A perfect morning rise early and go out into the garden with a cup of tea. Pick a few cherry tomatoes for a snack. Do a little deadheading and cut some flowers for the house. Breakfast of cold artichokes, bread and marmalade. Then upstairs to write a bit. Life is good.
The Sangria Party
There is nothing better than discovering people who are on your wavelength. It takes time, but it's worth the wait. I had a little dinner party for a few neighbors I used one of my favorite menus from the SF Days peel and eat shrimp, artichokes with balsamic mayo and lemon-garlic aoli, baguettes with brie and roasted garlic, and sangria. We divvied the menu so it wasn't onerous. Maggie and George brought the shrimp and cocktail sauce. Maureen had a sangria recipe. Dave was on the bread and brie. I had artichokes and any filler ice tea, water, sauces.
It was a perfect evening to be outside warm but with a breeze. I lit the lanterns, set the food on the dining room table and we got started. Lots of banter and laughing some basic Dave-poking. (Never feel sorry for him, cause he pokes first.) Maggie brought these glow in the dark modular glasses. After a couple of sangria's those were hoot Dave kept dropping the pieces under the deck.
Its great to feel like Riverton and I are gelling together. Its better to find neighbors who can be friends.
June and Italy
In an effort to wring every moment possible with friends I don't often see, after tea, I don my summer frock and straw hat to saunter my way up the road to Il Cielo, the farmhouse my friends from SF had rented. The gravel road is a little steep but its great exercise. Besides, in the summer the road is lined with wildflowers -- blue chicory, wild roses, white yarrow, blue scabiosa, pale green arching foxtails, wild thyme (I DO know a bank where the wild thyme blows.) I head out with scissors and arrive with the bouquet of the day.
Peter and Laura have turned 40 this year. This is our excuse for returning. When we're resident and lounging on the loggia, the spectacular view seems like reason enough to come back. I'm meeting a lot of their friends for the first time. Pete is in a band (2 bands actually) and quite a few of his bandmates have come along. I feel a little shy at first, but these people are so warm, so infectiously happy to be in Italy.
The Cavaluzzo clan is large. They are all smart and funny, and literate and very welcoming. On the other side of Perugia, the extended Cavaluzzo clan was renting another house maybe 20 people full of sisters, brothers-in-law, cousins, nephews and nieces and the matriarch -- Edith. The obvious plan was to get everyone together for one large festa. And so it was on the appointed day, a caravan of cars arrived at Il Cielo dragging pounds of white dust behind them.
An aside: The 3km strada bianca always draws commentary. It's an unpaved road, steep in spots, a bit winding and often rutted by water and by the trucks working on the restorations at the bottom of the hill. Visitors unused to these hill roads are often horrified. I like it its part of the adventure.
We were standing at the foot of the steps to greet them, and it became a receiving line of hellos and great to see yous. I had seen most of the clan in Sorrento two years before, just prior to leaving Italy. I didn't really think they would remember me but our hellos turned out to be mutual and effusive.
Team Cavaluzzo transformed Il Cielo. We lit all the candles. Everyone brought food to share. My friend Stefano roasted one of his lambs. The tables were covered with cheeses, bread, roasted peppers, olives, caprese -- the abundance of farm country. The wine flowed... Sagrantino, Chianti, Rosso di Montalcino & Montepulciano. Surely there were Pinot Grigios and Greco di Tufos. Stefano discovered that one of the cousins had been born in Napoli. Stefano is Romano but he can talk Napolidan with the best of them. Lots of laughter and smiles and hugs all around. Talk of other trips and visits south, of buying a house in Italy, of how clear the night sky could be, and how many satellites we could see. But the evening wound down and the caravan departed. As beautiful as the farmhouse is, it was meant to be full of people. The house seemed so empty after all that firelit comraderie.
Breakfast at La Caccia
Whilst lounging indolently in Italy, I stayed at a cottage tucked back off the road on the hill. Originally, the structure was a hunting shack... a place for the Sorbello count/marchese/prince and his hunting party to stop off for a break and a nosh during the long, hot search for boar/pheasant/bunnies whatever they could kill. They, owning the place after all, were not limited by hunting seasons. One shot what one felt like shooting or sent the dogs to tear it to shreds, then got a fire started and cooked a snack.
La Caccia is a little jewelbox of a house... stuccoed walls of pale ochre with green shutters, golden stone inner walls and floors. The first floor has a kitchen with granite counters and rustic wooden shelves. The livingroom sports a stone mantle and small hearth. Upstairs, there is a wide hallway with a built in armoire. The bedroom is graciously sized with windows on 3 sides, plain wooden furniture (2 armoires, desk, table) and a large bed built for comfort. The bath is spectacular, not large but spacious, done in all white tiles of various sizes. Being Americans, they have outfitted the bath beautifully with a tub, handheld and overhead showers, bidet and toilet. The sink is an old marble trough fitted out as a sink and sitting in a simple wrought iron stand. I am very fond of the lighting -- simple copper cones made by Mark Wholey (now residing in Providence, RI and open to commissions). Mark also did the wooden headboard and the iron gates at the head of the driveway. Quite clever, that man.
The house is set back away from the road behind a rise on the hill. Sounds from the valley drift up but you rarely hear the cars on the drive. The days were full of the sounds of bees, birds and frogs the occasional snapping bracken as a larger critter wanders past.
Getting up in the morning, I would make tea and sit outside looking out into the valley, or at the butterflies dipping into the herb garden. Elizabeth and I planted the bones of this herb garden a few years ago. Its just a narrow triangle where the paths to the house split but it has fleshed out nicely. And its subsequent gardeners have been attentive... the thymes and sages are healthy, and orange and black butterflies abound.
Sometimes, a cup of tea and toast with marmalade would stretch on for hours, as I alternately read or stared off into the distance. This is something I miss.
I cannot remember when the idea of going to Venice together first came up. It might have been the last time Jon and I saw each other in Italy. Or in NJ last fall, when he came to see my little house. Or maybe in one of the emails in between.
