05 December 2009

Forza Palermo!

Palermo is the largest city in Sicily, and one of the oldest cities in Europe. These days, Palermo is not on the top lists of most desirable cities to see, but it used to be the hottest destination of ancient times (I mean really ancient). Palermo is still an incredible city though, as long as you can get past the chaos and the grime, it is actually a center for fashion, theater, and dining.

Sicily has a remarkable history of occupation from the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Arabs (who turned the island into it's agricultural splendor of today), to the Normans, the Bourbons and the Spanish. All these cultures have left their own mark, culminating into the unique Sicilian culture. Even the language, Sicilian dialect, is a mix of words rooted to all of these cultures.  It is even possible to see remnants of all these cultures along a one mile strip on "Corso Calatafini". This street includes a Baroque church, like those found all over Sicily, but also a Norman palace, Roman homes and a Phoenician cemetery. Tell me where else in the world you can find that!

And for the Americans with Sicilian ancestors, the port of Palermo is where they would have set sail for the New World. It was very touching to drive past the port while my great aunt was telling me about the day her father set sail for America to visit my great-grandmother. Now that is retracing your  roots!

At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of families left Sicily for hopes of a better life...and giant food. Yes, giant food. At the time, postcards of recent immigrants holding carrots or some fruit that was bigger than their whole body were being passed around all over Italy!

See? See how great America is? Everything is bigger in America!

And still to this day, we have carried on the tradition of ‘everything is bigger in America’! A great film to see about the exodus from Sicily to America is “Nuovomondo” (New World). It follows a family’s voyage from a small mountain village, where they had never seen fish, nor knew what it was, to the overwhelming city of New York. It won 6 awards at the Venice Film Festival.

Ok, enough about history, because I could write pages about it. Let's move on to food, shall we? Palermo has many great restaurants, but also lots of great street food, markets and pizzerias. Then there's the pastries! Sicily is known worldwide for their dolci, or sweets. You all know cannoli, but there is so much more: In the winter time, no family meal is complete without a Cassata Siciliana (pictured here, made with a thin layer of cake, sweet ricotta cheese and draped with a light green sheet of marzipan with candied cherries on top) or a platter filled with pasticini (bought by the kilo) which are mini sweets filled with sweet ricotta cheese, like mini cannoli and cassatine (mini cassata, also pictured to the left), rum baba', profiteroles, and spinge (little doughnuts with cinnamon and sugar). In the summer, it's too hot for ricotta desserts, so they switch to ice cream filled desserts.  Instead of a platter of pasticini, they get platters of mini ice cream cones sealed in a light chocolate shell, and when you go to a gelateria (ice cream shop) you get granita (an ice-slushy with fresh fruit flavors), and, of course, gelato. Okay, I could write pages about the desserts too, so I'll stop here.

Fabulous shopping is also to be had in Palermo, with lots of streets filled with great stores throughout the city. Via della Liberta’ is the main drag that will take you by all the stores and down to Teatro Massimo, the opera house. Not only is it a functioning opera, but it is home to a yearly haute couture fashion show. The swankiest spot, likened to Piazza di Spagna in Rome, is Via Belmonte. And here you are totally safe to get lost in your shopping because it is closed to traffic. So you have less of a chance of getting killed by all those crazy drivers! (it's insane--the streets are total chaos)

Palermo is an amazing city. It is loud, congested, hectic, delicious, mysterious, ancient, secretive, dangerous, endearing and absolutely gorgeous. Residents love it and hate it, but describe themselves as addicted to it.

Forza Palermo!

10 November 2009

A Day of Remembrance

Today was definitely a new experience for me. We all went to mass at the church in Petrosino for a service for Leo’s uncle that passed away a year ago tomorrow. We (Leo, myself, his parents, one of his aunts, cousin, cousin’s wife and their 2 kids) all got to the church at the same time and missed out on all the seats. Leo’s parents went to squeeze in next to his aunt Maria (the widow) and the rest of us stood in the alcove behind the pews.

