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Off the beaten – Piemonte

12 Oct
12 October 2017.
Leaving Le Marche and moving across the country, we took three trains to reach Bra in the Piemonte. No, it is not named for a feminine underthing. That word in Italian is reggiseno. There was, however, a bra thief that struck there.

Kitty has a view…of trains. Tromp l’oeil in Bra.

Many people have heard of Asti and Alba, but Bra is a smaller town with less than 30,000 people, famous as being the place the Slow Food movement started. For such a tiny place it had amazing restaurants. Two out of our three dinners there were truly stellar.
Boccondivino was the first restaurant to be opened by the Slow Food Movement in the 1980s. We found the food to be inspired without being pretentious, and prices unbelievable for the quality. It is Michelin-listed; no stars, but still! Even excellent Piemontese wine was available by the glass for €3-5 per glass. Our total bill was only €70 including a shared antipasto (a roasted yellow pepper wrapped around tuna pate), two secondi (rabbit for Ric that was perhaps the most beautifully prepared rabbit we’ve ever seen, and roasted guinea fowl for me), a shared dessert, four glasses of wine, a grappa, and caffè. We so appreciated the impeccable-but-not-stuffy service and fair pricing to go along with memorable food. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the moment, I did not even take any food photos. That is a good thing.
We so enjoyed Boccondivino that we wanted to go back on our third evening. But I did not call until lunchtime Friday and they were completely booked. I sought out something completely different: a seafood restaurant in land-locked Piemonte. Ristorante La Bula serves only seafood and the reviews were terrific so we reserved a table. It may be landlocked, but this part of the region is quite close to Liguria where seafood is a religion.
I think I woke up the owner when I called to make the reservation in the mid-afternoon and we were the first to arrive half-an-hour after they opened. They did not look like they expected a big crowd. It is a lovely space, tucked back under the portico of a very old building, but modern and chic.
I am happy to say a few more dinners arrived and we had an amazing dinner! It was the best seafood dinner we have had since leaving Roma. We started with calamari alla griglia con crema di ceci (grilled calamari with creamed chickpeas, much like a soft hummus), then shared tagliatelle con ragu di polpo (pasta with octopus ragu). Ric had the fried Mediterranean goodness of fritto misto, while I enjoyed the branzino alla griglia con verdure (sea bass with vegetables). The wine list included many regional wines, but we snuck across the border to Liguria for one of our favorites, Vermentino. A lovely grappa capped off the dinner. I might not have reason to return to Bra, but if we are ever within 50 miles, I would detour to eat here.
Boccondivino night 1, La Bula night 3. Where did we eat on night 2 in this food capital? It was not so much where as when: we ate in the 1950s. Our B&B recommended Badellino and on the strength of that recommendation (after all, he also recommended Boccondivino) we made a reservation. We were first to arrive, but the restaurant quickly filled, mostly with locals, it seemed. The menu was uninspired, the presentation and preparation even less so. There was an antipasto cart where for €13.00 per person the woman in charge of the dining room would load a plate for you with beef tartar, the local bra sausage served raw, insalata russie (I abhor insalata russie!), guinea fowl salad (no doubt made from last night’s leftovers), and a few other rather unsavory looking items that had been sitting at room temperature. Can you say ptomaine? As a primo we chose a pasta which was pretty good, made from the local sausage that was mercifully cooked. My main course was roast beef Barolo, which was, in fact, a tender piece of beef in a Barolo sauce, but it was so lonely on the plate, just a slab slathered in the gravy, no side dish, no color, not even a sprig of parsley. It looked like something served in a church basement in the Midwest when I was growing up. Neither of the servers spoke any English, which was odd in a destination that attracts an international wine crowd, and the décor of this 100-year-old establishment might last have been spruced up in 1959. We paid the same here as we did at Boccondivino! At least they had grappa and the wine was a good value.
So what did we do besides eat? This is an amazing wine region after all. We took two daytrips: Alba and Cuneo.
We enjoyed traveling some by Regionale, the not-so-fast workaday trains of the Trenitalia system. Trains that are taken more by Italians commuting to work or to shop, and by students from middle school through University. There is a lot of commuting between cities like Torino and Bra and Bra and Alba. Every day we encountered swarms of students: out in the morning, returning mid-afternoon. 
We also saw a wide variety of agricultural landscapes, quite different from other regions of Italy. Corn fields dominated where we expected grapes, and small vineyards clung to hillsides. There were more hazelnut (filbert ) trees than in the Willamette Valley! In Alba, vacuum-packed bags of dried and roasted nocciole (hazelnuts) were in nearly every shop and a hazelnut torta was a featured dessert.
Bra is not really in the hills where they produce wine. It is rather on the edge, whereas Alba is right in the Langhe. In Alba, we found an immensely attractive town, very focused on the upcoming La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (white truffle festival). We are not truffle fans (you either are a fan, or are not, IMO) so I am glad we missed those crowds. We also found that Alba is the home of Ric’s favorite grappa, Sibona. We dithered for about five minutes before deciding to ship a winter supply home. You cannot buy this stuff in the U.S. 
In a small world moment, the little cafe we chose for lunch had a slight Oregon connection: the owner’s sister-in-law is in the wine business and knows Ponzi.
Now a departure for a few fashion photos. As anywhere in Italy, style is important and even in these little towns of rural Piemonte there were some interesting trends that caught my eye. 
We also ventured to Cuneo, capital of the province that encompasses Alba and Bra. This is an amazingly beautiful city, very busy and a delight to wander. There are no tourists, it seems. True, no big “sights” or “sites” but that is what off-the-beaten-path is about: Seeing places that do not attract the hordes. We only had a few hours, but could easily have stayed a few days. It is nestled up against the Maritime Alps. I would love to see it in winter when the peaks are snowy.