Whenever it happened, it sounded like the best idea. Venice is one of those MUST see places. Unique. Threatened. Romanticized. And Jon is well-versed in its history, culture and layout. Plus we are good travelers together... none of those annoying little differences that can plague friends who travel. (Unless Jon is keeping something from me.)
And such an adventure, to jump on a train and disembark in Venice to enter a world so steeped in history, romance and expectations.
That is the problem, isn't it. You cannot see Venice through clear glasses. We've heard too much and seen too much and have a picture in our mind's eye of what it must be like... have expectations for what it should be like. I was getting nervous that I'd experience that let down... the deflation after the hype. And the crush all around the train and the streets leading to Piazza San Marco did nothing to quell my uneasiness. Packed with tourists and shops full of kitsch and bad glass... the Disney version of Venice. I wobbled... yes, it was beautiful -- when you could erase the hordes of tshirt-shop Johnnies and Kimmies and really see the canals and the houses. And yes, it oozes history. But it can be hard not to feel like you are on the Italian version of the Pirates of the Carribean. It had been a long day though. Day 2 would be the true test.
Day 2. We get up and have breakfast in the eaves of the pensione. It's a cute little hotel. Our room offered literally 2 feet between the bed and the walls, but if you are only there to sleep... It has a little attic common room with a dining area and a terrace overlooking the red tiles rooves. After breakfast, Jon heads back to the room and we immediately get separated. Instead of going out into the piazza as I'd indicated, I stop to write postcards out on the hotel veranda. Jon misses me, goes to the piazza and begins trying to figure out where the hell I've disappeared to... in a shop mesmerized by frightening glass clowns, or kidnapped by white slavers who haul me out (bound and gagged) in a gondola? Oblivious to it all, I get quite a few cards written then, feeling quite chuffed, traipse out to the piazza only to be met by a man who looks angry. I smile innocently and he wrestles his consternation to the ground very well. Jon is not really accustomed to my last minute changes of whim.
He forgives me quickly for the scare (what would be the word for white slaver in Italian?) and begins my historical lesson on La Serenissima. First, the Basilica with its amazingly intricate tilework and art, carvings, huge candelabra... but what sticks in my mind are the bronze horses. Gorgeous imposing regal. You can touch the replicas outside on the roof but the actual bronzes, stolen from Constantinople are protected from my grubby fingers.
Today we have agreed that the thing to do is find the Venice where the Venetians live. To walk the back streets and visit the shops and cafes that the real folks use. And that becomes Venice for me... a sense of real life, where people buy bread and produce, not mass produced glass and masks. We take the vaporetto down to the public gardens. The heat is intense so we stick to shady lanes, all the while ogling the architecture and discussing merlonations versus crenellations. (That is precisely why I love Jon.) We drop into a café for the mid-afternoon espresso pick me up and are served by a young, harried waitress. She isn't very nice. In fact she is fairly dismissive of us until her tap blows an air bubble and spatters her. She curses and Jon tells her that he has had that happen a million times, since he is a barrista in the US. ...Ah, the smiles, the delight "A barrista in the US?" Suddenly we are the new patrons at the local bar. She asks Jon for ideas for drinks recipes that might be concocted with the very limited supply she has at the coffee bar. We brainstorm and jot things on napkins. I translate the tough bits. Jon actually does very well with Italian. He has the accent down and that counts for a lot in how he is perceived. The barrista, whose name escapes me, is from South America... an interesting twist of cultures.
We wander home aimlessly, making our way along back canals and winding alleys, staying pointed in the right direction. But really, how lost can you get aon a narrow island city? Tomorrow we have to leave, so we buy fruit and bread and cheese and other snacks for the train ride. We find a pricey Chinese restaurant and while we are reading the menu, a small fleet of asians on a tour troupe up to the door and inside. It seemed oddly incongruous, and yet, why? Its a city of tourists and travelers. We are wilted and primed to go home and close the shutters to nap. But even after a long, hot foot-weary day (thankfully) we don't get snappish or difficult with each other. We remain committed members of one anothers' fanclubs.
Our last evening, we wander the piazzas and hang over the bridges watching the gondoliers slip by. We window shop, we watch the man who plays classical music on the rims of glasses, and human statues (ho hum) and find a pretty cool flea market. Search for an inexpensive place to eat -- Café Mosca. It's a dark bar that reminds me of Thomas in Germany. He would appreciate La Mosca. Right down to the cute boys. And we decide on our souvenirs. For Jon a gorgeous leather commedia mask -- handmade. For me, child of excess, an alabaster fig and a creamy green velvet handbag. Can't have too many accessories.
We fall into bed exhausted. I am a tad trepidatious about the train schedule. It is so hard to pull yourself away from a place that is half explored, half seen... I start dreaming of renting a villa for my 50th birthday and inviting everyone to join my in Venice for 3 weeks.
Sono tornata a Italia.
In other words, I returned to Italy! Just for a visit but such a long-awaited, much anticipated visit. Buying a house has set back my travel funding considerably. But it had been almost 2 years. I was jonesing. I was living for the hour I could set foot at Fiumicino airport, roll my luggage past the fresh faced caribinieri and head north to Umbria.
It was only two weeks, but it felt like long cool drink of water. Good friends from SF had decided to rent up on the hill where we'd all gone for my 40th birthday. The perfect catalyst to return. My friend Jon and I were planning a short trip up to Venice. He'd been plying me with historical facts and descriptions. For Christmas he gave me Paradise of Cities (John Julius Norwich) so I could begin to get the feel... to create that ambiance in my mind.
While I wholeheartedly embraced the idea of seeing Venice, I also gnashed my teeth and grizzled over giving up even an hour in Umbria. After all, it was home... it was land of sheep and gardens, where my friends sleep... where a wisp of my soul still floats about the sky at sunset.
