5:32pm: Cursed Wafers
I have no idea why but whenever I am in Europe it is not humanly possible for me to eat enough wafer cookies. I'm realize they're made from sawdust and infinitely processed sugar, but they are my European guilty pleasure. Tonight, I start on a delicate (re: ginormous) bag of "vaniglia". Needless to say, I decided to start my weekend with a run.
All week I had been staring at the homes dotting the cliffs along the Gulf of Naples wondering how I might find my way there. I asked my family during dinner on Friday if there were any dangerous areas I should avoid and they assured me I could wander anywhere in Sorrento without worry. And so on Saturday morning, I set out. The moment I hit the street I crossed paths with an 80-something man who stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me - clad in spandex pants, a running shirt and a ball cap - as though I had lobsters crawling from my ears. Though self-conscious, I stayed the course. I found the way and in no time I was trotting along the coast with breath-taking views. And then the hail came. The weather changes SO QUICKLY in Sorrento. In a matter of literally five minutes it went from picturesque to torrential downpour, strong winds and hail. Rather than be the stupid, wet rat American who seeks shelter under a shop awning, I decided to be the stupid, wet rat American who runs right down Corso Italia (the tony main drag here) in the rain.
Much more to share from the weekend - the highlight being the extended-family dinner I attended today at the home of my host-mother's mother - but right now I have to go study my verbs. This week I'm alone in class which means [GULP] I'll be forced to speak in Italian!?! Light a candle, per favore.
Let's move on, shall we?
The van FINALLY pulled into a driveway that opened up to a gorgeous pastoral view; we had arrived at Pontere. A family-owned buffalo farm dating back to the 1970s, Pontere has always operated using organic and free-range methods. We enjoyed a beautiful lunch of mozzerella di buffala, mozzarella di bufala affumicata (smoked), salami, fresh pizzas and, my favorite, olive bread. The lunch and the view (see below) were even more beautiful given the horrible things I and my classmates had just seen. I was a moment of particular gratitude.
From these spots of beauty we made our way to Villaggio Coppola, or "Pinetamare", which I can only describe as something akin to the city of Chernobyl. As explained by Professor Corbino, Pinetamare was built in the 1960s by a pair of Camorra (the mafia family based in Naples) connected brothers, the Coppolas. The catch: the land they developed was a pine forest nature preserve owned by the Italian government! In other words, the entire project was 100% unsanctioned and illegal. For a time the resort village was a destination, but it is now a ghost town with 85% of the buildings dilapidated and empty. The only inhabitants are poor immigrants. The picture below doesn't do the eerie place justice. I don't fully understand the timeline, but the village has now been reclaimed by the government and there are plans to create a modern port.
School was awesome today. This week I was paired with a new student, Margarite, a warm, lovely, fifty-something Brazilian from Porto Alegre. She speaks little English, I speak little Portuguese (Thanks, ill-advised move to Rio de Janeiro!), we both speak little Italian, so we have the greatest time joking our way through the morning. My Italian is really improving, though, so it's rewarding and fun. After language class, I was invited to sit in on a "History of the Mafia" class... just one of the many courses offered at Sant'Anna. The lecture was fantastic and really dug into the socio-political-economic reasons why the mafia was born, and, more importantly, why it was born in the South. Tomorrow I join the class for a field trip to Napoli! I'll be wearing my cornicello, just in case.
10:40pm: "Piano, piano..."
I like to think of myself as someone who was once deeply competitive, but who left that energy behind at the end of her last field hockey game over 17 years ago (ouch) . That is, until I have an experience like today where I'm in a class and each student is asked to read their homework aloud. Our assignment: "Write a short story [in Italian] about each of the people pictured below." My classmate Jess went first, reading her Dante-like creation: "Marco is a 27-year-old engineer from Venice. He loves to cook Indian food and to take his dog for a walk after dinner..."
Then it was my turn: "Marco is a boy. He lives in Italy. He likes coffee." Aaannd scene. Sensing my frustration and seeing my discomfort, my wonderful and kind instructor, Simona, said to me: "Lori, piano, piano." Expression translated: "slowly, slowly."
So, yes, my name is Lori and I'm a competitor who expects herself to be conversational in Italian by day three. ["Ciao, Lori!"]. The good news is... I'm getting better! Today I took myself to pranzo (lunch), ordered my food in Italian and was even able to cobble together "How do you say 'the check' in Italian?" for my waiter. For those of you scoring at home, the answer is: "il conte".
