Friday, August 8, 2014

Making the most of Roman summers: Another list!

Another August and I am remembering my post (and list) from last year about striving not to miss out on Roman summers by living in a haze. So this year, I am waking up earlier and have added some new ideas to last year's list.

Plus now, there is a Estate Romana 2014 App sharing all the summer events, so I have no excuse to miss out on anything! 

So here is the 2014 Make-the-Most-of-Roman-Summer List:
  1. Lungo il Tevere Festival: The traditional bancarelle along the Tevere: 
  2. Gasometro Festival: Kind of like the alternative cousin of the Lungo il tevere festival: 
  3. Villa Pamphili or Villa Ada - Some of Rome's biggest and loveliest parks set up stages and host concerts:
  4. Terme di Caracalla Opera - When the Roman Opera house moves outdoors
  5. Aperitivo at La Singita on Fregene Beach - The tradition of aperitivo also goes to the beach: 
  6. Granita di Caffe from Tazza d'Oro - Caffeinated Ice. How marvelous! The famous Caffe Eustachio also has a great one. Both are near the Pantheon.
  7. Gelato -  Not just for summer of course, but summer is a great excuse. Take your pick of places. Everyone has their own theory about the best gelato. I say to each his own on that one. However, for the flavor cioccolato fondente, mine is still Gelateria della Palma, crowds and all.  Tony's gelateria in Monteverde came pretty close this year though.     

  8. Limoncello - a great, refreshing after-dinner drink (with a kick!)
  9. Hotel Minerva Rooftop for drinks. Lovely view of the Pantheon.
  10. Notte delle Stelle Cadenti (Night of the falling stars) at the beach on the festa di San Lorenzo (August 10)
  11. Beaches - The bread and butter of Italian summers. You might have to fight for your spot or learn to live without personal space, but mainly still worth the trip. Sperlonga is a jewel if you can handle the aforementioned.
  12. Paddle boats at Bracciano lake - Lakes are good beach-alternative and a well-kept secret in the summer. Trevignano is a great city on Lake Bracciano.
  13. Watermelon Stands - What is summer without watermelon?
  14. Campari and/or Aperol Spritz - Prosecco mixed with campari or aperol. Summer in a glass. You can get a 14 Euro one at Harry's Bar on Via Veneto, but I would suggest just sitting outside on a regular outdoor terrace and paying the normal price of 5 - 8 Euro. It tastes the same. 
  15. Grattachecca - Stand selling icy dessert (the granita's cousin) 
  16. Castel Sant'Angelo Festival: You can apparently go in the Passetto, a site that has thus evaded me:
  17. Piscina delle Rose - Olympic sized, 50-meter outdoor pool with lanes for real swimmers and aqua gym for fitness buffs:

Other Roman summer suggestions? Send them over if you have them!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Easter empanadas

Like any Type A personality, this Easter break I went on a wedding planning hiatus and instead invented another project for myself.

Every now and then I get on a kick of wanting to do something that I have never done. Sometimes it is well organized and planned out, like the time I went sky-diving in college, and sometimes it is totally on a whim, like my last weekend's empanada obsession.

When it comes to baking, I generally just leave it as “I can’t”… or that I need supervision if I do. I am a fairly decent cook. I am not a baker. I boil it down to the fact that I am virtually incapable of following instructions. With cooking, I tend to do whatever I want and refer back to the recipe only now and then to see how off track I am. To go off-roading with baking, you need to understand chemistry. And I don’t. I have had cakes sink, pie crusts shrivel, muffins burn on the outside and remain raw on the inside... I am a chemist’s nightmare.

Probably the root cause of my obsession: DC's Julia's Empanadas
So I don’t know why this past weekend I became possessed with the spirit of an empanada maker. This is neither in my general realm of ability, nor is it in my comfort zone. I also don’t know what relation empanadas have to Easter, but for some reason, I had to accomplish this for Easter brunch.

The process began in my very typical way of showing up at the grocery store without the recipe and having to guess the ingredients. Not only did I have to guess what they were but I had to guess what their Italian names are. Armed with the Google translate app and a comparable recipe from my Smart Phone’s internet browser, I still got home to find out that I bought polenta instead of cornmeal and baking soda instead of baking powder. Over the course of the day, I also realized that the recipe required a rolling pin, (which I did not have) … and a baking sheet, (which I also did not have)… and wax paper, (nope, didn’t have that either)… and ideally empanada molds, (do you think I would have molds of any kind?). Luckily, I was able to buy, borrow or make an equivalent to all of these things. 

Two other things I did successfully buy at the grocery store though were:
  1. Pre-made dough (in case mine turned to stone). 
  2. A massive amount of chic peas (in case I scrapped the whole idea and made hummus instead.) 
So far, no explosions...
Yet with guidance from a friend, a call to her professional chef/ father and help from another friend whose Napolitano roots made him a natural with rolling out dough, the suspicious looking concoction turned from a granular flaky mess into something not only malleable but delicious.

Emapanada molds work!
The roasted vegetable filling (that I winged of course) turned out great, and with the baking sheet and empanada molds I borrowed, I made 3 very nice batches of golden brown empanadas.