I rented a Smart car for the duration. Its like a keychain toy. A tiny two seater that gives just enough room for your purse at the feet of your passenger, and 2 small rolling bags in the hatch back behind. That's it. No big purchases, no extra friends... just you and the matchbox toy car. There was the not unexpected long, hot line at the office. But I was so happy to be in Italy and speaking a little Italian, that nothing would deflate me. Even the "nice" man who was supposed to show me how the Smart Car functions... who did nothing more than gesture dismissively toward my car... even he didn't put me off. It made me smile. Gotta love those churlish city folks. Once I deciphered enough of the car to turn it on and make it move, I hurtled out of the car park and up the A1 at breakneck speed... whizzing by trucks and other Smart Cars. It felt good, the wind in my hair, the sun at my back. I don't think I broke 70mph but in a teeny car, it felt like Mach 5.
Driving past Lago Trasimeno and up to the pass that separates Tuscany from Umbria was a homecoming... one of those moments where you aren't sure you can breathe deep enough. Every little thing -- the color of the stones, the poppies on the verge, the Terontola Station street sign... brought waves of memories. Mine... this was mine, is mine. I still carry this with me, though I misplace it more and more these days. My present displaces the memories and I get farther and farther from the immediate feelings. (Hence the visit to re-connect it all.)
Winding up and over the pass past the monastery at Cortona, past grey green olive trees and alimentari... the anticipation of reaching the top, banking through the last turn and seeing the Niccone Valley. How its hills fold unto on another, how the trees and fields create a patchwork of pine green winter wheat gold and sunflower yellow all the way down the length... how the torrente niccone slips back and forth, just a silver sliver overhung with trees. Knowing that, although I can't see any of it yet, knowing that all my friends and favorite places are in there, hidden in this fold of the road or that dip of the hill. Stefano up at Sant' Ana, Paola in Umbertide, Elisabetta tucked into a bend of the torrente at Molina Vitelli. Even Pino, my nemesis, the twisted Buddy Holly gardener... somewhere even Pino was there to help reconnect me to the valley. (Though Pino would rather dismember me in the valley, I suspect.)
I zoomed down the road (again, breakneck speed) round the bend at Pierle Castle, over the bridge and toward Mercatale remembering the first time I did this, with Steve and Sally, back in 2000. How beautiful it was and how so much changed after that visit. Remembering late lunch at Mimmis, all of us aghast at the seemingly endless platters of ravioli and mixed grill. Then the bottomless tiramisu. The sickly satisfied feeling of knowing you should not have eaten half of what you ate and loving every forkful.
Mercatale to Mengaccini (a quick blink of a town... not even a town... a grocery store, a café/bar and a smattering of houses built two inches off of the road. Open your front door too fast and you might lose it. Reschio castle appears on the ridge, then Sorbello Castle (home of the reigning royal family, the Ranieri/Sorbello clan) looming on the left, a line of tall green cypress snaking up the hillside toward the top.
Then the sign for Preggio. THE landmark announcing it's the homestretch. Round the bend past Luigi, the mechanic's house with his white pigeons who circle the road. Past the 5 km marker that signals the base of the driveway... the screechingly sharp left turn onto the vertical white gravel road, a cascade of white dust and viola -- we are here -- on the 3K driveway straight up, switching back and forth, winding closer and closer to Altabella.
All those little landmarks of homecoming. I slowed my speed to savor the sounds, smells and the light in the grasses, the fluttering wings of butterflies and birds, the vineyard, the buildings... How has the restoration of the Righi property fared? Is the road looking good or is it rutted and eroded again? The road dips here and you drop into a little glade, around this bend is a grassy meadow, and here the hill drops and opens to a view across the tops of oaks and ginestra.
Every little detail whispers "home". Am I lucky to have 3 places in the world that make me feel like I'm coming home?
July 29 - Impromptu Porch Action
Last week was a pain in the ass week. One of those weeks when everyday makes you feel like, although you are working hard to get through projects, they are piling up on top of you faster than you can clear them. Its the Lucy and Ethel chocolate factory story... without the laughs.
Maureen sent me an email at the end of the day saying that she had had the same kind of week... and she was in a rotten mood... did I want to "drop over for ostrich mignons and a drink?" Don't even ask twice.
I came home (late), settled the cats with their kitty pate, and ambled over to Maureen's. Dave and Brad were sitting on the porch in her lavendar rockers, swigging beer and rocking back and forth as if powering a generator under the floor. I said howdy and went inside to get a beer I could swig with them. Offhandedly, I commented to Maureen that there were boys on the porch. "Oh?!" Seems the porch is becoming the place to see and be seen.
Joining Major Dave and Neighbor Brad outside, I was entertained by "boy" banter and Dave's army stories. (Major Dave is in the reserves.) Maureen joined us, and pretty soon so did Brad's wife Sue and their daughter Chelsea. More banter and teasing... Brad and Sue can really dish it out on Dave. But Dave is a master of the comeback. Maureen hoots in appreciation and I make sarcastic asides. We're quite a comedy troup, amusing no one as much as ourselves. And its fun! Hanging out with the neighbors on a Friday night after a tough week of work is something everyone should do now and then. Or every week.
Chelsea's bedtime arrived and Sue said "goodbye" while she went home to tuck in the bairn. Dave was awaiting his date so he kept 3/4 of an eye on the street. He also called our "off the block" neighbor Eric to wheedle him out of the house. Eric and his wife Jody have 2 kids... slipping away is not easy. Jody was a sport and gave him the green light... which he only accepted after Dave teased him with the lure of aged scotch. Eric took the bait and started the long, 4 block hike to Main Street. Almost the moment after he hung up, Dave's date Allison arrived. He disappeared into the house... without a backward glance. Bad Major Dave.
Eric arrived... primed for scotch. (Maybe he had a bad week as well?) We hemmed, hawed and called Dave to guilt him into coming back -- at the very least with the scotch. We also wanted to meet Allison... but that admission might have scared him off.