The church was ornate with several chandeliers made for candles, but modernized to use bulbs. This church wasn’t as ornately decorated as I’m used to seeing, but it was lovely inside. The priest’s voice boomed through the expansive interior, aided by several speakers along the ceiling. I couldn’t understand the service, but I never can when there is an echo. So I decided to people watch.

There was a couple sitting right in front of us and the wife was holding an adorable little baby girl. After a while, as the husband took the baby, I observed their interactions with each other and found them to be very sweet. He was also sitting next to his mom, who was the next in line to hold the baby. It was interesting to watch their dynamic--he was loving and playful with his wife, devoted and attentive to his daughter...but totally attached to his mother. It was funny to watch their body language; he sat closer to his mom, nearly arm in arm in her, yet there was a good amount of space between he and his wife. So typical, it is one of those cultural things. I see it in nearly every couple here. The bond is between the mother and the son, and the wife seems secondary. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this (like mine, thankfully), but from what I have seen in this town, it is more often than not. And who spends more time raising the kids? La Nonna (grandma)!

02 November 2009

Viola di Mare

Here in Sicily, Sunday is the day you have lunch with your family. It doesn’t matter what is going on or how busy you may be--you always go home for Sunday lunch (not lunch by US standards, though. This lunch lasts a good 4 hours). So in that fashion, another Sunday has passed, filling our bellies with pasta al forno (baked pasta), carne impanata (thin slices of steak, breaded and pan-fried), salad and pasticini (little Sicilian pastries usually filled with ricotta cheese). I brought a kilo of chestnuts to roast with wine, but there was no way--we were too full!

As usual, after all the eating, chatting and washing dishes, we got home around six. And as usual, we didn’t feel like doing anything else for the rest of the day. In the US, you don’t feel like doing anything on Sunday because it’s the day to be lazy. But here, you don’t want to do anything because you’re so full you can’t move. So Leo and I spent the rest of our evening either watching TV or surfing the internet.

We had been wanting to see a film called “Viola di Mare” (Purple Sea) that had just opened. Not only is it one of those beautiful, artistic, independent films, but it also is a completely female production. Written, produced and directed by women (no small feat, especially in Italy). Even the two protagonists are women, in love with each other in a time when that was punishable by death. Plus, it was a period film shot locally, so we had to see it! Around 10:00, we dragged ourselves out the door, stopped at a local bakery for some arancini (a typical Sicilian finger food, they are saffron rice balls, filled with ragú, coated in breadcrumbs and fried--sounds weird, but they’re so good) and headed to the theater.

I hadn’t been to an Italian movie theater in few a years, so I was curious if they were going to stop the movie half way through for intermission like they used to do. I always hated that because it interrupted the flow of the film. I am a very particular person when it comes to watching movies. I don’t watch a movie as just a member of the audience--I like to get completely engrossed and lose myself in a good story. My physical reality falls away and I become a witness or a voyeur in an alternate reality. For that reason, I hate interruptions like that--even talking, the blue glow of cell phones lighting up, bad acting, incessant pausing (you know who you are)--anything that severs me from the story and brings my attention back to my surroundings. So, fortunately, the movie played all the way through without the intermission.

I really enjoyed the film. It was visually beautiful, the story was engaging and moving and I was completely absorbed in it.  When it ended, I had tears streaming down my face, and this is the most important part for me--the few minutes at the end, when I linger, in the dark, watching the credits roll. I let my psyche digest what I just saw, I come back to reality and discreetly compose myself (as I’m usually crying). Unfortunately, I didn’t get that digestive pause. As soon as the credits started rolling, the full house lights turned on, flooding the theater with harsh, fluorescent light. I felt shocked and exposed. Everyone was jumping up and leaving, and slightly disoriented, I too, jumped up to leave as if the theater was being evacuated. Then I thought, wait, where’s the fire? I want to see the credits. So my husband and I sat back down to finish watching the credits, as we normally do. But just then, as the credits got half-way through the cast, they turned off the projector!! And there we sat, in front of a dark screen--shocked, confused and feeling a little robbed.

