May, 2006

In An Octopus’ Garden

Well, Luca magically found the broken part on my computer and replaced it! Where would we be without him, I ask you.

I’ve decided I look absolutely horrrrrrendous in the color brown. Yuck! Just really not a good color on me (for future reference). You’d think it’d be a good color–dark, deep, rich chocolately brown. I’m wearing a brown shirt today that I got at the market in Alba last summer and I’ve pretty much decided that I won’t be wearing it again. *Sigh* Oh well. Life goes on.

I started transplanting my garden yesterday!! Woohoo! The tomatoes were starting to get bugs and one of the old guys in town said it was because they were just planted too close together. So I bit the big one and started burrowing with bare hands.

I know that the Zio (Luca’s great-uncle who lives next door–Battista is his real name) said I needed to work the soil more: until it has a finer crumb. But I don’t have time! And I don’t have the tools. And if I wait until I’m done working the soil it will be Christmas and tomatoes will be out of season.

I yanked all the grass and weeds out and tilled the whole damn plot by hand with Battista’s shovel from 1802. Did I tell you about the shovel? God, I need to take a picture. It seriously IS from 1802, I’m not even kidding. It’s half rotten and full of termite holes. Apparently the Zio wanted to get a new one this year but no one would let him: “You’re too old to be digging in the garden anyways! This one’s good enough for you to use until you die!”

Anyways, Zio let me borrow his shovel after…wait, let me start from the beginning.

The whole garden thing is basically my way of dealing with loneliness and the need for something stable in my life. I am not feeling sorry for myself, just looking at the facts. I’ve been roaming for the past six years–Napa, Las Vegas, Rochester, Piedmont–changing jobs every year–living away from home. The loneliness and instability should not be a big surprise after the lifestyle I’ve been leading of late.

If you plant a garden it pretty much means you’ve got to stay in one place for a while. I need to see some concrete positive results from the work I do. So in April I bought a bunch of seeds, a small raspberry plant, and the stump of a rose bush. I planted the seeds inside and nutured them.

I bought sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavendar plants.

They all died.

Luca knocked over my zucchini and parsley seedlings. They all died.

I needed to start clearing the land if I was ever going to plant my baby plants and reap the benefits of having an orto (vegetable garden). The problem was that my plot of land was a selvatic weed field that hadn’t been touched by anyone in over two years. (The dandelions were shoulder-high).

So, day by day, I cleared little pieces of the land–tearing out everything except a couple of plants that looked like some sort of green spinach-type thing that could be edible. (They’re called coste here; sort of like kale I suppose).

Everyone laughed and told me to let Luca do it. “That’s not work for you. Tell Luca to stop being lazy and come help you.” But Luca wasn’t being lazy. Luca wants to have Nothing to do with this garden. He hates plants and thinks they’re a real waste of time.

He’ll think differently when he tastes my sweet sweet tomatoes!!!

I kept going.

Eventually I had cleared a spot about 4 yards by 4 yards (chaos in the form of weeds and random wild flowers reigns around the borders). It was time to till. I bought a shiny new shovel at the store. On the short walk back to my house from the car, I felt proud carrying my new shovel in public. Finally, I thought, I’m like the rest of these people (80% of the people in our area farm for a living–they mostly grow grapes to make wine, but also regular farming), working the land! I may be American but that doesn’t mean I’m a wimp!

I started tilling my soon-to-be-garden with my new shovel. The ground was really hard, but I didn’t stop. You wouldn’t believe how many people stopped to see what I was doing. Everyone had some sort of comment to make. Most of the comments regarded my spanking-new shovel. “You can’t till with that thing! It’s not the right kind. I’ll lend you one that works better!” The last sentence was always said with a sort of “You oOBVIOUHSLY know NOOthing about gardening, I’ll show you how it’s done” attitude. Needless to say, no one brought me their shovel.

And then the Zio came into the garden.

And he didn’t come alone. In hand he had what I took to be some sort of ancient instrument of torture. It turns out that it was The Right Tool For Tilling.

