago.  Through Rebuild Monterosso, we met with him and toured the town over the course of a few days, and he's a very nice, very down-to-earth man who clearly feels strongly about Monterosso al Mare. 

I spent 6 hours with him today, and he clearly holds this area very close to his heart - and yes, he actually does personally check in on the hotels and restaurants himself.  It's beautiful to see someone interested and amazed with all the work done here.  Sometimes, I think it's better that visitors now only have a glimpse of the immense work done here post-flood, sometimes I want people to know exactly how much was done.  How mountains were, literally, moved, and how people that feel there is nothing "authentic" left here need to look no further then the street under their feet, which was rebuilt by locals who refused to let their town sink into the mud.  There is nothing more "authentic" or "real" then a town full of people who used their bare hands and months of backbreaking work to save it. 

La Repubblica, one of the biggest Italian newspapers, featured an article today about the "miracle of Monterosso, and it gives me goosebumps - no joke.  "In only six months, the town has resumed it's life", they wrote, speaking of the miracle that seems to have occurred in our reconstruction.  Only six months after the mayor famously quoted that "Monterosso was no more", the village has firmly planted it's feet and come stubbornly and proudly back to life.  Looking at the final stages of the rebuilding of the Cantina - the last darn thing to open up - it's a beautifully fulfilling feeling of accomplishment. 

Baby jellyfish cleanup

The cantina, little by little!

Le Barchette

Me and Rick Steves after a lonnnnng day around town
Today, the sun shined and the clouds cleared.  The beach was filled with color - but not of tourists and umbrellas.  Little bright blue and violet jellyfish, called barchette or velella, are totally harmless, but scatter the sea and the shore this time of year, which is another sign of clean water and sea beds.  Old supporters (be it in the form of a great travel writer or a little blue sea creature returning for a normal spring) are helping us usher in these amazing new beginnings as Monterosso smiles at it's streets from a new store front, a reopened bar, a cafe dotted with people soaking in the sun.  Miracles or just a lot of hard, hard work?  Maybe a little of both.  But it's never a sight I get tired of seeing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Let's start at the very beginning

6 months after the flood tomorrow. 

I have spent half a year living in the aftermath of a flood - socially, economically, psychologically and physically.  180 days of my life, and I'm sure there will be many, many more.

Monterosso is amazingly, miraculously fine- though it is hard for me to say we are totally and completely "rebuilt" as the Cantina has yet to open.  When we do, with thankful smiles and a huge sigh of relief, then I can really fully feel that "normalcy" that everyone is talking about feeling again.
Rebuild Monterosso, the website we American women in town have been working on since the disaster, has taken on a new meaning as we are more or less rebuilt and totally ready and eager for the tourist season. 

Rebuild Monterosso, something that has connected me more to the little community that has me completely enamored and thrilled to call my new home, has a new opportunity to turn into something else, and today we have started that.  Along with updating the progress of the community, we will weave in posts about the history of Monterosso, the tales and stories of this fragile yet dramatically beautiful corner of the world perched in a seemingly impossible way over a sea.  We will share food, culture, hidden corners and stories that hopefully, will help our many visitors pause and realize just how incredible and special this tiny village is.

Read the first post here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lost in fish translation

Here, fishy fish...on the far right, San Pietro, next to it Gallinella
One of the most charming aspects of Ristorante Miky is the "fish boat" that they carefully set up every night before dinner service, which displays the fresh fish we offer for the nightly menu.  The fisherman drops off the last of the fish in the middle of the afternoon, and then we fill the little boat outside the door with ice, and get to work arranging our friends from the sea. 
Frequently, people come to snap pictures and ask questions - though it might be obvious to people who have lived their whole lives next to a great big ocean, and to a family that has a history of selling fish in the nearby cities, for many people the idea that this fish was caught today and can be eaten right now is a novelty and an incredibly strange idea. 

Where people here serve fish with the heads on, healthy gills and shiny, clear eyes, as a proud sign of the freshness and quality of the catch, many tourists shudder at "seeing" their dinner looking back at them.  All of these are things that can be solved, but some fish related questions just don't have answers - and I'm talking about something as simple as a name.
Bronzino on the left, and a gallinella on the right with some scampi friends
The fish selection always includes bronzino and orata, both white fish from here that can be served in the oven, cooked Ligurian style with potatoes, oil and little black olives, or in a salt crust, which is packed over the whole fish then baked in the oven, keeping the fish moist and all the flavor inside the meat.  Bronzino can be explained easily as a type of sea-bass, but the commonly eaten orata, another local fish with a semi-firm, flavorful white meat, translates to "gilt head sea bream", which I find to be a mouthful, and not nearly as beautiful as orata
Rombo, or turbot, is another fish that pops up from time to time, and though turbot is the English name, rombo, which designates its funny little square-ish shape (rhombus) is much more endearing. 
Gallinella, a beautiful rose colored fish that glides on colorful little fins that look like wings, wins the unheard of name translation of tub gurnard.  It's in the trill family, and much prettier then a tub gurnard, which I refuse to recognize as it's official English name.