Okay, I understand that we’re not in Los Angeles anymore, and it’s not The Arclight theater... Seeing a movie in Los Angeles is serious business. The picture and sound have to be perfect, interruptions are taken care of and everyone stays to watch the credits. Why? Because these are the people that actually make the movies. And if not, then they know how much work goes into it and they are interested in who made it, or know someone who did. Of course, I don’t expect the same here, but seriously, turning off the credits before it’s half way over? That’s not right--and maybe not even legal.

We looked at each other, shaking our heads, and got up again to leave. We walked out through the heavy curtains, and I was still feeling out of sorts. Without those precious moments for my brain to re-file my experience from reality to fiction, I was in a sort of fog. As we exited the theater, which basically dumps you in the middle of a busy street, a loud scooter zoomed by in front me, as if to yell “HEY! SNAP OUT OF IT!!”.  But I couldn’t--I was so caught up in the story it was like I was still there. What a great film.

21 September 2009

Cinema Purgatorio

Tonight, as I sat senza marito (without husband) at my in-law’s table during a visit from my husband’s aunt and uncle, my eyes began glazing over.

Years ago, in the same situations, I used to be so eager to keep up with their conversations; listening to every word, trying to understand, translating in my mind from Sicilian dialect to Italian and then to English. But I don’t have that eagerness anymore. I have since learned the utter futility of it and I no longer find the point of stressing myself to understand their rhetoric.

For years, I would work so hard to understand their conversations or some long story or joke (seriously long--like a ten minute joke), and I would get most of it up to the end, proud of myself for keeping up and anticipating the grand finale...and then the punch line would always be some super-fast zinger of half words that I couldn’t understand if my life depended on it! Then everyone would burst out laughing and I would sit there, not laughing, disappointed and frustrated. God I hated that.

I have since learned that it’s not worth my energy, because in the end, I will still be lost. So these days, I just sit as a quiet bystander, amused by my own thoughts, pulled in only when I hear “eh, Nicole?” (their way of checking I'm still breathing). Then I give my mother-in-law a blank look and wait for her to explain the discourse to me in Italian.

But tonight, as I sat there silently, I saw myself as if in a Fellini film, with his larger than life characters, the humor of the odd noises and shrill voices coming out of the mouths around me. Hmm, was it a scene from "Armacord"?...Totally.

But I didn't like it...it was just a bit too crazy for me.  

Cut!--Scene change--I prefer the cool, smart, Roman fashionistas of Fellini's "8 1/2". Plus, everything looks cooler in black and white, anyway. Yeah, that's more like it...a perfect scene for drifting into a dream sequence...

My memories of glamorous dinner parties in my sister’s grand dining room inserted themselves into the scene...place settings perfect, crystal glasses for each type of wine, classical music playing in the background... All of us are dressed well, the conversation is mind expanding and we discuss dreams and ideals, politics and current events and make plans for future travel. It is all so civilized and wonderful...all I need to do is give everyone black frame glasses, sharp haircuts, black clothes and cigarettes...yeah, now that looks perfect...

Eh, Nicole?

Damn, my Fellini dream sequence is interrupted like a record screeching to a halt. I am abruptly grabbed back to reality as my mother-in-law tries to bring me up to date on her story. She starts off in Italian to make sure I don’t get lost again and describes:

When I was at the hairdresser, the woman told me about the wife of Mr. Lupino, who’s all ‘tu-tu’ (insert gesture), who lives in the square, next door to ‘so & so’ (I’m not leaving out names, she really said ‘so & so’), who’s next door to Maria Nigura (that’s a nickname) who lives on the corner.

