Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Driving in Italy, LEGALLY NOW!

I've been afraid to say anything specific, but this afternoon I had my driving test...the practical, road test. Over the last few weeks I have taken a total of ten driving lessons. Why, some of you ask, since I've been driving in N.Y. for more than 25 years? Well, first, Italy does not have a reciprocal agreement with N. Y. State, so therefore after one year of residence here and driving on an International Licence, I had to get an Italian license as if I were a brand new driver and then take a road test...on a manual transmission. Why? Because the car in which you take your road test must be dual control and stick shift is the only kind there is around here (I heard a rumor that I could have taken it on an automatic dual control ROME! Talk about CRAZY drivers and traffic, no thanks!!!).

First I had to study for the theory test. I agree this was a good idea as some of the rules and signs here did have me mystified. The theory test consists of ten "situations"...they could be signs, intersections or situations. Each is followed by three statements which you have to mark T/F. They can all be true or all false or any combination, so there are really 30 questions. As a foreigner who "cannot read Italian well" I was eligible to take the test orally (though this is due to change around here on July 1 when it will be offered in several languages and no more oral exams allowed). I found the "who has the right-of-way" questions particularly amusing. Many of them had 5-street intersections, no stop signs, a tram passing through the middle, etc. Quite entertaining figuring out who goes first! In any case there were a couple of good online study sites that really helped (Web Patente and Scuola Guida).

Well, after passing the theory exam I started taking driving lessons. Driving a stick shift terrified me (I was frightened it would stall in an intersection and buck as I drove down the road) but it wasn't all that bad. Once I learned I could "ride the clutch" a bit (and in fact SHOULD when I was taking off in first gear on a hill) I relaxed a bit.

After ten lessons spread out over a month they made an appointment for my driving test. The actual test was soooo easy. I pulled away from the curb (on the only level piece of pavement in the whole town), put the car in second, then third, then pulled over on a straight piece of roadway. OVER. What? No 3-point turns, no parellel parking, no downshifting even? Nope.

15 minutes later I had my Italian license in hand Auguri Diane!! I drank half a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and Pio went down to pay the 650 Euros (approximately $1012. US dollars!) which was what we owed the driving school. Mammamia!
The cost breaks down to 500 Euros for the license and 15 Euros each for 10 driving lessons. The licence cost included all the paperwork, preparing me for the theory exam, accompaning me there, and use of their car for the road test, which is a must. If you don't take the license through a school you must rent a dual-control car and instructor for the test (the examiner rides in the back seat). It's probably money well-spent as they practically guarantee you that you'll pass and there's no waiting on lines (they do that for you)!

Pio's kindergarten picture found

Last year some teachers collaborated with old-timers and local historians to put together a book about the history of our little village. In it were many old photos that people unearthed in dresser drawers and attics. One was Pio's nursery school (asilo) class picture, and now they've given us a copy. Dante found it fascinating that 1) his father was ever little and 2) his father didn't always have gray hair and 3) it was taken in front of the church (window, door recognizable) which still stands (half a century later) on the piazza (of course).


So, we had a snake--garden variety?--hanging out near the rear foundation of the house this weekend. A few older Italians suggested we kill it, but why? He was outside, after all, and if he can't live in peace there, where can s/he? Maybe it will keep the mice away until we get a cat. (Our neighbor has a kitten all ready for us when we get back from NY in mid-July. ) This one was about 3 feet (a meter) in length and a little thicker than my thumb.
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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Peonies in bloom!

This post is a little late, but I hadn't revived the blog yet when we actually did this, last month, and I love the photos!

Dante was off from school on Friday, April 25th (Liberation Day to celebrate the end of WWII in Italy, 1945) so we were looking for something to do. I'd been getting occasional emails from a garden park urging people to visit as they were only open to the public in April and May.

We decided to take advantage of the nice weather and Dante's day off (therefore we wouldn't have to hurry to get home by 1 pick him up from school) to go to Centro Botanico Moutan outside Viterbo. Viterbo is to the north of Rome, and we're to the south, so it wasn't exactly around the corner...but it was worth it!

The Centro Botanico Moutan is the most important and largest Chinese Peony collection in all the world--and it's privately owned. One well-to-do peony fanatic started it in the late 1980's. It's peony heaven! Unfortunately you're not allowed to wander around just admiring (people were breaking off flowers and pulling plants up by the roots we were told) so you must wait for a small group to gather so that you can take a tour. The tour doesn't take that long, maybe a half hour or so, then there's time to shop at the store which sells peony spa products or the peony plant shed, which is where the tours begin and end.

As much as I was tempted, I didn't buy any, as our garden beds weren't ready and I also thought it would suffer in the hot car while we went to eat lunch and drove home. But I will buy a bare root plant through mail order (yes, mail order in Italy!) which I'll plant this winter. Now to decide which one. I have to say...they were all beautiful! (If you live in Italy, click on the Centro Botanico hyperlink above and request a catalog. Prepare to be wowed.)

Italian Boy Scouts and the Abbey of Trisulti

On Sunday Dante spent the day on a field trip with his Italian Boy Scout group. They usually go out on a "caccia" (hunt--though there's no hunting!) once a month. This time they went to Trisulti.

Trisulti is a Benedictine Abbey about 30 minutes from us, up into the higher mountains. It was built in the 1200's but restructured in the 1700's. One of my favorite things to do there is visit the little store just inside the entrance where they sell their products. The Cistercian monks use traditional methods to make special honey, jams, liqueurs and medicine herbal bitters. I've read that their brandy and Sambuca are produced using recipes that are among the most ancient in all of Italy. I bought their honey and eucalyptus throat lozenges (1 Euro a bag)as I'm sick, but I wish I had bought a bottle of their "imperial drops". It is said that just a couple of drops can cure the flu. Good to keep a bottle in the medicine cabinet I say. Next time, for sure. They also have made a museum of their original pharmacy which is worth a visit, and outside the entrance to the church there's a large sundial on the wall--which really works!

