Saturday, March 29, 2008

In love with Lucca, the Italian City (not the person on the second floor)

This weekend we drove to Lucca, a town an hour away from Florence that was recommended to me by a few of my new Florentine friends. When my Italy guide book described it as the most beautiful city in Italy, I was skeptical....would it be as enchanting as my new home town?

We decided to explore this town on the humble pushbike and funnily enough, the lady that ran the bike shop lived in Australia 30 years ago in Fremantle, a town that is ten minutes from where we live in Perth - what is it they say about the world being so small?

We hopped on our bikes (Without the stress of helmet hair - helmets are not compulsory or even suggested!) and rode through this amazing town that has easily gone on my top ten towns in the world. Not only was the town and it's city walls just as enchanting and beautiful as the guide book suggested, but it is a town that is famous for fritole, a deep-fried doughnut that even has a nutella option. We tried both varieties just as they came out of the hot oil. I had no idea fried nutella could be so delicious! The doughnut seller was so delighted as I stood there with nutella all over my hands and face telling him that this was heaven - a messy heaven but heaven nonetheless. He smiled and wisely kept handing me serviettes.

Our relaxed carefree day of eating doughnuts, fritto misto (mixed seafood grill) and sitting in the warm sun soon turned into a stressful experience. I decided there and then that I was going to conquer my fear of driving in Italy and get us home from Lucca back to Florence.

This would be the first time I would drive on the wrong side of the road - remember in Australia we drive correctly (!) on the left hand side. The whole thing felt weird from sitting on the wrong side of the vehicle, to changing gears with my right hand and me constantly swerving to the right and eventually hitting the curb (let's hope the car hire company is not reading this).

Dear husband felt like he was with a learner and not someone that has been driving for 11 years. So, after one argument and about five cars tooting me, we finally pulled up into our safe-haven (the garage). I didn't realise just how stressed I was as when I got out my legs were physically shaking. But now I can go back to Australia saying I have driven not only through busy central London but also through the crazy maniac Florence streets with Italian street signs that I can't read. This is a big achievement considering we have lived in Karratha for the last four years, a town with not even one set of traffic lights.

I have to make a quick mention of Friday night. I told my husband I was going to cook a casual meal at home but at 4pm I had this urge to go out (this happens after I have been sitting at home alone for 9 hours straight!). So the apartment staff booked us a very traditional Florentine restaurant and so far, it is the best restaurant I have been to in Florence.

As soon as we walked into Omero and my husband had to duck his head so he wouldn't hit the twenty prosciutto hanging from the ceiling, we knew we were in for a true Florentine meal. The highlight of my meal could have easily been the antipasti of meats and pates. It could also have been my Florentine style pigeon. But the easy winner was in fact the unbelievable dessert. Initially I was so disappointed that they did not serve tiramisu, but I was so glad they didn't as I have never ever eaten a dessert like this - marscapone and ricotta cheesecake that was so perfetto that I was lost for words. There is just no other way to describe it and when my tastebuds woke me up on Saturday morning I started planning when we would go there again and if it would be wrong of me to order the same cheesecake for antipasto, primi and secondi courses.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

If the Italian scooters won't kill you, the cold weather is sure to

When people ask me what nationality I am I always answer Australian. I emigrated to my wonderful country Australia when I was five years old, so I do consider myself a true blue Aussie and have not one but three pairs of thongs to prove this (Note here: thongs have a very different meaning in some languages and in this case, I refer to the ones you wear on your feet!).

But I also consider myself Polish which is where I was born and both my parents were born. I was brought up in a house with Polish customs, traditions and rituals, some which I still live by now in my adult life which are coming very handy in understanding Italian life.

When I was growing up, my polish father used to have a very frustrating answer to what I thought were very legitimate questions. The answer was always 'because that's the way it is'. My questions were often:

  • Why do I have to eat prune soup? (no, I'm not joking, it's an actual Polish dish)

  • Why can't I go to sleep with wet hair?

  • Why do I have to speak Polish at home?

  • Why can't I take a peanut butter sandwich to school instead of salami and gherkins?

  • Why do I have to drink hot milk with garlic when I'm sick? The Aussie kids just take an asprin.

