Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Vincere la Paura"

    "When were you thinking we'd stop for breakfast?"
    John gives me his quizzical, sleepy, I-haven't-had-my-coffee-yet look and glances at the glowing time readout on the stereo.
    It's just a few minutes past six in the morning and the jeep is humming us along the quiet streets of our tiny Italian suburb.
    "I want to hit the autostrada first, make a little progress before we make our first stop." He explains, eyes concentrated on winding through a roundabout.
    "Alright sounds good to me!" I pop the top off of my cranberry juice(I'm addicted) and take a gulp while reclining my seat. We get through the toll stop and pull our ticket for the journey ahead. John turns on NPR and settles the GPS, and I slip my shoes off without untying them and place my warm feet up on the dash board fixing my toes against the cool glass of the windshield. John looks over and laughs as I flip open my iPad and begin rotating through all of my candy-crush type games.
    We catch up on some "Wait, wait, don't tell me.." podcasts, allowing the voice of Carl Kasell to be our soundtrack as we wind our way through stretches of road overlooking vineyards, and fields of corn, villas and castles, mountains with tunnels built into them and so on...

     We finally pull off at one of the little service station restaurants and grab a quick bite to eat. John grabs a 'caprese' sandwich and I grab a 'veggie' both on focaccia bread. Lucky for us, Italian sandwiches and pizza flavors are pretty consistent no matter where you go, this has aided us quite a bit in ordering food when we're traveling or trying new places.
    I pluck the tofu from my sandwich as John chuckles at me, and drop it in the garbage pale by our car. It sticks to the plastic bag liner with a 'squish' noise and slowly slides down the side leaving a trail of mysterious soy juices in its wake.
    'Gross...' I mutter and grab a napkin to wipe my fingers. Putting my sandwich back together I munch on the sweet, vegetable-y goodness and we hit the road.
    We continue listening to NPR, occasionally switching over to some eighties spotify, but mostly just keeping with our current-events radio game shows. We stop for lunch and continue driving until we get to our destination nine and a half hours after we left that morning.

Praia A Mare
(aka The Most Beautiful Place I've Ever Seen)

John slowly coaxes the jeep up steep hills and narrow roads to get us to our hotel while I stay mesmerized on the neon blue water that seems to stretch on forever. We are suddenly stopped as we reach a road with a tree in the center. Not decoratively, not sitting in a median, not even in a planter. This tree, was very obviously here before the road, and instead of cutting it down, the great town of praia chose instead to build around the tree.

This place was definitely unique.

We spent three days enjoying, sun, salt water and pebble beaches but the highlight would have to be the second day we were there, which was also our anniversary. We woke up late and rolled out of bed around lunch time...

    "I want pizza!" I said.
John laughed and agreed we could go get pizza and pick up a few things before heading to the beach. We grab sunscreen and a few slices and gobble them down right by the beach, then head toward the lido to ask about renting kayaks.

    "We do not have...for two.." The woman gestures towards the both of us.
    "But do you have two boats for one?" John mimes the kayaking paddle motion for the fifth time in the conversation.
     "Ahhh, yes, yes, my husband, he will get them for you!"

John looks at me with concern, but I just nod. I've never kayaked before, and I'm not the strongest of swimmers, so learning on the sea is quite the scary experience but I've decided this is something I must do.

We layer on the all natural water proof sunblock that cost us an arm and a leg and the lido woman's husband pushes me off with my paddle into the waves first. I feel a bit unsteady at first but quickly gain my balance and push myself out a bit farther so John can take off from the shore as well. Once John is safely afloat we head toward the island that is off the coast and are ready to do some exploring!

As we paddle around Dino Island(sorry, no actual dinosaurs) we explore it's caves and caverns filled with bats and birds and fish of different sizes and shapes. The animals are brave here, not skittering away like they would on the shore so John and I get as close as they'll let us. We round the back to where we can no longer see the shore and the waves are much stronger, thrusting and pounding into the jagged rocks that line it. So we give the edge a wider berth and paddle carefully to the other side. On the far side of the island we enter the 'blue grotto caves' which consist of caves that are uniquely shaped allowing sunlight to pass through the open bottom of it which illuminates the water and makes it literally glow blue. It's magical and amazing and John and I spend a good ten minutes inside taking pictures and just looking around.

We head closer to the coast and stop off at some cliffs. Docking our kayaks we explore a little, marveling at little shellfish scurrying across the warm rock and looking out over the water. After allowing ourselves to stretch our legs, we hop back in our kayaks. Not without difficulty, as I flip mine but manage to figure it out in the end.

We return back to shore, exhausted, and slightly dehydrated and after getting drinks at the lido return to our hotel to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was amazing. We sat outside overlooking the water as the sunset and had the freshest seafood either of us has ever tasted. It was dark by our second course, and just after it is served we are lucky enough to watch a fireworks show from our seats. Then, finally our very spunky Italian waiter teases us about wanting to get back to our hotel to sleep and we get talked into staying for the best strawberry ice cream either of us will ever have for the rest of our lives.

