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Cross-Cultural Experience

20 Dec
December 19, 2016.
I first posted the blog below on December 9, 2012. It is a happy seasonal memory I thought I would share again. Hope you enjoy it!

 

Last night we attended
As is tradition all over teh world, a girl is chosen to play Santa Lucia and wear her crown of candles.

As is tradition in Scandinavia, a girl is chosen to play Santa Lucia and wear her crown of candles and red sash.

…a Swedish children’s concert in celebration of Santa Lucia (whose feast day is Dec. 13)
…sung by a children’s choir from La Chiesa di Svezia (The Swedish Church), which is Roman Catholic
 
…held on the day Italians celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception
…in a German Lutheran Church (the only Lutheran Church in Rome)
Half of the service was in Swedish, half in Italian.  It was sweet! I recognized a lot of the music from my Minnesota Swedish Lutheran upbringing.
Not your average Lutheran Church.... This one is German, the only Lutheran Church in Rome, built in the early 20th century.

Not your average Lutheran Church…. This one is German, the only Lutheran Church in Rome, built in the early 20th century.

The chorus ranged form 4 or 5 year-olds to teenagers, boys and girls.

The chorus ranged from 4 or 5 year-olds to teenagers,both boys and girls.

The Swedish ex-pats here, both from the diplomatic community and those who have married Italians,  support a lively Swedish language program to keep in touch with their heritage. There was a Swedish Christmas market last weekend at La Chiesa Svezia.Chorus by candlelight. Sweet sweet singing all in Swedish.
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Kilograms, centigrade and convection, Oh My!

24 Nov

24 November 2016. We are celebrating this most-American of holidays in Seattle with pouring rain, but surrounded by family. I am the chief cook but thanks to two able sous chefs, Ric and my sis-in-law Deb, I am not spending the entire day in the kitchen. Our nephew is supplying excellent wine and Alexa, the digital assistant will play any music I desire on demand. She also sets timers. I have fallen in love with her and a few minutes ago ordered one for our house. 

We are grateful to be back in the U.S. for the first Thanksgiving here in 5 years, but cannot help taking a look back on a fun-filled feast we held in Italy in 2013, when Ric and I cooked for 11 Italians on Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoy the look back and wish you all a very blessed holiday.

Thanksgiving 2013, A look back

I’ve prepared a lot of turkeys. A conservative estimate would be that I have prepared 40 over the course of about 36 years. My first was when I was in my mid-twenties and decided I had to be the hostess for Thanksgiving and my mom had to help. I was terrified of ruining the Butterball. The years we did not prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving at home I surely made one for Christmas or sometime during the autumn.  And I graduated over the years from frozen (Norbest with a built-in timer!) to all-natural farm-raised turkeys from an organic store. But the most satisfying turkey-venture was this year, in Rome.
Leonardo reads the menu - in English and Italian - as we start with the soup.

Leonardo reads the menu – in English and Italian – as we start with the soup.

Our friends, Alessandra and Francesco, invited us to prepare the feast in their beautiful apartment. They would provide the turkey and wine while Ric and I would prepare the contorni (side dishes). Knowing they had an Italian oven, which are smaller than most we have in the U.S., and since this type of meal is a bit unusual in Italy, we gathered over supper the Friday before Thanksgiving to plan our attack. I warned them that turkey takes time: I will be in your kitchen much of the day.  Since Thursday was a work-and-school day here for all but employees of the American Embassy, I worried it might be an imposition. But Ale and Francesco were undeterred and in fact invited a crowd to experience the American feast.  There would be 11 Italians at the table, plus Ric and I. We decided that if it would fit in their oven, a 7 kilogram  turkey would be a nice size, about 15 pounds U.S. Their friend Stefania would provide dessert.
Beautiful butternut squash and fresh sage on the way to making a velvety soup.

Beautiful butternut squash and fresh sage on the way to making a velvety soup.

