31 October 2013

What Halloween Tastes Like

According to the carton, this juice tastes like Halloween.

I always thought Halloween tasted like candy corn, Smarties and mini Butterfingers but since I can’t find those here, I’ll give the blood orange and pumpkin juice a shot. 

24 September 2013

The Sagra

A friend asked me recently what a sagra is. Now, I know what it is to me and I’m pretty sure that this varies greatly from what it is to an Italian, but here goes....

To me, a sagra is kind of like a New York street fair.  But different. Like a street fair, it takes place in a neighborhood, but in Italy, this neighborhood is sometimes an entire town and there are usually some interesting things to see that you might not otherwise, be it ancient graffiti on a church wall, a natural thermal pool, or locals doing line dances.

It is often organized by the town’s Pro Loco, which as far as I can tell is a group of people who live in the town and try to make it better for its residents, who organize events to try to raise money. Towards that end, they organize things to get folks to come spend money in the town, a population which is increasingly often non-townfolk. A good way to do this is to gather a bunch of vendors to sell stuff to the folks who come to check out a particular food the area is known for.

Some sagre feature an ingredient like polenta, porcini mushrooms, truffles, mussels (cozze), wild boar (chingiale), a specific pasta. You get the idea. Typically, the people of the town will cook various plates, typical of their area, using the featured ingredient and sell them from stalls. Sometimes, they’ll hire professionals to do it.

Other sagre may feature a particular dish. Spaghetti all’amatriciana, lasagne, arrosticini.

The idea is always the same. Go to a town, eat a bunch of food, drink some wine or beer and listen to the (often) live music provided.

Most sagre have one area where you look at the list of food available, make your selection, hand over your euros and get a ticket or tickets. You then stand in line in another area, hand over your tickets and get your plates of food.

These events take place yearly, around the same time each year. For instance, the Sagra della Porchetta Italica of Campli in Abruzzo is always around the 2nd or 3rd week end in August. Some sagre are tied to religious events and these are governed by that calendar.

Some of them have live bands, some DJs, some folk music with dancers. Some, all three.  There might be carnival rides and cotton candy.

There are also Feste. These are much like sagre. Sometimes, exactly the same, but sometimes, there is a theme versus an ingredient.

Roasting chestnuts, Acquasanta Terme (AP)
In Acquasanta Terme in the province of Ascoli Piceno, there is the Festa d’Autunno. This is typically held the third weekend in October. There are vendors roasting chestnuts and selling vino caldo. Other folks sell sausage sandwiches and fried pizza dough (known, variously, as fritelle, crispelle and I’m sure several other names). Street performers roam around, market vendors sell everything from truffles to skeins of wool. The local group of Alpini, retirees from the army’s mountain division, open their lodge as a restaurant. The restaurants in town offer special menus featuring fall recipes of tagliatelle with chestnuts, roast pork with apples, etc.

Win a prosciutto. Castignano
Castignano, also in Ascoli, is a walled medieval town that capitalizes on its connection to the Knights Templar with their yearly Templaria Festival in the middle of August. Legend has it that some Knights lived there and each year, the town is transformed into a medieval village, with minstrels and Templars roaming about, market areas with vendors selling handmade leather goods, wooden items, jewelry and more. There are stages throughout the town featuring jesters and dancers. Churches and museums are open, showcasing various items from times gone by. Palm and tarot card readers tell the future. Themed restaurants open, showcasing soups and stews of rabbit, deer and wild boar. While you’re eating, performers might come by talking of their poverty and the wife might complain of the scrawniness of her husband and her daughter could take a look at your husband, commenting on the size of his belly at which point the wife might ask if she can take your husband home, promising him to return him shortly. You might consider it.

Some of these events, like the porchetta sagra/contest in Campli and the autumn fest in Acquasanta have been happening annually for more than forty years. Others are in their second or third edition.