They made it to the oven!

I can do anything! I felt.

And though that’s not true, I have a new Easter tradition. Maybe I can even strike baking off of the list of “I can’ts”. Perhaps next year I can attempt the real Italian tradition, the Colombo… but I’ll buy chic peas just in case.

My Empanadas! Not bad for a novice.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Two different count downs

Easter is five days away which is good news for me because my dreams of chocolate are getting more vivid… I could smell it in the last one…

Image from Yours Fondly
This year was definitely my toughest lent to date. I gave up all sugar, from not adding it to coffee in the morning to abstaining from all desserts (gelato included!) in the evening.

I spent the last 40 days turning down all variety of sweets … or accepting them (usually chocolate) to stash them away in my freezer for safekeeping until after Easter. But with only five more days, I can make it. However, while I am on the verge of succeeding in that one Lenten observance, I am failing in another.

Chocolate shoes
This lent, I also promised to write once a week. Writing for me is like running. I don’t feel entirely healthy unless I do it regularly. Yet, though I have been good at running lately (I completed the Verona half marathon in February), I have not been good at writing, as you may or may not have noticed.

Giulietta & Romeo Verona Half Marathon & They also had a chocolate festival
Part of it is that I am out of the habit, which is why I thought lent a good time to reintroduce it. Aside from the religious aspects of lent, I have also learned that 40 days is a pretty good amount of time to form a new habit or break a bad one. Lent would have been a good time to get back into the habit of writing…

This feeling of remorse for me is a bit reminiscent of last year. Some of you may recall that my Lenten resolution was to give up complaining about Rome (specifically the people and services in Rome). I did so poorly thought that I then decided to give up chocolate for the 40 days after lent. It was a sort of self-imposed “talking-to”. 40 days of not commenting on late buses, rude people, broken services or chaotic everything would have been good for me. But the habit was too engrained.

My brother in law also gets excited about chocolate
But perhaps again this year, I will impose a post-lent promise/talking-to: To write once a week for 40 weeks. It could work. I already have a lot of new stories about wedding planning in Italy.

And that’s the other count down: the count down to my big fat Italian wedding! Yes, dealing with the legalities of three countries, having people fly in from probably ten and working with a mixed bag of traditions, it’s going to be a total zoo and completely legendary. So far, no talks of a roasting spit in the front yard though which is good.

As you can see, a lot has happened since Mexico: visiting family in Toronto, getting engaged in Vancouver, searching for a venue in Umbria and Tuscany, finding a wedding dress in the weird underground wedding sub-culture of Rome… It's been a busy 4 months.

Castle of Love: the brochure of one of the venues we looked at...

But with wedding planning comes a whole other cultural experience of Italy which I would be happy to share: Living like an (engaged) tourist. Get ready puffy dresses, shellacked wedding cakes, cheesy songs and outdated traditions: here I come, or more appropriately, here comes the bride.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mexican for a week

I was recently Mexican for a week. No, that is not a typo. I don't mean I was in Mexico for a week. I was Mexican for a week.

I’ll explain.

I don't watch TV anymore. I stopped watching movies after the '80s. I hardly read books. I never read magazines. I don't write fiction; I can’t paint or draw worth crap. I don’t play video games and I don’t cook (enough to call it a hobby). So I don't partake in the many of the standard avenues for the invaluable, even at times mandatory, escapism from everyday life.

We all know those days that are so utterly exhausting that there is nothing left to do but to take off our brains and hang them by the door between our coats and umbrellas. During our waking hours, we are all bombarded with things to know about, things to care about, things to read about, thing to respond to, things to think about, things to act on… Sometimes, putting your brain in a wooden chest, locking it up and throwing it into a metaphorical sea is the only way to stay sane.

Travel also serves the purpose of relieving me of my brain. In my suitcase, I pack only one part of my brain, the creative, curious, silly part, and I leave the other analytic, ambitious, serious part at home.

Instead of pretending that I am a guest in a Gatsby novel or fantasizing that I am flying around on a broomstick in a Harry Potter movie, I pretend to be a resident of a new city. I put myself as a character in their settings…What would my life be like in fill-in-the-blank-country?

Travels are my escape routes.

For one week, the “My life in Mexico” story-line made me very happy. In this plot, Karen, as a resident of Mexico, would walk determinedly out onto the streets of the Roma/Condesa neighbourhoods and into the fast-paced, high volume pedestrian workday traffic. I would pop into a Starbucks to get a big-enough drink to also act adequately as a hand-warmer.

I would happily wake up late on Saturdays knowing that stores don’t even open until 11:00 am and I couldn't be productive even if I wanted to be. I would go for long jogs in Chapultepec park, around the green-silt bottomed lakes and carefully manicured picnic areas and obliging benches.

I would put lime and chili pepper on most things and fresh cilantro on everything. I would probably have high cholesterol because I would eat cheese and fried things daily, but I would love every meal. I might get used to eating grasshoppers (chapulines) as a topping for guacamole.

