Italia

Embracing a Foreign Identity

largeAt the gym tonight, I was able to recognize (perhaps for the first time) the hilarity in one of the many grin-and-bear-it situations we expats deal with on a daily basis.

An English girl named “Rain” was signing up for next week’s lessons and pronouncing her name “the Italian way” for the receptionist: “rAY-Nuh”.  Even though she’s come three times a week for the past two months, it’s still not easy for the girls at the front desk to comprehend the foreign sound of her name.  She had to repeat it three times before the girl was like, “Oh! Rainuh!”

Uh…Yeah, kinda.

I am not insinuating that the girls at the desk are slow. I am just reminding you all (all 9 of you reading this post) what a challenge it is and how instinctively averse we are to digesting information outside our cultural comfort zone.

Assimilating yourself into a foreign culture is not a task to underestimate.

When you make your big move, life feels very vacationy and romantic.  I’m not talking laying-on-the-beach-drinking-out-of-a-coconut vacationy.

You’re working your ass off trying to make a living – and the qualifications you slaved to accumulate for the first half of your life don’t “translate” into your new country.  (3 cheers for 18 hour workdays on minimum wage!)

In addition, you understand about 30% of what everyone’s saying most of the time and can’t communicate precisely what is is you want to say with the subtle undertones necessary .  Completely forget about communicating strong emotions. Half the time you break out in your mother tongue – which entirely defeats your meager attempts at expressing your soul-shattering sentiments. The other half of the time you botch your sentences with a cleaver because the emotion gets in the way of the logical translating part of your brain.  In my opinion these parts of the brain (uh, at least, of my brain) are two south poles.

Don’t even go there.

To worsen the situation, as an English major, I tend to take extravagant liberties with language.  I love creating new words because they sort of sound like another word or just feel good in your mouth.  The temptation of mixing TWO languages in this way is overwhelming.  You can imagine the gratification when you combine two seemingly-random words from two different languages into a perfect new exemplar of multi-linguarality.

But when you’re speaking a language you don’t have an expert handle on, it’s best to avoid taking such liberties.  Trust me, no one has any clue what you’re trying to say – even when you stick to sentences that use the simplistic grammatical standards of a  3-year old.

Get creative and the entire conversation is shot to hell.

No, I’m talking about the planning stage of a vacation.  You know, when you’re still browsing rental house catalogs, imagining how wonderful you would feel staying in a 10 bedroom beach front property with private pool and live in housekeeper/personal trainer/Michelin star chef.  How could you not be your best youhave a relaxing, time-of-your-life experience in that house?  You get totally caught up in the glamour of vacation and forget about your real-world limitations.  Ahhem, it would take you three years of shiny new minimum wage paychecks to pay for one week at Barbie’s dreamhouse.

That’s what being an expat is like at the beginning.

Of course, you tend not to realize you’re living in Dream World because you’re busy trying to solve the conundrums of everyday life.  Inside, your heart is shouting with joy at your new, sophisticated life abroad while the rest of you is muddling around Clueless and Illiterate.

So, anyways, back to the gym.  One of my new acquaintances – and might I just say that in two months of Fight Club I’ve made more promising acquaintances than I have in the last nine years in this country.  I love this place and I love the people that come here.  I love the friendly staff who always acknowledge you with a genuinely friendly smile.  They seem so grateful that YOU – YOU are there with them.  I love the camaraderie during the classes and afterwards in the locker room.  Tonight was an atypical class – usually we sweat a lot and are barely able to walk back to our cars (perhaps I should speak for myself, but I get the feeling I’m not the only one – ha! ANOTHER thing I love about this place!!).  Tonight we didn’t sweat much but worked on technical form and some of the girls were kind of bummed because they felt like they hadn’t burned as many calories as usual, “Damn, I totally overdid it at lunch and now I have to eat broth for dinner to make up for it!”

Another girl, the new acquaintance who later inspired me with her grin-and-bear-it experience, jumped right in and said (in Italian), “We’ve got to stay positive!”  At this point, we were all rallied around her in varying degrees of semi-cladness. (Semi-cladness is totally a word),

“Sessions like this are JUST as important as the super-calorie-burning sessions because they teach us how to workout without hurting ourselves.”

Then another girl jumped in with a story about how her boyfriend, a Super Built Gym Guy, was constantly icing his shoulder or knee when he worked out at a different place (with ice, not frosting).  Since he joined Black Bull (our gym) he hasn’t felt pain once.  She was like,

“We’ve all been here for a couple months now and have any of you gotten hurt?  (she intuitively knew the answer because we all watch out for each other).  “No, none of you have had problems like that and it’s specifically because they teach us proper technique like they did tonight.”

Then, as we’re cheering and circling around doing Rocky punches in the air in our underwear, a fourth girl jumps in with,

“Hey, look on the bright side: you can have a ton of sex tonight to make  up for the calories we didn’t burn in class!”

I haven’t felt girly camaraderie like this in…a long time.

