28 December 2012

Question of the Day

In Italy, why does a box containing twelve 200mg ibuprofen cost €4, or approximately $5.50, but a week and a half worth of antibiotics are free?

Very Big Sorry

I was walking towards the Anonymous statue near Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park when I noticed the guy playing the violin.

The sun was shining on him in his shortsleeved shirt, his blue eyes glinting above his thick blond mustache framed by dimples as he busked.

He’d left the case filled with change a few meters away and was approaching tourists as they touched the statue’s pen, rubbed golden by those before them. Trying to guess where they were from, urging them to take a photo with him while I kept my distance and willed them all out of the way of my shot.

“Where are you from? Spain?” he asked.

“No, no,” I replied, edging away.

“You speak English? Here. You take this,” he said, offering the violin and bow. “Take picture.”

“No, no thank you.”

I tried to walk off, V. stopping as the man chatted him up.

“Here. I take picture of you. Nice photo to remember Budapest.”

I can’t help it. I inevitably imagine the worst. The man taking my camera and holding it hostage for some euros or forints regardless of the fact that I have his violin because it’s not even his, he doesn’t play, he picked it up out of the trash. And I don’t really like having my picture taken. It makes me uncomfortable, trying to pretend the camera’s not there or worse, trying to smile and look like I mean it. I’d like to be different. I’d like to be spontaneous and less cynical.

I do the same thing to the woman who walks around Ascoli asking for cigarettes and the people trying to sell me socks or pirated CDs outside the mall. I’m not so worried about the Cigarette Lady but I do always think the socksellers might take out their frustration on our parked car.

“No thank you,” I called out, hoping V. would start walking away.

He turned to V. and shook his head. “I feel very big sorry for you!”

We laughed about it afterwards but I kept thinking about it. It would’ve been a nice picture to have, me pretending to play while standing in front of the slightly creepy old statue. Maybe I’d have busted into “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, the only song I remember how to play, delighting the man. Only, I didn’t do that. I just walked uncomfortably away.

Last month, we were back in Budapest. High up on Castle Hill, on the Buda side of the river, on the other side of the city from the park, We exited the funicular that whisks you up the hill.  There was the violinist, this time in a trenchcoat, his bushy mustache looking paler in the grayness of the early winter day. He was playing Brahm’s Lullabye, a song my grandmother used to sing to us at bedtime.  He stopped and approached a couple looking over the wall, down across the river.  I flipped a few forints into his open case and walked on.

19 November 2012

Budapest Day 3 - Memento Park

Outside of central Budapest, in  the suburbs, in a sweet little neighborhood with  some half-timbered houses with gardens and (strangely) barbed wire-topped fencing is a park filled with statues of the Soviet era.

For a girl brought up on the other side of the Cold War, outside the Iron Curtain who’s only read about Soviet oppression and only seen photos of such statues, the literally giant reminders of the vast reach of the State, the every-day people as hero, the dead-eyed stone soldier, being up close to them is truly awesome. Spread throughout the park are smaller sculptures and plaques, honoring various party “heroes”.

It’s easy to understand how some Hungarians wanted these sometimes-hulking hunks of granite, concrete and steel that had been set about their city to remind them of the power and ubiquity of the Soviet dictatorship to be destroyed but it’s impressive that they weren’t. They were instead set up in what would become a park, a reminder and a tribute to all of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, in Berlin, in Prague, in Poland.

As we got off the bus and headed back toward the park, the silhouette of the reproduction of Stalin’s boots, all that remained of his statue before crowds tore it down during an uprising in 1956 that started out peacefully but ended with tens of thousands sentenced, imprisoned and hundreds killed, a stocky older woman was walking behind us.

I saw the statues in the brick arcades by the park’s entrance at the same time that I heard some old-timey planes high above. As I started to run towards them in hope of getting a shot of a biplane in the background and Lenin’s face in the fore, the woman, white hair pulled back, sturdy stockinged legs carrying her up the road, eyes crinkled in a smile or from the sun, said, “Lenin.” I nodded. She pointed a bit further ahead. “MarxEngels,” in the way that people do, as if they were one person. I smiled and waved as she walked on up the hill, wondering what she’d lived through, what she’d seen and what she thought about it all.

Getting there: http://www.budapest-tourist-guide.com/budapest-statue-park.html

15 November 2012

Becoming Italian, Part 4.5

Back in June, I thought it’d be a good idea to check in with Rosalba at the Prefetura. I wanted to know if a) I had all the documents that I needed and b) the translations I did were ok because c) as of the first week of July, I’d be in Italy for two years and could d) apply for citizenship.

Last October, I had gone to the Prefetura to get the skinny on applying for citizenship. Please don’t ask me to explain what a prefetura is. I can’t. I have no idea. I might have at one time, but now, my brain has been made mush by Italian bureaucratic quirks. Suffice it to say, it is some kind of state office that we in the US have no need for. Because we do not do some of the things that they do here.

Back then, the lovely woman gave a cursory glance at my existing documents, asked how long I’d been in the country and handed over the application with its list of more documents needed and sent me on my way.