In a Polish household some things are just the way they are and there is really no point in trying to change the system. It's been like that for decades and who am I to try to point out any flaws in it? I'm quickly learning this rule also applies in Italy. In Italy you do not drink cappucino after dinner, you do not order a Florentine steak well done and you do not serve pasta as a main dish. It's just the way it is.

In a Polish household, you are committing a grave sin if you walk into someones house with your shoes on or for that matter, walk around with bare feet in your own house. Are you not civilised enough to have heard of slippers? I must admit this one I have engrained into both myself and my Australian husband and I wear slippers in the house even in 40 degree Australian heat.

Another thing you must never do is drive with your car windows down. It's just 'not done' and will inevitably end in you getting sick the very next day or in extreme cases, immediately as soon as the wind enters your body. I was in a car with my Polish cousins who came to visit us in Australia. I put the car window down slightly to get some fresh air and they both loudly screamed 'Close the window, we'll catch a cold!'. It was 40 degrees outside but there was no reasoning with them.

Today I went walking to the mercato and I was reminded of this fear that Europeans have of 'catching a cold'. See, I walk around Florence all day long and I am a fast walker negotiating myself expertly between kissing lovers and slow walking tourist groups. I can't help it. I try to slow down and enjoy the beautiful city but inevitably end up power walking in my high heel boots wondering why I didn't wear the comfortable shoes that sit buried deep in the cupboard. Anyway, because of the fast pace of my walk, I always get really hot, no matter how cold it is outside.

Today the beautiful Tuscan sun was shining through my curtains and so I decided to wear jeans, boots and shock horror a 3/4 sleeve knit top. No less than three Italian women stopped me to ask me if I was cold (actually they didn't ask me, they told me I was cold) and starting shaking their heads at me like I was surely asking to be sick. And that was in the space of an hour long walk to the shops.

The lady at the market was the most dramatic and told me in no uncertain terms, that tomorrow I will be sick. The older lady that stopped me on the road used the words 'mamma mia' (usually reserved for grave occasions) and the hotel staff advised 'signora, you should wear a jacket, it is freddo (cold) today.' And I can bet that if my dad saw me wearing my outfit today, that would have made four people reminding me of my completely wrong choice of clothes and the illness that is now my fate for tomorrow. (It will be interesting to read this blog entry when I myself become a parent and my child wants to go out in the cold without a jacket. But for now I rebel and go sleeveless).

This also got me thinking about how different Australians are to Europeans in their outspoken opinions of one another to each other. I remember quite vividly my Polish cousin telling me that she did not like the outfit I was wearing because my thighs looked terribly big in the pants (damn those heavy pasta dishes!) An Australian would NEVER tell you this. They would notice your thighs but smile and say 'you look really great, have you lost weight?'

Another big cultural difference is the way Australians and Europeans address each other. Very rarely do Australians call someone Mister or Mrs. It's nearly always by their first name regardless of what their age is. To this day I find it very hard to call someone much older than me by their first name. Not that I would dare dream to do that in Italy. Even when I insist our apartment staff call me Monika, the next day they revert back to Signora (although my favourites call me Signorina which makes me feel young!).

So, today I walked through Italy with thoughts in English contemplating European culture. Tonight I will be cooking Polish chicken soup for my half Filipino, half Australian husband. To add to my wonderfully cultural day, I stumbled upon a bakery that sold pink frosty American style doughnuts which I couldn't resist buying three of. Everyday I keep reminding myself of just how lucky I am to be living this tremendously cultural experience in a city filled with surprises and strangers who worry for my health.

'Every age, every culture, every custom and every tradition has its own character, it's own weakness and it's own strength, it's beauties and cruelties....' (Herman Hesse 1946)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Eating french fries but dreaming of pizza

My husband and I left Florence for a weekend getaway to Paris for Easter.

I was really excited as I had never been to this famous city before and I was already envisaging my blog that I would write with all my wonderful experiences. But because I've decided this is going to be a very honest blog, I have to say I wasn't that impressed compared to the other wonderful cities Europe has to offer. I'm sorry to offend Paris lovers or Parisians with that statement but it's my blog and I'll cry if I want to...

Sing it people!

Of course I was impressed with the stunning Tour Eiffel, the Louvre museum and Notredame, I don't think you could find anyone that wouldn't be. And I was definetely impressed with the cuisine. I didn't realise the French love their chocolate so much! The pattiseries were the best I've ever tried (and I've tried a lot!) and there were stalls selling fresh hot crepes on every corner - bliss!