The strangest thing to me about these sagre and feste is how hard it can be to find information. As you drive around, you’ll signs posted announcing a sagra. Usually, the town, the dates and the theme or food is announced. Sometimes, the name of the sagra gives no clue to the non-local about what food’s being served or the signs featuring the local dialect mean nothing to you. This can be a drag if you’ve, say, driven an hour to find that the annual fried frog sagra in Atri has been canceled this year and as you’re driving home, you’re passing sagra after sagra but don’t know if it’s worth it to you to stop. The signs rarely say specifically where in the town the sagra is or the starting time. Internet information is often just as limited. I guess it has to do with these parties originally being for the locals and the locals all just know, inherently, the details just as they know that you can pay your water bill at the newsagent or where it is you go to buy cheesecloth (for the record, I think it might be the hardware shop). Thankfully, this is starting to change, but I think I’ve cracked the code.

In summer, most sagre start at around 7pm. As the sun starts to set, it’s actually cool enough to contemplate eating food. As this is also the time that your house, which was almost cool during the day is starting to heat up, it’s the perfect time to go for a drive or take a walk into town, get a drink, find something to eat and be entertained.

Many feste towards the end of August and into fall, may start in the morning or early afternoon, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. The Festa d’Autunno and the Sagra delle Patate in Leonessa do this. Sometimes, they’ll say they start at noon or at 3p but if you’re thinking of going the first day, you might not want to believe them. They may still be setting up at 5p. Like many things in italy, it depends. Like most things in Italy, on what, I don’t know. But if you’re driving around and see a sign for a sagra, you should probably stop to check it out.

16 March 2013


I’ve been watching Gossip Girl lately, which is possibly not the best thing to be doing while in my current nostalgic funk but I’m kind of afraid to take a trip home, not only because of the price of the plane ticket. I’m afraid to see how much has changed.

The past twenty years of my life have been passing through my memory: places I’ve lived and sometimes-questionable things I’ve worn, haircuts I’ve had but this program, with its smash cuts of Manhattan streets I walked and stores I shopped at, delis I grabbed soup & sandwich combos from, and martinis I drank just hit home in a new way with an episode shot outside the bar beneath my onetime home in Brooklyn.

That apartment is now a landmark building in an ultra-hip area. The bodega across the street where we could only afford one sandwich for dinner to share, with the kid who used to make our salami, cheese and pickle sandwich into a poor man’s Cuban by placing it under the Pyrex coffee pot on the coffeemaker is gone. It’s now someone’s fancy-schmancy apartment. The Macy’s where I bought two pair of Converse one-stars (one pink suede and one mint green pearlized leather) for ten bucks doesn’t exist. Instead of bodegas, there are boutiques. Instead of bodegas there are more renovated brownstones. It’s not the same. The things I loved about the neighborhood—the amalgam of classes, the Goodwill and the sushi joint, the arab deli, the salvage warehouses and the housing project—have undoubtedly been cleaned up. Gentrified. Pushed out to make way for chic shops filled with things I once again cannot afford.

The midtown Manhattan where I worked has been Disney-fied and green-ified—the falafel cart in front of my office building shooed away in favor of green bike lanes, the Thanksgiving parade route altered. I’ve even heard you can get cell service in that once-upon-a-time place where no one could reach me—the subway.

The restaurant from which I got the best burger in Larchmont after running the NYC Marathon has closed, my friend from the burrito joint has moved to Belgium, one of my best friends is painting her house to ready it for sale. If I go back, she might not be there.

Things change.

Living in this place where some things haven’t changed in thousands of years, it often feels like I could wind my watch back three years and be right back where I was. But I can’t. I made choices. I’ve changed. My apartment is filled with someone else’s furniture. My job no longer exists. I won’t fit there anymore.

05 January 2013

Becoming Italian, Part 4.8

I was wearing heels. And make up. And even a jacket with subtle, sparkly gold threads woven through the green-beige-brown tweed and absurd, fluffy, eight-inch re-cycled vintage raccoon fur cuffs. I was doing my best impersonation of una donna italiana and hoping my translations would be accepted.

You see, I wasn’t completely clear on what made a translation “official”. Last time, Signora R. told me to go to the tribunale where they had a list of official translators. Two weeks ago, that’s what I did. Only they told me to go to the giudice del pace. At the justice of the peace, they guy looked over my translations, used his rubber stamp all over them and told me to get a couple of tax stamps worth about $35, had me sign a declaration that they were true to the best of my ability and sent me on my way. I wasn’t sure if that was official enough.

