Sunday, June 27, 2010

From teaching English to paradise.

I came to Italy in May with the intentions of teaching English and setting up private lessons on my own as my main form of income. When that didn’t work out as planned, I was in power mode looking for jobs, anything to bring in some income and keep me occupied. The networking paid off and about two weeks ago Alfredo, the guy I work for doing PR for Rome nightlife, told me about his friend Stephanie owner of La Dolce Vita Style. She was in a bind and needed help ASAP and he thought Sarah and I would be interested. He told me to call her immediately and as soon as I hung up the phone, I got in touch with Stephanie.

Sarah and I met up with Stephanie that very same day at a cute corner café along the Tiber in the Travestere area. Going over the basics of her company and what we could anticipate doing, I began to get very excited.

La Dolce Vita Style, or LDVS for short, specializes in trips and events for study abroad students and we would be in charge of everything from marketing and creative collaboration, to event planning and guiding trips throughout Italy and Europe. A few hours later, we had jobs and set up to meet the following day to start training. Part of our orientation required us to attend the trips LDVS offers to better understand the operations of the company. Our very first getaway scheduled for the following weekend, I felt giddy leaving that café. Not only was I now employed, this position was perfect and a dream come true.

Our first destination: Ventotene. Two short trips, train and ferry, led us to a tiny island surrounded by the deepest blue waters of the Mediterranean. Population just about 600, not a single traffic signal in sight, 3 whopping km, Ventotene is the ultimate escape from the hustle and bustle of Rome. Vibrant overgrown flowers line the island roads first inhabited by the Romans 2,000 years ago. The streets unnamed, narrow, and quaint, led us to our private villa complete with an outdoor shower. This island, in the first 6 hours we were acquainted, had captured my heart.

Upon our arrival on Friday we relaxed on one of the stretches of sand under the intense Mediterranean sun. My mind wanders to California and the many people I miss. I come to a few quick conclusions. First, being that my dad would love it here. I imagine his eyes crinkling as they do when he smiles, his excited laugh and only being able to utter “Wow,” in awe of this place. This would be his paradise! I take in the scenery and one of the many island boys catches my eye. My girlfriends back home would drool over these gorgeous men with their perfectly sculpted, deep tanned bodies. I think about the previous loves in my life and my mind wanders even more. While Ventotene may have stolen my heart, some of it I left behind in California and I am beginning to really miss my friends and family. I force aside all those thoughts, push skip on my iPod, and take in the beautiful scenery.

That evening we enjoyed an almost four hour dinner beneath the stars under a vine covered terrace. Sipping on a glass of chilled Shiraz, we started off with a mix of vegetables naturally salted from capers and olives drizzled with freshly squeezed lemon. Menus don’t exist here and our server, Stefano, reviews the night’s fresh seafood dishes based on the catch of the day. While I love seafood, I had never tried clams – they always kind of intimidated me to be quite honest. Feeling adventurous, I opted for one of their house specialties as my main dish. A fresh seafood dish made with clams, shrimp, and swordfish tossed in a white wine sauce served over linguine. Clams became a new favorite and I ate plentiful amounts of the freshest variety of seafood this past weekend.

A ferry off the port of Formia led us to this heavenly island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Peaceful, quiet, beautiful and not packed with tourists, Ventotene has become one of my favorite places in the world.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

cab rides home at sun rise

We make our way down the windy cobblestone path and join the crowd at the taxi stand. My feet screaming at me for deciding on the 5 1/2 inch grey suede pumps, hair reeking of cigarette smoke, and my body exhausted from all the dancing, all I want is my bed. The night sky is growing lighter as we flag down a cab and I check the time - 5:30 am. Back in California, this was my typical wake up time during the week. Oh how different things are now.

Sarah and I say our goodbyes, complete with double-cheek kissing, and hop into the cab. Discussing the night we just had, all of our new friends, and swapping stories, the crazy taxi driver speeds down the narrow empty streets. He takes a strange turn down an unknown street. Confused as to why he didn't continue on the familiar former street, I use the little Italian that I know to question him. He quickly explains that the side street he turned on would lead us to Magna Grecia, the major street we live off of. "Ahhh, buona. Grazie!" I say.