Perhaps the best one is San Pietro, which translates to John Dory fish.  In both languages, the name has a cute story.  A big, flat fish with a distinctive "thumbprint" or "eye" shaped mark on the side, the story goes that St. Peter caught this fish one day, then squeezed it and threw it back in the water, marking it with it's distinctive spot.  In English, John Dory is a fisherman mentioned in an ancient ballad.  The stories go on - that the fish has a latin root name that means "gate keeper", hence the St. Peter reference, but regardless, it's quite a name.

Every day I find myself googling fish, searching for a name translation that I wind up tossing.  Sometimes, they just sound better in Italian.

Then, as I was typing this, I looked at our dish soap, and realized that sometimes it goes the other way, too.  After all - who wants frizzy soap?

Friday, April 20, 2012

It's not a party until someone breaks out the lemon glasses

Fast Bar, a Monterosso institution, reopened with a giant party last night that I'm sure has most of the town recovering with headaches this morning.  We got there late, as the restaurant has been filling up promptly at 7 with us notoriously early dinner eating Americans, but at 10 pm, the party in the Old Town was in full swing.  The people in Monterosso are many things, but they love to have a good time, and parents were dancing in the middle of the mess with their kids.  The bar top was crowded with women and men bopping along to the loud music, or playing air guitar, or yelling whatever came to their mind into the giant funnel, which is normally used as a prop for bescant√†. 

The night started with a little bescant√†, the Monterosso tradition where residents dress up as shabby fishermen with the traditional glasses made of lemon peel, and burnt wine cork smudged on their faces, and the night ended with bescant√† props hanging off everyone, tourists and Monterossini.  A happy American couple took photos with the giant fisherman's hat, another marveled at their new lemon peel glasses.  An Irish couple in the corner got pulled into dancing with an older man from here, who clinked overfilled beer glasses with them several times, and yelled words of welcome in bits of English, as they laughed and went along with the crowd.  A woman walked in clutching her guidebook with her husbad leafed through the pages, confused, as though there was a chapter describing this social phenomenon called "celebration".  After a few minutes, she gave up looking and put it back in her bag.  A few minutes later, she was laughing as her husband and the father of one of my friend's apparently got into an air guitar contest as ACDC came on the radio.

Fast Bar was one of the most severely damaged in the flood, and it's absence in the past 5 months is something that was noticed and felt.  It's the tiny bar where you come to dance on a table, to pop in for a second to meet friends, and, though in the season, full of tourists who have had maybe a little too much to drink, it's as full of locals in the same boat. 

The second to last bar to open (poor Cantina, you are the last), the town certainly feels more or less back to normal, and the pulse of Via Roma is definitely beating, strong and loudly.  The best reopening party yet, Monterosso has showed me time and time again that even after some of it's darkest moments, celebration still comes easily, and the sweeter times are made so much more sweet when contrasted with such a long, difficult winter.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

homemade ice pops and a little sun

And, of course, our sun umbrella and little pedana ready at the Cantina!

Rain gathering on the right, above the water...see it?

Homemade Ice Pops (Orange flavored) are a great sunny day treat on Via Fegina

Where I sat to eat my ice pop, and where I sit for about 30 minutes every sunny day

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pastry progress

Can a town really be considered rebuilt until the pastry shop is open?

A friend brought over my first torta monterossina of the season last night.  It's a special treat from here that consists a soft pie shell filled with a thin layer of apricot jam, cream, and chocolate chips.  It goes without saying that it is delicious, addictive, and all things wonderful about Italian breakfast-tea time-dessert foods.  The pastry shop, Laura's pasticceria, is rebuilt and back at the wonderful work of supplying Monterosso with it's sugar intake.  It was an important moment in town.

Via Roma, back in the swing of things

in front of the pastry shop - fango replaced by blooming flowers

flower pots stop cars at the foot of Via Roma, to the right of the Church
And the streets look pretty nice too :)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April showers

After the flurry of activity that comes to Monterosso in Easter, the few days after Pasqua (Easter) and Pasquetta (Easter Monday, also a holiday here) are very slow.  Coupled with a forecast that shows showers and more showers, the streets are empty and wet in the morning, and then sunny and empty in the afternoon.  Regardless, almost every restaurant is open, bars are full of clinking glasses, and guests wheeling luggage to the many hotels scattered across town. 

Save for the Cantina and Fast Bar, which should open this week, Monterosso is fully back to life, and it's lovely to see - even in the rain.

Besides damp streets and gorgeous grey clouds, the rain has brought another fun surprise. 

Giant bushes of wild rosemary have sprouted up on my walk home, and as I saw an old man, whistling aimlessly, snipping some sprigs to take home, I happily realized that this was a much easier shopping stop then walking all the way down the 147 stairs to the market.