The Zio’s garden is right next to mine. We share a big compost heap along the division line. He’s really a great guy. He showed me exactly how to use the tool (which I was convinced was going to break into splinters with every shove into that rock hard ground), and let me borrow it for three whole days. He explained that after I had finished with this tool, I would need to go over the whole plot again with another one that makes the earth finer.

And that brings us up to yesterday, when I decided that I just couldn’t wait any longer to make the earth finer. I needed to plant my plants already!!

Now I’ve got them planted, but I need to go and scavange for stakes to hold up my tomato plants. Right now I’m using chopsticks, but it’s sort of embarassing because all the other gardens around me have miniature trees holding up their tomato plants.

My Mom suggested using a sort of heavy-duty chicken wire. Maybe I can find some of that.

Until next time…

Tea and Gianduja

My mom’s little diet program is going pretty well.

Okay, so I completely abandoned it this weekend, but only in celebration of Luca’s birthday.

And today I did technically eat a piece of gianduja, but at the last minute I sat down before eating it, so at least I only broke one of the two rules. (The rules being don’t eat standing up and don’t eat dessert).

Plus, I drank tea afterwards to make up for the slip (Rule Number Three: Drink tea instead of eating when you get hungry)–do I get bonus points for that?

I haven’t actually lost any weight yet, but you have to remember that my scale is in kilos (chilos in Italian), so I have to lose 2.5 pounds before the numbers on the scale change.

Since I’m working out five times a week I feel a lot better at least; the not-drinking-alcohol thing makes you feel so pure! I enjoy that. Mom says that every time you’re about to give into temptation you need to remember your objectives! Eye on the prize!!

(Sidenote: The Janet McConologue Lifestyle Diet is based on a two minute conversation I had on the phone with my Mom a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t acutally talked to her since then, but having a long-distance relationship with your personal trainer requires a little imagination).

You can bet I’ll be venting my food frustrations in Toothsome

Thoughts From A Newly Transplanted American In Italy

I’m archiving my personal notes today (we don’t have anyone at the B&B this week, so I’m sort of on a mini-vacation…). I guess I never found time to post these happenings at the time they occurred…But here are some of the more interesting commentaries on new life in Europe…(**Please excuse the GROSS grammatical errors in my Italian, at the time I obviously knew nothing about the language!**)

This excerpt I wrote on the train from Milan to Paris on the day I arrived in Europe

March 16, 2005
Central Train Station, Milan

“Salgo a Paris!” And boy am I tired. Ho sonno — ho un puo di sonno. (I’m sleepy. I am a little sleepy). I can’t believe I made it onto this train; everything went fairly smoothly. I managed to find other people who were going my way or were willing to help. Andiamo — Solamente due minuti tarde(Let’s go! Only two minutes late).

Fell asleep for a long time–woke up in the Alps! There are a lot more people on the train now. I’m pretty hungry and still tired. I can’t believe I’ll be living in Paris for…who knows how long?! Eee! I haven’t felt like crying at all yet on this trip –very much in control so far! Good! Definitely needs to stay that way. It’s foggy in the mountains. We’re going through lots of tunnels…”

After a week in Paris, I moved to Italy. Here are some of my first impressions:

“Life here so far is a little like camping, but that’s not how I think living in Italy will always be. The construction zone we’re in right now makes getting settled a bit more dificile (difficult). I think when the major masonry and construction work is done and the dust has cleared out it will feel more like a home.

We’ve been forced to eat out everyday because we don’t have a kitchen yet. This has been great for me because I’ve gotten to see a lot of the typical food in the area and taste it too! Also getting to see what the local restaurants are like: very homey, not much like the restaurants in America. At one yesterday there were no menus. The cook recited the menu to us at the table.

The antipasti still seem very exotic to me–boiled meats and homemade salamis… The waiters bring out strange parts of animals that I’ve never seen before, much less eaten (and certainly not eaten at a restaurant!!). Very unusual.

