Thursday, October 25, 2012

rome and then home.

After a short trip (really, less then 24 hours) to Rome to see off a visiting friend and do some shopping, I took the 6 am superfast train home, and arrived in Monterosso on a day that is hard to forget.

One year ago, the flood hit the village changing my life, and everyone else's.  We commemorated the day by closing all businesses in the town from 11-6, which, as I arrived off the train, squinting into the sun and looking at mud boots, sand bags and white flowers scattered through the empty streets to honor the day, it really hit me.  I headed to the old town, where everyone had gathered after the procession of the Madonna of Soviore, one of the most revered religious symbols in Liguria, was carried down from it's sanctuary over the village for a rare procession through town.  Quietly looking at pictures, sitting in the Church and praying, lighting a candle for a loved one, sharing a glass of wine in the all too familiar plastic cup surrounded by uniformed volunteer workers, people observed the importance and significance of this in their own personal ways.

The loss the town felt - and still feels - was staggering.  But today, in the piazza again under a tent, eating along side on paper plates as a community, I was again reminded of how far we have come, and that miracles come true.

Especially in Monterosso.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

the end.

The Cantina is closed.  The wall to rebuild monterosso is up.  And it's 26 degrees C.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My little laundry community

I've lamented before about the lack of a clothes dryer in our little apartment, but getting used to it was disturbingly easy and now it's something that I don't really even consider a necessity.  One of the things that used to be a phobia of mine and my broken Italian has now become something I kind of enjoy, especially when I step back and realize this is a very funny situation when you break it down.  Hanging out the laundry in the late morning is something I am hardly ever alone in doing.  Like many Italian homes, we have a little balcony with our clothespins and clotheswires that meets the balcony of our neighbor.  Our neighbors above and below, to the left and the right, across the courtyard and down the street have the same set up.  This means that on most days, when you are shaking out your sheets, glaring up at a rain cloud and mentally willing it to stay put, you are in good company hanging out your laundry.

First, it started as just my neighbor - a wonderful, brassy, outgoing Monterosso woman who would yell out advice and gossip to people as far as across the courtyard.  She engaged me every time in conversation and would translate the older women's dialect into more understandable Italian for me.  I would run inside and slammed the door, petrified.  I developed slight anxiety about hanging out the laundry, as having just woken up and getting thrown into conversation with several older Italian ladies in their various states of undress and pajamas, my brain was just not ready.  After a few months, without my neighbor present, I exchanged good mornings or waves with the other ladies.  One particularly tough one finally warmed up to me when I shouted good morning to another old woman passing by, who happened to me Manu's grandfather's brother's wife's sister.  The old woman yelled down, "Ah, she speaks Italian, the girl here?".  Manuel's relative (loosely used) responded, laughing, "Yes, she's learning, she can speak".  The older woman in question then looked at me and glared, but nodded, satisfied, and went inside.

Two days later she asked me if I was Brazilian.  I said no, and responded that I was American, and she again glared and nodded, satisfied (I'm not sure what she has against Brazilians), and went inside.

Finally, one day last week, with all the women outside shouting morning greetings, my neighbor yelled over, "Criiiiiiii," and asked how I was doing in the local dialect, I answered in Italian.  My old woman peeked down, glared as usual, and queried, "You understood that?".  "Yes," I replied, grinning, explaining that Manu's gram speaks it at home.  She nodded, again, but didn't glare, and I was convinced she smiled a little as I joined the conversation outside.  Slowly, the women started asking me questions, asking me if I had gone mushroom hunting yet, and I started asking back - what vegetables do you put in your polpettone?  A sentence here or there over a few months, and my anxiety has mostly gone.  I've gotten to know my neighbors a little bit through this incredibly normal daily task that is incredibly strange to someone who grew up in a house with a yard, a fence, bushes and a clothes dryer.  As I rattle off what's said outside to Manu inside, excitedly telling him how an old lady told me (vaguely, people are a little possessive about their secret mushroom spots) a porcini spot, I stop and grin and then talk about how wonderful it is that all the women talk out on the balconies.  He laughs back, constantly amused that something so incredibly normal here gives me such a kick, and, above all things, a blog entry.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To Grandmother's House We Go