Our anniversary was perfect and the highlight of our trip, though I don't know how John plans to beat it next year...

Our stay in Praia ends after our third day and we have a relatively uneventful trip back to Torri, with a quick stop in Capua that only involved us running from the cops once. *(For the full story read the caption below the pictures from Capua)

*We initially were very excited to be walking around the ruins of the gladitorial colosseum
however, because they are in the process of archeologically preserving it,
alot was blocked and roped off.

After jumping the ropes to take a picture together in the center
of the colosseum, John decided to take it a step further
and sneak down a staircase..

Where he took multiple pictures...until he accidentally ran into
an archeologist working. Shortly after the cops showed up, though she did not
see John, she definitely heard him.
So, we decided to duck into the museum for a little while..

Pictures from inside the museum..

We came out and the cops were nowhere, so I snuck down a different blocked-off
staircase with John and we took more unforgettable, amazing, pictures..

We then came back up and noticed the cops, so we pretended
that we were walking around the premises for the first time..
Then we noticed were about to cross paths with the cops, I smiled at them
and was content to just walk on by, but not John.
No, he politely asked the cops to take our picture.
The cops, searching the historical ruins without a description happily obliged,
and took the picture of the people they were searching for.
Our smiles in this picture..are very genuine.

John and I have both agreed that the trip was filled with experiences that beat anything we've ever done in our lives. We kayaked in the ocean, explored an uninhabited island, I jumped off a diving board, and we illegally snuck around historical ruins. And for me in particular it was filled with facing fears or as we say here 'Vincere la Paura'.

Monday, April 28, 2014

"Il Cibo è Vita"

    "Okay man, where are we? Because THIS is where we wanted to go.." John holds his phone up to the driver while gesturing to the google maps location of the Interspar we had intended upon visiting.

    "You want Interspar?"
    "Interspar...Yes!" John's frustrated at this point and I'm almost afraid. Fake taxi services are big in this country leading to all sorts of things for the victims like attacks, theft, etc. With you not being able to carry any sort of self defense weapon with you, a bad situation can turn worse in mere moments. Though, this cab has all of his credentials and is with a service, that doesn't mean he's a good person.

The man fakes surprise that we had wanted the Interspar closest to base, which would have resulted in half the cab fair and only been logical.
    "Interspar..." He trails off hissing the word through his teeth as if he were cursing but continues driving in the opposite direction of where we had intended, and he now recognizes, to go. He stops the car and points out the window, John and I are both fuming by this point.

    "Interspar!" He gestures to the building just outside. Sure enough we are sitting in front of our beloved Italian grocer...just not the location we wanted.

    "Two Interspar in Vicenza!" The man exclaims, while zeroing his toll meter.
    "Alright man, ten euro?" John replies. Completely annoyed with the man taking advantage of our inability to keep track of where we are what with being new. In short, we were ripped off. John pays and we get out heading for the building quickly.
    "That guy was an ass, and a horrible driver! Worst we've had yet!" I complain.
    "I know sweetie, but try to forget about it, we're shopping!" He flashes his gleaming Abercrombie model smile at me and I melt into his dimples. All worries completely faded.

    "You want a cart?!" He goes to get us one and I peek inside the entrance but he returns empty-handed.
    "No coin..." He shrugs as we hold hands and head in. Pretty much all of the grocery carts and luggage carriers, anything that wheels that lazy Americans tend to leave in hallways and parking lots? Yeah...no, Italy doesn't put up with that. You have to deposit coin like the popular American grocery chain Aldi, just to unlock a cart, which you get back when you return it to its proper place, of course. On this particular day, both John and I had forgotten to bring change, or as we've taken to saying, "coin".

We walk in and both breathe deeply, it's like the best scents on earth have congregated in this one place just for your smelling pleasure. Fresh warm baked breads, bright and dewy vegetables and fruits and something sweet I can't quite place, fill my lungs and make my head swim with excitement.

Walking down the aisle we walk all the way to the right and go in the entrance gate as if entering an amusement park ride. Once you enter you cannot get back out without passing directly in front of an employee, to ward off theft I'm sure. We grab a basket that rolls as if it were luggage and start down what seems to be a never-ending produce section.

You know that scene in "The Wizard of Oz"? The one where for the first time Dorothy sees the colors and wonders of Oz and your senses are bombarded with the fantastical colors after only seeing black and white for so long? That's the Interspar produce section. The moment where Alice from "Alice in Wonderland" where she wanders into the GIANT forest that is actually just an oversized garden of flowers the size of houses and the technicolor smoking caterpillar? That is also the Interspar produce section. Well, minus the caterpillar. It is a magical, fantastic world filled with things I had never seen before, and I made sure to comment on it.

