Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Iceland, You're Lucky That Bergamot Oil is an Upper.

Once upon a time, a volcano blew its roof in Iceland, spewing ash over Western Europe and meanly preventing every plane from flying. All the travellers of the land were stranded, and a certain group of UNISG students had to drive, rather than fly, to a far and distant place they call Calabria.

In the wee hours of the morning they set forth, ipods and pillows a-ready, only to have their steed break down after an hour. They loitered at a gas station while waiting to see if the mechanic would be victorious. Thankfully he was and they continued forth, feasting on Autogrill meals along the way. Twenty hours later, they finally arrived at the southern-most tip of Italy’s boot. Fortunately, all of the students managed to retain their sense of humour, and their time in the south proved the road-trip had been worth it.

So there you have it, our Calabria trip began with a few volcano-induced bumps in the road, but the following three days were outstanding. Our second day was my favourite; up and up and up into the mountains we drove, finally arriving at a farm that produces olive oil and sheep cheese. Greeted by a toothless and very sweet Nonna, we were taken to the dairy by her son and shown how they make their pecorino and ricotta. We then moved onto the sheep themselves, which thankfully didn't involve herding. We did, however, get to try milking a few poor ewes held back from the rest of the grazing flock; one at a time, twenty-six inexperienced sets of hands descended upon three helpless pairs of udders. I managed to produce a few good streams of milk, though had some trouble aiming south and hit my leg more often than the bucket.

We ate a big lunch then headed to Il Bergamotto, the prettiest-smelling place on earth. Our lovely, soft-spoken host walked us down to the grove and spoke of the Bergamot fruit's mysterious origins, the use of its essential oil in perfumes/tea/cuisine, and his father’s refusal to give up his farm when synthetic scents began to threaten the demand for Bergamot in the 60’s and 70’s. I mentally began making plans to return when we heard that at harvest time, near Christmas, the heavily-laden trees actually glow at night from the fruit's potent oil.

After our meander through the grove, our host pointed up – waaaay up – to the remains of an 11th century Norman castle on the peak of a nearby mountain. To my exercise-deprived-body’s delight, he told us that that was where we’d be going next. The site had been occupied consistently until 1951, when a flood finally forced the last residents to abandon it. At the top I arrived breathless, sweaty, and completely thrilled to wander through such a beautiful maze of ruins.

Our first trip was a success, and I can't wait until we leave for the next one. On a plane.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I Can't Think of a Bike Pun.

I haven’t owned a bike since I was about ten. I have borrowed many, for entire semesters even, but have not had one of my own for quite some time. That all changed two weeks ago, when I purchased “Run and Bike” from a used bike shop in Parma. Most bikes in Europe are lovely, in that old-fashioned, Dutch style, rust-is-cute kind of way. They are the types of bikes that stylish women in heels ride around with flower-filled wicker baskets in the front. I, of course, had to go and find myself a practical, wannabe-sporty bike that would fit right into Canada but is out of place in Italy. It can’t be outfitted for a front basket, so instead I have two bungee cords to strap down my pack over the back wheel. This is effective, but not for flowers. Unless you want squishy flowers. Glamour will never be my middle name and I’m just going to have to accept that. Sigh.

R&B has so far gotten me everywhere I need to go, but she’s rather talkative in transit. I haven’t yet figured out what the symphony of clickety- clacks mean, and they’re a touch concerning, but I do appreciate the fact that she’s at least chosen jazz-like rhythms in her deterioration (which are also appropriate considering her name). I bought this particular bike because, in my terribly broken Italian, I managed to communicate to the men at the bike shop that I needed something that would get me to and from Colorno each day for school. Out came R&B and her solid sporty frame, and for the first time last week, get me to Colorno and back she did. My friend Emily and I took one route there, and another one back. This was so we could:

a) See which one was quicker.
b) Make sure our bikes could make it.
c) Make sure we could make it.

I’m happy to report that the second route proved itself direct and safe and all bikes/riders survived, though going up the stairs to my apartment that evening was how I’ve always imagined climbing Everest would feel. I am confident that in a week or two our stamina will be better, the gams will be looking great, and any money I have saved by not be taking the bus will have gone straight into my growing appetite. I took R&B out again today, and I think we are going to be good friends. I’ll forgive the noise if she’ll forgive me for calling her……..not Sophia Loren. Ah well, that makes two of us.

Here are a few photos of R&B, and some others from Easter break. The weather has been great so we've been picnic-ing, day-tripping, and attended Vinitaly in Verona, Italy's largest wine show.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I Speak So Good at Languages.

Buona Pasqua! After three weeks of school we were given two weeks off to celebrate Easter (thank you religious holidays in Italy). Myself and two friends, Emily and Suzie, decided to spend part of it wwoofing, both to improve our Italian language skills and be kind to our budgets. A week ago we left Parma to join two young families at their isolated farm an hour from Bologna, and we are now very glad we came, and very ready for a break.

Over the past four days we have helped with a number of tasks, some of which were backbreaking and others quite lovely. One day we took down a fence that was not only partially covered in barbed wire, but bordered a steep, raspberry-brambled slope (backbreaking). Another day, in the late-afternoon sun, we gathered wildflowers to dry for tea (lovely). Today we helped plant a vineyard. Sounds romantic, I know, but did large amounts of mud, manure, and rain ever factor into your vision of Italian wine production? My jeans and gumboots can attest to the fact that cow poop is in fact a very important part of the process.

On our very first day, Emily and Suzie generously allowed me the opportunity to stay back at the house and help two of our hosts make bread, pizza, cookies, and cakes in their wood-burning oven. Not only was it all organic, but the flour was freshly ground from grains they grew themselves. The honey we put on the bread? From their bees. The jam on our morning toast? From red-currants picked on the property. This work, in addition to the orchard, garden, animals, chestnut forest, and plans for cereal/legume/vine cultivation, amounts to a truly astonishing amount of labour for these farmers; I finished each day utterly exhausted, famished, and wondering how they manage to live this as a full-time life.

Aside from my general appreciation for small-producers, my language skills have also been growing. I am not even close to successfully carrying on a conversation, but some of my second-language nerves have been calmed and I’m bolder in my attempts to communicate. What comes out of my mouth is often neither English nor Italian, but sometimes it manages to be the latter and therefore I feel somewhat better about myself. I can string together basic sentences and understand what is being said to me, so long as I’m spoken to as if I'm a voice-activated telephone directory.

The learning process is not without its constant failures, of course. The other day, while looking at the shelf of cookbooks, Suzie and I accidentally translated a book called “Il Cucchiaio Verde” as “The Green Cook.” That evening I said “Sono cucchiaio,” to my hosts, in an attempt to explain that I had cooked for treeplanters. Later in Bologna, we discovered that cucchiaio does not mean cook, but spoon. I had told them “I am spoon.” Because all nouns in Italian are gendered and I had lazily dropped the definite article, what I had really said was “I am male spoon,” followed by “por albero” in a failed attempt to relay the concept of a treeplanter. So there you have it:

“I am male spoon for tree.”

Improved communication skills indeed.

The Farm, by Emily.

Emily's awesome shot of the preserves pantry.

Gumboots, muddy gumboots.