NO!” cries the aunt, abruptly. With the conviction of an attorney fighting for the rights of her client, she insists in a shrill voice:

LUPINO lives down the street that slopes!! (insert gesture of sloping street) Where ‘so & so’ lives (I assume this is a different 'so & so'). You know where ‘so & so’ lives? ACROSS!!! (insert gesture for across the street) Directly across from ‘so & so’.

Confused? Yeah, me too. I try to follow, try to figure out where I come in in this story, until I realize that I don’t. She just noticed that I was not listening and had to call my attention back to their conversation.

As usual, their tongues quickly slip back into dialect and their pace quickens to furious speeds. Somewhere between the “quidrus” and “quidras”, my eyes glaze over and I drift back to my dream sequence, far away from insidious town gossip...


I have often found myself in the observer seat here, watching them speak, watching them interact.  I know these people very well--they have been my in-laws for many years. But sometimes I feel so foreign--so out of place. There are worlds between our worlds and they have no clue. None of them ever came to visit us in the U.S. Some have never even left the shores of Sicily. I think about the simplicity of their lives: entire families all living on the same block, the husband that works 9-5 and the wife whose sole purpose in life is to take care of said husband. The grandparents that take care of their kids...and pizza on the weekends. It’s a nice and simple existence, and it works very well for them. But it’s just not my cup of caffé.

Speaking of which, it came time for making caffé (espresso), so I jumped up to do it--anything to break my time sitting in complete silence (god forbid anyone talked to me about my life or my thoughts). With my back turned to the room of animated chatter, I assembled the cafféteria (stove-top espresso pot). I hear my mother-in-law inform her guests that I am very helpful and the aunt agrees that it is much better to have a helpful nuora (daughter-in-law)--which is also a very skilled way to comment about her nuora not being helpful. Sicilians are champions of double meaning or back-handed compliments.

The espresso furiously spurts into the pot. I assemble the tray and run through the proper service:

Espresso cups? Check. Saucers? Check. Little spoons? Check. Sugar jar? Check. Napkins? Check. Perfect.

I bring the loaded tray to the table and try to get a word in to ask how they prefer their caffé. No one hears me over the sheer volume of their voices and the rambling of their chatter--even though I'm standing right in front of them. I stand there uncomfortably for a few moments, waiting for a break in their incredibly important conversation about what the neighbor has been up to.

Finally, I look at the aunt and forcefully ask:

Amaro (without sugar)"?


Then I ask the same to her husband and he replies: “with a little bit of sugar”.

I pick up the sugar jar to pass to him, but hesitate for just a moment, thinking that if he told me the quantity of sugar, it was for me to know how much to add for him. So I start towards his cup with the sugar in hand, when all of a sudden, my father-in-law stops me with a brisk lesson in serving caffé:

Nicole, FIRST, put the espresso in the cup. THEN give him the cup, the sugar jar and a spoon and let HIM put the sugar in.

Wow. Ok. Now I am officially trained in the technical skill of serving espresso. I clearly missed a course in Sicilian domestic arts. But hey, another item for the CV, right?

After serving everyone their caffé, I sat back down, feeling slightly wounded by my brisk, public lesson, and I wondered how they would fare in someone else’s culture. As I sipped my bitter caffé, I slipped away again, back into my Fellini dream sequence, back to my 'happy place'.

05 September 2009

What's a Nutritionist to do?

My whole life I grew up thinking that Europe was the seat of natural medicine. Homeopathy was a household word, pharmacies sold natural products and herbal remedies. All the conversations in my house that mentioned the state of health care in the US, contrasted the difference of the fantastic availability of natural cures in Europe. “At least there, you don’t need to worry about the FDA blocking the use of herbal medicine.