Long story short... Dave came back with Allison and scotch. We had lots of "sodas" and lots of laughs. Then Eric discovered that Maureen owned... ALBUMS. The trip down memory lane began with David Bowie, Steely Dan and Michael Jackson's Thriller. (Allison can do the dance. Dave can sing the song.) Eric kept pushing the volume up and up and up, until we were sharing our party with everyone near 3rd and Main. We rationalized that most of the neighbors were actually sitting on the porch and so wouldn't care. The others eitherer had air conditioning or were renting and so didn't count. (How callous we get when we own property.) Dave went next door and brought back cigars. More sodas. More songs. Then a midnight dip in Dave's pool (minus Dave and Allison who retired to the comfort of the house.)
I puddled home in my underwear, wrapped in a beachtowel, my work clothes draped over my arm at a little after midnight. The porch rules.
July 26 - The Riverbank Picnic
Its a Tuesday, and the hottest day of the year to boot. My cooking group had settled on today as the date for our monthly festa. Wanting to show off "Life in Riverton" I volunteered to host a picnic on the riverbank. All of our thoughts turned to cool breezes and perfectly set jello molds (kidding about the jello molds).
As creative souls, we do not like to commit to a menu ahead of time, preferring to see what inspiration has in store the day before the event. The picnic did not deviate frm the norm. I send out a message a week before, giving a rough idea of what we had discussed bringing so we might avoid the "great minds think alike" syndrome -- two baskets of fried chicken and 3 angel food cakes -- but no one bit on the commitment hook.
Attendees this time expanded outside of the usual cookigng group. Donna and Tina Marie were due, as was Renee (and perhaps her mother). Lesu was also joining us again. This time Min (who the group had heard of) was joining in with her much anticipated pastries. Also joining in as representatives of the Riverton foodies would be Maureen and Geneva.
The day was close and steamy. I left work early to finish up some last minute preparation. The plan was to meet at Casa Pazzina (my house) for drinks and then mobilize ourselves and shuffle the 2 blocks down to the river. Home by 4:30, I set to a last minute pick up around the house, a quick refreshing water of the garden, and finishing my 2 appetizers. Since it was mid-week I was trying to keep my part very simple... 2 appetizers and various beverages.
1) Peasant caviar - a popular staple in my early party repertoire, this is a dish you can make a day ahead. The ingredients meld together and improve over time. And its simple... 2 small eggplant, split in half with garlic cloves slipped into small slits in the flash, lightly salted and roasted for an hour. Scrape the flesh from the shell into a bowl and add olive oil, chopped fresh tomatoes, golden raisins and a bit of soy sauce. At the last minute, stir in toasted pine nuts and top with parsley. Served on toasts or with pita wedges, its a sweet/salty tapenade. Not pretty -- I think that why the parsley is called for -- but tasty.
2) Caprese skewers - take fresh cherry tomatoes from the garden and slip onto a skewer or long toothpick. Next add a good sized basil leaf and then a bocconcino (bite sized mozzarella ball). Viola... insalata caprese on a stick. This, like all caprese combinations, suffers if the tomato, the basil or the mozzarella are not top quality. The better the ingredients, the more memorable the caprese.
Arrangements made for after work are difficult. People run into work issues, commute issues, family issues... Everyone was due at 6:30. I finished all my preparations by 6:00, and poured a glass of iced tea, thankful for a cushion of time to relax. I went through my mail, read a bit of a magazine... got up to double check that the garden was ready -- cushions out, plants perky. Swept quickly to get any stray cat hair (which tends to roll along the floor, picking up more and more hair, resembling soft gray tumbleweeds).
I knew people would not be on time, at the crack of 6:30... maybe 6:46-ish... I puttered some more, looked out the window, swept the porch. Went out to primp the herb garden... flipped through the magazine... poured more tea.
At 7:00 I called Maureen (who lives a block away) to say "Folks are running late. Come on over anytime." Maureen wasn't home. At 7:15 I started to think that maybe the heat had put everyone off... maybe I would be left with 2 pitchers of tea, myraid bottled bevvies and 2 appetizers.
I went outside to futz in the garden. I heard the door open and thought -- Maureen and the 5 bottles of champagne. Now it doesn't matter who else shows. It was Min who needed the kitchen to prepare her appetizers -- 4 canapes: french bread slices topped with a) brie and apricot preserve, b) goat cheese with grapes, c) another cheese with honey and walnuts, and d) honeydew melon wrapped with prosciutto. Delicious, and easy to port.
Then the flood gates opened -- Renee and her mother arrived, Donna and Tina Marie called in slighly lost. Lesu joined us just a bit after the rush. Renee had a very stressful weekend. Her daughter was in the hosital with meningitis and had just come home, weak ut out of the woods. Of course, she could not bear to miss the picnic. And we thought she needed a well deserved break from the tension and worry. She was absolved for not cooking - especialy when she showed up with cookies from the Italian market.
Tina Marie and Donna arrived in a whirl of food -- homemade tomato and onion foccaccia, an awe-inspiring shrimp salad, homemade red pepper hummus with pita triangles, a tangy arugula salad (that Tina insisted was not at its best because it calls for avocados, which she had had to skip because her other sister had displayed a mistimed ignorance of how to choose avocados by picking the hard as a rock type.) Lesu came with lovely panini cozied in a linen-lined pan.
We chattered and made introductions and generally got right to the business of last minute prep and catch up talk. Sunset was due at a little after 8:30 so we mobilized. Geneva had come up to see where we were, because she and Maureen had been at the riverbank since a little after 7.
We caravanned down in a couple of cars, spread sheets on the grass and arranged our picnic. Geneva had also brought panini (again, great picnic minds) on good bread so we had a nice substantial repast. Maureen's champagne went over well, and we helped her dispose of a backlog of liquor left from her birthday. I had bought colorful straws with parasols attached, and pinwheel toothpicks to add to the festive feel. There was a breeze at the river and the bugs were at a minimum.
It was an evening of stories and laughter and people laughing. It always amazes me that Donna, Tina Marie, Renee and I met and immediately got on together. And I am continually struck that we just keep enjoying one another more. There was never a period of "wait and see" or evaluation. It just worked. Lesu joined us at the 3rd meeting I think, and fit right in. Then seeing them in a group with new folks with Min and Maureen and Geneva it was obvious that these ladies have a gregarious self-confidence that makes people situations just flow. I can see no shyness, no hesitance just a no holds barred, storytellin' juggernaut.
