Saturday, August 26, 2006

The real reason we're moving to Italy

If the truth be told, we’re really moving to Italy for the food. After all, if eating ranked in the top two of each family member’s life priorities, why wouldn’t we?

If you’ve taken your taste buds beyond the Domino’s Pizza at the strip mall and Sbarro in the food court, you’ll know that there’s an entire world of Italian food out there. And it goes way beyond our 10-year-old American’s focus on pizza, pasta, and gelato (although there is plenty of each of these in Italy, covering the full spectrum of quality – in fact, we tasted the worst pizza ever in a small town in the Sibillini mountains).

But there’s plenty of good stuff too. And like other regions of Italy, Marche has its own specialties, many of them localized to single towns or even villages. Historically, these communities were largely self-sufficient, with their meat and produce coming from the land around them. As a result, they took care of the land, not only because it was their livelihood, it was also their survival.

The essence of this tradition has survived in two primary ways – small and organic. “Small is beautiful” and “Small is good” typify Marche agriculture, as does the natural approach to it. Their respect for the land is mirrored in their use of every part of everything – nothing is wasted. Even the farmers seem to be organic – meet a few of them, and you’ll be excused for thinking that they are products of the earth themselves.

Like its landscape and lifestyle, there are two distinct worlds when it comes to the cuisine to be found in Marche’s osterie and trattorie and ristoranti (at least broadly speaking) – the coast and inland. On the Adriatic, you’ll find lots of seafood (surprise, surprise!), while inland, the marchigiani taste for meat will soon become apparent. The style is simple and wholesome, with the ultimate goal being to create something that would elicit a compliment from nonna.

OK. With all that said, it’s time to introduce you to a few of those specialties to get those gastronomic juices going:

Ascolana Tenera olive – “known as picena by ancient Latins, this olive is unique: good, crunchy, easy to digest and regarded as being by far the best green table olive in the world” (a wholly unbiased review by the Marche Region Agricultural Department)

olive all’ascolana – large green Marche olives, stuffed with ground meat and herbs, and fried with a breadcrumb covering; one of those I-can’t-get-enough-of-it dishes

brodetto – an Adriatic specialty, a fish stew made with 13 species of fish – no more, no less; each town has it’s own special recipe, each vying for the ultimately unattainable title of best brodetto on the coast

vincisgrassi – a rich baked lasagna without the usual tomatoes

passatelli – strands of pasta made from breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, and egg cooked in broth

Maccheroncini di Campofilone – a home-style pasta all’uovo produced in the Ascoli village of – you guessed it – Campofilone

prosciutto crudo, particularly prosciutto di Carpegna – raw, cured ham; coscia, sale, tempo e nient’altro: thigh, salt, time, and nothing else

ciauscolo Рa cured pork salami, minced several times to produce a pat̩-like texture

formaggio di fossa – for cheese-lovers, a must; strong-flavored cheese walled up in tufa rock caves for months, with a taste that leaves your mouth aching for more; originated from early times when the locals hid their product in pits carved out of tufa stone to protect it from plunder by soldiers

casciotta d’Urbino – a delicate sweet cheese made from blending local sheep and cow’s milk; once a favorite of Michelangelo

miele di millefiori and miele di castagna – diverse, intense honeys produced in the region of the Sibillini mountains; serve warm with formaggio di fossa for a delectable and distinctly Marche snack

tartufi – the king of woodland produce, the truffle, grown in select areas, and a highly prized product of the northern reaches; both varieties – white and black – are grown here; Rossini used to have the black ones shipped to him in France

OK, don’t know about you, but I’m off to see what’s in the fridge….

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The romance of reality – part II

Life is such a curious beast, constantly throwing up surprises and lessons and obstacles – and a few rewards now and then – just to make the game interesting. It’s made even more interesting by the inherent diversity in our natures, rendering those same surprises and lessons and obstacles and rewards as categorical opposites to people of different perspective. As William Zissner so aptly puts it: “One man’s romantic sunrise is another man’s hangover.”