We went to one restaurant that a good friend had recommended called Aux marches du Palais. This is a traditional restaurant out of the tourist area (but still very easily accesible by the excellent metro train) which starts serving at 8pm because an hour beforehand is when the staff eat. We were told that this is a traditional Parisian custom whereby staff of restaurants and hotels used to always be served food before their work shift started. This would ensure the staff were well fed and happy and also arrived to work on time. If the staff member did not appear for dinner, then the restaurant would have to pay him extra in his/her salary as this was actually part of their work package. We thought it was a great idea as there is nothing worse than getting an unknowledgable waiter that can't recommend or explain the dishes on their menu. For our meal we ordred entrees of pork terrine which was also served with salami's (I thought I had left Italy!) and ravioli de crab maison. Then my husband ordered a house specialty Gigot de Sept Hueres - lamb that had been cooked for 12 hours in a french traditional way and I ordered duck which was encased in a crepe. Both were fabulous but the best was still yet to come. All who know me know that I live for dessert and this restaurant served a petit pot au chocolat that is easily the best dessert I've ever eaten in my life. It was a pot of pure chocolate heaven and one that will frequently appear in all my best dreams.

But with all our wonderful Paris experiences, we just could not get over how rude the French were. I had read numerous stories and reports referring to their abruptness, but I am not usually one to beleive stereotypes (I have also read the Italians are rude and I completely disagree with this!). But I have to say that for the small handful of people that were polite to us, the majority were very rude from the waiters to even our hotel staff. Sorry to sound snooty, but when I am paying 11 euro's for a glass of lemonade I expect at least a nod from the waiter to acknowledge my presence! To me it seemed that everything was just too hard for them.

One thing that shocked me was seeing a pickpocketer in action, although I know this is a daily occurrence in much of Europe not just Paris. As all us Aussie's know, this would be a rarity to see in our country especially at 2pm in the afternoon, but in Paris no one even took noticed (apart from us standing with our mouths wide open) as a fight broke out between the pick-pocketer and the man whose wallet he stole. Eventually the security men came to the scene and handcuffed the offender. Surprisingly to us, the offender was about 28, quite handsome and very well dressed. It made me hold on to my handbag a little bit tighter after that incident and we decided that we would only ever take one of our wallets out on a day trip and leave the other one behind in the safe.

So, all in all, I'm so grateful for the chance to see this famous city. I'm glad for the chance to see the Mona Lisa, sample real French profiteroles and visit the place where my favourite manicure, the French manicure, is invented. But when the plane landed in Pisa and the Italian custom of passengers clapping started, I turned to my husband and said 'I'm so glad we are home in our wonderful Florence.' It was the first time I had called Florence my home. And when the staff at our apartment greeted us as if we were family members, we fell in love with Florence and the Italians just a little bit more.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Fabulous Mercato S. Ambrogio

This morning I went to my favourite place in Florence. No, not the famous Uffici museum, not the Duomo and not the Ponte Vecchio. My favourite place in Florence has to be the Mercato S. Ambrogio markets.

Not only do these markets have mouth watering Swiss Cheese, fresh non-salted bread and homemade spinaci e ricotta ravioli but they are full of Italian atmosphere. Usually there are no tourists and the shop owners speak no English, so I feel like I am in the real heart of Italy in this place. There is my favourite smiling lady in the pasta shop who shouts 'brava!' if I pronounce something right in Italian, the cheese man who today let me taste a delicious parmesan and a smiling butcher who sells me veal and tells me I'm molto gentile (very polite). Me? Grazie!

The market is also always full of doggies accompanying their owners to the markets. A part of me thinks this is a cruel torture for the poor doggies who can see the proscuitto hanging. A week ago, I saw the most beautiful dog who also happened to be the largest dog I've ever seen. His owner told me he weighed 80 kilo's! He was drooling everywhere, but in fairness so was I at the sight of the pancetta I was just about order.

Today I also met a beautiful blonde Italian....his name simply Filipo...a golden labrador. His owner spoke perfect English so we chatted for a while and I got lots of licks and kisses (from the dog not the owner!!). By the way, Filipo and I were the only blondes in the whole market amongst an array of perfectly styled dark coloured Italian hair.