Also, in the down time at the Restaurant, I've started really examining some of the art hanging on the walls.  The De Fina's have a great eye for decorating, and in the Restaurant, the Cantina and the Locanda, there are pieces of their history, which is more or less entwined with the history of Monterosso, scattered throughout.  Spindly, hand carved wooden chairs from Manuel's great-grandmother greet guests at the Locanda.  An old family typewriter was nestled in the grappa bottles at the Cantina.  And this photo, from the 1930's (best guess) hangs on the wall in the middle dining room at the restaurant.  It's of a wedding, and as I finally studied the photo, after having glanced at it what seems like hundreds of times, I realized that it was taken in front of the restaurant.  You can see the building that is attached to the Gigante statue in the back left, and the door and windows of the restaurant in the same places that they are now.  What is most interesting to me is the foreground, where you see the wedding procession passing over a little bridge over a river.  That's now Via Molinelli, one of the most severely damaged streets in Monterosso from the flood. 
With all this rain, it's another reminder that the streets were once bodies of water, and it's interesting to see a photo where bridges and canals laced the village where asphalt now covers and cars idle. 

Walking towards the tunnel and station on Via Fegina.  The Restaurant is on the right - you can see the door in the center flanked by two windows, and a man on the right standing on top of the bridge, now Via Molinelli.

The restaurant, last summer, taken from the front - Via Molinelli, on the right, is now a street, but the main windows and door are in the same place.
April showers bring many things, but reminders of things past - both recent at 70 years ago - are always around.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The weather report

The weather has been a little spotty this week.  I've commented before on how the temperature can change here dramatically during the day, but that applies to rain and sun as well.  Despite all of the local weather forecast folklore and whatever meteo report you read in the morning, there is literally no way to say what is going to happen in Monterosso.  My normal American self thinks, "Scary black cloud, go inside, run, get an umbrella, take the laundry in.  Now".  But, despite all of the scary (and scarily beautiful) black clouds this week looming over Monterosso al Mare, none of them led to rain.  The skies cleared, the sun poured out of fluffy white clouds, the black clouds scattered...

and then it rained overnight, just when I put the clothes back outside.
Non-withstanding this minor inconvenience, it makes for wonderful photos and a breathtaking sky.

Thursday morning

Walking on the beach or fleeing the scary cloud?

Easter afternoon sky

The mare agitato last night (rough sea) meant the sand colored the sea a beautiful foggy aqua that is incredible against the grey sky

I apologize to anyone who waited a minute for a table while I was outside taking pictures :)

And back to work

But thankfully, not the mud shoveling kind. 
The town has reopened and filled up for this Easter weekend.  I'm working as a hostess at Ristorante Miky at nights, and in the bed and breakfast most days, and it's been a crazy week!  Pictures are posted and a beautiful entry written about the town reopening for the Easter weekend on Rebuild Monterosso, but when things calm down on Monday, I'll write more.
Buona Pasqua a tutti! 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Spring vegetable fun

 The market is one of my favorite weekly events.  We have it every Thursday in the Old Town, and, after the flood, I realized how important it was and how much I missed it when we couldn't have it for obvious flood destruction related reasons.  Now, my vegetable vendors are back - and though I love the little shop here in town, the vendors that come once a week have some really interesting things that I'm always buying, even if I have no idea what they are. 
A great example of this is the vegetable below.  Bundled up in a little rubber band when I bought them, I asked the woman selling them if they were like chives.  "No, no," she said, shaking her head, and then explained that I should boil them, and then sautee in a pan with oil and garlic, a trick that seems to work with anything that grows in the ground.  I got home and did some internet research, and found that this odd little green has the name barba di frate, or "monk's beard", because of it's long, seaweed-like pieces.  It's crunchy and bright when eaten raw, and remarkable close to spinach when sauteed.  In the U.S., it's called salsola soda, which I have never seen in any market, but it primarily eaten only here in Italy. 
There is always a colorful bounty of things to buy, some obviously more familiar to me, some fun experiments, but in the spring, the markets are exploding with smells and vivid reds, deep greens, crunching leaves and spindly artichokes.  Bright strawberries make their first appearance on the table, and fava beans are starting to push their way in.  It's exciting to see seasonality so prominently displayed. 
Here, it's not a fad or a new food trend, but simply the way you eat food. 
I walked home this week with three huge bags of vegetables, carrot tops popping out of the bag and beet greens brushing people walking close to me, and as I tried to cram my wild, fresh asparagus from Levanto in the tiny fridge, I realized that this is, truly, the best sign of spring.
barba di frate sauteed with garlic and oil

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Who knew streets could be so exciting?

Via 4 Novembre, in front of A Ca Du Gigante after the flood

This afternoon - cars parked on their own, not swept there in the flood

Via 4 Nov today, in front of Hotel Palme

After the flood...

The foot of Via Roma

Today - grand openings all around and new benches!

In front of Pizzeria Smorfia and the pastry shop and The Net internet cafe on Via V. Emanuele


Behind Fast Bar, just before the San Martino stairs

Open and ready for business.

How far we have come, Via Roma

I know it seems that all I write about these days are streets, but, in all honesty, it's almost all I'm thinking about as well.  Via 4 Novmebre has been paved, and I have to say - this was the first time in my life I inhaled the smell of fresh asphalt and grinned.  More grand opening parties today, and a booked bed and breakfast this weekend - fresh asphalt isn't the only thing to smile about.