Early Thursday we headed out to pick up artisan bread for the dressing and fresh green beans, managing to get in a 6 km walk in advance of the feast.  While we were inhaling the glorious smells at Roscioli, Francesco called and said “You need to talk to Ale. She has the turkey and it’s big.” Ale confirmed: her butcher has provided an 8 kg (17-pound) hen turkey and the butcher says it will take 5 hours to cook. Can we come earlier to start the cooking?
Ale's elegant tableware from Castelli, famous for ceramics.

Ale’s elegant tableware from Castelli, famous for ceramics.

We planned to serve the soup at 19:30 and the main course about 20:30, so we figured the bird needed to go in the oven about 16:30, if it weighed 7 kg. Now we had 8 kg to deal with, and (surprise!) a convection oven, which changes the cooking game considerably, plus the butcher’s recommendation to cook it in a low oven for 5 hours. Yikes!  Arriving about 14:45, Ric set to chopping herbs for my herb-butter turkey recipe. By 15:20, after calculating and re-calculating cooking time and centigrade-versus-Fahrenheit, we had herb-butter under the skin and put her in the oven trussed up as tightly as we could, just managing to squeeze her into the space available.  (Ric has a wonderful little app on the tablet that does all manner of conversions since our American-system brains have to constantly deal with length, volume, temperature and distance conversions.)  With any luck, she would be done by 20:00, giving 30 minutes for “rest” and to make the final prep.
Every good dinner starts with prosecco. Rita, Valentino, Francesco, Eleonora and Nello.

Every good dinner starts with prosecco. From left, me (elbow), Rita, Valentino, Francesco, Eleonora and Nello.

Whew! Deep breath, now all we have to do is monitor, baste, add broth, and prepare the contorni. Ric is a terrific sous chef and spent the next hour carving up butternut squash for soup, peeling potatoes, and various other tasks assigned, while the kids came and went. All-in-all Alessandra, Ric and I spent a compatible couple of hours doing prep, setting the table, chatting and enjoying the time immensely. At each check on the turkey, I worried it was getting too brown, but my research on roasting a turkey in a convection oven said do not cover with foil. By 17:30 I was nervous: it looked done. My brand new meat thermometer (Celsius, of course!) said it was done in most parts.  Can’t be! Two hours at 160C (325F) and it’s done!?!?!? The main event was still 3 hours off! We wanted the guests to see this magnificent beast, but how could we hold it safely not have it dried out like the scene from “Christmas Vacation?”
Ale said, “We must Google it!” We typed in “how to hold a turkey safely when it’s done early.” Amazing
Eleonora, Stefania and Francesco share the cranberries

Nello, Eleonora, Stefania and Francesco

number of hits! Who knew?  Survey says: aluminum foil, low low temp (about 200F), and moisture in the pan beneath the turkey.
Can I tell you this was the most beautiful turkey I’ve ever made? And the moistest? And the best-tasting? My updated recipe for perfection at Thanksgiving = The company of people you enjoy + Natural Italian turkey + Convection oven + Creativity and a little experience with turkeys.
Ignore the goofy-looking cook and focus on the bird: perfection!! Sara clearly finds me amusing.

Ignore the goofy-looking cook and focus on the bird: perfection!! Sara clearly finds me amusing.

I think the only side dish quite familiar to the guests was mashed potatoes. Gravy is not normally made in Italy, nor dressing/stuffing as we do in the U.S. (mine is made with sausage, apples and raisins). We managed to acquire fresh whole cranberries (shipped in from Massachusetts)  and made sweet potatoes with gorgonzola.  Stefania’s tarte tartin and homemade whoopee pies made for a festive and tasty finish.  See the whole menu here. Multiple portions were consumed and even the kids were adventurous in trying foods they’d not seen before. No one seemed to miss pasta.
Everyone who has prepared a Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey dinner knows that the final prep is chaotic. Getting stuffing, Potatoes, sweet potatoes, veg, gravy and turkey all on the table at the same time. Ronnie is a blur as he speeds to help!

