Sunday, June 22, 2008

Soccer fever, plastic gloves and Italian food in Germany

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely (P.J O'Rourke)

This week I went on a three day impromptu visit to see my family in Germany, a country I love visiting. My poor husband was to stay behind as he had to work. Being a Polish wife means you are inherently born with a gene that makes you feel instant guilt if you abandon your husband without leaving a fully stocked fridge with three different cooked dishes and a homemade dessert. So after finishing that task, I packed my bags and yelled out arrivederci as my husband dropped me off at Pisa airport.

My German cousins decided to take me out to a restaurant and then a bar afterwards for a drink. I was disappointed when they excitedly told me we were going to their favourite Italian restaurant but didn't have the heart to tell them I really felt like a schnitzel. Afterwards at the bar, I got to experience the madness in Europe right now that is soccer fever. The fussball match I watched was close to home as the Italians were playing and they won. I smiled as I could only imagine the happiness and cheer that I was sure was being paraded that night in my hometown of Florence.

Whenever I go to Germany I stock up on food at the Polish delicatessen. I left Florence with a twelve kilogram suitcase and came back with twenty one kilograms. Jason picked up my suitcase and looking weak asked 'how many clothes did you buy this time?' But to his pleasant surprise he opened the bag and was greeted by the wafting smell of salami squashed in amongst Polish preserves, Polish spices and the traditional Polish poppy seed cake, makowiec. I sneakily smiled at the thought of my two new gorgeous items of clothing I had stowed away in my hand luggage.

After living in Italy for a few months now, Germany always feels so clean and organised. Now today's blog is going to expose me for the germaphobe that I am, but I have to admit I have some 'cleanliness issues' with Florence. See, I can get over that I will be walking behind someone who will not think twice about dropping rubbish to the ground that I inevitably step on with my new pair of cream wedge shoes. I also have no problem dodging the dog poo that is on every footpath. And I can even get over that smokers will not care about you choking when they are smoking three centimetres away from you while you are trying to eat.

But I just can't get over that the shop owners use their ungloved hands to serve me my bread each morning. In the first couple of days of arriving in Florence, I bought bread and pastries from various fornaio's (bakeries) around town and was shocked that they handled my (and a hundred other people's) money and then used the same hands to cut my bread or piece of pizza. That would never happen in Australia. I paid them and promptly threw the 'dirty goods' in the nearest bin cursing myself for choosing a seller that clearly was not hygienic. Well, it only took me another two days to realise that if I was going to eat at all in Italy, I would have to get over this cleanliness obsession I had.

Recently we started doing our food shopping out of town in a big supermarket as there are no such places in central Florence. With lower prices and a larger variety of food, I was excited to find a shop that looked like my beloved Woolworths in Australia and I quickly proceeded to the fruit and vegetable section. I picked up some delicious looking peaches that are in season now, checking for their firmness. An Italian lady looked at me with displeasure and pointed at the gloves. Apparently it is mandatory to use plastic gloves to pick up the fruit and vegetables before I put them in a bag! Someone forgot to tell this news to the bakery, pizza shop and every other place in Florence. I thought about the irony of this situation of handling fruit that will be washed anyway as I put on the plastic gloves. I mumbled mi dispiace (I'm sorry) to the lady.

Returning from the supermarket and back at home, I cooked up a traditional Florentine meal for dinner. The menu was Bistecca Alla Fiorentina or in plain English terms a medium rare steak half the size of a cow served with fried zucchini flowers. And just in case you were wondering, yes, I washed the zucchini flowers thoroughly before we ate them and washed my hands. Twice. Old habits die hard.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Our very own casa

This week was an exciting week for my husband and I. After six months of living in hotels and serviced apartments in three different countries we finally had our immigration paperwork finalised and moved into our new permanent home in Florence.

Admittedly it has been wonderful not to pick up a vacuum cleaner or change bedding for over half a year. I don't care how lazy this sounds but if I ever became insanely rich, I would hire a permanent cleaner (oh what the heck and a hairdresser and a massuese) in an instant.
However, three months into living in Florence, we were still feeling very unsettled into our new country and didn't feel like we had a home of our own to rest our pasta filled tummies in each night.

I had two criteria when searching for an apartment. One of them was that the interior had to be modern and minimalistic and was strictly not to include any frilly curtains or wallpaper. After a very depressing search where I decided no one shared our love for minimalism in central Florence, we finally found something that fit.

The second criteria this home had to have was that it had to be in a safe suburb. We were assured how peaceful this area was but no one warned me about the daily danger lurking right in front of our door. Yes, that's right...I didn't notice that we are now living in front of a pizzeria. No, not one of those dodgy ones that you walk past quickly and wonder about how much salmonella is breeding under that counter. No, this pizzeria just happens to be one of the best in Florence. See, there are two things that I have no control or willpower over. One is tiramisu and another is pizza. The pizzeria which I gaze at dreamily from my window does both superbly. Damn! We have been here one week and so far four visits there.