Frying up the polpette
There is literally nothing in the world more soothing and soul warming then a little grandmother cooking you lunch.  Unless, of course, she is joined in her cooking by the incredible and previously mentioned Zio Uccio.  After casually remarking that it has been a long, long time since I had a home-cooked meal cooked by someone other then myself, Zio Uccio showed up in the Cantina the next night beaming.  "You must," he said, eyes twinkling, "come to Manuel's grandma's for lunch Wednesday for a Ligurian and Tuscan lunch".

polpette, mmm

Manuel's gram made one of my favorite Ligurian dishes, polpette, along with her famous and famously un-re-creatable frittata di verdure.  Polpette are often referred to as the southern Italian classic, meatballs, but these Ligurian style fried snacks are quite different.  A mixture of rice, potatoes, herbs, chopped meat, cheese and old bread, then coated in egg and flour and breadcrumbs and fried, polpette alla Manuel's gram are crunchy on the outside, fried to a crispy golden brown, but soft and tender inside.
frittata di verdure - dark, local greens

The frittata is equally delicious, and unlike the familiar frittata, this one is heavy on dark greens and uses very little egg.  Using egg only as the binder as it's fried in a pan, it is the exact opposite of the more commonly seen egg-centric frittata.  Green, earthy, crunchy and cheesy, egg isn't even really evident in the flavor of the sliced frittata, served at room temperature with little bits of paper towel soaking up the green juices and oil.

Sauteed peppers, onions and potatoes make up peperonata, a classic Italian vegetarian dish that is literally one of the heaviest but most delicious vegetarian dishes one can eat.  Hefty drizzles of olive oil mean that what remains on the plate - the flavored oil full of sweet pepper and caramelized onion - is as delectable as the main part of the dish.

Finally, Uccio's contribution - risotto with wild mushrooms, as, he informed me triumphantly, "Mushroom season has arrived!"  With a half cup of juicy fresh tomato and the "chef's touch" of bright green parsley scattered atop the rice, we were, needless to say, incredibly full.
Risotto simmering away
Fresh mushrooms
Dessert, another Uccio specialty, of fresh strawberries in a sauce of cream, pureed strawberry, sugar, port wine and black pepper ("to make the strawberries pop"), left us so full that our dinner plans were quickly cancelled.

Uccio made me retake the photo as he didn't garnish it with parsley yet

An interesting take on strawberries and cream - and pepper.
Even if it's not my grandmother per se, it's always wonderful to eat food cooked by one, especially when you throw in a great uncle to boot.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Views from my favorite rock

Ma' Passu, one of the most photographed rocks in the Cinque Terre, also has some of the most incredible, crystal blue water.  During the season, the beach is framed by colorful sunbeds and beach umbrellas, but now, in the winding down days of summer, the beach is empty and the water like glass.

Sung about in dialect songs reserved for festivals, Ma' Passu is Monterossino for "the ocean passes through", as over time, the sea wore down the rock and the water runs through it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

our secret weapon

There is an older man with a sparkling smile and a light Tuscan accent that has been working happily in the Cantina every night for the past few weeks.  It was finally when someone commented that the man putting away the glasses seems to "really love his job", that I stopped and turned to grin at the whistling, happily humming, world famous Zio Uccio.