7:00pm: FIRST DAY OF SCUOLA!
This entry begins last night at the dinner table. Roberto, patriarch of the family, asked me what time class started on Monday and what time I would be waking up. I let him know school started at 8:30 and that I would get up at six. The choral response: "SEI?!!" Clearly someone needs to get with the Italian program.
My host sister Serena escorted me to Sant'Anna this morning. We strolled through winding, narrow roads and then emerged to a spectacular view of Mount Vesuvius. Completely breathtaking! A moment later, we arrived at Sant'Anna, she hugged me "buona fortuna" and I made my way into the historic building. I was greeted warmly - in Italian - by Ms. Olga Stinga, assistant director of the Institute I've realized the more nervous I get, the higher my voice becomes. Needless to say I was a pretty much a doe-eyed mouse with my nervous "ciao!" and "grazie!" all morning. Please don't ask me anything but yes/no answers, Italy.
Two cappuccinos later, class begins with my teacher, Simona. I am joined by Jess, a 27-year-old obstetric nurse from Melbourne, Australia. Jess is in her second week at the Institute, but it's clear she's excited to have an English-speaking classmate. We covered a lot of ground in two hours - all instruction in Italiano - including verb conjugations, irregular verbs and dialogue. Oddly, my pronunciation is on point. Fake it 'til you make it, I guess.
At first I thought it was a mausoleum, but inside the archway there was a small altar and some folding chairs, along with access to the stone veranda you see on the left in the picture (left).Regardless of the structure's intended purpose, it was clear to me that whoever built this place knew how to appreciate one of the best things in life: natural beauty. Molto Italiano, indeed.
9:02am: "I wonder where that leads?"
I've been under-the-weather for the past 48-hours; my apologies for the delayed post! I started to feel a little feverish on Sunday morning, and my old (re: stupid) instinct of "I need to sweat this out!" kicked in, so I went for a "passeggiare". It was a gorgeous morning, so I started walking toward the Hilton, which has a great vista. As I made my way, I noticed a grand-looking staircase that disappeared into the lush hillside. "I wonder where that leads?"
I soon realized, as I ascended the zig-zagging staircase on the mountainside, that I was climbing the stations of the cross.
A lover of all things challenging, Lori is an Italian-American who returned home to her native Massachusetts after 12 years in Washington, D.C... and a brief stint in Peace Corps Ukraine. Her greatest joys are her family, laughing with friends, The Economist Magazine, beer, travel, eating Italian food, running around outside and napping with her dog, Eleanor Roosevelt.
As we left Villagio Coppola the van of students (me + five under 22-year-old students) was in stunned silence. Just then Professor Corbino said "Allora, ragazze..." and explained that while we were on our way to a beautiful, organic buffalo-milk farm, we were going to see the sad reality of exploitative prostitution along the way. All I could think was: "I'd like to get off this bait-and-switch hell ride, please." Sure enough, as we made our way into the countryside, the seemingly desolate roads were dotted with scantily clad women of all ages and races. The professor explained most of the women were lured to Italy from Africa under the guise of a job as a hairdresser or waitress, only to discover they were now captives in a sex trade. Prostitution is not illegal in Italy, but being a pimp is very much so. Nonetheless, as the professor pointed out, without a market of men willing to drive to an out-of-the-way country road, the problem wouldn't exist.
An Italian-American in Sorrento, Italy.
During dinner, my Sorrentine family would use words that I recognized from my childhood and it gave me an overwhelming feeling of connection to my Grammie (Louisa Sbardella Teixeira to you) my late Nonoa (yes, we spelled it wrong, but it was ours - Antoinette Macarone Sbardella) and my late Nana (Philomena Mauretti Sousa). In these moments I would share that I knew the word, tell the family the context in which the word was used and 9 out of 10 times they would clarify that "my word" was very old Neopolitan dialect or was subtly mispronounced in a way that completely changed the meaning. For example:
Me: It was weird, one nonna would say "GA-goots" for zucchini (Grammie) and one would say "GA-goots" for the middle of the bread
Roberto: No! It's "CA-goots" and "CO-goots"! "CA-goots" means small zucchini and "CO-goots" means the end of the bread. This is a real
This led to a conversation about soufrite, which led to a conversation about Gram softening "frese" under the faucet, which led to conversations about salad, etc., etc. It was completely magical and awesome.