I needed to get:
- my birth certificate from the State of New York. Long form, with an Apostille
- a report of good conduct from the State of New York, with an Apostille.
- a criminal record/record of no arrest from the FBI. (Say it with me) With an Apostille.
- various weird (to me) documents from the town hall here: an extract of our marriage; a “stato di familia” (kind of like a formal declaration of who makes up our family in our registered domicile; a residence document. Like I said, weird);   a certificate of citizenship for V.

The documents from the US needed to be translated into Italian.

In January, I got my fingerprints to send to New York and to Washington. It took three months to figure out who could do them for me and where to get it done.

So, now, June. Almost two years since I’d entered Italy and applied for my Permesso di Soggiorno, which meant almost time to submit my application for citizenship through marriage. I thought it’d be a good time to check in to see if anything had changed, if I needed any more documents, if the ones I had were ok.

Despite them moving this particular office of the prefetura, not having signs on the actual office door (or even near the office door) explaining that it’d been moved and to where, aside from wasting several euro on parking because we had to get back in the car and drive to the other part of town where they keep the questura, the agenzia entrata, and now the office for citizenship, in the brutal heat of the June morning wearing a dress and shoes instead of cutoffs and flip flops, I got answers. Just not the good kind.

Rosalba seemed pleased as she perused my documents. Until I asked about the translations. First problem? I still don’t know Italian very well. Even though I explained about the man who’s listed as the informational contact on the giant posters tacked up in all the provincial offices (including that one) offering free Italian courses for foreigners having not responded to any of my emails. She just gave the kind of “eh” shrug and tsk-ed. No points for trying.

Second problem? I (and Google) did the translations.

“Who did these?”

“I did. Like I did them for the Italian Consulate in New York before we got married.”

“Tch, tch, tch.” Her head shook back and forth along with her index finger in that way some women here do and that I hate. “You go to the tribunale. You get a translator there and pay. These are no good.”

“But why no good?”

“You need official translator. They stamp them.”

Oy. Can’t even begin to argue that they were good enough to get me married here, that it makes no sense that I have to now pay someone in this country to do them, that I’d like to know if she understands them because at the end of the day, isn’t that all that matters? Not worth it. She wasn’t gonna budge. Someone needed to get paid and I was the one who was going to have to do it at the tribunale, via stamps.

“Ok. Then I can come back and apply?”

“Um. Let me see. You have been resident since January, 2011?”

The sweat started rolling down my spine and soaking the back of my dress as I geared up for a fight I was not prepared to have in a foreign language. “I have been here since July 2010. Look at my permesso.

Didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter that I entered the country and got my permit to stay in July. It didn’t matter that the first comune wouldn’t register me with just my temporary permesso issued in July and that the Salerno questura took five months to issue the permanent one, that I picked it up at the end of December and had it updated before applying for residency here, which happened in January. I had to wait until January to apply.

I sank back into my chair, defeated.

When we got married, the law stated that I needed to be resident (or was it just married?) for six months before applying. Now, it states two years (three, if living outside of Italy). Please join me in praying that the law doesn’t change in the next two months. 

23 October 2012

Budapest, Day 2

After fueling up on sour cream and cheese covered langòs and a spicy Hungarian sausage smothered in pickled vegetables from the Great Market Hall, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking. Across the Liberty Bridge to the Pest side of the Danube, through the majestic Gellèrt bathouse, up the river, across the traffic-free-for-the-day Chain Bridge, through a festival in the square touting alternative energy and transportation plus the engineering feet of a bridge made of spaghetti, stopping for a pastrami sandwich and some lemonade at a repurposed VW bus (walking is hungry-making), we continued up the also closed-to-traffic Andràssy utca. And we encountered the strangest street fair I’d ever seen.

There was performance art. There was a sandbox with toys for kids to play in. there were live models changing poses every thirty seconds while people with sketchpads and charcoal immortalized them. There was a guy on stilts playing drum major to the kilt-clad Budapest Highland Pipe and Drum band. Re-purposed three-wheeled Apes fitted with espresso machines and chimney cake grills, all of which were good but my most favorite thing was Titus.

Titus was running a food and drink stand, a rustic wooden shack with chalkboards and utensils hanging from it, selling pàlinkas and goulash and lecsò and stuff. There were café tables and chairs off to one side and small, tall tables out front. We stopped to try some pàlinka.

The biggest problem in Hungary when trying new things is that if you don’t all ready know what you want and how to say it, you will never deduce from its Hungarian name what it is. Pàlinka is kind of like a brandy, I guess, made from fermented fruit or herbs and water. They come in all kinds of fruit flavors, like apple, pear and plum. But Hungarian is not a Latin or Germanic-based language so “mele” or “apfel” wouldn’t help when searching out the apple one which was irrelevant since I wanted to try plum. Turns out, the Hungarian word for plum is szilva.  Don’t ask me how to pronounce it. Anyway, because of this, ordering pàlinka in the little basement bar full of locals next to our hotel was behind my capability. At a street fair though, I could give it a whirl.

Titus said they had plum, apple, pear, apricot and some of those also with honey but to truly be pàlinka, it is made with fruit only. I wanted the plum and V. asked to try one of the honey ones. Titus made a face. “Those are for pussies.”

