Pleasure Priority

There are reasons why I chose to live in Italy. Most of the reasons have to do with food and lifestyle. For one reason or another I find both of these things more manageable here, more civil, more humane. But at the same time when it comes to food I also find myself defending the culture of quality and that is quickly growing and gaining importance in America. Italians are quick to assume that there is no good food in the United States. That we do not no know the value of a local market or a quality cut of meat. And to this I just say, not so. You must come see what’s happening where I’m from. Things have changed. But will they change enough to create a lifestyle of good eating?

An Italian who spends a significant part of time in the States told me that it’s not impossible to find good food in the US, it’s just more difficult. This is partly true but more that it being more difficult, it is more expensive.

Here in Italy it is not a privilege to eat well and to drink a fine bottle of wine. And it’s not expensive. It is the way it’s done. This is the major difference. There is not such a gap between have and have not’s in this country and so the playing field on the dinner table is level. Across the board the quality of the food is high and discussions, regardless of age, center around food. If you eaves drop on phone conversations and discussion on the street in almost always turns to food. What was eaten, what will be eaten, how it was prepared and how everyone liked it. High quality food is a priority and you learn this at a young age. At the same time no one really makes a ton a money, people live with their parents in small homes and just get by. For me this is preferred but it doesn’t match with what it typically American.

So despite everything good that¬† happening in with food the US, everything that I feel so proud of, is it ever possible then to level the playing field in a country like America when it comes to food? I suppose I don’t think so. Improving our diet is becoming a large bullet on our to do list for health reasons but we are still missing, as an entire nation, an identity that makes the pleasure of eating a priority.

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Wind and Walls Made of Stone

Today is the most beautiful spring day that I could have ever asked for. Cherry trees are blossoming, windows are open, people are drinking wine in the sun. It is perfect. Yesterday however, was a different story.

I wasn’t really prepared for the winds that sometimes whip through the heel of the boot but I am finding that at times, this is the case. Yesterday began with a wind that back home would have sent warnings and most definitely dramatized the evening news. Regardless, at around 10 am I found myself on a country road walking to Gelso Bianco, Southern Visions’ soon to be opened cooking school. The wind raged on and I, well….just buttoned up. After a few minutes I simply felt invigorated and slightly reminded of one of those late season hurricanes that has lost its umph by the time it reaches the North Atlantic. But mostly, I was completely captivated by the stone walls that were all around me.

As a native New Englander I am quite used to the site of charming stone walls that roll along side the roads and through fields. I have been enamoured by the presence in the landscape for some time and have even built one with my own hands. In part, I am sure this is why the landscape of Puglia speaks to me. They are everywhereThe dry-stone walls of Puglia are made of the limestone rocks that have been dug out of the soil. You will see piles of these rocks lying here and there at the edges of fields. The sheer number of them gives you an idea of just how carefully this land has been worked. And the stones actually leach nutrients into the soil, raising its PH and making for healthy agricultural fields. Farmers in Puglia grow just about everything that the climate supports.

Sometimes tinted with the rich red of the soil, the walls run along roads, create property boundaries, surround vineyards, single olive trees, or just seem to meander off into the distance and keep going and going forever. Every step I took on this very windy sort of rainy morning I was distracted by another wall, another enchanting view and another sign of spring.

In the Morning

Beautiful morning in Monopoli. Woke by 6:30 am to the sound of church bells in a bright and sunny apartment. I am finding my feet here in this Southern Italy gem of a town. After scoping out the view and making some plans for my not one but TWO decks, my first task was to find my local tabbachi to add some minutes to my cell phone, which had suddenly disappeared after a call last night. Quick stop around the corner from my home on Vico Amalfiatana and that was done. Scoped out the closest farmacia and then I thought I might take a stroll through the port to see what happens here on Friday morning. Lots of men about. Fishermen getting their boats and lines ready and small groups of older men chit chatting by the sea. And this guy selling produce out of his truck in the middle of my little piazza. I told him I would be back often. He is my first friend in Monopoli.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Home in Monopoli

I arrived at the Bari airport minutes before I was scheduled to return my rental to Maggiore. Laura and Arien picked me up and we loaded my bag into the Southern Visions Audi and headed directly to Monopoli. The final leg to my long journey south. Very fitting on the day that celebrates women across Italy (feste delle donne) my luggage was lugged down 7 flights of stairs and up some very steep and narrow ones by women (thank you Julie and Laura). My next home will be on the ground floor. Bags dropped we quickly turned around and headed first to the office to get Antonello and then to the bar for an apperitivo. A campari spritz, panzerotti (fried tomato and mozzarella) and some fabulously fresh Pugliese almonds was about all I could handle at the moment but there was plenty to choose from.

Head hit the pillow in my new home at midnight. From here my Puglia adventure begins…….