To many of those of similar ilk as us, the concept of moving to Italy conjures images of long, lazy summer lunches on the patio at Bramasole (or our equivalent – Casale Madonna, or Casa Rosa, depending on who you talk to), gazing with Chianti in hand (or Verdicchio in our case) over the languid hills of Tuscany (Marche). This is naturally my romantic sunrise vision, and the one that urged me to part with as many euros as we did to acquire our place.

The reality of such romance – the hangover, or Splat! view – is, however, a little different.

The Campbell advance guard (Claudia & Julius) arrived at Casa Rosa in early August, anticipating a cozy caravan and a house ready for renovation. They did indeed find both, with the latter in an advanced state of “readiness”, having deteriorated in condition in the year since we were there last.

They did, however, fail to find a couple of other things – water and electricity, for example. As it turns out, these are fairly integral components of our daily lives – perhaps the two things that we take most for granted, and without which life becomes something of a struggle. Imagine the effort involved every time you wanted a cup of tea, or to wash your hands, if you had to go and fill a bucket instead of just turning on a tap. Or to have to negotiate a night that’s as black as … well, the night … both inside and out, without the illuminating gift of an electric switch.

It goes without saying, then, that those first days were a struggle. Naturally, water and electricity weren’t the only trials, and a few other things have added to the “reality” – a cell phone that seems reluctant to take (important) incoming calls … an entire town that suffers from an inability to hold an internet connection … and a couple of US car titles with an owner – whose physical presence is required in North Carolina to sign them over – sitting in Italy. Add to that a young boy’s apprehension at having to interact in a strange language, a cat who wouldn’t go outside for fear of the creatures (wild boars?) that were in the vicinity, and after a week, the situation was about as real as it can get.

Of course, if you’re used to a filthy shanty in Manila, or a dirt-floor lean-to in Lagos, these are luxurious problems to have. But this, of course, would be taking the hangover view – not the kind of romantic sunrise thoughts that one entertains if you’re pondering where to get the next bucket of water from in the dark.

There has been some progress: the water is now turned on – in the house, not the caravan – but it’s cold. And they do have a portable gas stove to make pasta, a not insignificant fact, given the prominent position of this food source in the list of reasons for our migration. Julius enjoyed a meal of wild boar within days of arrival, and – most important of all – the neighbours have been fantastic.

An English couple whose house has just been renovated has provided hot showers and warm company, and the family from Bari has cooked classic meals and welcomed C & J as if they were their own. They also gave/lent Julius a bicycle that he now roars around the garden on, with Mr. Young a content spectator, having finally found the fortitude to venture out into this strange new environment.

Ultimately, it’s all manageable, not least because of the very human support, and, after all, if everything was drifting along on cruise control, I’d be waiting for the other shoe to fall. At least this way (i.e. the Splat! route) we’re in no doubt as to what we’ve taken on, having our romantic sunrises liberally doused with the odd hangover…

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A real man moves out

There are many definitions of “a real man”. Here’s one – a real man doesn’t ask for help. Because he doesn’t need it, of course. And it’s not restricted to directions either. I’m not sure whether it’s something in the sexual makeup, or perhaps it’s anthropological, tied up in the pride and expectations of being provider and protector over the ages.

Whatever the reason, I proved my manhood in this very way a few weeks back at the end of July – the weekend the container to transport our household things to Italy was delivered for loading. “Piece of cake,” says me, “except for the marble dining room table” (a reluctant admission). So I co-opted the help of a couple of Mexicans and our friend Don Michael to load it into the container. I also took Don’s advice by getting the container backed up as close to our front porch as possible, and then building with Don’s help (i.e. his design, his tools, his materials) a ramp from the porch directly into the container.

After the table was loaded and the ramp built: “Piece of cake,” I say, and get down to the business of loading. In near-record (summer) temperatures. In a metal container exposed to the full might of the sun, all day. You might say I got a fairly good idea of how things are in Hades – I don’t think I’ve ever sweated quite so much for quite so long without a letup. Every last inch of my thick cotton shorts was drenched – wring-out wet through - and I even recoiled at my own BO when I allowed myself to be distracted enough to notice.