We talked about catering (Donna is doing Tina's wedding; and Renee has been testing her dream of being a fulltime caterer), Riverton and its social whirl, religion (by way of the Da Vinci code and the miracle of Fatima), men (are you surprised?), and food of course because it all comes back to food.
People wandered by us on the bank. We invited them to join us, teased and laughed We oohed and aahed at the sunset, the colors on the water Finally the sun set and, although the conversation was flowing, it was obvious that we would have trouble cleaning up in the dark. I'd forgotten candles sow e pulled it together in the dark and set off for Maureen's porch to expose the cooking group to a distinctly Riverton phenomenon the "other porch club".
Evidently a good time was had by all, because we were on Maureen's porch for another couple of hours, laughing and telling stories. And all on a school night! We dragged Dave over to meet the gals (some local show and tell) and he was engaging, as always.
Reluctantly we agreed that sitting on the porch forever was not a viable option. But we disassembled ourselves with the promise that there would be another riverbank event before the frost. Perhaps for race night on the river?
July 24, 2005 - The Joys of Home Ownership
Spent much of the day fixing things. Houses are a mixed blessing... the joys of choosing your own paint colors and having a garden are leavened liberally with water in the basement, property taxes and things that go clunk, sputter and die.
My basement is a scary place... the kind of spot I avoid. Damp and close... with litter boxes, big crickets and something my cat stares at in a back corner. Spent too much of a lovely day trying to figure out where water is coming in from... water that has nothing to do with rain.
There is one word for this... sucks.
July 23 2005
Here it is, more than half way through the year, and despite some tales worthy of repetition, I have not written in months.
Writing here -- in the US -- has proven to be difficult. Its a focus thing. Time seems to be at a premium. This is just the way it was in San Francisco, before I chucked it all and ran off to Italy. Life in Umbria was more flexible. I did not have a 9-5 job that left me tired of "input"... a day of work here is a day of sensory overload -- non-stop emails, vmails and phone calls. When I come home, I get sucked into this desire to do nothing... maybe I wander over to Maureen's porch, or read.
I have deliberately not hooked my TV up to cable. There is no HBO or local TV. Although I do have a DVD player, I ration my movies. If I was "pugged in", I'd spend hours watching TV being sucked into the lives of fictional characters. (Not that different from books, but somehow, more mentally stimulating.)
Not that I REALLY do nothing. My garden is a great joy. I do a twice daily review, in the morning when I get up and again at night after work. One must check for new buds, sluggish growth, watering cues, bugs, weeds... and then there is the constant and obsessive planning... what should be added, moved, pawned off on unsuspecting friends. Ever more specialized garden catalogues come to the house. I pour over dahlias and iris... over seeds and vines, searching for plants that are both eye catching (spanish eyes) and the botanical equivalent to comfort food. (Plants that remind you of something you want to keep close.) Whether its the rosemary and sunflowers of Italy or the lilacs and iris of my childhood, a place must be found for them. If they grow happily, auguri. If not, move them and wait.
Even more fun are the "volunteers" -- plants that appear, either on the wind or with a bird. I am a connosieur of weeds... My rule is not to disturb the uninvited guest until I am sure of its nature and if its interesting. (Sort of like people...) Five sunflowers sprouted, unbidden, at far flung spots in the yard this year (courtesy of my bird feeders). Only one was in an inopportune place. The rest are standing tall offering bright yellow faces to the house and food for the birds. Every day a group of bright yellow gold finches come and cling to the sunflower, hanging over to peck seeds from the face.
Another oddball favorite is pokeweed... like rhubard on steriods it looms up through bushes and along the fence. Its tactic is to trick me - every year. It seems small and mild mannered early in the season - a somewhat well formed "stalkling" with bright green leaves and red stems. I think fondly of the bunches of purple berries that form in the fall. What the plant lulls me into forgetting is that around late June it becomes a 5 foot tall fleshy tree. Still with attractive red stems, strange white flowers and gorgeous purple berries that the birds feast upon.
Plastic People - April
Went out tonight to meet Min. Its warm and breezy, and I want to throw myself headlong into spring bare feet, summer frock and languid outdoor dining. We met at the Tap... had mussels and beer (me) / amaretto sours (her). The Tap is great but after awhile, with the warm spring breeze, you really want to be outside. We strolled into Old City. It's a nice walk from Northern Liberties -- 4 or 5 city blocks, under the bridge, past brick warehouses and old row homes. My grandfather grew up somewhere around there in the early 1900's. I try to imagine what it might have been like back then... a bit desperate, squalid and slum-like probably. A far cry from the urban hipster land its become. Ah, but that was a simpler time.
We made our way to Farmacia for dessert and a coffee. It's a rather mellow place for Old City, which is a bit... well, the people are loud and drunk and completely thoughtless of anything/anyone except what they're doing. Like hipster everywhere I suppose. I enjoy Old City -- the building, the shops. And the people who actually live there. The bridge and tunnel folks who haunt Market and 2nd remind me of the throngs that took over SF's Mission in the late 90s... spilling out into the street and throwing attitude everywhere. "Don't start with me, bedhead boy I've lived here for almost as long as you've been alive when people were afraid to park in the 'hood".
At Farmacia, Min had ricotta fritters. They were a bit disappointing... you wanted more of a ricotta burst of texture and flavor. But a nice try. I chose The Lemon Trio -- a slice of lemon cake, a scoop of lemon ice cream and a dollop of lemon curd. Very citrusy. The ice cream was lovely and velvety. It was all good, but I think I wanted a counterpoint to the citrus. A mint leaf, a squidge of blackberry coulis, a toasted almond biscuit. Just something to offset the lemon. I do like Farmacia. They have a "Slow Food" feel... fresh, seasonal. The staff are pleasant and awake. They seem to hire folks who like people... who make you feel welcome. The food is nicely presented. Styling may be their strongest suit. There is an Asian flavor to the décor that is not mirrored in the food. But I do love the tall bamboo boughs that arch over the corner tables. It's a restful spot. Nice topper to the evening.