OH! The best moment, from a few days before, I asked Roberto if they had a "mapine" -- again, a word Gram used for hand towel. He looked dumbfounded. I repeated: "mapine?" and made a gesture of drying my hands. He broke out into a hardy laugh and informed me that "mapine" is a "very, very old word from Naples. You are lucky to know this." But then he said: "but now it mean word for not a nice lady." Speechless.
Allow me to start with something unrelated to the subject of this post. Quite simply: Italian verbs are draining my will to live. No matter how many times I write, repeat and study them, my mind goes blank when I'm asked to form a sentence. I know... "piano, piano."
Okay, on a more positive note, I had the most wonderful dinner with my family the night before last. It wasn't special because of the food - although the food was wonderful, a local / Neopolitan dish called "pasta i patate" (imagine pasta in a creamy potato sauce) - it was special because I learned SO MUCH about my own family during dinner. Let me explain...
About the Author:
I mean...wow, right? I shot the video as we climbed the final steps of Faro di Capo Miseno. Our "tour guide" for the day was Professor Alberto Corbino, a Neapolitan who teaches the History of the Mafia class at Sant'Anna. The day was a mix of beauty and tragedy. We started the day in Parco Virgiliano, which provided a different view of the gulf, along with Nisida, a juvenile prison similar to Alcatraz, that sits just off the coast of Naples.
En route to Faro di Capo Miseno, a class revolt led to a pit stop at a pasticceria (pastry shop) in the neighborhood of Bagnoli. When I tell you it was the best sfogliatelle I've ever had in my life it is not hyperbole. And who knew they came in a variety of crusts!? The one I'm most familiar with - "riccia" - looks like a clam, and "frolla" looks like a filled donut. Luckily the lady at the bakery didn't speak English because when I ordered and she pointed the tongs to two kinds, asking me which I wanted, I blurted out "Both!". She helped me help myself and only gave me the riccia.
Honestly, it's terrifying (lol). The second I hear a motor I jump into the next "ingresso" or archway I can find because the Nonna driving the 1982 Fiat Panda will.run.you.down.
[Side bar: After watching that trailer the film seems like it could have been a show from the early days of TeleMilano, Berlusconi's first TV channel known for its brash programming.]
As always, I digress...
10:25am: Bella Napoli!
I really wanted to share this post last night, but we were having some internet problems. From what my family tells me, this is a typical Italian infrastructure story. Internet is down, you call the service provider, they tell you that, despite your timely payments, you can expect regular outages for the next month. If you don't like it, break contract (to the tune of 100 euro) and go elsewhere. Arrabbiato!!
Apologies in advance for a long post, but there's so much good stuff to share from my trip to Napoli yesterday! Put aside all of your preconceived notions about the city and watch how I was introduced to Naples yesterday morning:
"God loves a terrier."
After lunch we walked the fields and heard about the origins of Pontere and how the decision to "go organic" was a driven by market differentiation. Following the publication of the book "Gomorrah", an expose of the Camorra and its exploitation of the farms in Aversa, Pontere managed to thrive as the one farm outside of the corrupt system. The farm produces only buffalo milk, sending the fruits of their labor out to create the final, coveted product. Our tour closed with a visit to the nursery, of sorts, where we were able to see and feed the buffalo from one to six months old. Completely adorable. Stinky, but adorable.
*The information and opinions shared on this blog in no way reflect the opinions or policies of the Sant'Anna Institute. The rights of this content are reserved by the author.
The best way I can describe the moment is "spiritual." There I was in the middle of a gorgeous landscape, on a sunny day, climbing a trail of devotion and reflecting on all of my good fortune. Gratitude personified.
5:35pm: Greetings from Sorrento! With two plane rides, a connection through de Gaulle and a bus ride under my belt, I arrived Sorrento Stazione at 1:30pm this afternoon. I felt like road kill as I debussed, so I thought a walk would do me good. Paper map in hand, I set out on foot to find my host family's apartment. Forty minutes later, a kind Italian woman hanging laundry from her second floor balcony called out to me, in English, "Can I help you find your hotel?" So much for blending in...
I was greeted at the entrance to my home away from home by Serena, the stunning, yet unassuming, 20-year-old daughter of my host family. Not far behind was Mena, matriarch of the family who is just six years my senior. The ladies gave me a tour of the beautiful apartment, introduced me to the cats (one of whom is curled up on my feet as I type) and made me feel so welcome. My bedroom is LARGE and boasts the balcony view posted below. There's a real chance I'm never coming home ;-).
6:44pm: Sunday Dinner
But first! Some material from my forthcoming comedy show "You Know You Don't Speak Italian When..."