During the next 5 minutes as he chauffeured us home, we exchanged conversation in Italian. I surprised myself with how much of the language I already understand. Even with my American accent and broken Italian, I feel as though I am beginning to get the hang of this. He drops us off and we bid farewell - all in Italian of course. Beyond drained, but content with my life in Italy, I crawl into bed as the sun begins to make its mark on the day.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dolci: l'amore della mia vita

Smooth rich chocolate. Sweet frosted cupcakes. Mouthwatering carrot cake. Creamy frozen yogurt. If you know me at all, you know I love sweets. My love affair with indulgences causes me to seek out only the best, and the best I do find. Heavenly dark chocolate peanut butter cookies can be found at Levain Bakery in New York, good ol' Rite Aid carries the perfect mint-chip ice cream, and the best tiramisù is made in an Italian kitchen.

I had the false assumption that tiramisù was difficult to make. Maybe the exotic name, which references the espresso and literally means "pick me up", threw me off and it was hard to not think this delicate dessert was anything but a b*tch to make. I was so wrong. Just add eggs, espresso, milk, mascarpone cheese, savoiardi biscuits (commonly known as lady finger biscuits), sugar, a dash of salt, sprinkle on some cocoa powder and VOILA, tiramisù! Okay, maybe it's not that simple, but you get the idea.

Below is the easy steb-by-step recipe for the most delectable tiramisù taught to me by an Italian herself. So go ahead and wow your next dinner guests or better yet, treat yourself to this traditional Italian dessert.

What will I need?

6 tablespoons of sugar
5 eggs
3 cups of fresh cooled espresso*
2 cartons of mascarpone cheese (about 16 oz)*
2 packages of savoiardi
biscuits (about 24)
1/2 cup milk*
pinch of salt
cocoa powder to garnish
2 mixing bowls
1-2 medium size pan*

*I want to forewarn you that these amounts are estimations. Italians don't exactly follow recipes, it's all in their head. If you desire a creamier or thicker tiramisù, use one pan, add more mascarpone cheese, add another egg etc.

Brew roughly 3 cups of fresh espresso. Set aside to cool. Separate 5 eggs and place yolks in one bowl and whites in other mixing bowl. Mix 6 tablespoons of sugar to the yolk bowl and whip. Add 1 tablespoon of milk to the yolk bowl, whip again and set aside. Add the remaining milk to the cooled espresso.Next, add 1 pinch of salt to egg whites and whip till fluffy. Add the mascarpone cheese and whip again. Combine the two egg mixtures and whip.

Now you will begin to construct the cake layers. Take a savoiardi biscuit and very quickly dip into cooled espresso mix. The key to this dish is to not over soak the bisquit which will cause the cake be soggy and liquidy. I suggest you take one side and dip it in and quickly flip over. There is no need to let it sit in there at all - a quick dunk will do!

After you have covered the bottom of the pan with the dipped biscuits, layer the cream on top, covering all the soaked lady fingers. Dust with cocoa powder. Repeat till you have the desired layers/thickness. Cover and set in fridge. Let cool for a minimum of 2 hours. For best results, let set overnight.

Bon appetit!!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The ghost of Rome.

It's 6:30 am and my alarm goes off. The next 30 seconds consists of a debate I have with myself. Do I want to get out of bed or continue to lay here and skip todays run. There is something serene about the early mornings, making it my favorite time to go running. My better half wins and I quickly jump out of bed before convincing myself otherwise.

With the majority of the city still dreaming, I take off at a jog. The Italian summer sun already warm on my face, I round the corner almost running into a local butcher. He is carefully preparing a display case with fine Italian meats and smiles as I pass him. There are scattered people on the streets at this early hour and I weave in and out, making my way towards the San Giovanni Laterano. Passing a group of priests on their way to the church, I make a right and run down one of Rome's narrow cobblestone roads. Lined with gelaterias and pizzerias, their owners are busy setting up for the day ahead. My destination, still far in the distance, begins to come into view as I run down this normally crowded street. With Lady Gaga blasting on my Ipod, I reach the Colosseum.

So far, this is my favorite place in Rome and my new running spot. Still quiet and not yet crowded with the daily tour guides and men dressed like gladiators ready to pose for a photo, I take a minute and digest it all. I gaze at the ancient arena that stands before me. Empty holes cover the surrounding wall which at one time were embraced in marble, iron, and lead. Taken by the Popes, the stolen materials were used to build St. Peter's Basilica and Piazza Venezia, leaving a barren skeleton with a bloody past.