We were quite relaxed at our barside table when a loud group of plastic people came in. You've seen them... overly teased women who are stretched tight -- working too hard at being thin, too hard at being hip, too hard at being young -- the female version of the comb-over. Their men were average looking guys, but suspect because they were with these women. These are Pottery Barn women. Not that they shop at Pottery Barn, more that they strive for an interchangeable image that they cannot call their own. Generic women.
I'm being snooty, I know. But they took up residence loudly with no thought to the people around them. It was all hair flipping and rack thrusting and talking loudly across the bar at each other. Goofus behavior. And they were old enough to know better... though they'd be horrified that we saw through their disguise.
Bad Day at Rash Rock April 5
Such a bad day. Work sucked... got nothing accomplished. My poison ivy has me swelled up like I've doubled the freshman 10 overnight with ¾ on one side of my face. I feel monstrous. As Jim in the office said, like David Merrick. Add to that, I did my taxes over the weekend and for the first time in my life, I owe and I owe big. So I am uncomfortable, broke and full of self loathing. So I left early to come home and try to recoup a good attitude.
I went outside, planted a rose bush (Zepherine Droubin) and pruned back my lavender. The happiness meter ticked up a bit. I came inside, poured a cup of tea and sat down to read and was startled by a knock on the door. Drat. Who could possibly be dropping by at this moment when my face is stretched beyond recognition?
Ah, yes my painter, John. (Have I mentioned a thousand times now how I love my painter, John?) I forgot that we actually did book an appointment to get together and talk about paint and colors and money and whatever else comes up. Nice, but no time to feel self conscious. Just call it like we all see it... disfiguring poison ivy... and get it out of the way.
John always makes me laugh, always finds good things to talk about and I love, love, LOVE talking about decorating and color ideas with him. I know I can count on him to tell me what he really thinks. We looked at the rooms and batted around color ideas. I showed him some Edward Gorey books and we hit on an idea to paint one or two figures into a room a very pale shadow, almost a wisp of a color difference, that might look like a trick of the light if you glanced quickly. I want to toss around lots of ideas then choose those that are unique, that reflect my sensibilities. And I like to find things that he will enjoy executing. Ater all, he is not just a house painter. He is my Eldon. And since he is a bit of an iconoclast, I can count on his take being uniquely John.
John always stays far longer than a regular painter would. We really talk and tell stories and share ideas. So he is always a treat. And by the time he left, I felt a lot better. It must be the laughter.
I love my carpenter too... another artisan with an aesthetic sensibility. A man with an eye for the details. And details make all the difference. What would St. Peter's in Rome be without the details? Just another big square room full of people milling about..
Poison ivy again. The bane of my gardening life. At least once a year I slip up and get a nasty case. This time it is my own fault. I was cutting back poison ivy without gloves. I thought I was being careful not to touch it, just clipping it but I must have brushed against it. Then I spent the rest of the day spreading it willy nilly all over my face, neck and shoulders. Its not the worst case I've had, but it is the most visible. Saturday I just felt prickly. Sunday I was looking pink and blotchy. By Monday I looked like I'd skied the Alps without protection red, dry and swollen. Fuck. That just about sums it up.
Italy meets Michael Rappaport
Every other Sunday is the Italian Group. Today only 2 people showed -- John and myself. Disappointing, but it is bound to happen. I was blotchy and itchy, but game to chat. Out of the blue, after an hour or more, a man appeared at our table in a Columbo style rain hat and a trench coat and loudly announced, "It's the Italian group." Suddenly I was in the midst of a quirky independent film set in NYC... this man, who we had never seen before, flipped open his phone and called Tony, our Italian group leader. He reported that we were indeed still there... then he plopped down and began chatting. He was a real character a force. Very New York -- assertive, big personality, in your face. But polite and inquisitive... well mannered. I never felt he was overbearing or scary. Just sort of dramatic... like I was back in acting class and someone had entered a scene in progress.
March 31 - Buddakan
I was skeptical. It's a much talked about spot... a big name restaurant with a huge Buddha and an onyx table lit from beneath. Vaguely Asian theme... owner who has a huge reputation with multiple restaurants. I had suspicions the place would be over-hyped -- all flash, no substance; sound and fury signifying nothing; all hat and no head.
The décor did not blow me away. Its a big room, leaving the impression of a big wrapped box. The walls are covered with delicate folds of white drapery lit from behind (nice look). The onyx table is white and glows like alabaster. The red banners and the big Buddha left me cold... a little to theme-parky. But the food was exquisite. The food was all hat with a lot of head.
We were seven. Thankfully, the waitress suggested that we should share our selections. There was not one dish -- from the first appetizer to the last cup of cappuccino -- that was not well prepared and well presented. A feast for the eyes and the palate. I will say that the entrees were more impressive than the other courses, but it was all good.
We began with apps -- edamame stuffed ravioli, plump and green soft... Spring rolls (which have not stuck in my mind, so they must have fallen below the other dishes.)... Lobster crepes (chunks of lobster in a gauzy crepe topped with a bisque-like sauce) ... Hamachi sashimi...
The entrees blew me away. A wasabi-crusted filet mignon, cashew chicken, soy glazed salmon.. The standouts were the angry lobster, which married sweet lobster with vegetables on a bed of mashed potatoes, and a fantastic seared tuna.
For dessert we sampled a frozen chocolate mousse, fresh doughnuts with blackberry jam, chocolate sauce and mascarpone cream cheese, and a banana tower... Its funny that after a week and a half I struggle to describe them. It might be that I was distracted by the company and did not focus on the food. Or it could be that the presentation distracted me. Maybe it was sensory overload. What I do know is that the entrees stuck with me longer.
Maybe its my Steven Starr phobia. His restaurant are concept restaurants. I prefer real restaurants where the food is the focus.