I've written about Manuel's jam-making, tomato preserving, Fiorentina porting, English speaking Great Uncle before.  In his mid-70's, recently widowed, he came to Monterosso on vacation earlier this summer, and to our incredible happiness, stayed.  He ran a bar for 30 years in his little Tuscan village, and happily shows up in the Cantina every night to bartend, talk to tables in his perfect British-english (having lived in England for 8 years in the 70's) and generally make us all happier.  The waiters, lovelorn after a summer trying to find a girlfriend, or breaking up with another, listen respectfully to his advice and wisdom.  At one point, Stefano, the bar assistant and runner looked at me, brown eyes serious, and said, "Man, I wish he was my Uncle".  Manuel's cousin then explained, laughing, "He's everyone's Uncle.  He's like the Uncle to the world".

He has, like all great older barmen, a story for everyone, and like many people, says that he really started living after he retired, but misses the work very much.  With broken words in 50 languages, he has tables of Swedish women peeling in laughter, Australian teenagers grinning, American couples entranced in a story of a well, and Italians beaming, asking whose father he is.  A table of New Zealanders in for dessert and a quick drink asked him to take a photo - then asked his name, also victims to the incredible Uccio charm.

With a sparkle in his eye, he responded "Uccio.  You don't know me?  I am known all over the world", and ended the night taking photos with them.

With Uccio and Manuel's beloved Aunt, Uccio's wife, at an agroturismo outside Volterra 2 years ago
He's the best thing that happened to the Cantina all year.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What a difference a year makes

I'm now in the process of renewing my "permit to stay" (think green card) in Italy, which means that I have been here - more or less - for a year.  It seems sometimes like it flew by, and other times, like this week for example, like a lifetime.

This week, Manu rode my new bike into the other part of town to find a waiter who never showed up for his shift.  I was in the Cantina, working alone and running around when the sweet woman who cleans the restaurant came inside and said quietly and in calm tone that is never positive, "Cri, come quick - something happened to Manuel".  Not this too.

I ran to the street where he was writhing in pain, rolling around in a pool of blood.  My bike fell down a few weeks ago in the wind (though I still think the taxi man hit it, but that is another story) and the light on the back shattered.  Not seeing it, when Manu hopped off the bike, it slashed his leg under the knee leaving a very deep laceration.  In a stroke of luck, our wonderful town doctor, Dr. Vittone, who rides a bike, does yoga and makes house calls, rode by at that exact moment, and was able to stop the bleeding and stitch poor Manu up.  A trip to the hospital in La Spezia revealed no serious nerve damage, but we are again, literally, one man down at work.

A few hours later, a woman came to the Cantina and started yelling at me over nothing important - that she didn't like me, that I wasn't "American" enough, that I was stupid - all while I tried to keep my cool and ask her politely to speak to me in a respectful tone, as I was speaking to her.  I actually laughed at first, because the situation was like a hidden camera show.  It's one of the strangest things about the restaurant industry, when you have to deal with people who literally just want  to yell and make your life miserable, and try to keep your cool while responding normally.  I finally asked her to leave several times, as she started to get very threatening towards me, and started to get closer - and even physically tried to enter the kitchen.  After threatening to call the police, she finally left, but it left me more shaken then I was already.  Regardless of the situation, getting called "stupid" and so forth is never fun.  Sometimes understanding English has it's downfalls.
This week, as you can gather, is an example of one that felt like a lifetime.

So, winding down this eventful past 6 days, I'm renewing my permit to stay another year and we are entering our last month of work.  It's hard to believe the season is ending, but I'm thankful it's ending with the guests we have.  Happy, always easygoing northern Europeans (if I had a choice, I would come back to life as a happy woman from Norway on vacation with her 15 friends), Americans enjoying the off season, Italians avoiding crowds, and other Europeans who enjoy hiking and the view, even if it's spoiled by a little wet weather.

It's nice to meet people who smile in the rain, who reason "it's still vacation", shrug, and happily drink a glass of wine.  It's an attitude in certain people I've learned to appreciate deeply this year, and thanks to guests like this, the past few nights in an otherwise nightmare week have flown by.

Like this whole year, it's a mix of the two  - dragging, muddy nightmares and sunny days that fly by.  I guess that is life, wherever you live in the world.