Saturday, January 31, 2009

Three Times and It Is Over

Over a small meal in a little trattoria near Sant’Ambrogio square my Tuscan male friend unconsciously admitted his dating rule — “third date, no sex, you’re out.”

He and I always have honest conversation, but sometimes I think he forgets that I am a woman and I cannot always handle what men really think and do.

With my friend it is easy to speak frankly as adults and I can tell him when I have had more than I can handle. I do treasure being let in on the male rules of dating.

This evening, we dominated the restaurant with our sex and gender chatter. There was one lonely man in the corner, occasionally grunting for no reason and old man sitting at a table diagonal from my friend’s back. They either listened to us with curiosity or annoyance.

We are both single so when we meet, we exchange a brief rundown of our love life. Tonight was his turn to divulge. He said something, which I cannot remember now, that prompted me to ask this: “You would stop dating a girl if she didn’t sleep with you by the third date?”

His immediate response was “yes.”

My mouth dropped. Seeing my reaction and realizing what he just said, he began to change his answer. But I begged him to stick with the truth.

“Unless there is some reason, like if she does not believe in sex before marriage or something, I would not, but otherwise . . .”

But otherwise she gets the ax. He explained that if there is nothing deep between him and her, than there is only sex, and if there is no sex, there is no point. So much for getting to know someone.

In Florence, where tourists and students from all over the world arrive with an idealistic image of the “Latin Lover,” and do things they would not normally consider while slaving over their corporate job or studies back home, the Italian men have an international buffet of one-stands and short term flings.

My outlook on the city is completely different now that I live here compared to how I viewed the city in 2007 during my four-month study. I was more open to meeting people and men. I think twice about whom I date, and try to weed out the ones who are only looking for play now that I live here.

When I heard this rule, many men flashed through my mind and I tried to remember what happened on all my third dates.

I felt like Sally in “When Harry Met Sally,” when she learned over lunch that Harry used the excuse that he had to clean his andirons to make an escape from women’s beds. I jokingly told him that now that I have this information if we ever dated I will wait well past the third date, that is if he wouldn’t dump me first.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tacos and Cheese

My friend Lorenzo often cooks me dinner since we live nearby each other and are working on project together. When he invites me over for dinner I already know what the meal will be. Without a doubt it is always pasta; pasta with pesto, pasta with ragu. Once he mixed it up and boiled some ravioli.

I am not putting this noodle down. Comparable to a chameleon, it can transform into fantastic shapes and sizes. But no matter what you put on it, it is still pasta.

As a girl that comes from a country that is raging a war against carbs, eating the staple of the motherland each day and sometimes twice a day, is a “no-no.” Not to mention my behinds worst nightmare. But of course, I cannot explain that to Lorenzo.

So when he invited me over for dinner tonight, I just kept thinking about how long it has been since I have had something with beef in it and how many miles I would have to walk to work off this meal.

I sat at the white marble table that he always sets before my arrival. There were more than white plates and clear glasses. A bright yellow packet of taco seasoning lay all by its lonesome on the table. I almost died.

I have not seen taco seasoning for over half-a-year. My mind went racing. If he has taco seasoning then that means I have not been shopping in the right isles at the local Coop.

“Where did you get this,” I asked.

He bought it when he went to the States. Okay, so I may have to put taco seasoning on my list of “things to send me.” I was a bit disappointed. But then my frown turned into joy when he said “I am making tacos for dinner.”

I had a real American dinner. There was salsa and chips and cheese. Granted the cheese was real (it was mozzarella), but just the same. He warmed tortillas in the microwave and served me Coke. I normally do not drink soda, but did in honor of this special meal. There was a lacking of sour cream, since it does not exist in Italy, but nonetheless I was a happy girl when I filled my tortilla with the spicy beef.

While we ate our soft shell tacos, I confessed that I was getting sick of eating pasta everyday.

"But there are so many different kinds," he said

I love pasta, and I appreciate and enjoy that he cooks it for me. Moreover I love the fact that I do not even have to pick up a dish when the meal is through. What I do not understand is how someone could look forward to eating cooked noodles for at least one meal of each day of the week.