 

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Back to reality

4 Nov
3 November 2016. Returning to the U.S. has not been without surprises. It still amazes us to walk into a grocery store and see the embarrassment of riches available in the land of stuff. Sure, the shelf space devoted to pasta is minuscule compared to that in Italy, but my God we have everything in our markets! From French cheese to cosmetics and prepared foods, we can get it all in one stop. Italy has its many charms, but I can appreciate an efficient supermarket and access to food items other than Italian.
Here are some of our observations after a few days of wandering around Portland:
Yup, lots of olives here, but at double the price we paid in Roma!

Yup, lots of olives here, but at double the price we paid in Roma!

  1. The reason people order 400-calorie flavored lattes at Starbucks is to cover up the taste of the coffee.
  2. Mendicants will give you a sincere compliment when hitting you up for a donation. Apparently my color coordination was quite stunning, according to one panhandler. I did not donate to his cause.
  3. People park where they are supposed to.
  4. We had forgotten about samples in the grocery store. You can practically have lunch walking through an American market.

    We had forgotten about samples in the grocery store. You can practically have lunch walking through an American market.

    Boxed wine takes more shelf space at Fred Meyer than pasta does in our little market in Parioli.
  5. You cannot live without a car if you live more than a couple of miles from the city center. It took me 2 transfers and 75 minutes to go 9 miles in Portland on public transportation: Bus to MAX light rail to Portland Streetcar. Ridiculous. 
  6. Food is crazily expensive in the U.S. and the price of wine is criminal. 
So many people have asked what’s going on with our return, I thought I would add a quick rundown of the past week.
We happened upon a wedding at the city hall while wandering around Frankfurt.

We happened upon a wedding at the city hall while wandering around Frankfurt.

We flew out of Roma to Frankfurt on Thursday, October 27. We spent two nights there so Janie, our sweet 20-year-old cat, could recover from the shorter flight before the long one to the West Coast. Just going to Frankfurt, she had to be in her carrier for 6 hours what with the transfer from home to FCO, waiting time, flight time, and getting to the NH Hotel at FRA. Janie did well with the flight and hotel stay. She explored our room extensively then settled in to take a nap.
Janie relaxes with her mousie at the NH Hotel, Frankfurt,

Janie relaxes with her mousie at the NH Hotel, Frankfurt,

On the 29th we took the overwater 10+ hour flight to Seattle on Condor Airlines. You might ask why the routing FCO-FRA-SEA when we needed to go to Portland. There are precious few carriers that allow animals in the cabin on an over water flight: only KLM/Delta, Lufthansa, and Condor. KLM/Delta out of Amsterdam to Portland was crazily expensive and Condor offered some attractive pricing out of Frankfurt. Our seats cost less on Condor and they charged half as much for the cat under-the-seat, for example, as Delta did four years ago.
Waiting at FCO, Janie has a look around.