Everyone who has prepared a  big turkey dinner knows that the final prep is chaotic, getting stuffing, potatoes, sweet potatoes, veg, gravy and turkey all on the table at the same time. Ronnie is a blur as he speeds to help. Thanks to Ronnie, Ric was off clean-up duty for a change.

Dinner went off without a hitch. Except as usual, I forgot something, sending the sweet potatoes to the table sans the candied pecans on top, and I forgot the pepperoncini for the green beans. (I think I am the only one that noticed.)
Last year, our first Thanksgiving in Italy, we knew we would really miss the large crowd we tended to gather around our table in Portland, so we celebrated in a totally non-traditional manner. This year we had a memorable, wonderful day thanks to Alessandra, Francesco, their family and friends. We are very grateful to have been able to share the traditions and spend our holiday with them and to them for opening their home and kitchen to the American Invasion.
I am so getting a convection oven the next time we need to buy an appliance.
Thanksgiving green beans with red peppers and American bacon. Not your mother's green bean casserole.

Thanksgiving green beans with red peppers and American bacon. Not your mother’s green bean casserole.

I ragazzi doing what kids usually do after dinner.

Giordano, Leonardo, Giuseppe and Sara, doing what kids usually do after dinner.

Giuseppe and Giordano at table - even the kids liked the soup!

Giuseppe and Giordano at table – even the kids liked the soup!

Me with my friend and Italian teacher, Eleonora.

Me with my friend and Italian teacher, Eleonora.

Kitchen action stops fo a quick pre-dinner drink. Ale, Eleonora., Francesco and me.

Kitchen action stops fo a quick pre-dinner drink. Ale, Eleonora, Francesco and me.

 

Il grande rientro

3 Sep
3 September 2016. The deserted streets of the past month are once again full of buses, cars, and motorini. The kids with their unmuffled  POS cars wake us periodically between 23:00-01:00 as they zoom down the hill behind our bedroom and careen around the corner giving us an extra blast of over-revved engine as they pass the front of the building. (The landlady said this was a quiet street! But then she’s Italian and sleeps with the windows closed against a possible chill when it’s still 79 degrees Fahrenheit at bedtime. If we are lucky it’s a chilly 68 when we wake up.)
There were almost no car horns to be heard for the last 4 or 5 weeks, and no double-parking. So many closed businesses. This all seems like a dream as the streets are once again clogged, the impatient drivers leaning on their horns, and an open parking spot is as rare as a Lutheran church in Rome. Stores re-opened with their “New Collections” displayed: the wools, browns, and grays of the autumn wardrobe. Newstands sprang back to life with fresh magazines in stock and the florists are once again oases of color on many street corners.
End of summer

Beaches will be empty soon. And delightful for those not into the usual cheek-by-jowl beach scene.

This, my friends, is Il Grande Rientro: The return to reality as thousands upon thousands of Romans give up their beach chairs and umbrellas and head back to work. School won’t start for another week-or-so, and that will add another layer of congestion back as each child is accompanied to the door of the nearby elementary school by a parent or nanny.
In every store and restaurant you are asked “Comè andata la Sua vacanza?” (How was your vacation?) Or perhaps “Dovè siete andati in ferie?” (Where did you go on holiday?)
So many people go away in August. SO MANY. Apartments are shuttered, entire apartment buildings have no windows lit at night, and renovation work continues day-and-night as contractors struggle to complete work while the owners are on holiday. I cannot do justice to describe what it is like to experience this thing. It is a phenomenon one has to live through to believe.
The great return even gets news coverage due to the crowded autostrada.

The great return even gets news coverage due to the crowded autostrada.