Whatever the reason, I do keep a vivid memory of a glass of moscato after dinner. I have never been a sweet wine lover, but very good dessert wines are not cloying like what we were raised on in the US. This is light and frizzante with a hint of sweet... delightful way to end a meal.
Maureen has injured herself. One of those nagging injuries that lingers on, eliciting exclamations like, "You're not up to snuff yet!?". She slipped and fell down the steps at church back in December. After the fall, she discovered that she had dented the bells on her jingly socks and pulled her periformis muscle. (For the uninitiated, the periformis is a muscle that connects to a myriad of important places.) To boil it down, she pulled a muscle in her ass. Which corresponds to months of pain and rehab. Here we are in March and Maureen is still hobbling and clutching her glutes.
The lack of mobility has been trying. When one has to drive three blocks just to get to the train, one is limited. And limited mobility means boredom. Maureen is resorting to trawling for company. Tonight Geneva and I were supposed to drop by for drinks. Geneva bailed, but next door neighbor Dave joined in. Dave and I shared a bottle of wine while Maureen sipped hi-balls. Great stories Dave's military shenanigans, Dave's childhood shenanigans, Dave's house shenanigans...
Race Street Brewery
Dinner and drinks at the Race Street Brewery wiuth Min. Its more bar than restaurant but I was happy to find it. Cozier than the Plough, it's a real local... dark wood, bartenders who know their regulars. (I'd wager the bartenders are regulars.) Good music, not too loud... a bit of an after work crowd but still a good mix of local folks. We had an unimpressive meal but it was decent. The bartender made us a custom cocktail -- a kiwitini. Its your basic cosmo but with pureed kiwi added. The tiny black seeds suspended in the pale green cocktail were a striking touch.
'Tis the season
Its been a such a strange, on-again off-again winter. Cold and blustery then wet, warm and Aprilish. Case in point, yesterday we began in the 60s but by midafternoon were in the midst of a gale, blowing snow and freezing rain down my collar and up my skirt. Tonight, tucked up cozy in the house, the wind gusting fiercely, I hear my windchimes sing from the back yard. Its big bell-like tones tell me that it is freezing out there but at the same time remind me that spring is coming and soon I will be sitting outside in the evenings enjoying the fireflies.
Tis the season for garden planning. Catalogs and books are stacked hellebore high while I make lists and sketches of what I'd like to do. First on the list, robbing a bank so I can afford everything else.
In 2006 I hope (fingers crossed) to be a part of the Riverton Garden Tour. A local fundraiser, its a chance to feel like part of the community. I am impatient to have everything in order... everything the way I envision it. I want it all now, from entry arbor to greenhouse. My challenge is to embrace the measured approach of doing things bit by bit.
Una Domenica Italiana
The Italian group is going well. We have a solid core of regulars and have decided to meet once a week instead of once a month. Dobbiamo practicare spesso. Excellent! After a handful of tentative, exploratory meetings we have gotten comfortable with one another. Now we speak in Italian. "That was the point", you might snipe. Ah, yes but allowing yourself to speak a foreign language you are not confident with is tough. People sally in with a phrase or two, then retreat to listening and questioning in English. Our last couple of meet ups have broken that barrier. We lob phrases back and forth, parrying responses and questions. Fluent we are not, but willing we are. Min joined us today. She adds a level of unpredictability. She neither reserved nor protective of herself ...she dives right in and lets the chips fall where they may with her pastiche of Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. It's a great catalyst for conversation.
Our meet ups have a pattern. We meet, we speak some introductory and "greeting" Italian, we banter, we fall back to a little English (to expand on things), then people start to leave. At the end it is usually the same people and very often at this point we are having passionate political discussions. These are in English, though I think we should try to master the vocabulary since it's a topic that seems to engage us.
Reconnecting with Min has been good. We were co-workers back in the day (KPMG days)... not close, but friendly. I left the firm and went traveling. Not long after, Min also left for other more targeted consulting opportunities that she eventually left for an extended world tour. As luck would have it, we both ended up in Philadelphia.
Min is interesting... layers upon layers of seemingly contradictory paths that piled up to make an textured, colorful tapestry. Born in Korea, raised in Brazil, and educated in the US, she hails from a traditional Korean family. Anything but traditional herslef, she has a strong connection to her family and an appreciation for tradition and heritage. She is a seeker -- open and looking for new information, new ways to approach life.
When I met her she was an ambitious young auditor making the transition to information technology consulting. That was a big leap of faith for most auditors... giving up a secure, known career trajectory for the uncertainty of a new business line within an old corporate structure. Being confident and bright, she excelled. With her commitment, she was doing well, moving up in the food chain and pushing herself. But being a Renaissance person at heart, she found something missing in the career path. So she took her nest egg, quit her job and went traveling. And when she came back, she took the time to ponder what it might be that she really wanted to do with her life. The decision was pastry.
Min has always cooked. What she lacks in formal culinary training or restaurant background, she makes up for in courage. She pulled together her resume and introduced herself to the Steven Starr organization, one of the premier restaurant groups in Philadelphia.
You might wonder what they would see in someone with no restaurant experience. With no track record, what does one offer? Grit, confidence, and a sincere love for the act of cooking. Though she offered to work for free to get experience, they hired her as a pastry assistant. That was less than a year ago. In that time she's become a valued member of their team, learning about the business as well as pastry technique. I am so proud of her of her gumption and determination. Min makes things happen and, she is fun.
Its an inspiring story, no? One that begs the question, "why not me?" Why indeed...
It takes a while for everything in life to gel. The more components there are in a situation, the better things are when you let things settle. Seems true in lots of areas: building, cooking, gardening. Allowing the flavors to meld, the roots to take hold, the foundation to settle, requires patience.
Once I bought the house, patience should have kicked in. You'd think I'd know this well, given that I have moved 3 times. Its almost 2 years since I returned to the east coast, and one since I bought the house. Now, finally, things seem like they are beginning to gel.