Waiting at FCO, Janie has a look around.

The 29th was a long, long day for all of us. We nabbed premium economy seats so with Janie under my feet we had a little extra legroom. I took her out four times in flight, scofflaw that I am, for cuddles and to check the cleanliness of her carrier. Fifteen hours from hotel to hotel is a long time without a litter box. I had lined her carrier with a sheepskin pad and taped an absorbent “wee-wee pad” around it, which worked well to keep her dry.
We traveled light: a rollaboard, which we checked, and a daypack each. About 1/3 of the capacity was stuff for Janie: collapsible/disposable litter boxes, litter, food, dishes. We each had a couple of changes of clothes and a laptop. Our needs are simple. Arriving at the hotel in Seattle Janie wasn’t sure if she wanted dinner or a litterbox first!
On our walk yesterday, a little waterfall. So very Oregon in the rainy season.

On our walk yesterday, a little waterfall. So very Oregon in the rainy season.

Sunday, we drove to Portland, which was fun after such a long absence. It was raining, so we felt appropriately welcomed to the Pacific Northwest.
Our son invited us to stay with him while we search for a house and get re-established, so we are doing just that: settling in, overcoming jetlag (coming west sucks), getting pre-approval on a mortgage, shopping for a vehicle, and today we start looking at real estate. We are unpacking some of the 10 boxes we shipped from Italy and starting to reconnect with friends (thank you Voyageurs Femmes for the grand welcoming last night!) and learn our way around on public transportation.
We have only been gone from Roma for a week and the 4 ½ years we spent there is already starting to feel like a dream. Did we really do that?

 

What I look forward to in the U.S.

26 Oct
26 October 2016. One day to go! We walk around Rome alternately maudlin and delighted. While we are ready to move on to the next adventure, we will miss many things about this magnificent city. Walking to dinner in any number of neighborhoods, enjoying the architecture, stopping in any little bar for a good coffee. Pizza. But the romance of Roma and thoughts of staying can be dashed in an instant by a tangle with bureaucracy, and as we try to depart there are daily tangles. Save me from service businesses that close for lunch just when I need to run an errand, like at 2:00PM two days before we move!
This is part four of my four-part series on what I will miss and not miss in Italy and the U.S. Here’s what I am looking forward to in the U.S.
My clothes dryer in summer. In the winter the "dryer" is in the second bedroom.

My clothes dryer in summer. In the winter the “dryer” is in the second bedroom.