V. was undeterred. Titus looked a little suprised.

We took our small plastic cups over and stood at one of the high tables, sipping the clear, fiery liquid and declaring it a far superior drink to Italian grappa, though the honey one did taste a bit more like cough syrup and, really, wasn't that good.

Titus came over to smoke a cigarette and we chatted, commending him on his English as he explained about pàlinka and brought us other flavors to try.

He explained that there was true pàlinka, made from only fruit or herbs and water, as well as the more profitable but less authentic bastardization szeszes ital or “spirit drinks” (pàlinka to which honey has been added).

We asked him about one of the dishes listed on the chalkboard as “tripes with knuckles and nails”.

“You know, the stomachs of beef with the feet and fingers of the pig. We only have one word in Hungarian for both the cow animal and the cow meat. We do have many ways to describe other things that I cannot even translate,” he explained.

“Interesting. Like, in Italian, they have fingers on their hands and fingers of the feet—dita del piede—but in English, we’ve got a separate word for each--fingers and toes. Though with pigs, the toes are the hoof. Of course, if we’re eating them, we just call them feet.” Clearly, I’d reached my Hungarian brandy limit. “You could change your sign to read ‘tripe with pig feet’.”

“Oh, this is good. You help me with my English.”

He had to get back to work but suggested we come back later in the evening, they’d be there ‘til ten or eleven o’clock. Sadly, we didn’t.

19 October 2012

Budapest, Day 1

We arrived in Budapest at midnight, got a cab to our hotel, put down our bags, took a walk around the block, went to sleep, woke up, got big paper cups full of American-style coffee and walked for several hours.

Picked up a brand new, tags-on jacket at a second-hand store, dropped my old jacket off at the hotel, got delicious Hungarian food including salad with duck liver, fish and paprika soup, and stew with barley, walked around the Great Market Hall then back towards the hotel and saw a crowd watching a Hungarian Emo band playing in a shop window, replete with lead singer palming the window, angstfully.

Well done, Budapest.

04 October 2012

Budapest, Hungary. Hour 1 (Hungarian 1 - Nancy 0)

We arrived in Budapest at 12:05 am. Not the best time to arrive anywhere, but especially not in a city you’ve never been to and that doesn’t have mass transit running outside of the city center after 11 pm.

I’d read about the possibility of taking a night bus from the airport to a bus terminal then another bus to a stop that I thought might be near our hotel but the name of which I couldn’t begin to figure out how to pronounce. At the last minute, I decided the best thing might be to get a taxi from a reputable taxi company.

Turns out, the FöTaxi company has a deal with the airport. They’ve got a booth set up just outside the arrivals door that houses a dispatcher and they offer flat rates to the different zones of the city center. You just have to tell them the name of the street and what district it’s in. Easy. Especially since the Budapest zip codes tell you what district the address is in.

Only, I didn’t know how to pronounce the street name and it was the one address I had that didn’t have a zip code and I hadn’t written the district.

I took a stab at reading the street name which looks like this: Eötvös utca. “Ee-usht-vush oot-sa?”

“What?” the dispatcher asked.

I shoved a piece of paper at him with the address.

“Which district?”

“Um. The fifth or sixth? Maybe the seventh?” Quite the problem, since the districts are arranged in a spiral: the seventh might be closer to the airport than the fifth.  But shouldn’t he have a computer he could plug it into that told him where it was and in which district? 

I pulled out the hotel confirmation thinking that it would surely have the zip code on it. Only it didn’t. I did know that the hotel was near the Oktagon metro stop.

“It’s near Oktagon.”

“Yes, near Oktagon,” he mocked me. I'd later find out that Oktagon, while a Metro stop is also a neighborhood bordering two districts. “It’s ok. It’s ok.” He must’ve figured it out because he handed me a slip of  a receipt with a number on it and the price of the ride in both Hungarian Forints and euros. “Three meters across the street. Ten minutes.”

I looked at the signs all around telling me that my FöTaxi should be right at the curb, not to take a ride from any other cabs anywhere else, that they were not trustworthy.

I walked up to the FöTaxi girl and told her they guy said my taxi should be across the street. “No, no. All taxis here.”

And then the dispatcher came over, looked at the ticket and pointed us at the guy waiting outside his white taxi  across the street. I could hear him thinking “stupid tourists” as he did so.

The cabdriver took our bags, opened the car door and asked where we were going.

“Ee-usht-vush oot-sa?”

He asked to see the ticket. The ticket that everything I’d read about said to not give over, that holding onto it ensured I’d be charged the price printed on it.

Ay-it-ush ootsa. Not what you said.”

As we pulled out of the airport I said, “Can I have that?”

“Is for me,” was his reply.

He got us safely and soundly to our hotel, took our 4800 forints and handed over a company card with the phone number and a discounted fare back to the airport printed on it.

“How do you say ‘thank you’ in Hungarian?” I asked.


Koooor-si-nuum. And this street?”

“Ay-it-ush ootsa. Not mooshy mooshy,” he smirked and pulled away.

I am massacring languages all over the continent.

27 August 2012


When I was little, I had an Easy Bake Oven. I think it came with two miniature round cake pans and a handful of mixes for cakes that would fit the tins.  One of the reasons my memory is so spotty is that my sister and her friend spent the afternoon with me making every cake combination possible with the mixes at hand. I don't think we used it after that.