After two 12-hour days of back-straining, flood-level perspiration, I was faced with a deadline – get everything out of the house by Sunday 2pm so the cleaners could come before the new owners moved in the next day.

With some heavy and very irregularly-shaped (read hard-to-pack) stuff still left to load, I felt pressure. How did I handle it? In a very manly way, naturally. I shunned the offers of a friend’s help, and did it all myself. I hauled my aching body out of bed at 6 am, and worked through until 7:30pm without a break, and without eating. I wasn’t done at Sunday 2pm, so had to turn the cleaners away. On Sunday night I was a broken man. I stayed broken for about 6 days. I’m wondering if I learned anything from this episode.

I was very sad to leave the house. Two particularly poignant moments brought it all crashing home, reducing my emotional state to the same level as my physical state. First, walking into Julius’ room, empty save for the rainbow painted by Maria on the wall, birds flying off into the distance, and the memories came flooding in. We arrived in Chapel Hill (North Carolina) when Julius was 6, and spent 4 of his formative years here – he scored his first goal, broke his arm, played in his first concert, discovered Asterix and wild boar, …. and developed a very tight relationship with his old man.

Later, after wiping away the tears, I went to get a drink of water at the kitchen sink, and there, on the other side of the window where the feeder used to be, hovered one of our resident hummingbirds. When she saw me, she flew a little closer, as if asking for me to put it back. When she saw I wasn’t going to, she turned and whizzed off to her perch on one of the high branches of the dogwood next to the deck, looking back down at me, just in case…

It was as much as I could take. I slaked down the water, picked up the last of my belongings, took my broken body and my precious memories, and walked out of the house …

Monday, August 07, 2006

The romance of reality


Ah, the romantic sound of reality, as it smacks into your life’s windscreen, sticky and slimy and sludgy. Back to earth, as they say. Life stops, and for a moment, dresses itself in a shroud.

For those that get Splat!-ted, the dribbling glop of reality also announces the arrival of the uninvited, unwelcome harbinger of one of those periodic “life lessons” that are meant to make us wiser and stronger, but more often than not have the oddly counter-scientific effect of consuming vast amounts of energy while producing nary a splodge of movement.

Splat! kindly decorated our windscreens a couple of times these past few weeks.

It first oozed on to the scene in the form of our architect’s estimate of the renovations to our Italian house – 50% more than we paid for the place, and 134% more than our budget’s upper-upper limit. “Jarring” might be a good way to describe its effect. “Gob-smacking” might yet be more eloquent.

We, however, decided that all this wasn’t quite challenging enough, and contrived a Splat! all our own. Sometime back in early June, there was a considerable amount of self-back-patting (mostly on the part of yourstruly) at our resourcefulness in booking Claudia & Julius' departure for Europe on July 4th, a "low-travel day" on this side of the pond. On the duly appointed day, just as we had offloaded 6 suitcases, one violin, and a soccer ball on to the airport sidewalk for loading on to a trolley, we discovered that the auspicious emigration day was meant to start not from where we were standing, but some 300 miles away – we were in Raleigh, North Carolina, instead of Washington D.C., where the airplane seats with their names on them were waiting to be warmed. The reason for this slight oversight does not bear public repeating lest it jeopardize any possible future employment of either of us by a sane and rational person.

Splat!, as we learned very quickly – this learning being a rare foray for us of late into “successful studentry” – is the father of anguish, doubt, incrimination, recrimination, and wisdom-questioning, amongst many other things. Splat! is not pretty, it’s not compassionate, and it’s certainly not standing on the sideline cheering you on. It’s also the author of the phrase “back to the drawing board”.

And it’s at that very drawing board that Splat!’s other face is revealed – as the mother of rationale, and fortitude, and acceptance of the sharp angles that life tends to serve up along with the curves.

We’re finding that Splat! is, after all, a harbinger of some positive things.