I know the Tuscans reading this are "tsk tsk"-ing but sometimes the body needs some bad food. And today my body's craving was completely satisfied.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Where are the “mazzo di fiori, cioccolati e ceni” said my friend Antonio when I sought him for advice on how to handle D.

“This is what a man does when he is in love or cares for you, he brings you flowers, buys you chocolate and cooks you dinner.” Antonio was trying to make me see that I deserve the best and should look at all my male relationships using my head not my heart.

He saw why I thought it selfish for someone to contact me after three months of silence. My life, my friendships and my heart do operate with a swinging door. People cannot just decide to enter and leave when they find it convenient. Seeing someone on their terms, when they find it comfortable is not fair.

I do not like when someone dictates to me how things are going to be — in all aspects of my life. If someone sees me as a bother, and makes it clear they want to be left alone, then I will leave them alone. As I did in this situation.

So when I responded to him, I told him that I was not that happy to hear from him, because the past was still fresh, but since he was leaving I would see him.

And once again he took the cowardly route and declined. But it did not go unnoticed that he declined kindly with grace and indicated that it was in my best interest not to see him. What a gentleman. Nothing makes a woman happier then when a man tells her what’s best for her.

Of course Yelena had a response for him.

“You know what I would tell him, you should think twice before you decide to disturb someone.”

But this time I did not follow her advice.

Insignificance, inconsistency, and irresponsibility do not deserve a response.

Where are the men that do not accept no for an answer, that have courage, that recognize a good thing, that own up when they make a mistake, that take risks, that leap?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Passing on the ABCs

For a foreigner who comes here without any contacts, friends or family to support them financially, Florence — a city where its locals survive by personal networks, kinship and inheritance — can pull everything out of person, especially those who only have themselves to rely on, in order to make some money.

In order to avoid complete poverty I have depended on the one thing that is a natural reflex and an integrated activity of daily life. I have begun teaching English.

Although there is a high demand for the language, whether it is for business or pleasure, it is still difficult to find students who set time aside to study consistently. Then there are those who want English lessons, but do not want pay for it. So they underhandedly invite you to dinner, pushing Italian aside, they slyly insist on making you feel at home by only speaking their second language.

Presently I have four students, two of which are 7 years old, that more or less meet with me on a weekly basis.

When I first visited the home of child a., I could hear curious whispers in anticipation to meet me while I walked up the stairwell. Upon meeting her, she looked at me with questioning eyes and had a hint of embarrassment to greet me with a “hello.” At the same time, there was a sense of excitement, to have a special visitor in the home.

It was so odd, to see a youngster looking up at me, eagerly waiting for me to properly instruct her. It is scary yet thrilling at the same time to have someone interested in me, my culture, language and habits.

Teaching children is draining because I have to find ways to grab their attention and keep them sitting in their chairs. Or if we are playing, I have to find creative ways to thread in English sentences and phrases.

As much as it is draining, it is also rewarding, because children take risks. Little is needed for them to overcome their embarrassment. They mimic my words without thinking of how they will sound or if they are speaking correctly.

A couple of days ago I had my second lesson with a. and she was already asking me to sing the ABC song. She and I sang together teaching her friend the English alphabet.

Teaching English is worth more than just the pay I receive. It makes me proud to pass on a piece of my heritage to someone who is open to differences and learning.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I caught the tail end of change taking place in the United States today. Busy writing and trying to figure out what bus will take me to and from the inauguration celebration held by Democrats Abroad at New York University, I missed the swearing in and speech of President Obama.

It was raining while I waited for the bus to take me outside the city center to the NYU campus. Since Washington D.C. is six hours behind Italy, I thought I only missed the oath of office.

When I arrived at the address there was a long, straight driveway lined with trees. It was so dark that I was not sure I had the right place. I tiptoed on the gravel trying not to get my boots wet, because that would be the real tragedy of the night — not missing Obama’s speech.