And it feels.so.good.

So, I guess I’ve come full circle:  through the romance of a new life in a new country, to the harsh reality of being an outsider far FAR away from home, to finally feeling welcomed into a group of peers.

Barely moved out of  Barbie dreamhouse and already neck-deep in Disney schmoozieness (also definitely a word).

Maybe this is what being an expat is really all about.

F.Y.I.  The “Italian version” of my name is equally as amusing as Rain’s (who’s British by the way).  And aren’t her parents great for giving her such an awesome name (like my parents too)?  “Rain” for a little girl born in a place where it’s always raining.  They must think of the sun every time they look at her.

download (1)There are various Italian butcherings (go ahead, look it up in the dictionary, I dare you!) to both my first and last name. When I say, “Crane,” it sounds like crin (pronounced Cr(a)eeen), which is Piemontese dialect for “pig”.  Mmm. Not a particularly nice picture, but if you look on the bright side, lots of wonderful things can be associated to pigs: bacon, pork belly, Miss Piggy, Pumbaa, the 3 little pigs (have you read this version?), Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web…Despair not!

downloadIf you say “Crane”, pronouncing it the American way, and the person you’re talking to knows a little English, they might say, “OH! Like a gru, right?”  Gru means crane, as in the machine with hoist, wire ropes or chain used for lifting materials on a construction site.  I guess this association works, as I am tall and am now learning how to lift heavy things.

But if you talk to your average Italian, you’ll have to pronounce “Crane” the Italian way, “Crawhh-neigh”, which sounds like some sort of weird petri-dish breeding experiment gone wrong.  A cross between a crab and a horse perhaps? (The first syllable sounds like “Craw”, which reminds me of “crawl” or “claw” which makes me think of a crab).

Phew.  Let’s just leave “Shira” for another day…

 

Verduno Vineyard Trail

Verduno Vineyard Trail

A new friend introduced me to this pretty awesome trail through the vineyards of Verduno a couple weeks ago.  It’s very picturesque and just the right difficulty for us semi-couch potato types.  There are enough hills to keep it interesting without making it overly challenging.  We were both sweating by the end, but it was more of a pilates sweat than a super- cardio sweat.  It’s a dirt road with some rocks and you’re not likely to run into anyone else.  We went at 7:30pm and on the way back the sun was starting to set.

 

 

Weird Italian Food: Part I

You wouldn’t believe the strange animal parts that Italians bring to the table (and expect people to savor, with gusto).

After 3 months 4 years SIX years of first-hand experience, I can assure you that squeamish eaters won’t last long in this country.

In Piedmont, which is where I live, THE most traditional and frequently consumed antipasto is carne cruda.  That’s right, raw hamburger meat on a plate (when you say it in Italian it does at least sound more appetizing – pron: kar-nay kroo-dah).  You’ll find it on just about every menu in every restaurant in the Langhe Roero area.  The people go crazy around here for a good carne cruda, they even drive all the way from Torino just to eat a plate of the stuff.

What makes carne cruda so special?  Well, let’s break down the ingredients….uh  ingredient.  The veal comes from a race of cows known as the Razza Piemontese (the Piedmontese Race). These bovine fill the hearts of the Piedmontese people with pride and joy, and are NOT your run-of-the-mill variety.  This extra special race is principally raised here (and by here I mean HERE, the city of Alba and the surrounding Provinces of Cuneo and Asti – about 3,000 square miles) .  In fact it’s often referred to as carne cruda albese: carne cruda from Alba.

Two hundred and eleven years ago.   That’s when the Piemontese started breeding this variety in the region.  And we’re not the only ones that think these cows are special.  The Razza Piemontese is known on an international level for its fantastic nutritional characteristics.  It has a particularly low fat content (.5% – 1% as compared to the average 3% of most bovine), less cholesterol than many white meats and even a lower fat content than many fish. (Maybe I should start a new fad diet based on these white beasts!   They’re so darn cute I wouldn’t even have to pay a super model to be the face of the fad.)

Carne cruda was originally chopped by hand (battuto al coltello) and in fancier restaurants you can still find it prepared this way.  Home cooks and average trattoria usually grind the meat in a meat grinder or purchase it already ground from their macellaio di fiducia (faithful butcher).  Once you’ve acquired your meat, always fresher than fresh (you never hear of anyone getting sick after eating carne cruda) and usually eaten the same day it’s purchased, you dress it with some salt and pepper, a little olive oil and garlic.  Adding a bit of lemon is optional and there are opposing schools of thought for and against the use of lemon in this dish (some say it hides the true flavor of the meat, others argue that it “cooks” the bacteria out a little bit and like the subtle lemon flavor).  Every family seems to have their own way of preparing carne cruda, some add just a few whole cloves of garlic and take it out before serving, others grind the garlic and mix it right in with meat.  Some slice the meat in carpaccio fashion instead of grinding it.  It is often served with a healthy grating of truffles in season, but they deserve an article all for themselves…  If you come to Alba this is one of the dishes that you should DEFINITELY try!