Only a small selection of the
wonderful world of

Suppressing my urge to break into song I practically run over to a stack of melons, the likes on which I had never seen in my life. They were cantaloupe colored and textured roughly but had distinct stripes like a basketball.
    "Look at these!" I exclaim to John who is still trying to process it all.
    "Yeah.." He furrows his brows, "aren't they cantaloupe?"
    "No, they can't be, look at the stripes.."
    "Hmmm, very strange.."

We continue to wander as I touch and smell and inspect different fruits and vegetables. We spot a display of strawberries that could not have been more beautiful if they had been painted. Fragrant as if you were walking through a patch of them in your backyard and gleaming with ruby red color, they were irresistible. I grab a package of them and gently put them at the bottom of my rolling-tote type shoppers basket.

Me checking out some vegetables.

    "Honey, what do you need for your recipe?" John gets me on track as I try to remember the purpose of our trip. A restaurant copy-cat recipe I hope to create of one of my favorite dishes I miss and have been craving since we left Alaska; Snow City Cafe's stuffed french toast.

    "Oranges!" I say as we meander over to a display of at least ten different kinds of oranges.
    "How do we know what's what?" I ponder to John.
    "Just grab what looks good!" John laughs off my concern and heads over to look at seafood. I grab a bunch that look just the right size and fairly ripe.

Check out my groovy basket!

I catch up with John at the seafood. Yet again I am transported to some sort of fantasy world. We spot some delicious delicacies from the food we've been eating the past week at different amazing restaurantes. A particular favorite we've developed is anchovies drenched in lemon. I know, I know, but don't knock it until you try it. And when you do try it, make sure it's at Vecchia Fattoria. That particular meal changed my views on food, it was an experience.
 Vecchia Fattoria.

Highlights of our meal at Vecchia Fattoria.

As John is documenting the beautiful crustaceans and water-breathing produce alike, a woman stocking her case snaps at John that pictures are not allowed. We're pretty sure they were but that she just didn't want herself in the photos. Though John puts his Nikon away and gets out his phone to replace it, just to be safe. We round the corner and see a bakery across the building. Passing cheese and meat sections that would make even the most seasoned of foodies cry and finally make it to our destination. Pane.

Loaves and rolls and croissants, I briefly picture myself sitting in the corner tearing off hunks and shoving them into my mouth with abandon. Reluctantly I decide against introducing myself to the Italian police and spot a ciabatta loaf that will work perfectly. John slides it out of its drawer and then we see it. A very unfamiliar scale with a touch screen monitor that produces the sticker you must put on your baked good so that it can be purchased. John puts the ciabatta loaf on the scale and tries to punch in a number but nothing happens. We try this again roughly half a dozen times when an Italian woman rolls her cart up to our section and bags a few rolls. John quickly snatches our loaf off the machine and we awkwardly watch over her shoulder as she expertly weighs her goods and punches in the number from the drawer she took from. We follow her lead as she laughs at us and rolls her cart away to continue her shopping. Having filled our quota of overly American moments for the day we are now focused and determined.

We go up and down each aisle and pick up spices, (which I was able to locate correctly without translation assistance from John) cream cheese, and raspberry preserves that are too adorable for words. While hunting for eggs we realize we are standing in the middle of an aisle of literally only pasta and pasta dressings. Yes, these people take their most famous dishes very serious here.

The GIANT aisle of entirely
pasta products. The gnocchi was
calling my name!

We locate the eggs...in an unrefrigerated section and John attempts to grab a carton when I protest;

    "Oh hell no! We could get diseases or something.."
    "Honey, it's just like farm fresh eggs. They're fine."
    "I don't eat those either! If I ever cracked an egg only for an underdeveloped baby chick fetus to pop out, I would be scarred so badly I would never be able to even look at eggs again...And that would make your life very difficult, my friend."

Eggs. Unrefridgerated. I know,

John laughs at me but agrees we can pick up eggs at the commissary along with a few other baking essentials I couldn't locate, when we get back to base and we keep moving.

We checkout with our groceries, surprised we are expected to bag them ourselves (another lazy American essential) and carry them out the exit gate and out the door.

After returning to base and picking up what else we needed we head back to the room. With only a pot and a small skillet cooking should prove quite the challenge but it is not long before I am in the zone. With the mindset of an "Iron Chef" and the determination to adapt of a "Chopped" chef I breeze through recreating my beloved french toast and though it turned out well, I have decided to tweak it a bit and try again soon.

My ingriedients including the 
scrumptious raspberry preserves
I used to make raspberry butter.

Also, the final product, 
a crispy cinnamon-nutmeg french toast
stuffed with an orange infused cream cheese,
garnished with toasted walnuts, raspberry
butter, and powdered sugar.

Entering the wonderful world of Italian cuisine has proved to be quite the feat. Though John and I both talk fondly of future times where we can grill fresh fish and boil real Italian gnocchi in our apartment. (We sign the lease tomorrow and hope to be in before the month of May is out!)

I would say that meals mean more than just fuel or indulgence or a gathering of people here, no, here... 

'il cibo è vita'.