"You know you don't speak Italian when... you realize you've been washing your face with body moisturizer for seven days."
"You know you don't speak Italian when... after finishing your second load of laundry, your host mother invites you to wash your clothes with laundry detergent, not fabric softener."
"You know you don't speak Italian when... you tell the shopkeeper you "don't need a bathroom" [bagno] rather than you "don't need a bag" [borsa]. "
I'll be here all week! Tip your cameriere! (But only 10%).
So, on Sunday Mena (my host Mom) invited me to attend lunch at her mother's house. I was so touched by the invitation, and I was excited to see what a "real" Italian Sunday dinner would be like. Would it be loud and filled with army-sized platters of pasta like Sunday dinners at Gram's back on Johnson Street?
Mena and I set out on foot, of course, because THIS is how Italians stay so trim, and we made our way through the center of Sorrento, past Piazza Lauro and out toward the football (soccer) stadium. Within two blocks we went from bustling street to quiet little enclave that included the church where Mena and Roberto were married and Nonna's apartment around the corner. "Welcome!" said the white-blond Englishwoman who opened the door. Were we at the right place? "Ciao! Come in! Please, have a seat; it's about to get very Mary Poppins in here...stuff flyin' everywhere." Cheryl, the jovial and lovely British ex-pat wife of Mena's brother, Antonio, was our chef for the day, preparing a DELICIOUS meal of: truffle tortellini with pomodoro (primi piatti), roasted chicken with sausage & sage stuffing (secondi), four-cheese cauliflower, roasted peppers and broccoli rabe (contorni). There we were, an American, a Brit and three generations of an Italian family - nine in total - gathered around a small table covered with delicious food, wine-filled plastic cups and so much laughter my ears were ringing. Indeed, this was going to be like a Sunday at Gram's house... zero pretense and tons of love.
PS - The BEST part... five minutes after we were done eating Nonna emerged from the kitchen carrying a skirt steak the size of my torso. "BISTECCA?!" she offered excitedly. Cheryl leaned over to me: "She can't help herself, really." Yep. Just like Gram's.
5:45pm: The Running (Wo)man
Have you ever had a moment when a sensory memory gets triggered from the way, way back of your brain? Whether it's a particular sight or smell, you're immediately transported to the feelings and emotions of the original moment. I realized this afternoon, as I went for a walk up a cobblestoned, maze-like, hillside road that could not have been wider than six feet - that when I hear the sound of a motorized vehicle in Sorrento, I think of this:
9:16am: Jordan Almonds... and other reasons to be grateful
Happy Tacchino Day, America!!! I honestly forgot today was Thanksgiving until I received a text message from my Mom reminding me of the Portuguese stuffing and Uncle Al's mashed potatoes that I would be missing (lol). In spite of this hardship, today I will have a sfogliatelle AND gelato!
Last night's dinner with the family provided another gem of a story. But wait, have I mentioned that Italian brides do not take the surname of their husbands? I had no idea! At first I thought it oddly progressive, but then when I thought it through - i.e. mothers essentially have no "stamp" on the genealogy/bloodline - it seemed more consistent with the cultural norms. Please know that's not a judgement (although clearly, I have feelings on this), but just an interesting example of the gender politics at play in Italy. Okay, back to dinner...
I asked the family which brand of Limoncello they preferred so that I could purchase a bottle to bring home. This led to a discussion of a store owned by Roberto's friend that not only sold limoncello, but "sugared almonds". He said the tradition of "sugared almonds" dated back to ancient times when -- and here's where it gets fable-y -- a boat of "Arabs" were trying to invade Sorrento when their boat began to sink. A noble Italian man jumped into the water to save a woman (stay with me!) and his reward was a bag of "sugared almonds" that she had on her person.
Of course for me, a person who MUST find logic in everything, this meant that the name "Jordan Almonds" must be derived from this fable. Roberto wasn't willing to go that far, but he was willing to insist that his friend's sugared almonds are THE BEST in Sorrento. And he punctuated this statement with a slow drag of an upside-down "okay" hand signal across his chest, which, in non-verbal Italian, means "for real [period]".
Don't worry, though, the moment was made whole when my Catholic guilt kicked in because I couldn't remember how many stations there are in total! "Gram would be so disappointed.", I thought. Nonetheless, I continued to climb until I reached this:
7:51pm: Four days 'til departure: Let the anxiety about my thoroughly American wardrobe begin!