Then on Monday it was like a switch was thrown and the city was refilled from a firehose full of cars and people. And apparently this rientro is quite traumatic for the Italian who have been away for four weeks. There are articles about how to make it less stressful, what to eat (digestion being top-of-mind) to ensure a healthy return. Some sources offer practical and pragmatic tips. Others, like the Corriere della Sera, offer a lighthearted approach in 10 dishes to console yourself with at the end of vacation, including gelato, pizza, chocolate cake, and a Mumbai burger. It’s a funny piece.
Soon this will all seem normal. It’s the sudden onset that is so shocking. Just as things are heating up even more next week with schools coming online, we will escape to the U.K. for our next adventure. I’ll write to you from the road. Until then ben rientro!

This and that

12 Jan
Our trips supply us with anecdotes far beyond the pictures we take, and often provide memories we talk about for years: Our two collie puppies running on moonlit Cannon Beach in Oregon on New Years Day at 6:00-God-help-us-AM; A priest roller-blading, cassock flying, on Via Arenula; A beautifully dressed, kind Italian businessman personally guiding us when we were lost in Spoleto;  Running into a pack of Portlanders on a mountain ridge in Italy on Christmas Eve. Here are a few more tidbits from our trip to London, Paris and Switzerland.

Italian moments

I was amazed at how often we encountered the Italian language and Italians outside of Italy. I heard Italian every single day, whether in the street, on a train, or in a restaurant or a shop. It made me miss Italy.
Parisians can find panettone, pandoro and other Italian treats, too.

Parisians can find panettone, pandoro and other Italian treats, too.

On Christmas Eve at Dean Street Townhouse our waitress was from Italy. It felt like home to order and chat in Italian.
Even in the north of Switzerland, we heard Italian daily. Our waiter at Punctum, where we found an amazingly good pizza, was Italian. You can read about it on my other blog, Our Weekly Pizza.

That small town feel

Many years ago, we traveled to my adopted hometown of Lindstrom, MN for my mother’s 80th birthday. The day we arrived there was a huge snowstorm and we were going to be very late getting from MSP to little Lindstrom. We called the motel and we were told they’d leave the key under the mat for us.  How cute is that?
No picture of Hotel Chur, so here is a serene little alley in the Alt Stadt, on our way to Punctum for pizza.

No picture of Hotel Chur, so here is a serene little alley in the Alt Stadt, on our way to Punctum for pizza.

We had a similar experience in Chur, Switzerland. Coming all the way from London, we knew we would not arrive until at least 10:00 PM, so I contacted the hotel. As the front desk staff goes home at 8:00 PM – odd in a hotel with 58 rooms – we received instructions via email including a code to a box that would release a door entry key. Our room key would be laying on the front desk (along with many others, we saw upon arrival). We had a moment of panic when the entry key did not release easily and I had to use a nail file to finagle it, but it all worked out quite well.

Fabled names

Drury Lane, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Square, Baker Street, Covent Garden, Whitehall. How often we have come across these names in literature and history and there we were in the midst of them! London Bridge, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace: fabled landmarks in a literary town. I have to say as much as I like speaking Italian, it was fun to understand every damn word whether spoken or written. No menu translation challenges. 
'Do you know the muffin man who lives in Dury Lane?' There really is a Drury Lane. Now try to get that tune out of your head for the rest of the day.

‘Do you know the muffin man who lives in Drury Lane?’ There really is a Drury Lane. Now try to get that tune out of your head for the rest of the day.

Melting pot

After dinner on Christmas Day, we ventured to the Odeon at Marble Arch to See “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” With reserved seats, there was no need to arrive super early to stand in line, although we milled around in the lobby for a while before the theatre was clear. We heard very little English being spoken among the various family groups waiting. Predominant language? Arabic.
Carnaby was well decorated for the holiday.

Carnaby was well decorated for the holiday.

Thanks to the former British Empire, London is truly home to many cultures. As a result, ethnic food is widely available. We love Italian food, but it was a real treat to eat good Indian food in a London restaurant.