Barely halfway up the seemingly endless drive, two Italians stopped me, one was smoking a hand rolled cigarette. I asked them if I was at NYU, they assured me I had indeed found it. Before I could join the festivities they had to make sure I was on the guest list. I was.

Thankfully I did not have to walk all the way up the driveway, the location of the party was just off the path to my right. As I approached I heard people soulfully belting out a tune.

Inside, I walked around, climbed up the stairs and found the most popular room, the one with the free wine. I was happy to see a friend, who immediately gave me crap, for being late, which I deserved. I missed the whole inauguration. Thankfully he gave me a recap.

I am not a Democrat and I am not completely sure about this “change” everyone is talking about, but as he repeated snippets of Obama’s speech and detailed the event, I felt a flush of pride and emotion. Because history happened today. And because I love my country, the forefathers, and people that struggled and died to make a dream possible.

The more I live in Italy, the more I realize that although the United States is not perfect and the economy has taken a dive, the Americans have a pride and confidence in their government like no other people I have ever met.

The Italians I have met from Tuscany, Milan, Torino and especially Sicily, have this indifference or negativity towards their government and lack belief in possibilities. That is so difficult for me to grasp.

How can one not have pride and joy when a new president takes office? The ceremony itself, to see democracy alive, that someone is putting their hand on the Bible that Lincoln used, gives me chills, regardless if I voted for them or not.

Today in response to Obama’s call for service the Democrats Abroad held a successful blood drive. Cathleen Compton, treasurer of the Florence chapter, assured me that they would continue to support the president and the party platform.

Attendents of the festivities echoed thier support and expectations of the new president.

"To change the way people think, to move humanity towards oneness," said Dianne Carriker (pictured above) who has been living in Florence for 35 years.

Like others who are determined Obama will rebuild the global U.S. image, she spoke about the necessity for America to be united with the rest of the world.

My hesitance towards change aside, I am happy that Americans support each other in Florence and keep our countries spirit alive, by honoring the requests of the president.

As for this change everyone is talking about — only time will tell.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Just Add Water

I have the privilege of indulging in customary, simple yet flavorful dishes prepared by the chef and sommelier of the agriturismo Castello Di Fulignano, Francesco Materozzi, because his daughter is my roommate.

At times our refrigerator becomes unexpectedly stocked with containers holding his edible creations. I never complain, only happily eat. I admit I do not always know the formal name of the concoctions, although I can pick out the ingredients. I do know that everything I have eaten that has been made by him is delicious.

After we picked olives together in November, he made steak that was grilled over a little fireplace inside his cozy home. Just that image, of him placing steaks on top of a real flame, not one sparked by the clicking of a stove, makes me want to return to his table.

Today I interviewed him for a newspaper that I am currently creating. Although I have not yet written the article for the paper, I wanted to share one of the two recipes he made me, both of which he cooked not in olive oil, not in butter nor animal fat, but water.

Sporting a merlot-colored apron, he laid out all the ingredients on the counter, and the historical background on the dish. I sat eagerly watching him cook and listening to his culinary advice.

Acqua Cotta is an antique dish that originated in southern Tuscany. Dating back to medieval times, it takes advantage of the optimum vegetables found in the orto, garden, or those that are in season.

He started with an abundant amount cavolo nero (this literally translates to black cabbage, it is a type of collard green) stripping out with his hands the hardest part, the stem. After cutting into large pieces, he placed it into a flat pan with more than enough cold water to sufficiently cover the bottom and then some. That was placed over medium heat.

Next he added about three chopped celery stalks stripping of the harder strings with a peeler.

“It does not matter how thick each vegetable is cut, it is important that one tastes il profumo (flavor) of each ingredient,” he said.

The vegetables need to keep their form and should not be mushy when eaten. “I like my vegetables crunchy,” he said when described the texture that should be sought for this recipe.

Each ingredient mentioned here was chopped right before going into the pan. Making the dish unique is essential, so the more vegetables one would like to add the better, and there is no rule on how thick each should be cut, but avoid slicing too thin.