In our case, the most immediate outcome of our airport catastrophe – or BAE (brain atrophy event) – was the time and opportunity to learn how best to get Mr. Young (our feline head of the household) from the proverbial point A to punto B. This was not an idle discovery, given the unwitting “holes” in the existing plan.

For example, if the feline in question is traveling unaccompanied (as was our plan), said pet has to be transferred as cargo, and be deposited at the flight’s origin. Needless to say, that excludes our local itty-bitty airport, and would require a drive of somewhere between two and nine hours to load him up. This, amongst other things, prompted a rethink on Mr. Young’s transport arrangements, and as a result he will get a bonus two-week trip to Germany with his subjects (Claudia & Julius), along with an extra-special 10-hour drive (from Germany to Italy). How thrilled he would be, if only he knew…

Along with this recent experience and new-found wisdom, comes confirmation of several tenets of airline communication that we intuitively know and yet frequently defy in the wan hope that they’re not true:

- When you call the airline multiple times with the same question, you will get as many different answers as the number of times you call (even if you speak to the same person)
- The closer you are to your departure date, the greater the impact on your travel plans that the new information you’re given will have
- When you get through to a live person within 5 minutes, it’s the wrong number

So much for Splat! # 2, and its concomitant benefits. All's well that ends well, as it turns out. Claudia & Julius left a week later (successfully this time, from Raleigh), we're being refunded over half of the cost of the original tickets, and Mr Young has extended his rule to a small household in Rottenbach, Bavaria. Tomorrow, however, he's facing that 10-hour drive to Italy, a consideration that I'm sure hasn't yet crossed his regal mind.

As for Splat! # 1, well, that’s a longer story for another time…

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Virtual serendipity

When a 17th Century apothecary garden, a South African ex-wife, and the internet conspire to locate a house to buy in Marche, Italy, you might be forgiven for thinking “serendipity!” Or, at least, “virtual serendipity.”

Somehow – I don’t recall quite how – in my preparatory online travels through Marche back in early 2004, I stumbled upon a website that caught my attention: Named after the famed Chelsea Physic Garden established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (how I would love to have been a fly on the wall at a meeting of an organization with a name like this), the virtual Physik Garden is similarly a healing place for mind and body, although more about “journeys and exploration” than genus and exfoliation.

The instant appeal of the website as I passed through its gates and windows spurred me into trying to arrange a meeting – more out of curiosity than anything – with one of its founders, Michael Eldridge, during my first visit to Marche. Quite coincidentally (or perhaps not?), he and his then-partner, now-wife Liliana ran both a B&B (in a converted convent) and a real estate business.

On top of that, Michael – a 12-year English expat artist – was at one time married to a South African, and actually lived there for several years. At the time, his daughter lived near Cape Town (she may still), and he had recently been there to visit.

All of this common ground laid a fertile base for a good connection, but it was truly cemented when I discovered that Michael possesses a healthy dollop of England's greatest contribution to world culture (beyond football, the language, and bangers and mash, of course) – a classic, self-deprecating English sense of humour.

I’m pleased to say we bought our house through Michael, even though we looked at dozens with other realtors. He’s kept a watchful eye on it ever since, going so far as to take up the hopeless cause of our water bill with the authorities (more of that in another blog).

He also introduced us to the architect who put together our plans, as well as the contract manager who we hope can help to reduce (dramatically) said architect’s estimate. Then there’s the English couple he introduced us to electronically, from whom we ended up buying a caravan (camper to Americans) for those months that the house is under transformation.

So, from that first stumble upon the Physik Garden, things have indeed taken on the dimensions of a “journey and exploration”, just as promised in the small print. In fact, in some ways I now feel more like a passenger than a driver, with a ticket that has blanks in the “Destination” box. So much for curiosity.

I’m tempted to wax lyrical about “fateful coincidence” and serendipity, but I know better. Lest life decide to prove me wrong, I daren’t ascribe all these developments to anything beyond the mystical momentum of a meagre existence. Wherever it leads us, at a minimum I can say I’m just glad to have met Michael. And after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

[You can check out Michael's other websites here:]