Fast forward 20 years, I’m managing an acupuncture clinic, having a good rapport with several different reps from the top vitamin companies, being able to order just about any product sold anywhere in the world, and all the time I’m discussing how great it would be to live in Europe. I’m doing my grocery shopping at Whole Foods, picking up organic everything from fruit, nuts, oils, coffee to household products that don’t contain harmful chemicals. Knowing the sprouts guy at the Farmer’s Market and the butcher stand where the grass-fed beef is sold. All the while, thinking how much easier and cheaper it must be to shop in Europe because they don’t need to worry about where their beef comes from--it’s naturally natural.

Now, here I am in Sicily, thinking back on my life in Los Angeles, the health food capital of the world, and realizing that it’s not quite as I thought here in Europe. And that famous Mediterranean diet? They don’t know what that is here. Well, they know what it is, and they think they follow it (because they live in the Mediterranean). But that diet doesn’t include packaged croissants for breakfast, a pound of pasta a day accompanied with a pound of bread and to finish, a pound of ricotta filled pastries (I’m not exaggerating the amounts here, people). And that’s all on normal days--you won’t believe what they can put down during holiday meals! There are more overweight, hypertensive people with cholesterol levels through the roof here than anywhere else I have ever seen. It’s rather alarming.

Although, I must admit that other countries in Europe, even northern Italy, are light years ahead of southern Italy when it comes to diet, alternative healing, access to herbal medicine and availability of organic products. However, this is where I find myself for the time being, and I must admit that all the things I thought I would miss--I don’t. It’s what I thought I wouldn’t miss that has caught me by sheer surprise.

The question becomes: what do I do about it? Yes, I miss the convenience with which all things complimentary and alternative were available to me. To have local, raw honey suppliers, yoga classes and macrobiotic cafes at my fingertips. Whole Foods, herb shops and pristine, sparkling Integrative Medical Centers in every town. But does that mean I should run back to my health haven? Or does it mean that I should attempt to create a refuge here, and bring the beauty of accessible holistic health care to a culture set in it’s ways? And would it even be possible? No, it absolutely would not be possible. Not here. I am also learning that nothing can change here. Even a 19th century Sicilian poet, Giovanni Verga, said of Sicily: “Everything changes to remain the same.

Living here, I have certainly become aware of all the little things I previously took for granted. Things I never thought twice about--like picking up a package of trail mix; ginger tea for tummy aches; buying organic berries, and simple, raw, unsalted nuts. Here, forget about it. I feel as though I have sent myself into health food exile. Oh, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, how do I miss thee? Let me count the ways: almond butter; maple syrup; quinoa; Zen household cleaner; Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap; black beans; almond milk; organic French roast coffee; cranberries (that one’s for Leo); coconut milk....Okay, I guess I’ll stop there.

So what do you constantly have stocked in the kitchen that you take for granted?

23 August 2009

Making Jam

When you live with family in Sicily, most of your relatives will have some sort of fruit tree, vegetable or herb growing in their garden. The other day, we went to the house in campagna of Leo’s Aunt and Uncle, where we picked the last remaining Mulberries of the season. It was a new discovery for me as I had never had them before, nor had I ever seen them before. But there I was, dressed in black and wearing surgical gloves to pick this super staining, incredibly juicy, dark purple fruit.

It all started with a trip to Punto Gelato (my favorite gelato stand with the best, freshest flavors), where, in my ice cream fueled curiosity, I read Gelso listed under the fruit flavors and I asked Leo what it was. He had no idea either--which sparked his curiosity. Noticing the granita machines spinning icy fruit slushies, he sees this dark, rich purple colored one with the sign calling it Granita di Gelsi. He asked his childhood friend behind the counter what gelso was and I see this surprised look on the man’s face. “Come....non ti ricordi i cevusi? (how can you not remember mulberries?)” He recounts how he and Leo used to spend the afternoon up the tree behind the arcade eating the cevusi till they were covered in purple. But it was the word, cevusi, that brought it all back--not gelsi in Italian, but cevusi in dialect. I tasted the granita...but I couldn’t place it. He tried to explain that it was like a blackberry, but it grows on a tree. I still couldn’t place it. Finally, when we got home, I looked it up in the dictionary, and there it was: mulberry. From that night on, Leo could not stop talking about i cevusi and how it was his favorite fruit as a child.