In another section of the market, the vegetable sellers are in full swing. I now have my favourites in particular the vegetable man who associates me as the 'shark girl' because apparently there are a lot of dangerous sharks EVERYWHERE ready to eat you in Australia! He also teases his neighbour that all the 'bella' girls come to his vegetable stall! (I don't have the heart or the knowledge of Italian language to tell him it's because his fruit is cheaper ha!).

A couple of days ago I made the mistake of asking him for basilico (basil) with the intention of making some bruschetta. By the look on his face, clearly this was a mistake. He told me that I must make something else as basil is not in season and why would I want to make something with unseasonal vegetables - good point actually. So, i picked up some seasonal zucchini flowers and lightly fried them in olive oil - bellisimo!

When we eventually move back to the small mining town Karratha in Australia where the vegetables are on a truck for two days before they get to the store, I think this is one aspect of my days in Florence that I will surely miss.

Tomorrow I will be swapping my pasta eating for snails and frog legs as we are going to Paris for Easter. I'm fully expecting my body to go into shock from pizza and tiramisu withdrawals. But when Tuesday comes I will be waving hello to the salami's, cheeses and my new friends at the Mercato S. Ambrogio.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Food & Fake Gucci

This morning we both woke up tired and decided to abandon our plans of a skiing trip to Abetone and went to the 'Taste Food Festival' at Stazione Leopolda. On the way we stopped at Palazzo Strozzi which is a museum near the Uffici. We didn't go there for the exhibits but rather for their chocolate torte that I had sampled the day before at the museum cafe. I asked my husband to take a picture of me with the big statue in front of the museum and as I did a loud peircing noise sounded and it took me a few moments to realise I was setting an alarm off. An Italian security man ran out from seemingly nowhere and said something to us in Italian which I'm quite sure translated to 'bloody tourists.'

Anyway, the chocolate torte was again delicious but was a mistake as the taste festival had so much glorious food to sample. For 8 Euro's each, we didn't expect much. But inside was a beautifully upper class exhibition with at least 40 vendors proudly showing their various produce from all around Italy. From olive oils to breads to balsamic vinegars, we could barely walk home. We ate unbeleivingly tender prosciutto off the bone, truffle chocolates that are probably served in heaven and cheese that defy an explanation. There were very little tourists there and it was probably for this reason that we were a hit with all the stall holders - well they were probably laughing at our broken Italian and the fact that everything we tried we tagged with 'bellisimo'. You just do not get this kind of produce in Australia let alone Karratha!

In the evening, we felt like some healthy Japanese food. The hotel gave us a recommendation and off we set to a place near the Uffici. When we arrived the restaurant was completely empty but they wouldn't accommodate us as we did not have a booking. By this time, all I could think of was tempura and miso soup but alas it was not to be. We are booked in for tomorrow night but I am still wondering why an empty and expensive restaurant would not serve two (very hungry and miso craving) paying customers in low tourist season! A lot of things in Italy are simply 'impossible' and can not be done. I guess this is one of those times.

Our evening gelati ritual ended up in watching the fake handbag sellers and their 'games' with the carabinieri (police). We wonder whether the police are actually interested in really catching these men that sell fake Gucci, LV and Prada. At first I felt sorry for the sellers as I contemplated on what would lead someone to want to spend their days fleeing from police and conning unsuspecting tourists into buying a 'real' Prada for a quarter of the price. But then I spoke to a local Florentine man and he explained that it makes the Italians really upset and mad as they have to work for their money and pay taxes whereas these sellers are usually here illegally and pay no taxes and still use the Italian public services - I hadn't thought of it that way. I also hadn't thought of the thousands of euro's a year that Gucci pays for leasing a shopfront just to see their brand being destroyed in the street.

Back at home, I turned on CNN and watched a documentary about women in Iraq and the terrible struggles they face daily. It made me realise that we are all in this world together but we are all in such different circumstances. I'm ending the night thanking God for our blessings and for us having the privilege of being in Italy - a country that not only has a wonderful food festivals but allows freedom of speech and a safe caring environment for women to express them selves and live without fear.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Buses and shopping

Yesterday I decided to take a trip out to Barberino, the shopping outlet an hour out of Florence. I had bought my tickets the day before and asked for a return ticket - non problema.
Getting there was easy but I didn't realise that the return ticket was from a location 45 minutes on foot from the outlet...and that was the only bus that serviced the area. I was wearing my high heels so I had to then take a taxi to this spot and catch the bus back. It was a bit of a bummer to my otherwise good shopping experience but during my two hour wait at the bus stop (that is the only taxi I could get in a town with just two taxis) I happened to meet an older Italian lady walking her golden retriever. I instantly fell in love with this dog that looked like my Jess at home. The lady did not speak a word of English and I don't speak Italian (yet) but through our mutual love of dogs we understood each other.