Chopped up chapulines make them more palatable
A spread of Mezcal... I never found the one for me though
I would probably learn to love Mezcal, the smokey-tasting tequila (I don’t currently love it). I would definitely drink more beer than I do now having discovered Leon obscura (dark), Indio and of course Negra Modelo. Or I might just drink the rather exotic pulque.

Pulque = fermented sap of an agave plant
I probably would not go to Luche libre every Friday night, but I would go once in a while making sport of inventing my own names for the masked wrestlers/acrobats instead of calling them by their own made-up names.

I would pay my respects to the Virgin of Guadalupe on her Feast Day, December 12, and would ask her to pray over my city as the Patroness of Mexico.


I would definitely go to Xochimilco every weekend, or perhaps just every special occasion, to lounge on the wooden barges, buy food and drinks from boats floating nearby and hire Mariachi bands to sing heartbreaking songs to which I could sing along as I would have definitely learned all the lyrics.

I would dress in bright colors with more reds, yellows, blues and purples and my house would be vividly decorated with textiles and silver purchased at the local artisan markets.

 The Day of the Dead would become one of my favourite holidays.

I would join the popular cult-following of Frida Kahlo and make occasional pilgrimages out to her Casa Azul. Maybe like Diego, her husband, I would get a vegetarian, Mexican hairless dog, once bred by the Aztecs for eating, but certainly not what I would do with this poor, unfortunate-looking creature.

Xoloitzcuintle, Mexican hairless dog
In a short week of experiencing all these things, I fell in love with the life of my imaginary Mexican double.

Seven days later, I found it hard to leave her behind. She spoke a different language than I do. She was more artsy and expressive than I am. She could sing well (I don’t know why, but maybe Spanish is more conducive to having a nice singing voice). I don’t sing well.

In case you were also wondering,
best song to request from a Mariachi band...
So boarding the plane and leaving that spirit behind, I quickly missed her and promptly on my return made it a point to buy avocados and listen to Alejandro Fernandez just to ease my detachment. Like finishing a good novel or the final episode of a long-running series, it is hard to say goodbye to the characters you grew to know over those pages or days.

But the nice part of travel is that you don’t really say goodbye to those people. They are a part of you. They stay inside you until they are awakened by familiar settings and sounds.

I have re-become Italian at least 4 times now, so I know I will be Mexican again someday too.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Relating to Malta

I like to personify things. I am a product of a Disney-filled childhood; therefore, I animate inanimate objects. Like Disney’s dancing candlesticks or talking mirrors, I give countries, cities and even forms of weather human personalities. You may have read about my
"DC-as-a-potential-boyfriend" post. Now this is my “Malta-as-a-fellow-expatriate” post.

Malta in human-form could be the newest arrival to our expat world. Like many of us expats, Malta has a variety of international and cultural influences in its background. Not only that, she (Malta) has a current culture and lifestyle that feels like a blend of a dozen. Malta has probably also had moments when she is a bit confused about her identity… or at least other people are confused about her identity.

Among the influences in her history, Malta has Roman, Arab and Norman background. She has also in her past been taken over by French and British, let's call them ... (unwanted) suitors. Geographically, she is like an off-spring/off-shoot of Italy or Tunisia. Topographically, she is similar to Sicily or countries of the Middle East. Culinarily, she has a mishmash of Arabic, Sicilian, French and British cuisines: with rabbit, lampuki fish, anchovies and octopus as some of the main offerings. Linguistically, she has a unique mix of Italian and Arabic (with up to 50 % of the Maltese vocabulary coming from one of the two).

Walking down one of her capital cities, either Valletta on the island Malta itself or Victoria on Gozo (Malta's second largest island), you wouldn’t hesitate to call Malta a twin to Sicily: sand-colored buildings stacked close together, wrought iron, one-person balconies with clothes lines hanging newly washed garments. Then a glaring red telephone booth enters your vision, and a car whizzes by you on the left side of the road. When did I cross the border to England? You walk by old men sitting at a café discussing whatever old men discuss and you wait to see the flailing hand gestures like you would in another Italian city, but on passing you hear an Arabic-like speech with its throaty pronunciations. Tunis perhaps?

Malta's currency, since 2008, is the Euro, so you remember you are in Europe, but the terrain is reminiscent of Jordan with dry, rolling hills. You have a glass of Maltese red wine, and find that Malta is a wine producer like its Italian counterparts of Sicily or Sardegna. Then you eat a honey-filled, doughy ring which looks like the type of sweet baked goods you find in Egypt.

The old fishing boats painted in traditional colors look like those you can see in the Cinque Terre. Malta's old capital of Mdina looks fully Arab. The small bay-side towns, like Spinola bay, now modernized with all the café-terrasse can look like the south of France. British fish and chips appear on many menus.

But when you push away the confusion and stop trying to figure out which box to put Malta in, you realize that Malta is a well-blended mix of it all. It is all of these influences and not wholly any of them at once. It picks and chooses the parts that work for its character and it turns against that which does not. It is not really defined by any of these names except that which it chose for itself, Malta. It is a separate entity, separate country and separate experience. And, in my opinion, it is a lovely one. Yes, I think I can relate to Malta. I am pretty sure we would be good friends.


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