  • Clothes dryers. Hanging clothes out to dry is not too bad in the summer. In the winter it can take 48 hours for jeans to dry and I have to set up a drying rack in the second bedroom. Doing sheets and towels without a dryer is a chore I would gladly skip. And without a dryer, one has to do a lot more ironing. Dryers also take the lint and cat hair off my black tee shirts.
  • Running multiple appliances at the same time. I cannot iron while I wash clothes. We cannot make coffee and toast at the same time unless we are really lucky. The washer and the electric tea kettle running simultaneously can also pop the circuit. The cure is a trip down four floors to the basement to reset the breaker. We are looking forward to electrical service that can handle multiple appliances at one time, as well as to less ironing.
  • Ethnic food. Mexican, Tex-Mex, Thai, Sushi, Vietnamese, Indian, and HALIBUT! Oh, I have missed halibut! We have great food in Italy. GREAT food. But I miss having some good alternatives.
  • Using my superb English skills. My Italian has gotten pretty good but I still do not understand much about the culture and how things work. Politics defies understanding unless you grew up here, I think. It is difficult for me to stand my ground, to argue when something isn’t going my way. It’s a national past-time here. I do that VERY well in English.
  • Netflix and Vudu got all cranky a few months ago and will no longer stream dependably through a VPN so we cannot get all the American content we want in Italy. Luckily Amazon Prime Video works most of the time.
  • Family and friends and easy visits with the people we love. We have had a wonderful time hosting people here, but it’s not as easy as having a monthly dinner date. I miss my girlfriend time (Voyageur Femmes, I am speaking of you!). Looking ahead to Thanksgiving in Seattle and Christmas in Durango!
  • The Portland Farmers’ Market. While it’s only held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and it’s only there for 9 months of the year, it’s a lot of fun. I am looking forward to finding more options to buy direct from the farmer and not only the produce but also meat and poultry. Santa Rosa-style burrito, anyone?
  • Talbots, Nordstrom, Zappos, and Amazon.com. I love online shopping. Period. Nothing more to say.
  • Pinot Noir from Oregon. There is wonderful wine in Italy, of course, and it is inexpensive, but Oregon Pinot Noir is something special. In the U.S., we can get wine from anywhere in the world. In Italy, you get wine from Italy. 
  • Going out to breakfast now-and-then. (Hashbrowns and bacon!) No one in Italy knows how to make a decent omelet. Frittata, yes, but not omelets. Hashbrowns do not exist outside of the commissary at the U.S. Embassy, and I don’t have access to that anymore. However, I don’t think Ric nor I can down the big breakfast these days. We’ll have to split a portion. 
  • Reading the Sunday paper. Such a nice thing to do on a Sunday morning. I might wait until after the election, though. Well after. 
We are packed. The last shipment through Mail Boxes Etc. was dropped off today. We have the travel certificate for Janie Gray. Now, what have I forgotten?

Four weeks to go!

29 Sep
29 September 2016. Four weeks from today we fly out of Roma, headed back to Portland. This was not an easy decision and throughout the next few weeks I will share some of our departure activities as well as thoughts on separating from Italy. It’s been four-and-a-half lovely years, which have passed like a nanosecond!
The path that brought us to Italy was accidental at best.
  • 2008 – Ric got his first passport in 40 years and said, “Let’s go to Europe.” I had been begging to go for years. All he ever wanted to do was go to Hawaii. He thought Europe was just full of old stuff. I said, “The U.K., France, or Italy: You pick and I’ll plan the trip.” So Italy is his fault.
  • March 2009 – I started Italian courses at Portland Community College. One night each week. Let me tell you, it was not enough.

    Atop Basilica San Marco, October 2010, where we fell in love with Italy.

    Atop Basilica San Marco, October 2010, where we fell in love with Italy.

  • October 2010 – We took a three-week trip to Italy. On Day 4, Ric famously said (while sitting in the sun in Venice drinking wine), “This is fabulous. We have to come back.”
  • We started joking about moving to Italy. If a job came up in Europe, should I try for it? Could we afford it? They’d never pick me, would they?
  • I applied for positions in Copenhagen and London and was rejected. In September 2011, I applied for Rome, never believing I’d be selected for such a big demotion.

    At Pompeii, December 2011.

    At Pompeii, December 2011.

  • December 2011 – We took a one-month trip to Italy. Yup, still loved it! On Morning 3, I woke up to an email from my boss asking “Did you want to move to Rome?” He had no idea I had applied.
  • After a winter and spring spent moving the entire organization to a newly constructed building I would never work in, in May 2012 Ric retired and we hauled the two cats to Rome. I accepted a 50% cut in pay and went from executive to secretary. I never looked back.
Libby and Janie, ready to fly to Rome, 2012!

Libby and Janie, ready to fly to Rome, 2012!

For three years we (Ric qualified for a part-time job in security) had the pleasure of working in the American Embassy in Rome. What a dream! I served with some very smart and committed people (I did in Portland, too) and had the privilege to learn how an embassy works, to meet people from many government agencies, and to make Italian friends. We went to the Marine Corps Ball and receptions at the Ambassador’s villa. We lived in a lovely apartment provided by the embassy that had no English-speaking tenants. THAT helped my Italian improve!
Settled in Rome, attending the Marine Corps Ball.

Settled in Rome, attending the Marine Corps Ball.