Hailo

Hailo is the Uber for legal cabs. I am not a fan of Uber. I think the drivers who are licensed and who have spent years studying their cities should get my transportation Euro, Pound, or Dollar. London’s answer is Hailo.  In about 5 minutes, I installed the app, signed up, and had a cab scheduled for 06:30 the next morning. The driver was a gem, arrived early, helped with bags, and spoke with the most amazing Cockney accent. Luckily he could understand me better than I understood him. Hailo is also available outside the U.K. It worked great and I wish it would come to Rome. Thanks to Nigel for the recommendation!

Pedestrians & parking

As a pedestrian in Roma, one watches traffic ever-so-carefully. People wear headsets listening to music when they drive, they talk on cell phones even though it is illegal, and generally pedestrian crossings are used for parking so they get little respect as pedestrian zones.  
Orderly, I tell you! Look how the women areallowed to cross the street without a motorino shooting past. And no one is parked in teh crosswalk. Heaven!

Orderly, I tell you! Look how the women are allowed to cross the street without a motorino shooting past. And no one is parked in the crosswalk. Heaven!

In Switzerland, cars screech to a halt before you even know you want to cross the street. I almost felt obligated to cross the drivers were so polite and accommodating. Reminded me of Portland.
I love that in London and Paris drivers park where they are supposed to, inside the parking zones, not on sidewalks or within the zebra stripes. It makes for such an orderly city! Most of you take this for granted, but if you’ve ever been to Roma, you know that creative acts of parking make rough going for those on foot.

Crypt café

Cafe in the Crypt. Notice the tombstones on the lower left.

Cafe in the Crypt. Notice the tombstones on the lower left.

Eating in a mausoleum? Why not? At the famous St. Martin-in-the-Field there is a cafeteria in the crypt. It’s far from the Lutheran Church basements of our youth in the Upper Midwest. This is a true crypt with ancient tombs underfoot. The food was simple, of good quality and, for London, inexpensive. (One sandwich, 2 bottles of water, coffee and tea for GBP 9.85.) It was warm, with low-lighting, a polite crowd, decorated for Christmas.
We ate our light lunch with the Baythorns.

We ate our light lunch with the Baythorns.

St. Paul’s Cathedral also has a café in their crypt. Not as big, but great for coffee and cake.
I don’t see this trend coming to St. Peter’s anytime soon. Can you imagine the crowds if you could have lunch at the tomb of a deceased pope?

The wonder of Christmas lights

18 Dec
When we were kids, our parents used to take us out at least once every Christmas season to look at the lights in various neighborhoods of St. Paul, Minnesota. We so looked forward to those drives, wondering if the house on Snelling Avenue had the Santa, sleigh and reindeer up again this year (very special in the late 1950s/early 1960s) and marveling at the “rich people’s” houses where there were so many lights you knew they did not have any concerns about electrical bills. Our house always had a few strings of lights, but somehow the other neighborhoods seemed more exotic.
Ahhh, the Milano Duomo and its magnificent tree!

Ahhh, the Milano Duomo and its magnificent tree!

When my son was small I’d do the same thing with him although eventually these viewings became what he called forced marches through neighborhoods in Omaha and Portland as we took to our feet instead of the car. Ric and I have continued the tradition everywhere we’ve lived and traveled, with fond memories of wandering down Peacock Lane & strolling through the Grotto in Portland. In Italy the private dwellings are not the focus, it is the public lighting.
Wednesday night we traveled through Milano, stopping for one night on our way to Paris, and made a point of taking a Christmas Lights Walk. Subtle, like Roma, nothing really garish, but people were out in droves enjoying a crisp-but-not-cold night, taking the kids to see Santa, shopping, and gawking at the tree in Piazza del Duomo.
Adding to the festiveness, a live orchestra was performing in a building overlooking the Piazza del Duomo. Christmas songs done in a swing style with a proper chanteuse singing in slightly accented English (‘Ave you-self a merrrrry little Chris-mas.…) blared out through open windows and over a magnificent sound system. People were paying rapt attention even though one could not see the musicians. It truly was festive!
Click on any photo for a slide show.
I am looking forward to the French experience in Paris where I understand the lighting is far less subtle.
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