To achieve the desired firmness the dish calls for, each ingredient should be added to the pan following the order as seen here or if using other vegetables those, which take longer to cook, are placed in the pan first.

Next he added two carrots, followed by parsley and then red onion. He prefers red onion and also it was used at the time this dish was first created since white onion did not exist in the area.

Basil went in next, but it is possible that the initial recipe may have only called for parsley only; however Materozzi stresses that others adjust the dish to their preferred taste, making it original as he did.

“There are many different versions of this dish, but mine is original, I have personalized it. If you taste one like mine than that person copied me,” he said with pride.

Chosen because they do not bloat the stomach, he added green beans; about eight or nine piccadilly tomatoes or those sold on the vine followed. Although tomatoes are not in season, the farmers that prepared this dish usually conserved tomatoes by hanging them on the wall.

As he cut the tomatoes directly into the pan, periodically checking to ensure there is enough water to cook all the newly added ingredients, he reminded me that the dish was originally made during a time when knives did not exist.

He then added four peeled, small potatoes, two pieces of garlic, and then about two sliced zucchini (after removing the soft middle part). Just before he added the salt, he had a taste test.

Tasting it before adding salt, one can recognize if the flavors are distinct and harmonizing into one. He added an amount of salt that is dependent on the taste test.

He then added two homemade spices, peperoncino sotto olio (hot peppers conserved in olive oil) and whole dried oregano.

“There are two more ingredients to be added, but they are a surprise,” he teased me.

He stirred all the ingredients, checked the water and let the dish cook covered for about another 15 to twenty minutes, and eyed the firmness of the vegetables every so often.

He told me that the dishes he was preparing for me are piatti poveri, dishes that were cooked and eaten by the poor, probably farmers. They cooked with what vegetables they had on hand at the time.

One thing I learned during this conversation, was that cooking was about having fun and making a dish your own while staying true to the base of the recipe: Cooking in water, using quality ingredients, keeping the vegetables crunchy and or firm, while maintaining their inherent flavor.

Without me noticing, he shut off the gas and let the mixture cool just a bit. He then added the two ingredients, which added to the heartiness of the plate, golden brown bread cubes and tiny pieces of aged pecorino cheese.

The bread cubes were made from bread that was sitting for about two days, he then toasted them with olive oil and rosemary. The pecorino cheese can be substituted, but this was the cheese that was available when the recipe was born.

Finally dinner was served. He dribbled olive oil, which was made from olives that I picked, over the melody of colors that steamed in my bowl.

A light sweet spumante brute bubbled in my glass while he excitedly waited for my reaction. It was tasty with a bite of hotness or sharpness at unexpected moments that accentuated the pureness of each vegetable.

A balance of diverse flavors that combined to defy sogginess, and exemplify nourishment. Satisfying and simple, it could be a companion to il primo piatto or serve as hearty meal on any winter day.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Catching Thoughts

Yesterday afternoon as I briskly walked from the city center to my apartment a thought about D. floated into my head.

“I’m going to hear from him. I don’t know when, but I know it will be soon and when I least expect it.”

The last time I had a thought like this, was when I was getting over the Albanian. At that time I was angry because I felt that he was creeping into my head because he was not letting me go, and he was thinking of me. Several days later I heard from him.

This time the thought about D. quickly floated out of my head. I did not dwell on it and I was not even thinking about him after.

When I arrived home I decided to chill. I caught up on some shows via the Web. I snuggled under a down-feathered blanket and propped my laptop on my belly so that I could rest while watching.

In between a download, I refreshed my e-mail page. There it was. Under the “from” was his full name. It was so unexpected that I had to blink before I believed it.

I did not know what to do. I wanted to read it, but then I did not want to read. So I did what I did the last time I received messages from an ex who angrily swore he had no feelings for me, fell of the face of the earth (basically in my mind he was dead), and then suddenly came back to life — I called my Russian friend in NYC, Yelena.