These meetups (go to meetups.com) are a nice way to find like-minded people. But they take time... a lot of folks lurk on the message board without ever attending any meetings. And once you get a group of people together, things take time to happen. People need time to grow accustomed to each other.
Yesterday my gardening meet up met face to face for the first time. There were only two of us. Doesn't seem like much but we had a good time and while we talked about gardening and digressed into those little stories that sketch out who you are, I realized that I am meeting some pretty interesting folks.
We met at The Hinge. It's a local café. The sort that you might find in SF, with owners who have a dream to be purveyors and supporters of the arts, healthy bodywork and food. They have combined the comfy coffeehouse atmosphere -- good chairs, big mugs that fill the hand, and a no-rush attitude about lingering over conversation -- with a simple, well done menu. I had a BLT on multigrain bread. It was big without being frightening. The bacon was generous and still had life -- not fried into fragile crisps. The lettuce and tomato were fresh and the bread was real bread from a local bakery. It was a simple and straightforward sandwich, made with care. The man in the kitchen (and it is a man) obviously loves to cook. So bravo.
The Hinge is a community experience. The owners obviously take a holistic approach to life, offering a mix of what is good for the mind, body and soul -- food, yoga/pilates/massage and the arts. Every Friday they have live music (singer/songwriter types) and Sunday nights is an open mike night. Since they do not serve alcohol, the open mike is an outlet for local youth who want to perform.
They have plans to have a meeting space, an art gallery, and a youth art lab. This fall, it looks like they will sponsor a small, neighborhood arts and culture festival. More power to them. I keep bringing people here and singing its praises because these woman have heart and a great idea. I wish they had settled in Riverton.
Food and Wine
Describing the Alma de Cuba dinner for my cooking friends made me realize that what I love most about food and wine is the experience of it -- from the moment you walk in the door until you roll yourself home in a quasi food coma. It's the act of tasting, of discovering the individual elements that make up that dish or that glass of wine. The deconstruction of the meal... identifying what is going on in your mouth is fun. I enjoy trying to name the individual components of a dish or a wine. Alma de Cuba was a perfect example. With every bite we asked questions, " is that ginger" "can you taste that sharp flavor in the background, I can't put a name to it." Its like food charades. It's the game if it.
Unfortunately, I have become a food snob in some ways. I don't like to pay for a shoddy meal -- a salad that is soggy because the people on the line did not dry the lettuce or one where the elements are ladled into piles instead of tossed through the salad. I resent that the meal was not made with care... with pride. I like chefs and the line people in real restaurants because there is a pride in what is served. It may not always be the most inspired fare and you will inevitably find some underpaid, overworked body whose plating of your meal was not his best. But its a professional mindset about what they do that comes through.
I've been reading Lawrence Osborne's The Accidental Connoisseur, about wine and the wine industry. Its not snooty or high flown... more, it is about the different approaches to making wine... the business versus the poetic, with the gradations between. What grabbed me was the tug of war between the globalization of wine (the standardization of taste, if you will) and some winemakers' stubborn determination to retain individuality, to hang onto tradition and to that special something that makes a wine unique.
I see the same thread running through everything these days... Globalization of business which does nothing for small, independent producers whether you talk about agriculture (corporate farming versus small organic farmers) or books (Crown versus the local bookstore. See Nora Ephron's "You've got Mail". Or the "mallification" of America where neighborhood after neighborhood offers you a Target, a Pottery Barn, a Gap, a Starbucks, a Rite Aide, and a Smith and Hawken, until every neighborhood looks the same and every suburban mall looks like your neighborhood... thus wringing the charm, the individuality, the mom and pop store, the independent boutique-ness out of everything. Ultimately, removing the neighborhood from your neighborhood and replacing it with a suburban mall.
Don't mistake me. I like Pottery Barn and Smith & Hawken. I LOVE Target. But I don't want to find it in every neighborhood. The Marina in San Francisco should not remind me of Manayunk in Philadelphia or Princeton in New Jersey. They should have their own flavors... hard to do when you have a Talbots, an Anne Taylor and a Pottery Barn in each one.
The Way It Is, the Way It Was, And The Way It Should Be
Born to change. Americans embrace progress, forward movement, invention. It makes us restless souls always looking ahead to the next revolution, the next advance. It is an invigorating, inspiring way to approach life. However, we also tend to be rather black and white our way is good, the other way is bad. Not so. Although we might look at tradition as hidebound and restrictive, there are sides to it that we should examine. Embrace even. Embrace quirkiness...
I am not a traditionalist. I love change, derive energy and hope from change. But I also find great peace in rhythm and cycles. Traditional life includes so many things that link to the universal cycles of life -- rise and fall of tides, rise and set of sun and moon, change of seasons -- planting, harvests, birth, death. Each of these is a constant in our lives. To overlook them, to minimize their importance is to deprive yourself of a guidewire through the chaos and craziness of the world.
Traditions, in the "modern" world, seem silly. Marriage -- protecting the sanctity of marriage is a fool's errand. How do you protect something from centuries of corruption? Marriage has been a tainted institution for generations. Women sold into or pressured into unions as chattel. As breeders. As commodities. Laws that state beating your wife is okay. The history of marriage is not one of love and commitment. Lately we seem to pontificate about this fantasy of what marriage has always meant in Christian society. All that hot air separates us from what the true meaning should be.
Marriage is a ceremony of commitment between two people who are pledging their lives to something bigger than they are alone. Marriage uses the force of the community to support and give teeth to the pledge. To witness the promise. "I do this in front of others -- before others whom I respect and trust -- to prove that I am serious." All that is required are two adults of sound mind and will, and a feeling for that thing that is bigger than they are alone.
Perhaps we need to focus on what marriage is. Not define who makes a marriage, but what makes a marriage Stop fixating on the "union of a man and a woman" kind of definition, and examine what a marriage stands for. Is it about a commitment before the eyes of the community and god? Is it about legalizing and formalizing specific benefits (tax, medical, inheritance)? Is it spiritual, religious or secular?
When we agree on those issues, perhaps we can discuss who makes marriage a marriage like real adults.