In giro in Molise

After a two day journey covering six regions of Italy I have arrived at my new desk and home in Monopoli. I set out on Monday morning from Florence in a rented Fiat Punto packed full of my things (a few more bags than I arrived with 4 months ago) and headed south. Finding my way out of the center of Florence by car was perhaps the most difficult part of the entire journey. After that I settled in, gathered my thoughts and drove, Through Tuscany, through Umbria, through Lazio through the snowy mountains of Abruzzo and finally into Molise where I took a 24 hour detour in Montelongo, the town of my grandfather.

I had been to Montelongo before, once in 2002 with my mom and then again in November. We had somewhat maintained a connection to our friends there (cousins of distant cousins) and of course, nine years later they were eager to host us and hopeful for our return. I had called Pepino, my main contact and also somewhat of the town mayor, a few days before letting him know that I would be passing through and making a stop at the police station in Campobasso to pick up my permesso di soggiorno. He told me not to worry about a thing and that he would be there whenever I arrived. And he was. Right there by the fountain in the town piazza in the freezing cold. I followed him to the bed and breakfast of a friend (who had heat–this was a key factor) where I rested while the small heater in the corner of the room with enormous ceilings began to warm the place up. After a little rest I went back downstairs where it seemed the locals gather for drinks and to play video games to wait for Pepino. We went to one of the two restaurants in town for dinner–a small pizzeria–where the only other diners were Pepino’s 11 year old nephew and his friends. Road weary and cold I ate well. Pizza, bisteca and red wine. Off to bed.

The next day my host Maria served me a breakfast while she and her friend, also Maria gossiped about the local goings on. They asked about me and my life and before twenty minutes were up we were Facebook friends. From there anything is possible. The Italian was flowing but the local dialect tripped me up a bit. We were on our second macciato when Pepino arrived to tour me around a bit more. We went to the house he had inherited from his aunt that he is currently renovating. It is old and beautiful and will be even more so when it is finished. We stopped in to see his mother and aunt who were busying themselves in the kitchen pouring olive oil into jars and finding telephone numbers written on scratches of paper. From there we went to the other restaurant “La Nostrana” a beautiful trattoria in the Slow Food guide book that I had eaten at in November. Maria Concetta does it all herself, cures the meat, makes the cheese, makes the pasta, the whole thing. She had two big groups coming that day and was just lighting the fireplace when we arrived. She desperately wants me to help her spread the word about her in Italy and North America. And I want to help–she is incredible. I told her I’d be back soon. After Maria Concetta is was time for lunch so back to the house with mom, aunt, both brothers and nephews.

Then to Campobasso where I’d been told I could pick up my permesso di soggiorno between the hours of 3-5. Having heard horror stories of this experience in Florence, the one person ahead of me in line was a pleasant sight. 10 minutes later I was walking out of there, totally legal in Italy for one year.

The ride back to Montelongo to pick up my car was a long and windy one through nowhere Molise. These roads twist and turn through the mountains as little villages dot the hill tops. Nobody talks about Molise, including Italians. It seems that they don’t even know where it is. However everyone who lives there wants me to come back to live, for good.

Back to the house to collect a gift bag of olive oil, homemade wine and biscotti. Set the GPS to Bari, said my goodbyes and off I went winding back down to the autostrada and further south.

Email to Friends and Family

For posterity. Sent February 27, 2011 Dearest friends and family, It’s been a little bit since my last official update from Italy. But today, a rainy Sunday afternoon, seems perfect for writing. Today is also exactly one week before I pack up some kind of rented Fiat, leave Florence and head back down south. I have been offered a job with Southern Visions Travel. (www.pugliaitalytravel.com) a small travel company based in Puglia–the heel of the boot. They do cycling tours for mostly Americans and Canadians and are amping up their culinary offerings. They just now restoring this beautiful farmhouse into a cooking school and culinary retreat. Should be open by May. It’s a team of Italians, Americans and South Africans in the town of Monopoli….on the Adriatic coast. My job is to handle their marketing for the season–through October. After that we’ll see. I’ll basically be helping them tell the story of the company and the area through the eyes of an American, as Puglia is just now getting on the travel radar. One of my big projects is writing a blog (now that I’m a blogger) about my day to day interactions as an American (the only American) living in there. I will be really forced to get out and talk to the locals, in Italian and sink in to the local scene. Should be fodder for some great experiences. I think the blog is going to be southernvisionspuglia.wordpress.com but I will let you know for sure. It’s an exciting change. And for sure a change. I look forward to the new adventure, to getting to know an amazing part of the world and to doing what it is I came here to do. But at the same time I will miss the comforts of the life I’ve created here. No more small group of girlfriends, 4 am pasta with my housemates or quiet evenings with a sweet guy. The transition feels a bit strange as transitions often do, but soon enough I will wake up in sunny southern Italy with a sea view from my apartment in the center of the old city. I’m not an Italian citizen yet, still waiting on that. But I am legal, which is something. More than a lot of Americans living and working in Florence. Next hurdle is opening a bank account. Another delicate issue with a lot of bureaucracy attached. These days I miss scones (from Sherman) and oysters. And all of you. Good news is that I’ve negotiated 4 weeks off in the summer to come home. Likely August so mark your calendars. By the pool, in the ‘ville, in the berks, on the island…..I can’t wait. Good luck getting to spring. I’m pulling for you. And I am ALWAYS open for visitors. First one gets a prize. May and June are lovely in Puglia…… All my love, Leigh

Southern Visions and Monopoli

I returned last night on a flight from Bari to Pisa (first experience on Ryanair) after spending 3 days with Anontello and team in Monopoli. The days were a blend of meeting and planning sessions, getting to know the (many) projects of the company and of course eating and drinking.