We loved the convenience of travel from Rome and took full advantage of any time off to see more of Italy and start to experience more of Europe. We could hop on a train and go anywhere!
At the end of my tour-of-duty, we were not ready to return to the U.S. The notion of work-as-we-knew-it was anathema. I was eligible to retire. Why not?
The 18-months since we retired have been a completely different adventure and one we would not trade for anything. My Italian is quite passable now as there are few people (mostly just Ric) that I can speak to in English. We have learned how things do and do not work without the loving embrace of the American Embassy. We have found medical services that are extraordinary and very personalized. We discovered that Poste Italiane is pretty dependable but very expensive. I ragazzi at the Via Sicilia office are particularly nice.
Here we are with our portiere, Pellegrino, who has been a friend and a blessing.

Here we are with our portiere, Pellegrino, who has been a friend and a blessing.

But it is time to go back to the U.S. It is time to re-establish a household of our own (we’ve been subletting a furnished place). We have experienced some of the frustrations Italians have with their own country and bureaucracy and while the U.S. is not perfect, things really do work quite well there. In the U.S., you can return items when you change your mind or they don’t fit and they will refund to your credit card. Not in Italy! In the U.S., you can turn on the heat in October if it is cold. Not in Italy!
Today we went to disconnect our cable and Internet service. They require 60 days notice so we have to pay through November even though we will turn in the equipment on the 27th of October. Can you imagine? Two months notice to disconnect a service? 
In the U.S., we can depend on certain services and we know how to argue when something does not work well. I’ve gotten better are standing up to service providers in Italian, but it is a strain to have to argue over everything since arguing is a national sport.
Allora, we will always come back annually to Italy as travelers for as long as we are able. Despite my sarcasm, we have a fondness for the people and the culture, but to travel here is far different than to live here. And we would never give up our passports. Never.
Stay tuned as the departure adventure unfolds. I know Janie is excited.

LibbyJean

20 Sep
20 September 2016.  Our little cat Libby passed away today. She had completed 14 years and 2 months. The last few months were tough as her health was in decline and the doctor could not identify exactly why. 
Libby (full name LibertyJean or LibbyJean) was much-loved not only by us but also by the many temporary moms-and-dads who stayed with her and her “sister” Jane while we traveled. It fell to one such wonderful couple to see her through her final days as we are in the Scottish Highlands. We are eternally grateful to them and to our veterinarian who tried so hard to treat her. In the final analysis, it was probably cancer that claimed her.
Cutie pie Libby at about 10 weeks. Always a little clown.

Cutie pie Libby at about 10 weeks. Always a little clown.

LJ (she had MANY nicknames) was a funny and personality-filled kitten from the start. Even at 8-weeks she was less afraid of our giant collie dogs than they were of her. She was independent and could be adventurous, but was terrified of strangers. We have friends who have visited our home but never saw her. One lovely cat-sitter couple was able to draw her out last year and she became much more comfortable with visitors from that point on. It was nice to see her grow and adapt even as an old lady.
In 2007, a photo of Libby sitting in the Christmas Village was included in the "365 Days of Cats" calendar. She was very proud!

In 2007, a photo of Libby sitting in the Christmas Village was included in the “365 Days of Cats” calendar. She was very proud!

Libby leaves behind an older sister, Jane (20 years) and Ric and I who will miss her goofy and sweet self. We have brilliant memories of our funny little calico.
Rest in peace, LibbyJean. We love you.
The girls made the transition to Rome swimmingly and traded carousing in our small Portland garden for  window seat on the city.

The girls made the transition to Rome swimmingly and traded carousing in our small Portland garden for a window seat with a view.

Libby never really gor used to our travels, but she coped well. Every trip she would hang out on-or-in Ric's siutcase while he packed. This last trip, she did not. I think she knew what was coming.

Libby never really got used to our travels, but she coped well. Every trip she would hang out on-or-in Ric’s suitcase while he packed. This last trip, she did not. I think she knew what was coming.

This is Libby with "sister" Janie in 2002. They did not always get along so well, like any sisters.

This is Libby with “sister” Janie in 2002. They did not always get along so well, like any sisters.

 

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