When I bought my apartment in the suburbs of New York, my then boyfriend bought a glorious stainless steel European beast of an oven with iron burner casings that made the top into one cooktop. Back then, he was more interested in cooking and I just thought it looked awesome, so I was down. I even had the plumber move the gas line so it could be on the particular wall I wanted. It came in handy when a friend gifted us with too many oysters and I made a couple of oyster pies, it helped make perfect pizzas and cookies cooked in the expected twelve to fifteen minutes. I was happy. He was happy. All was well with the world, or at least our world of cooking.

When we first moved to Italy we took an apartment, like many here, sans cucina. The thought was, in the beginning we wouldn’t be spending too much time at home (and we were right) and we would eventually get something small yet functional, maybe from Ikea or from a restaurant supply store. Y’know, all stainless steel counter tops, shelves, sink and maybe a work table with a small, inexpensive oven and cooktop that would have to be hooked up to a bombola that would get hauled up all six flights of stairs and switched out when empty. Things didn’t really work out. We ended up spending six months with a purloined mini fridge that you’d expect to find in a bar holding Gatorade and one electric burner. We washed our dishes in the bathtub.

When we moved here, we were thrilled to find an apartment that was both big enough to house all of our furniture and had a kitchen. A twenty year-old kitchen, but a kitchen still. Turns out, the space-age Smeg dishwasher is a little too funky inside for me to tackle with the cleaning prodcuts. The set-in lava rock grill and deep-fryer trip the breaker as soon as they’re turned on. The stove is good, though. Some of the burners make a scary “sshhhhh” noise, but it’s hooked up to mainline gas, which means no lugging and connecting propane tanks so I’m happy. The oven, though? The oven is on the other side of the kitchen, set above a cabinet behind a marble peninsula. I am short. It is difficult for me to open the door, reach in and grab things without wedging myself between the door and the island and my reach is not so “reach-y” when the door is hitting my solar plexus. I’m like the little kid swinging at the big kid whose hand is on my head, holding me at arm’s length. But that’s ok. I can work around that. The bigger problem? The real problem? I can’t set the temperature above 175° Celsius. That’s around 347° F. If I do, the breaker trips which usually means that flipping the switch by the front door will do nothing and someone will have to make a trip to the bottom of the building to flip the breaker down there. But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that even though the dial is set for 175° C, that is not how hot the oven gets. If it did, it wouldn’t take five hours to cook a chicken. Or forty five minutes to bake cookies.

But, y’know, I have an oven. I can bake things. It’s quite an improvement. I really shouldn’t complain.  

Once it cools off around here, I’m going to try to make bagels. It just might take an entire weekend…..

21 August 2012

Pollo Frescho

We wanted to barbecue chicken. We were pretty sure we wanted a whole chicken and we knew we didn’t want to drive twenty minutes to the Oasis hypermarket to get one, even though that’s where normal-to-us-sized chickens can be gotten.

You see, Italian chickens are often big. Some chickens look like turkeys to me. Their turkeys? Well, I’ve never seen a whole one, but the parts I’ve seen—the breasts and the legs—make me think an entire Italian turkey might look something like an ostrich.
Giant Italian chicken

Since we weren’t taking the drive to the supermarket with the “regular” chickens, we had four choices.

This town, small as it is, has four butchers. One, I’ve never been in. I’ve taken pictures of pigs and lambs hanging on hooks inside it while I stood furtively on the cobbles, but I have never gone inside to buy anything. The second is the fancy butcher in what used to be a piazza and is still called one even though it’s really just a parking strip along the road can be a bit intimidating. It’s always crowded, its motion-sensor door swishing open and closed every few seconds to let more patrons into its white tiled enclave of pig parts and sausages, roasted meats and vegetables They will give me half a chicken if I ask for it, but they’ll start skinning and de-boning it before I’ve thought of the words to say to stop them and the crowd doing the Italian-no-line, stand-your-ground, push-up-front and speak-loudly-thing intimidates the hell out of me The furthest one, up the old street that runs from the pseudo-piazza to the Comune is good for fegato sausage, but that guy won’t cut one of his large chickens in half for me. The fourth butcher is in the little supermarket across the street. Two women man the counter, in their paper hats like short order cooks from 1954 and always seem slightly amused by whatever question I might have or how I might ask it, like the first time I asked them NOT to pound my chicken breasts as the mallet was about to come down. What on earth was this crazy straniera going to do with a chicken breast, if not take its pounded slices and fry them up?

I chose the supermarket butcher.

Di’mi,” she said.

“Um. Chicken? Mezzo?” I turned to V. “Look, they’ve got the back half of one. We could get that, two legs, two thighs..... Or maybe they’d cut that whole one over there in half from top to bottom.” I made a little lateral move with my right hand.

Si, si. Posso,” the paper hat lady said, mimicking my sign language. “Che cosa voi che fate?”

“Uh. Barrr-b-q?” I ask-wered. My typical style of response to any question in Italian that I think I understand being a one word answer in the form of a question. I’m not really sure how to answer “What do you wanna do with it?” grammatically.

Her eyes lit up. “Something-something-something freschi freschi,” she said, heading out of sight toward the door to what must be a giant fridge.