In Australia, when you rent a property from someone it is unlikely you will meet the owner and you deal only with the agent. In this case, the owner wanted to meet us. I liked Senor P. straight away (let's call him that). Effortlessly fashionable and wearing a silk scarf, he immediately and unashamedly eyed us up and down a few times. I have learnt that Italians have no problem with staring at you and do not try to hide whether they like/dislike what you are wearing and they even sometimes will make suggestions on improvements. I had a perfect stranger stop me recently and tell me my blouse was very cute. But then I have also had someone recently tell me I look very tired - the comment that every girl is dying to hear.

Senor P's very first question to us was 'how long have you been married and do you have children?' I thought of his custom furniture in our home-to-be and assured him we don't have any members in our family that would scratch it. But that was not his concern. He was concerned that at my ripe old age of 30 we didn't have children and sincerely encouraged us to start making them in Florence!

Senor P. went on to show us his apartment which was all completely decorated by him - we didn't realise he was a famous interior decorator who had designed the interior of Wanda Ferragamo's house. I was impressed and thought it best to keep quiet our plans of buying extra 'common' Ikea furniture to mix in with his custom peices.

He then led us to our beautiful private courtyard (a rarity in inner Florence) where his gardener smiled warmly at us as he was busily manicuring a magnificent topiary tree. Senor P. then lovingly introduced each plant to us and at this point, I thought it best not to mention that nearly every plant I have ever owned has died. Even a cactus. I do flowers in a vase and that's it. I wrote down the gardener's name and assured him we would be calling regularly. In turn, the gardener gave me the name of his grandson who works at the offending pizzeria and can sell me the best salami and cheese in Florence. Note taken again. This pizzeria would not be good for my thighs.

Next we were taken to meet our neighbour in the same building. I was sure the Italians wouldn't understand my giggling but I couldn't help it as he introduced himself as Lucca and wait for it...he lives on the second floor (sing it people!).

On our first night in our new home, Jason slept soundly but I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about how my life had changed so much in the last six months. Even if I could sleep that night, I'm not sure I could have even dreamt up all these experiences that we've been through, both good and bad. I felt relaxed and happy in our new home and finally I drifted off to sleep.

Note about the photo on this post: Luckily my husband and I don't fight much. But one recurring argument we have is about my Nutella addiction, in particular me eating it out of a jar with a spoon in front of the TV. I say 'delicious' and he says 'heart attack by the time you are 35'. Anyway, imagine my delight when I saw this in a supermarket - a water pitcher size jar full of Nutella. I'm talking about 1000 grams of pure heaven. I immediately put it in my trolley but by the time we got to the check out it had miraculously disappeared. Prime suspect: party pooper husband.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

I hate you and then I love you

"Italian post offices are no place for an optimist" Claire Millington, 2005.

My love-hate relationship with Italy continued this week.

Love or Amore or whatever you call it, there is undoubtedly a lot to LOVE in this country. The food (just ask my stomach), the warmness of the Italian people, the sights and did I mention the food?

But on Friday I was not in love with my new found home. In fact, I wanted to break up with her and return to my ex-love Australia where the relationship seemed much easier and with a lot less heart ache.

See, this all started when I got a letter in the mail stating that I was required to go to the post office and pay a tax of 6.33 euro's to pick up a parcel that my dear friend Christina had sent me from California. (I say this so easily but in fact it took the apartment staff over ten minutes to read three pages to determine what exactly had to be done).

I walked to the uffico postale with a copy of my passport . I took my number and patiently waited in queue. I was actually having a great day and was enjoying looking at the beauty of the post office in Piazza Republica and silently thinking that Australia Post had nothing on these beautiful ceilings.

Finally my number was called and from there it all went horribly wrong. The woman did not speak English and refused to listen to my broken Italian. She read the letter and said it was 'impossibile' and told me I needed to go to the information desk where someone would speak English with me. Have you ever had that feeling when you know someone is lying to you and just wants you to get out of their way? In Australia, I would have stood my ground and demanded a result but in a country where I don't speak the language, I slinked away and quietly seethed.

An hour later, I was still waiting at the unmanned information desk. And there were four people in front of me with a similar look on their faces to mine. Finally a woman appeared and when it was my turn, she read the letter and told me she doesn't understand this and she can't help. If she, the Italian speaking postal worker, didn't understand post office correspondence I wondered what chance a flabbergasted worn out Aussie had. I gave up. Exhausted, I walked home and felt like a failure.

The next day, undeterred I walked back to what was becoming my least favourite building in Florence. This time I was in there for two hours. I was once again referred to the unmanned information desk and finally some mercy in the way of a man who spoke good English came. He explained that I would have to come back tomorrow with my codice fiscale (fiscal code). While I was filling out some details with him, a young American girl came up behind me and and told him that she had been waiting for two hours to retrieve a package (I snorted under my breath) and that she refused to stand at this information desk any longer. Right in front of me, the man who spoke good English just moments before said in Italian 'non parlo Inglese' (I don't speak English). I couldn't believe it.

When I got home that evening I opened my email and read a note from a friend who had just finished visiting Italy. She ended her email with 'you are SO lucky to live in Italy'. I smiled wryly and sighed deeply but knew that when the morning came, I would be out falling in love all over again.