Basically it breaks down like this……Antonello owns Southern Visions Travel (google it) which started as a bike touring company throughout Puglia and is now growing to incorporate more “cultural” travel which includes food and wine. My job with the company is to basically do their marketing, but not only for the company but for life in Puglia–an emerging destination for Americans. You can check this out too on the Google–true story. So I’ve been outfitted with a camera and telecamera (video) and will facebook, twitter and blog my head off about my life as an American living in Puglia. Look out for my NEW blog, Southern Visions Puglia, daily life on the heel of the boot. The two might eventually merge in some cases. The other part of the job is doing a little PR….story pitching, press releases and the like. Can’t seem to get away from this but it’s part of the game I suppose. And then some work on the culinary end of things like connecting with US chefs and the whole localvore thing stateside.

So in two weeks I pack up and move down there–hopefully into what feels like the Puglese version of my Marblehead apartment…..just add two huge decks with a sea view. No joke.

I didn’t have my camera, for fear of exceeding the strict Ryanair weight limits so I just have a few snapshots from the cellulare.

Permesso Pronto and South to Bari

Now, let’s be honest…..I’ve had it easy. The whole being here legally thing has been, for the most part a walk in the park for me, compared to others. Horror stories exist. With my application for Italian citizenship I was able to simultaneously apply for a permesso di soggiorno, a permit to stay. I won’t need this once I have an Italian passport in hand but I still have no real idea when that’s actually going to happen. Although I was never told this when I applied for the permesso (at the post office) this little receipt saying that the application is in process grants me the ability to work legally in Italy however as I’ve learned, does not grant me the ability to leave the country and return senza problema. While it’s done with some frequency, it is in fact illegal until I have the official document in hand. And so I am left wondering if three days in the Canary Islands is worth the risk. Some say dai! don’t don’t worry, some say things have gotten lot tighter in the last three years and best to not mess with it. Good news is though that the actual permesso is ready to be picked up! In Campobasso. So as soon as I get to the questura in person I am officially legal in Italy.

Sunday I fly to Bari to spend 3 days with Antonello and the “team” from Southern Visions. If all goes well I will be moving there come the end of the first week of March. Yup, packing up and heading south. By train, by plane….still not sure but south to the heel until the end of October is the idea. From there…..chi lo sa.

That leaves me basically two weeks to wrap things up in Florence, do all the things I’ve been meaning to do here and visit all my favorite spots. No doubt there are things….and people that I will miss in this city.

Apperitivo

I just would like to say a few words about the apperitivo. Traditionally it means to have a drink and some small snacks before dinner. Maybe a prosecco or campari and some olives or something simple like this. However, in modern day Italy it has come to mean something entirely different. It is the event you base your entire evening around in many cases. I believe it started in Milan and has moved its way south to the larger cities—I’m not sure how far south, likely not further than Rome. The concept is that a bar or cafe will offer an apperitivo from the hours of about 7-9. This will include a drink and a sampling of food of their choice that they put out buffet style. The cost is somewhere between 5 and 10 euro for food and drink. The display of food can be from large overflowing tables to a very small section of a very small bar. You could have your normal crostini and cured meats or full platters of pasta, roasted potatoes and entire panini. Now you can imagine in a city full of students and people who otherwise don’t have lots of money the apperitivo is a great way to socialize and have a nosh. Meet me for an apperitivo?¬† But what ends up happening is that it becomes a feeding frenzy for mediocre food (sometimes mini pizzas and french fries) and sitting down and eating a proper dinner never seems to happen. So while I like the concept of the apperitivo, and I go with some regularity with my friends, I’m not entirely for it. Sometimes lively atmosphere and cocktail it’s exactly what you need but it shouldn’t be confused with sitting down to eat dinner. That’s what I think.

Cibo Tales

This is really not meant to be a food blog since well….there are a few of those out there. But it’s difficult to write about my experience in Italy without mentioning food.

Last night at a dinner party for a friend’s birthday I learned a few interesting Tuscan food tales. The first is that one should never leave a loaf of bread upside down after you’ve cut a piece from it. This is not good. Just don’t do it….out of respect for the bread. The second is that one should never pour a glass of wine for yourself or someone else from the side. This is bad luck and it has something to do with Jesus and the last supper. Someone got killed after such a move. There are thousands of little do’s and don’ts like this, city to city, region to region.

DO eat the pecorino cheese though…with walnuts and honey, whenever possible.
And do have some of this too.