I can't help but imagine what a day looked like for the Colosseum back when gladiators and exotic animals battled to the death while bloodthirsty spectators sipped their goblets of wine. The opening ceremony lasted 100 days claiming the lives of 5000 animals, many imported from Africa. My mind drifts off thinking of Russel Crowe and I laugh at Hollywood's depiction of Rome. Wishing everyone back home could see what lay before me, I remembered my Ipod's video camera setting. I NEVER imagined this would come in use; I also never imagined I would be living in Rome. Pausing the country song that now played through my ear phones, I took the video below.

With a smile on my face, I make my way back towards San Giovanni. Just before it is about to disappear out of view, I turn around making sure to get one more look at the ghost of the ancient Romans.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Afternoon Italian lessons while cooking.

As I chop up fresh mushrooms, zucchini, and onions in our miniature kitchen, Filly, our 21-year-old female roommate who speaks minimal English, curiously enters. Wanting to know what this American is cooking in their kitchen, she spouts off Italian so fast it makes me dizzy. I look at her wide-eyed and dumbfounded. Quickly realizing I have no understanding of the words she just spoke, Filly holds up a hand and leaves the kitchen speaking more Italian. Moments later she returns, laptop in hand and Google Translator, our new best friend, open with a message to me. “If you want me to teach you how to cook anything, just ask.” I absolutely love to cook and the thought of learning how to make traditional hearty Italian meals from a local, excites me. Nodding my head and smiling at my roommate I respond back that I would like that very much.

Sautéing vegetables, I continue to prepare my meal. Once again she begins to rapidly spit out her mother tongue then stops herself and looks at me, we both laugh. She points to the mushrooms sizzling in olive oil “Funghi.” With my American accent I repeat her, not able to pronounce the ending. She repeats herself much slower this time and I make a second attempt. Smiling and nodding in approval, Filly asks how to pronounce it in English. “Mushroom” I say, trying my very best to enunciate and speak clearly. She pronounces it with a slight rolling “r" sound. Nodding my head I respond "Si!" Smiling, my patient roommate points to the next vegetable and so begins my very first Italian lesson.

Yesterday afternoon, Filly and her cousin gave Sarah and I another Italian lesson. The four of us chatted away in Italian and English learning from each other. While being a beautifully lyrical language, it is not easy and at times I struggle. Similar to Spanish, Italians roll their r's - a trait I have always lacked. It wasn't long until my "r" problem arose and had all three of them trying to explain how to relax my tongue to make the proper sound. Multiple pathetic attempts later, the four of us were in a fit of giggles at my semi-retardation trying to pronounce the Italian "r."

Slowly and with the help of our roommates and locals, I am learning Italian. Italians are both patient and kind in helping us learn their ways. As we do our best to communicate and teach each other proper pronunciations, I find ourselves in heaps of laughter with smiles on our faces - the universal language wherever you may be.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

beginnings of a journey

I can’t find words for the week we just had. A journey filled with challenges, an adventure that led to two friends laughing, or a frustrating 7 days, that at times had me near tears – either one of these will do.

We cannot yet navigate around this country we know little about, and to top it off we are unable to communicate with the locals – the ONLY ones who can point us in the right direction. Before I moved to Italy, I had not realized how useless English would be in most foreign countries and how crucial a basic knowledge of the language would be. I have had quite the rude awakening. Last Monday we got lost not once, but twice without a cell phone and minimal ways to communicate with the natives. An easy everyday task in the States, such as picking up groceries, has now turned into a blown out adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I love every second of each experience; they just challenge you in ways that you have never been challenged before.

I love the days when you breathe in deep and smile at the moment you are in. Wednesday was one of those days. Sarah and I didn’t even do anything special – except we lived another day in Rome. We walked around Campo de’ Fiori, had a beer in an Irish pub, ate dinner at our favorite local Italian ristorante and all the while, I had to force myself to put the camera down and enjoy the moment.

While the past week have brought ups and downs, they have also reminded me of why I am here. I thrive on being challenged and living in the moment. The moments when you want to throw your map across the piazza and cry with frustration or when you look up during your daily commute, speechless, at the ancient Colosseum.