And the pasta. For all we hear about the Italians liking their pasta al dente, we’ve only been served al dente pasta once in two weeks! One of the more traditional dishes here is tagliarin (homemade flat spaghetti) served with meat sauce. After having one that was done “right” I can honestly say that I just do not like the stuff. Served with the traditional bagna rossa (red sauce), it tastes like spaghetti-Os from a can! Yuck! The sauce is thin and without much flavor. They hardly put any meat in at all! And the pasta barely has enough sauce to even cover it. It’s just not a dish I enjoy. And now that I think about it, I never really liked thin spaghetti and red sauce. (As a result of getting desperately ill after eating spaghetti and red sauce at the LB Grand in LeRoy). I suppose I’ll have to adjust my palate now that I’m an international citizen. I want to be able to appreciate the traditions of this culture.

Okay, so they don’t like a lot of sauce on their pasta and they don’t believe in condiments or salad dressing. It seems somewhat barbaric to me, but the Italians probably say the same thing about us eating potato chips and microwave dinners.

Desserts. Oh Billy. SO different. They’re a whole nother animal. In the US our desserts are composed, we think about them as much as the main entrees. In Italy perhaps they do think about dolci as much as they think about main courses, it’s just that by nature the menu items are much less complex. Italians don’t garnish. Usually. Every once in a while you’ll see a sprig of sage on some plin (little ravioli), but it’s not the same thought process that we go through in the States.

At Three Birds and Bouchon the plating philosophy was basically “keep the plate clean. Garnish everything. Season Everything.” None of those apply to the cuisine in Piedmont. (though I need to work in some restaurants here to fully understand what the local philosophies are). For now I’ll say that “just like Grandma used to make” is the flavor and presentation they’re going for. Keep it traditional, don’t make it too fancy. (Basically they just plop it on the plate and “Voila!”)

The sauces are so far from clean it’s not even funny. They’re hearty sauces. Thickened with a whole bunch of flour. Very starchy. And not shiny. The sauces hold their shape on the plate too much–and anyways they’re not on the plate for decoration. Whereas in America we decorate the plate with one or two sauces, in Italy if there is sauce, it’s there because it’s part of the meal. And you better bet it’s coming to you poured directly on top of the meat and NEVER drizzled prettily around.

OH the vegetables!! Not often are they cooked a la minute, but rather, boiled (for hours seemingly!) & held at temp until needed. SO far from crunchy. Perhaps the overcooked vegetables stem from there being so many elderly in the community & the tight-knit family structure. Everyone lives together–whole families. Perhaps not in the same house, but as the family grows and the original house gets too small, they’ll build another adjoining house, and another, and another. I imagine everyone must eat together pretty often as well. Thus the need for soggy vegetables that the old people can chew.

People here don’t seem to throw things away/get rid of stuff like we do. I swear there’s a guy in Sinio who’s been riding the same bike for the last 70 years!

I want to talk to the younger (teenage/college) people and see how they feel about this. And families with new babies–are they happy living in the same place in the same house all their life?

Don’t the younger people want to explore? How do they find someone to marry? Are they curious to see if there’s someone outside their town/area that might be absolutely the right person for them to spend the rest of their life with. Do the Piemontese people have the curiosity to see the world? We met a man the other day –75 years old–who has only been to Alba three or four times in his life. Alba is only 20 minutes away from here!!! He said ‘Why would I want to go there? Everything I need is here.’ “

Happy Birthday Luca

Tomorrow is Luca’s Birthday!

I am extremely enjoying the Roger & Gallet Gentle Nature Soap with Lettuce Extracts that Diana, Jon & Nicki gave me for Christmas this year. It is seriously the bomb. I love it! I may need to buy myself the rest of the product line to reward myself for sticking to “Janet McConologue’s Drink Tea and Skip Dessert Weight Management Program”. I feel that having quality soap products makes me feel elegant and classy. I remember my Grandma Crane used Yardley’s Lavendar Bar Soap exclusively. I bet it made her feel elegant too.

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