My grand master plan was to pick this fruit to make a clafoutis, Leo’s favorite dish for breakfast. But after several attempts, the final blow came when I turned my oven on to preheat and it blew the fuse for the whole house! Apparently, our oven consumes more electricity than the breaker allows. Even though I was offered to use the large toaster oven that Leo’s mom uses to make most of our meals, I couldn’t imagine cooking a cake in a toaster oven for an hour.

So what to do with all these ripe, juicy berries? I thought about a commercial I had recently seen for packets of pectin to make quick and easy jelly. Hmm...mulberry jam...that would be delightful. The next thing I know, I’m standing over a bubbling pot of molten mulberries; stirring constantly. I turn off the flame, check the consistency, add a little lemon juice and bring to a boil for a final minute. At this point, I have no idea if I’m doing it right or how it will come out; but I’m following the directions. After carefully ladling the dark purple concoction into jars and closing them tightly, it was all done.

The moment of truth came the next morning at breakfast. I set out the normal routine: fette biscottate (dry, crunchy slices of bread that’s more like a cracker), ACE juice (a blend of orange, carrot and lemon juice that is really yummy), caffe' (espresso), some cookies and a jar of fresh mulberry jam. I gotta say, I was impressed--it was thick, chunky, sweet but not too sweet and sooooo good. SUCCESS!! I made jelly and it came out great.

Making fig jam

Later that day, I was given a huge container of very ripe figs from an aunt’s tree across the street. “Nicole, these figs won’t last long, do you want to make fig jam?” What a silly question! Of course I want to make fig jam. That might be even better than mulberry jam. So there I am, again, standing over a bubbling pot of molten figs, stirring constantly. But this time I have more confidence and I know it will come out good.

The lasting effect of this escapade is that now I have become the official jelly maker. Not only do I think about the fruits available next season that I can make into jelly, but word has spread and now relatives are bringing containers of fruit to the house in case I want to make more! In autumn there will be apples, pears, oranges...oh, the possibilities...

15 August 2009

Italian Immigration

Even though I arrived in Italy with a Family Schengen visa, I needed to present myself to the Questura or immigration office, within 8 days of my arrival. My husband and I head over to the police station and get buzzed in by a guy sitting behind thick, bulletproof glass where he watches the surveillance monitor of the front door (and the variety show on the TV behind him). He tells us to check in with the man with the beard, but there is no one else around. The waiting room has several, dilapidated green chairs, covered with stains and small tears. The walls are decorated with faded 1970’s pictures of all the different offices of the Polizia (there are many, just to complicate things and make more bureaucracy. We walk past the Tunisian family waiting their turn and try to figure out which office we’re supposed to go to. There are multiple doors, all of which are closed with the windows literally blacked out--so no one can see them not working, as my husband says. Our attention gets pulled to the entrance door by the sound of the buzzer. An officer enters the building and Leo stops him with a quick description of my needing to present myself within 8 days of arriving and asks which office we are supposed to go to. With an air of “don’t worry, I’ll take care of you” the stylishly appointed officer take us to the room at the end of the hall, opens the door and starts telling the two officers inside that we are there because my permission has expired and--“No, no, no! Nothing has expired!” Leo interjects. One of the officers responds that if my permission has expired, then we need to wait our turn and they will help us. Leo already knows how this will go...