After the bus debacle, I wished that I had the guts to take our car and drive out there myself. For now, my husband is the only one driving in a town that seems to have no regard for lanes, traffic lights and definetely not for pedestrian crossings. Being in Italy for just over a week, it still feels wrong to me to drive on the right hand side of the road...every day my husband drives our car to work I pray for his safety as the driving here is very intense compared to our home town Karratha which does not even have one set of traffic lights!

I have been away from Australia for five months now. The last three months were spent living in the UK while we waited for our work permit to come through. In that time and even now, I've had lots of lonely moments where I have felt very alone with no friends in a new city. Back home, I've always worked and for the first time, did not really have a purpose for getting out of my pyjamas every day. I got out of that habit and made myself go to my local coffee shop every morning and get out and about even if it was just walking around aimlessly enjoying the sunshine (yes even the UK has sunshine contrary to popular belief!) . It also took my mind off this nigling thought that I had now given up my career and my own independence. I have been jokingly threatening my husband for years that I was going to become a 'lady of leisure' - but here I was, and I felt lost and without purpose.

This week Tuesday was such a day and so I got dressed and decided to go to the bookshop Edison which has an English speaking section and a selection of delicious cakes. I ordered in my basic Italian (they answered in English, how am I ever going to learn this language!?) Sitting down with my pear torte I picked up a copy of the 'Lonely Planet' about Florence to find a destination for my husband and I to visit for the upcoming weekend. In it was a recommended blog about an American woman that moves to Florence. I read her very interesting blog, emailed her and today we met for a coffee in a museum coffee shop. There are some people that I find so interesting and I feel I can be myself with and Melinda was one of them. I had mixed feelings of missing my girlfriends at home but also a really happy feeling of meeting such a lovely person that shares the same passions as me reading and writing. I was so happy when she invited me for a lunch next week. For me, I could have all the riches in the world but a simple coffee with a friend means a whole lot more to me. I rang my husband all excited that I had spent a day with a 'real human being' and found someone I had clicked with. Sometimes I think he thinks I'm crazy but unless you spend all day by yourself trying to pass the day, it's hard to understand that it's VERY BIG NEWS to make a friend! Anyway he was really happy for me as he could hear the real happiness in my voice which has been missing for some time.

On the way home, I stopped to buy some beautiful produce at a market for a dinner that I'm making tonight for one of Jay's colleagues and a new friend of mine. I've always loved cooking and growing up with a father who is an excellent cook, I feel most at peace cooking for others. But I have had to change my habits. Living in a hotel apartment (until we find an apartment) means that I have a smaller kitchen and need to cook simpler things. This summarises Italian cooking in the best possible way: simple recipes with a couple of flavoursome ingredients. Whereas I would previously make some complicated sauce and spend hours on one dish, I now serve ravioli simply with butter and sage....and the taste is amazing. I would spend hours baking cakes at home but now for dessert I am so happy with fresh local fragola (strawberries) served with marscapone and drizzled with honey. At home, I used to eat butter like it was going out of fashion. Here I have been introduced to non salted bread with olive oil and my body feels healthier for it.
Mind you, I still have my daily gelati habit and my quest for the best tiramisu in Florence goes on. Some things never change...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Our first week in Florence

A year ago, my husband Jason and I were living in sunny Karratha, a small mining town of twelve thousand people .... life was good albeit a little boring. Then the news came that Jason was offered a position on a project abroad for a year and a half in....bella Firenze. Hmmm hang on let me consider my options...desert mining town with forty degree daily temperatures and 200 kms away from the nearest town or moving to a place millions of people will only dream about visiting all on the company's expense....tough choice but we choose Firenze.
This blog is about my thoughts of a country that is not only beautiful but also very challenging if you are here for more than a week on holidays!
Hope you enjoy it and please feel free to comment and make any suggestions.
Ciao and baci