Yelena always keeps it real. She has a deep intuition and feeling about people and life, and her cynicism brings my head out of the clouds, yet she shares my hope and faith in love. Her life guidelines usually begin with “In my country we have a saying . . . ”

Whenever a married man shows a slight interest in me she says “ . . . a wife is like a wall, she can be moved.”

Whenever I talk about finding someone she says “ . . . it is important that two people are looking in the same direction, not into each others eyes.”

After the beach trip with D. she told me things that I did not want to hear, but I knew she was right. “He is not free Natalie. Let him go.”

And I did. But every time I cancel him, he comes back.

I told her how I thought about him for a second today.

“You know feelings and thoughts flow, so you caught his thought,” she said.

We read the message.

My first reaction to the letter was anger. I do not believe in keeping in touch with an ex, especially if I was emotionally involved with the person.

“What the fuck is this, now that he is leaving Florence, he wants to see me. Where has he been for the past three months,” I cried to Yelena.

“It is like he has something to close with you. You have closed things, but maybe he has not,” she said. “Don’t cry. Did I tell you that my belly dance teacher died?”

She always tells me that her 80-year-old dance instructor — who looked 50 and danced like a star — passed away at the worst possible time. It never fits into the conversation, so hearing it always makes me laugh through my tears.

The tone of the letter was friendly. “We are not friends, why is he writing like we are friends,” I asked her for clarity.

“He is trying to be breezy. What are you going to do? You do not have to meet him.” Then there was silence that Yelena broke with a sharp judgment.

“What a fucking idiot.”

She continued on with her advice. “What is he going to tell you, that now that he is leaving he has feelings for you, like what are you going to do with these words,” she said in here signature Russian accent.

“You know I cannot, not see him and we do not know what he wants or what he is going to say,” I said

“Why. Why do you have to see him?”

Even though she pushed me to think about it, I knew I did not have to explain why I would eventually have to respond and meet him.

I am angry and upset that he did not just leave. I was happy not knowing anything about him or his life. I also feel that he is just writing me so that he can leave Florence on good terms.

I feel that when men act this way it is selfish. They should let a woman move on. But I know I will have to write him back soon, and I know I will have to see him. I am just too upset to write him back now.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Taking the Fast Train

Around and around and around we drove circling the Milano Centrale railway station trying to find a parking spot. I honestly just wanted to go. After spending two weeks in Milan I was done. My time spent there was up.

My cousins wanted to accompany me to the train. Being that I have traveled to and from Spain, Albania, DR and other countries by myself I really did not see the importance in having a send off. I can carry my bags, I can find my seat, and I can definitely find my way back to my apartment in Fi, which I was sure remained in the state I left it — cold and vacant.

At last, a spot opened up. One cousin stayed in the car and my host Nuccia rushed with me as I stepped on the new moving walkways that zigzag to the giant hall.

Covered by an arched roof I always walk with my head high in the hall. Nostalgia takes over. Worldliness and importance shuffle past me in their Gucci suites, exaggerated fashion bags, high heals and leather. Times like this I miss NYC and my corporate job that afforded designer jeans and gorgeous shoes.

Nuccia climbed onto the car with me and we said our goodbyes. I used to take time in saying goodbye to people, but lately it has become a habit. I am always coming and going, meeting and leaving friends so much so that departing has become tiresome. Physically and mentally draining.

Apart from my personal exhaustion from parting, there is something romantic about saying goodbye on the train. There used to be excitement in taking someone to the airport, only leaving until after seeing their plane take off. But in post September 11th, those days are gone.

Only at the train station can that dreamy, steamy goodbye exist. Unless Humphrey Bogart has arranged for your own private plane to escape from the Nazis, no one can say goodbye or catch a loved one at the gate. Trains make the goodbye personal and final. You see the person leave. And the person leaving can look out their window and wave adieu to their loved one. There is worth in that. For this trains are in.

Now that a fast train can carry me to and from Florence and Milan in about two hours, I hope to be traveling to one of the world’s fashion capitals more, and will put my personal issues with “farewell” aside and insist that I find my train on my own less.