As we wait, we watch the people coming in and out of the station; more stylishly appointed officers, plain clothed people and several girlfriends and wives. Yet no one seems to have anything to do, as they all stand around chatting, disappearing only when one of them offers the other a caffe’. The only one who seems to be doing anything of importance is the guy who has to buzz the door open every time someone wants in. The funny part is that no one seems to know exactly how the door works, even if they work there! For each person that came in, its the same exercise: Try the door, which doesn’t open; look inside the glass to see the guy that buzzes them in--and not because they don’t know that the bell is right next to them, or that the guy can see them on the monitor, but because if they make eye contact, then the guy can see that it’s them, in which case he’ll give them special treatment by buzzing them in because they know each other--not because buzzing people in is this guy’s only job. So, if he doesn’t buzz the door instantly, then the person reaches for the bell, just as you hear Buzz, buzz, buzz of the door. But in that moment, the person standing there has moved over to the door bell on the side and doesn’t open the door in time, and when they try to open it, the door stays locked. So again, they peer inside at the guy, who then buzzes the door again, and the person outside finally gets the door open. Miracles never cease.

Out of the stairway comes the man with one of the biggest beards I’ve ever seen. Ah, that must be the guy we were told to talk to. From behind his glass covered desk, he informs us that we do, in fact have to wait for the office we were shown before. So we take our seat, as it’s clear we’ll be there for a while. After about an hour, three people enter, looking very much like locals and speaking the local dialect as well as anyone else here and saying hi to everyone in the station as if they were friends. But then they take a seat in the waiting room with us and start speaking in arabic. Leo looks over at one of the women with a puzzled look, as if he’s trying to place her face from somewhere. A few minutes pass, and an officer passing through stops to say hi to the guy, they shake hands and chat a few minutes. Then the officer goes into the office we’re waiting for and motions for the guy to come in. The women follows as well, all smiles and within ten minutes, they come back out, thanking everyone and leaving with big smiles. Yeah, this is the place to know people, because it will ALWAYS get you a pass to the front of the line. Just as I’m sitting there thinking how much ass kissing that guy must do around here, Leo finally realizes where he had seen that woman. He remembers her from his childhood when she lived in the square by his house, and next door to his cousin. The gossip was that she was a prostitute that serviced most of the police station! He said there was always a police car parked out front of her place. She looked much different back then, but she’s still the same, tall blond. And here I thought it was ass kissing that got all that special treatment!

Another 30 minutes pass and finally we get called into the office. Leo sits down in front of the officer behind the desk and I sit in the chair next to him, which just happens to be directly behind the large, flat panel monitor of the officer’s computer. Leo hands him my passport, open to the page with my visa and explains that the Italian consulate in Los Angeles instructed us to check-in with this office within eight days of my arrival to process my permanent residency. The officer looks down at my passport with a confused look on face.

“So, her passport is expired?”

I can see that Leo is about to scream--but he takes a deep breath and repeats what we came to do. The officer then asks for all the documents, which we don’t have because we were told just to bring in my visa. Leo explains that all the documents have already been filed, my case is already underway and all I need to do is register my local address. The officer insists that he can’t do anything until he has all the documents. This is the best part--the officer rips a skinny piece of scratch paper off of the stack of printer paper and hands it to Leo, asking if he wants to write the list of needed documents or if he wants him (the officer) to write it himself. Wide-eyed and stupefied, Leo informs the officer that it’s his job, he’s welcome to write it himself. The officer complains that we probably won't be able to read his writing (Leo wonders if the officer is literate--you never know), but he’ll go ahead and do it anyway. He then proceeds to slowly chicken scratch a list of every document we would need to bring. As he’s talking through this list, I’m trying to be part of the conversation by leaning all the way to the side to see around the computer monitor. The computer monitor. The big, flat monitor that goes with the big, fast computer sitting on his desk. The one he’s not using--or maybe doesn’t know how to use. So, after he finishes scribbling the long list, he says:

“I think that’s all you’ll need”...

As if he has never had to process a new foreign permanent resident--at the immigration office. I'm sure there are multiple files in that big computer of his with a nicely typed list of what is needed. Unfortunately, he doesn't know that. Leo regrettably looks over the list, knowing that something will of course be missing because you can never do anything in one attempt here.

“Do we need any photos?”

“AH! The photos, I forgot to write that down; you need six”.