She emerged with a very frescho chicken. It was so fresh as it lay across her outstretched arms like an offering for the poultry gods that it still had its head and feet on.

“Um….possible cut the head and feet?”

“Si! Faccia un manicure,” she chuckled.

“Pedicure? And haircut?” I pleaded.

I don’t know if it was that I was so thankful she’d chopped off the head and feet so I didn’t have to do it or that I was so traumatized by looking my dinner in the eye, but I ended up telling her I’d take the whole thing which she kindly hacked into barbecue-able pieces.

We ate chicken for three days.

Approximately one third of our freshly butchered chicken

17 August 2012

Things I’ve Learned in Italy this Week

  • Cellulite is an illness. And the pharmacy’s got the cure (or, at the very least, an awful lot of euros from peddling that particular idea).
  • Feragosto is really just the Italian Marathon of Eating holiday, despite evidence that it’s all about the Assumption of Mary. Tho there may be something to this stuff about it having ties to the pre-Roman Catholic celebration of the goddess, Diana, as I was instructed between courses to go home and make babies.

  • A handful of peanuts and dark chocolate Perugina mini chocolate chips make a very poor substitute for a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

04 July 2012

Today in “I can’t remember the Italian word for it”

First, a little backstory. It’s been hot here in Italy for the past week. So hot, that in Rome last Friday I got heat rash on my lower calves that didn’t go away ‘til two days ago. So hot that the ants who’ve been wreaking havoc on our plants and flowers by covering them in aphids have been hiding underground. So hot that the cactus on one of our balconies died. It’s been really hot.

Needless to say, we don’t have air conditioning. What we do have is lots of windows and terrace doors. Which we can’t open.

Because we live in a valley between some hills and half our house is on stilts above a little river, at nighttime it cools off some twenty to twenty-five degrees bringing the temperature from “inferno” to “sweatshirt & cut-offs”. Outside.

Inside, the house stays at “fourth circle of hell”. The outside walls that bake in the sun all day retain the heat and transfer it through the concrete into the house which averages a temperature of about thirty degrees Celsius. Because the flies and the mosquitoes like to come inside and Italians don’t like screens (or they didn’t when this place was built), we can’t open the doors and windows to let in the breeze.

We were sitting at the bar with F. in what used to be a piazza but is now really just a strip of the SS4 with some parking spots, getting eaten by mosquitoes as the sun set behind the south hills when V. asked a very important question.

“Oh. Where can we get the, you know….Nancy, how do you say in italian?”

“Um. Wait. I know the word,” I started. “Shit. I don’t remember. I don’t have my dictionary.”

I resorted to crossing all my fingers in front of my face in some demented lattice-type gesture. “You know, “ I said in Italian.  Per le finestre. Aria, si. Mosche e zanzare, no?”

After laughing at me, F. said, “Zanzariera?”

Of course. So we went to the store and got this fab netting that you attached to Velcro strips that you stick to the window frame and now we have “air, yes. Flies and mosquitos, no.”

18 June 2012

My Favorite Restaurant in Rome isn't Italian


We took the bus into Rome with the sole purpose of hitting the International market for some impossible-to-find-here items: fish sauce, lite soy, rice vinegar.

After circling the indoor Mercato Esquilino several times to ensure we got the best deal on our fish sauce and some bonus jalapeno peppers and Hopia cakes, it was nearing that magical hour when thoughts turn to lunch and the possibility of being shut out because you’ve taken so long to decide that it’s 2:30p and no one’s serving anymore.

We lugged our doubled-up plastic bags back to Termini, thinking we’d just leave ‘em at the baggage drop. Sadly, the line looked to be about an hour long and the hands on the clock were nearing 1pm, also known as Italian Lunch Time.

We thought about taking the subway somewhere else, but the Rome subway sucks. There are two lines that kind of make an “x”, crossing at the Stazione Termini, but since anytime they tried to dig the tunnels more ruins were found, neither line goes anywhere we wanted to be. We could’ve gotten close to the Spanish Steps or sort of north-ish of the Vatican, but that would’ve meant heaving those bottle-laden bags around aimlessly and inevitably settling for some sort of Italian lunch that I, frankly, had no interest in eating. I was in Rome, a capital city. A place that should have options. I did not want Italian food.

Neither of us had noticed a promising looking Chinese or Indian place near the market, though we’d passed several dingy ones, so we headed into the Botti bookstore in the station. I grabbed an Insight Guide, flipped to the area map section and saw Hang Zhou, a name I’d seen a few times during internet searches for dim sum in Rome (no dice on that, by the way).  Reviews had been mixed.  Lots of “great spring rolls” and some “eh, it’s ok” and a few things that led me to believe it was a regular old tourist-heavy Chinese place. This book said something along the lines of “when you just can’t face another slice of pizza” and it was nearby. I was all about both of those factors and V. was getting crankier as the minutes passed.

We walked a few blocks east, around the giant Santa Maria Maggiore, past the “Menu: first, second, garnishing, dessert. No service charge. €22” chalk boards to via S. Martino ai Monti, 33.

Same place I’d read had cheap Chinese, photos of the owner with famous people and other things that hadn’t thrilled me.

What I found was my own little Thai/Japanese nirvana.  Ownership change, maybe?