Note from the author: This is one of several articles in a series that I started writing in April of 2005, just a few months after moving to Italy.

In those first months  I forced myself to eat carne cruda so as not to seem rude and to avoid promoting the negative reputation that Americans have as been wasteful.  One of my first (and most memorable) experiences with carne cruda occurred shortly after the famous Meat Shopping Adventure. I offered to help Carmela, the woman who ran the local hangout in Sinio, to help with lunch.  She had me mix the meat with the garlic, oil and lemon with my (thoroughly washed) bare hands. I’m sure you can image the satisfying feeling of squishing and squeezing a huge bowl of ground meat between your fingers (we’re talking ground meat for 30 here folks).

But sometimes it’s hard to eat food you’ve prepared (ever killed and plucked a chicken, cooked it and then eaten it?  Cleaned chicken livers of their stringy bloody veins, prepared them in fegatini style and then savored every last morsel?)  Sometimes I love eating the things I prepare, and sometimes it just can’t stop thinking about the original product or the process.

If the thought of eating a whole plate of raw hamburger meat makes your stomach turn (seconds, anyone?), remember that this meat ISN’T like the normal hamburger meat we Americans eat on a regular basis.  These bovine are raised in a very natural way so to avoid the growth of connective tissue that makes meat tough.  Moreover, these cows have less of this connective tissue than most other varieties of cows to start with. In fact a good carne cruda has very little of that white stringy stuff in it, but is almost completely red.  (I just hate getting connective tissue stuck between my teeth, don’t you?)  Nowadays, as long as there’s plenty of fresh bread to go with it, I actually enjoy a plate of the Piemontese delicacy.

 

Stay tuned for more weird foods that you never would have imagined were typical Italian dishes.

The New House: An Update

Second Story Staircase

Work on the new house is moving right along!  In fact, it’s practically done!  Yesterday, Flavio – our fallegname di fiducia, or faithful woodworker and furniture builder – came to get the precise measurements for the kitchen, kitchen pantry, bathroom sink base, inside doors, baseboards and hallway armoir.

Yeah, he’s basically in charge of everything that has anything to do with wood in the house.  So far he’s put in the second story staircase.  Which I can finally clean up since everyone is done painting.  (I seriously don’t understand how people can make such a mess when they work and then not clean up after themselves.)

And he’s also done the wooden flooring that’s in both bedrooms, the hallway and the guest bathroom.  It doesn’t have the final coat of finish on it yet – he’ll be coming back to do that when most of the other work is done.  We really love the flooring, which is an industrial flooring made up of lots of little pieces…a picture says a thousand words:

This week Luca tried his hand at some Venetian stucco in the guest bathroom.  It came out really cool!  He’s still polishing it up some more, so I’ll post another picture when it’s all done.  But here’s one from yesterday.  If you’re not familiar with it (I wasn’t!), Venetian stucco is a sort of polished plaster.

Venetian Stucco

Basically you apply two or three layers of really thick “paint” with a chocolate spreader (well, that’s what I call it, it’s a type of metal spatula), keeping it at 30° and you have to really spread it a lot and let it dry between coats.  Then  you polish it (we learned a trick that involves drying and buffing with a hair dryer that works great).  When it’s done, the wall isn’t a uniform color and it looks like glass!  It feels like glass too.  It’s a very cool finish.  For the moment, we’re just doing the one pillar in the guest bathroom dark red, but we already bought two other jars of grey  to put somewhere else (not exactly sure where we’re going to use it because the original idea has been shot down…if you need any grey venetian stucco, let me know).  In the picture at the left it hasn’t been polished yet.

I’m so excited for my camera di creatività (creativity room)!!  I might move in early so I have somewhere to store all my stuff.  It’s such a pain having to haul everything out every time I want to do a craft or hem a skirt.  I’m already dreaming up things I can do in the room and collecting some interior design ideas.  You can check them out on Pinterest and leave comments if you want.

I amazingly managed to convince Luca that we needed some more color in the house and here’s our new green wall on the stairway that goes up to the third floor:

Now that it’s there he loves it as much as I do – a little color never hurt anyone, though sometimes you have to be courageous to use it.

Here’s a video I took on Febuary 13th to give you a better idea of the layout of the house.

A New House

We’re building a new house!  Actually, the construction crew has been at it for a while now and most of the major work is done.  It’s right across the street from where we currently live, so not a major move, but the new house is bigger than our current apartment, and features an extra bedroom and bathroom and a huge balcony off the kitchen.  This week our plumber di fiducia (our faithful plumber), Giovanni (pron. Jo-faaah-nee), finished the hydraulic work and Luca started pulling wires.

We’ve chosen the stove/oven block (similar to this one from Germania, but a slightly different model) and last week picked out the wooden flooring for the hallways, bedroom and one bathroom (see pic).

We probably won’t be moving until next year – no hurry as we love where we live now – but here are some sneak previews (click for bigger pics):

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