SIX?? Gee, that seems like an important thing to ad. He grabs the scrap of paper back and adds the final bit of information. He then picks up my passport, scrutinizes my visa again, as if he’s never seen such a visa before (or maybe he was just trying to read) and throws it back across the desk. With that, we get up to leave quickly before Leo breaks out in a rage over how backwards his country is.

Buzz, buzz, buzz goes the door as the person outside is reaching for the bell. We open the door to leave before the poor guy behind the glass has to buzz the person in again. The moment we step outside, Leo starts his rant about how it could be possible that the office of immigration doesn’t have a pre-made list of the necessary documents needed for applying for permanent residency, and how could he never have seen a family visa before and why the hell we left that office with a hand scribbled piece of scratch paper that most definitely is missing some key information that we’ll need to bring.

But as angry as he is, I find the whole thing quite amusing. Because I knew what I was getting into--of course, everything I expected is bit more exaggerated here in Sicily--but I knew that nothing would get done easily and there would be lots of waiting wherever we go and there would always be someone cutting ahead of us because they know someone...
But for me, it’s all worth it, because I get to live in Italy.

Making Sun-Dried Tomatoes

The process of making old-fashioned pomodori secchi (sun-dried tomatoes) is actually incredibly easy. So easy, in fact, that you really don’t have to do much of anything. And yet, the mere mention of these shriveled little things seem to excite the senses and conjure up visions of Italian lunches overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany.  So how can something so simple to make only be known to us from jars imported from far away lands?

First and foremost, the key to making great sun-dried tomatoes is delicious, ripe, juicy tomatoes.  You cannot have good sun-dried tomatoes without great tomatoes. Period. And due to the cardboard like flavor of our good old American tomatoes, it would explain why we are not known for sun-dried tomato production.  But, thanks to the ‘growing’ popularity of organic gardens and home-growing, you can take your own juicy tomatoes and give it a shot. 

In Sicily however, you don't need your own garden to get amazing tomatoes. Here, they are just sold on the side of the street, in wooden crates.

Good tomatoes are not the only necessary ingredients. 

Here is what you need:
-Delicious, ripe tomatoes (plum or roma are best)
-Good quality olive oil
-Hot, dry weather with plenty of sunshine (August is the time this is done in Italy)
-An absorbent and breathable surface (wood is the traditional surface used)
-Protective cover, i.e. screen, toile or cheesecloth
-Time. Lots of time

Wash and cut the tomatoes in half, lengthwise and arrange them on a portable surface, like a wood cutting board or a small table. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and place them outside in full sunlight. Cover your tomatoes with some type of screen or netting to keep insects and other stuff off your food. For best results, put your tomatoes out in the morning and take them inside in the evening. During the night, humidity rises and can undo some of the drying from the day, and prolonging the moisture can encourage bacteria. I should mention here that if you don’t have a hot, dry climate, don’t try this—it won’t work.

When using small plum or roma tomatoes, you will need anywhere from one to two weeks for them to completely dry. This is where patience comes in. But, it’s a fun process and bringing them in and out each day keeps you up on the progress.

When your tomatoes are finally dry, they are ready to be jarred. This is where they will take the unmistakable flavor you know. You could taste them at this point, like I did out of curiosity, but I don’t recommend it. They are hard, sour and just kinda yucky. Lay the shriveled tomatoes one on top of the other in a jar. Pack them in well, top with a clove or two of garlic and a few basil leaves if you have it. Then you fill the jar with extra virgin olive oil, seal it up and store it in a cool dark place for at least a month.

When your tomatoes are sufficiently marinated, they are ready to eat!

Vernazza Updates:

Vernazza is well on its way to normalcy and while I no longer write updates on their status, you can learn about the devastating floods of 2011 by clicking the label "Vernazza Updates". For the latest information from the organizations in Vernazza and Monterosso, visit SaveVernazza and Rebuild Monterosso.

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