We couldn’t really see in, blocked as the windows were with photos of nigiri sushi, sashimi, salads, and don bowls, but there were people inside, so we went for it. I looked to the right and saw some Germans eating noodle-based dishes and lost a bit of enthusiasm. So many Chinese restaurants I’ve been to in Italy are filled with folks eating china-fied versions of the Italian mid-day meal: a plate of pasta, maybe “ravioli” (wontons, to me) and a plate of meat. Then I saw it. The thing that makes me truly happy when I walk into a restaurant serving raw fish: lots of people eating it. There was a young Italian couple with a wooden boat full of sushi and a bottle of white wine. There were two large tables full of Japanese-American teenagers with boats and platters full of everything.

For  €14.90 each plus drinks, this place offers all you can eat everything. And it’s good. So good that I was so busy enjoying it, I forgot to take photos of our tako su, sliced octopus and seaweed in a vinegary dressing, or of other peoples nigiri sushi, tempura and onigiri. I didn’t try any of the Thai dishes, but the Germans seemed to be enjoying them.

If you’re ever in Rome near the train station around lunch time, don’t want to spend a fortune and cannot face a bowl of pasta and a cutlet of some kind, forget what you read about it on the interwebs and go here. You could even order from the to-go menu, with some additional items not on the “buffet” menu, and have a picnic under a tree in the park a few blocks away.  Only tell me first. I don’t want to get there and find there’s no seat left for me.

02 June 2012

Hey, Beep Beep

We just heard the strangest thing. Five or six cars driving past the house, honking their horns.

This is weird on so many levels. You see, Italian drivers don’t “honk”. They tailgate. They pass on the most unlikely curves. They park all willy-nilly, pulling up behind you to block your car when there are plenty of real spots available. They sit benignly in the blocked in car, patiently awaiting the owner of the other to come out and free them so they can careen off down the street, but they do not honk.

V. ran to the front balcony to see what was happening. Maybe it was a bunch of old cars, macchine d’epoca, on the way to some auto show who sometimes honk as they pass through our town, old Fiats and Autobianchi. But, no. 

There was an RV at the front of the line of cars and it was going rather slowly. Maybe that’s what the “Beep. Beepbeepbeep. Beep. Beep” was all about. The line of cars behind it just couldn’t bear the snail’s pace and wanted to urge the driver of the RV to just speed the hell up for f@%&’s sake. Oh wait. That's what I would do on the Taconic Parkway. No. That wasn’t it. 

One of the cars had a sign and streamers hanging off the back. Maybe it was a wedding. Because Italians do not honk to let you know you’re coming perilously close to crashing horrifically into their lap because you opted to ignore the sign instructing you to “Yield”. No, they give a little friendly toot only to say, “Hey, look at me! Aren’t I fab?”  For Italians, the horn is apparently the mechanical equivalent of the glitter on their outfits.

22 May 2012

E(arthquake) S(leep) P(rivation)

It was Saturday night and I was going through my usual routine of desperately trying to fall asleep while V. snuffled and snored next to me. I resisted the urge to reach over and click the crown on my old Timex Indiglo watch with the old man expandable metal link band picked up in a Salvation Army years ago to see what time it was, as knowing the hour usually makes it that much harder to actually sleep while my mind starts calculating how many hours until a respectable wake-up time and if I just fall asleep right now I can get six  hours…five…four…and I thought I felt the bed rumble. I figured it must’ve just been V. exhaling a particularly raucous and rumble-y snore as I was actually, maybe, drifting off but it was enough to get me to High Earthquake Alert and I spent some more time tossing and turning and wondering if I’d have time to grab my wedding rings off the dresser--certainly not enough time to get the earrings out of the safe but maybe enough time to grab boots instead of flip flops--if I had to run out the door to avoid the roof caving in on me. I awoke at some point, again neglecting to check the time, to hear the starlings outside the window and see that the sky had lightened to grey. It was still early enough to flop over and sleep some more.

I got up later Sunday morning and checked the Earthquake site, as I am wont to do every single day upon waking and saw that there had been a particularly huge quake in the Emilia-Romagna region north of here. Five point nine the site said. Preceded by smaller ones. Followed by others, the aftershocks causing more damage.

Four (or is it now up to seven?) people died. Factories collapsed. Aftershocks caused clock towers to fall. Houses are missing chunks of wall. Four thousand people are unable to return home. In twenty seconds. God, I’m terrified of earthquakes.

The site showed the time of the big quake as 4:03 “in the night”, as they say here. Four A.M. When the sky is beginning to lighten and the birds starting to chirp.

Clearly, I am clairvoyant. The feeling of impending doom that kept me up was my sixth sense. As I lay in bed the night before, I felt on a subconscious level the imminent tremblor. Or maybe I caused it with my thoughts, my impressive brain controlling the movement of the earth’s plates.  Or maybe, the fact that I am constantly thinking about earthquakes, worrying about what to do if one happens, endlessly mapping out my running routes for V. in case there’s one while I’m out and he needs to tell the Civil Protection folks where to search the rubble, maybe it’s just inevitable that every single quake happens to coincide with my constant thought of them.

26 April 2012

Come si dice….humiliated?