Despite my attempts to look the part, I was no match for Signora R. . Her fuchsia dress, fuchsia fur stole, dark pinkish-red 3D manicure, armful of rhinestone bangles and be-jeweled eyeglasses topped with a cascading explosion of blond hair, she was truly an Italian woman and quite possibly the personification of one of my favorite Italian expressions, an albero di natale or “Christmas tree”.

It was my third time meeting with her, but it may as well have been the first. Armed once again with the wonderful distraction that is A., another chatty, done-up Italian woman, as well as my armload of documents, stamped and taxed and apostilled, we went through it all from the beginning, as if we’d never done it before.

“Is your husband Italian?”

Duh. Of course he is. If he wasn’t, why would I be applying for citizenship through marriage? I shook the thoughts from my head, hoping the smile accompanying my “” was convincingly pleasant.

She turned to him. “Do you have carta d’identita?”

No lo so,” he replied, looking at me.

“You don’t know if you have? Maybe an Italian passport?”

“Sì, sì. Ce l’ho.” I pulled out his carta d’identita and his Italian passport.

Oh, how the Italian ladies chuckled. He doesn’t know if he has these things! No, I wanted to say. He knows that he has them, that they’ve been issued to him. He just doesn’t know if they are here with us now because I always have them. But I didn’t. Mostly because I didn’t know how, but a little bit because she’s the one who takes my application, the one who has the power, and I didn’t want to seem  rude so I didn’t even try. I just tried to smile pleasantly. Again.

She picked up my application form. “There is a new modello.

Of course there is.

And then she proceeded to fill in the blanks I had left, things like what type of degree I have (she couldn’t find a good translation for BA in English/Secondary Education, either, choosing just “college degree”) and what I do now (we decided on “housewife” and everyone chuckled again).

Next, she fondled the sheaf of papers from the Comune. Things like the marriage “extract” (a copy of the page in the book of the town hall in which the marriage was registered), the piece of paper confirming V.’s citizenship, and the one that proves I’m resident in the town.

“Oh. You need to be resident two years.”

“Yes. I am,” I said, still trying to smile, fearing that maybe the new modello came with another change to the law that I hadn’t yet heard of. “Yes. Married 2009. Living here since January 2011.”

“Not from marriage. Resident.”

“Yes. Is now January 2013.”

Giggling and chirpy Italian abounded. So silly. Yes, is now 2013. She looked down again.

“Oh. Trentuno gennaio. You must wait.”

Of course I must wait. It’s only quattro gennaio. They didn’t put me in the book until the thirty-first, even though our lease was dated the first, the vigili came to confirm we lived in our apartment on the tenth and really, what else were the people who work at the comune doing that they couldn’t get me in the damned books sooner?

I tried not to roll my eyes. V. said, “Oh, OK. We come back primo febbraio.”

“No, no, before that.”

Um. What? My residence is dated January 31st, but we don’t need to wait until February 1st. But we can’t submit everything today. When exactly is a good time? Oh, never mind. Va bene.

On to the translations.

“Who did these?”

A. did not say, “I told you two days ago on the phone. She did them. And the guy at the Justice of the Peace read them, said they were fine and stamped them.” She wisely left out the first part, embellished slightly on the second part adding something about a teacher helping me (yes, my teacher, whom I call Google) and Sig.a R. nodded appreciatively at the stamps and signatures.

Then she said something very quickly about the Embassy in Rome and dragged a sparkly, depth-enhanced claw under the part of the instructions on the application that say things need to be legalized by the “competent authority” where the documents are from or at that country’s consulate in Italy.

I looked at A., confused. “Ci sono apostilli,” I ventured. Right there. The first page is one, with that big blue seal of Secretary of State of New York, followed two pages later by one from the Secretary of State of the USA.

A. read my thoughts and kindly, politely pointed them out.

Va bene.

A flurry of grazie and handshakes and kisses on all of our cheeks and we were sent on our way to fill out the new form and return in three weeks. Before buying a tax stamp worth €14.62 and paying the application fee to the stato via the post office of €200. You see, Rosalba wants to look at everything before I do that.