Sometimes, when I’m struggling for a word in Italian and I’m too lazy to take out my dictionary or the situation doesn’t warrant such an interruption, I just “Italian”-ize an English word. Sometimes, it works beautifully.  Like, for example, I once added an "o" to the word “jealous” and got “geloso”. It was exactly what I meant, so another time I added an "o" to "nervous" and was just as lucky. Er, successful. 

Sometimes, the word you want is Italian. Like pizza or diva.  

Sometimes, it's not that easy. Sometimes, it's like guido or bimbo. The former meaning, "I drive" and the latter meaning "child".  It can make translating episodes of the Jersey Shore impossible and conversations interesting. Also, sometimes? Well, listen:

We were in L.’s new house in the hills outside of Ascoli with its very American open kitchen/living/dining area, and a rather international crowd having a lovely time together, drinking wine, cooking dinner. There was A. from France and her Italian boyfriend, a few Ascolani locals and L., V., and I from NY. Everyone there has been to the town we live in and know how quiet it usually is, so when they asked what was new here, V. and I were thrilled to actually have a bit of excitement to share.

On Friday afternoon, V. was standing outside chatting with someone when a car passed another and stopped dead in the middle of the street. Another car slammed on the brakes behind the first two. What had been the first car was now boxed in.


Then, the drivers of the two cars got out and pulled the people out of the middle car.

“Who these men are? What they wanted? Fight?”

We did our best. 

We used bastardized phrases in two languages.

“Macchine normali.”

“Non c’e luce sopra.”  

“Maybe drugs.”

"Cars normal, no lights on top, clothes, um...."

I made the Italian sign for “arrested”, crossing my wrists in front of me.  “You know…. they were…OK.  The men doing the jumping and the pulling were, you know, um, how do you say? Polizia! Senza, uh, costumi. Um. Sotto coperto.”

Yes, they were police, without bathing suits. Under the blanket.

Turns out, the word I was looking for was incognito.

17 April 2012

15 (or so) Things

1- Cheez-itz
2- cheap running clothes
3- boot leg jeans (esp. 100% cotton ones)
4- cheap, plentiful advil
5- 100% cotton t-shirts cut for people w/hips & upper arms
6- effective bras
7- running bras
8- herb variety, fresh and dried (e.g., fresh cilantro, dill, cumin)
9- cheap facial cleanser (cetaphil is like €12 euro-if you can find it! That’s around $17)
10- bacitracin
11- flannel pajamas
12- 100% cotton sheets
13- Ziplocks
14- Bonne Bell dr. pepper lip balm in drug stores
15- drug stores in general
16- flour tortillas
17- washing machines that take less than 3 hours to do a load of laundry
18- electric clothes dryers
19- Italian made shoes and clothing that are actually affordable
20- sales throughout the year
21- a pay check
22- english magazines & books. Inexpensive mags and books. Why is it that these are cheaper in France than in Italy???
23- men’s speed stick deodorant (not the white kind; the green, blue or clear kind)
24- maple syrup
25- brown sugar for baking
25- Burt’s Bees honey lip balm
26- LA Colors nail art polishes
27- Atomic Fireballs
28- bbq (like, real deal, pulled pork, wet and dry, with collards & baked beans and corn on the cob)
29- butterscotch hard candies
30- Reese’s peanut butter cup minis
31- Nexcare waterproof bandaids
32- Sun Chips
33- ace bandages
34- tootsie rolls
35- twizzlers
36- charms lollipops & blow pops

I know, it’s way more than 15 Things.  It’s currently at 36 Things and every day I think of one or two more, but when my sister asked me to send her a list of 15 things I miss here in the land of “if it’s not pasta, made in Italy (or China) and/or costs a thousand euros, you can’t have it” while she’s in the land of 24 hour mega stores containing everything anyone in the entire world has ever produced, my mind first turned to food-type things that I can’t get here: cheez-its, soft brown sugar, cilantro. It then went out into the atmosphere, to the esoteric, to the impossible, to the candy store and right back to food.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that a) though I miss these things, if I were to get any of them, I’ll likely hoard them for fear of getting too used to them and then have to face not having them again so if I got them, they’d likely  just take up space* and b) I don’t miss the “things” themselves so much as I miss their availability, their ubiquitous-ness in the US.

I thought of the recipes I find on the internet or see things my friends at home are making with their easily found ingredients and get jealous.  Rice wine vinegar? Fresh ginger? Various fresh chili peppers? Cardamom?! Y’all are just rubbing it in.

spoils of a trip to Civitanova
I can get soy sauce from the supermarket here in my little town, but I’m still not sure who here’s buying it and why. I can find all sorts of asian ingredients. If I drive an hour and a half in each direction. “Mexican” is limited to overpriced Uncle Ben’s “mexican beans” and corn tortillas and only at the hypermarkets in the larger “cities”. I might find an avocado in one store, a lime in another and possibly a sad looking jalapeno in a third, but if I do, it’s because I’ve driven to three different stores along the 40km route to the beach that takes an hour each way plus shopping time and stopping a few times to “catch a coffee”. Or, I didn’t buy the avocados because I wasn’t sure I’d find the red onion and the lime and when I saw the lime, I didn’t want to go back to the first store for the avocadoes and, anyway, I was too disgusted at not finding everything for guacamole in one store to want to make anything. I just wanted to eat a box of Cheez-itz. Which don’t exist here. It’s frustrating.

Then I thought about clothing. If I want stretchy, skinny leg, bedazzled jeans or, let’s face it, hooker heels, I’m in business. If I want a padded bra with no real support and straps that dig into my shoulders or a sweater that’s narrower and longer than I am, not a problem.  Except, I don’t want them.

The Italians I see all seem to have the same style and while part of it may be a cultural reluctance to be different, really I think they just have no other choice. They can’t look different because they can’t find anything different. From the mall stores to the weekly markets, it’s all the same stuff. And I don’t want it. I want other stuff.

I want 100% cotton, bootleg jeans. I want t-shirts that stop at my hips. I want shoes and boots that are free of sparkles and studs. I want choices. I want cheap choices. I want sales all year long. I want Barneys and Bergdorf’s. I want Saks off 5th and Neiman Marcus Last Call. I even want that bastion of Italian bargains, Daffy’s, where all the sad little Patrizia Pepe and Mötivi pieces are sent and sold for a quarter of their Italian prices. 

Why don’t they keep it here? Why are there no off-price stores in Le Marche? Why can’t I find more than one type of sports bra in the four different stores that actually carry athletic-ware? Why are all the unsold items sent to the UK and the US? (TJ Maxx, I’m talking to you. There’s an untapped market here in Italy, filled with expats like me.) Why are Italian made shoes, in the shoe-making capital of Italy, more expensive here than in New York or Paris?

Here, it’s all castrato, cicoria, and amatriciana all the time. It’s stretchy and spangly and just like your neighbor’s. And your neighbors’ neighbors. Sometimes, you just want something else.

I guess I just want some choices. I miss the choices. The nearby choices.  The CVSs, Duane Reades, mega malls, department stores. The Trader Joes and 24 hour Stop and Shops.The nail polish, the perfume, the moisturizer.

OK. I admit it. Sometimes, I miss the stripmall. And the 7-11.  Even, on occasion, the Starbucks, if only so I can walk around with a large cup of coffee that takes more than thirty seconds to drink.  Yes, the very things that make America kind of icky, totally not charming and completely bland while driving through? I miss them. Because in those generic, cookie cutter strip malls of Duane Reades and Marshall’s are all the things I can find to make my day-to-day a little bit less so.

*this is not to say that I wouldn’t be delighted to have any of these things show up on my doorstep. I would not hoard them. I swear. Who needs my address?

09 April 2012

New Word: Terremoto

In Italy, there are a lot of earthquakes. Like, everyday, somewhere, there’s an earthquake. I know this because I check the Instituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Volanologia (INGV) website every morning. And sometimes in the afternoon. And sometimes, before I go to bed.

In Italian, these events are called “terremoti”. A rather literal and descriptive word meaning, as I translate it, “land motion/s”.  I, however, call such an occurrence a “terror-moto” because I am terrified of them.

I’ve seen the destruction they cause. We were in l’Aquila, a provincial capital, whose center was, for all intents and purposes, destroyed by an earthquake in 2009. This quake happened at 3:30am, had a magnitude of around 6 and lasted, I’m told, for thirty seconds. Buildings collapsed. People died. The rubble is still around, behind fences.  Military squads are posted around the center to keep people away from the more precarious structures and buildings outside the center are riddled with cracks and holes. It's a terrible reminder of the rapid devastation a quake can inflict.

I lie awake at night, planning possible escapes. Around here, there are bridges built by the Romans that are still standing, yet the cement bleachers by the community pool built in 2009 are a crumbling mess. Our house was built in the ‘80s and everyone assures me that earthquake proof standards were met.  I feel  the house shake when a particularly heavy speeding truck lumbers past and I see the cracks. I’m not sure I believe them.

Our bedroom sits atop a pillar that goes 3 stories down to the side of the hill that leads to the river. The one window opens onto nothing but the drop down to the back driveway. The door leads to the hallway, to the bathroom with a window on a terrace on the street. If I can make it to the hallway, maybe I can make it to the terrace. If it’s still there. I’m pretty confident that if I make it to the street and head in the direction of Rome, the large building on the embankment across the road won’t fall on me. If I haven’t broken both ankles from the leap off the terrace.

This is what I was thinking about the night I felt my first quake. As I lay in bed, I heard a rumble, kind of like when the big trucks hurtle past, ignoring the “Slow down! Inhabited Center” sign. This rumble, though, worked its way up through the building and shook the bed, headboard to footboard, up against the wall for a couple of seconds. A magnitude 2.0 about 10km away. Not too bad. But worse than the one I felt in my fifty story office building in Manhattan. Not as bad as the last one I felt two months ago.

I was asleep. Like, truly asleep. As I turned over, the bed started shaking. A lot. I grabbed V. He snored.

I debated whether or not to wake him, whether or not to go to the bathroom, whether or not to keep breathing. This one lasted maybe 5 seconds which is an eternity when you can’t decide if another one’s coming that will cause your house to fall down with you in it and if so, would your husband rather be awake when it happens or not. Turns out that was it for the quakes that night. Also, it turns out, if I ever feel another terremoto, the husband would prefer to be awakened.