If you should visit and drive up from Frosinone or Veroli, you'll pass a little restaurant on the left, about 5 minutes before you arrive at Trisulti. It's called Ristorante Capofiume (0775-476004). It's a fairly rustic place with a little garden and a short walk down to a beautiful little river. It's often crowded on weekends, so go during the week or call ahead! The food is typical of the area, delicious and reasonably priced.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Seeing red...

And I don't mean my roses!

Dante came home from school yesterday (Friday) with tears in his eyes. Usually he's very happy, so I knew something was up. He was upset because his teacher had written lots of words in English on the board (the colors, the days of the week, common nouns) and had told the students to write them in alphabetical order on a worksheet.

Copying from the board has always taken Dante a little longer than the others, the subject doesn't matter. He chose to not make a scrap copy of the words, but instead chose to write them directly from the board onto the worksheet. It was hard for him because he didnt have the ability to cross off the ones he had used already. As a result, he was the last one finished and the English teacher's 30 minute lesson for the day was over.

What got my blood boiling was the teacher said to him that "all the others write better than you in English" and "don't you do anything for the hour that you study with your mother every week?"

I went into school this morning ready to do battle with this teacher!! How dare she humiliate him in front of all his classmates in the one subject he shines in! Insulting me also that we weren't doing anything! Was she just trying to make herself look better at Dante's expense? Was she angry that we took an hour per week out of her class time and was trying to say: well, if you can't write English don't blame me?

And besides, what did copying words fromt he board and putting them in alphabetical order have to do with WRITING except at the most simplistic level? As anyone familiar with writing in English knows, it takes years of reading regularly, weekly spelling lists spelling patterns and PRACTICE to get proficient. It's not like phonetic Italian, which the kids learn to read and write fairly well within six months!

When I saw the teacher I said I wanted to make an appointment to speak with her. She came to the door to speak with me as she explained she has no office hours as she works in three schools. What she did explain is that it was ANOTHER teacher who came on very severe with him. Now that teacher won't be in until Monday. Just as well. I'll cool down a bit, but I will speak my
MORAL: When life has you seeing red, make strawberry frozen yogurt! (I am, again!)

Friday, May 16, 2008

A great year for roses!

So, I should be taking a driving lesson, or at least weeding a new patch of garden, but instead I'm thinking about how beautiful the roses are this year. Not just mine, but everyone's. In New York I always dealt with aphids and black spot, but here I've done nothing and look how beautful my little rose bush is! I'm thinking of going around with my camera (driving my automatic car and NOT the stick shift which I should be practicing on) and taking pictures of all the roses. Most of them have been in the ground for years, so they're gigantic and covered with color: pink, white, red, yellow. It's a great year for roses here in central Italy!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day! (Auguri alle Mamme!)

Dante recites his Mother's Day poesia to Mamma (that's me!).
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Making ice cream in the land of gelato!

So why am I sitting home making ice cream when I live in Italy, where great gelato is just a hop skip and a jump away? Because Pio picked up a Disney brand electric ice cream maker last Christmas from the local gasoline station, that's why! (He paid with gasoline credit card points and a little bit of cash.)

I had my doubts as to how it would work (it sits on big red Micky Mouse-ish feet...) but since local strawberries are being sold by the case at the local fruit store, I decided to make some frozen strawberry yogurt (with Fage Total Greek Yogurt--much richer than the usual whole milk yogurt). I found the recipe in my favorite ice cream cookbook, Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments by David Lebovitz, but it's also on his website.

Cutting up the strawberries and letting them sit for a while mixed up with some sugar intensifies their color and flavor. Nothing artificial, yet a pink any little girl would love!

And then I made my other most favorite flavor, chocolate! It's rich and creamy, which comes from using quality chocolate-- and five egg yolks! What to do with all those egg whites? Well, I'm not really an "egg white omelet" kind of gal, oh no, so I made the Meringue Nests (small crunchy marshmallow plates you can eat). So good I almost forgot to take a picture!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Death in Rural Italy

Last Sunday morning, 6:30 a.m., my beloved mother-in-law Lucia, passed away from a heart attack. While she was 85 and diabetic, like most deaths it was unexpected.

The women who lived in the neighboring houses came over when they heard the ambulance silently pull out of the driveway. They cried, then searched her closets to dress her in her best clothes: the outfit she wore to recent weddings and her 50th anniversary party more than ten years ago.

The funeral agency arrived and converted her bedroom into a small chapel. Her bed was replaced by an open casket on a stand. The mirrors were covered with tablecloths. A rosary was placed in her folded hands. I was surprised that she was not embalmed, but that is not done around here.

As the word spread through conversation and the manifestos pasted on walls throughout the village, people arrived to pay their respects and offer condolences. Some brought food. Slowly, flower arrangements spilled over into the living room.

On Monday morning my husband's sister, as well as his brother and wife, arrived from New York. More neighbors and local relatives visited, all day long and well into the night. On Monday evening the casket was sealed.

On Tuesday morning the rosary was said around the casket, then everyone walked behind the hearse and an open truck full of the flowers, as they drove to the local church where a funeral mass was said. Everyone who knew her or knew us was there. The casket was sprinkled with holy water and incense filled the air, then people offered their condolences once again as they left the church. A group of mourners once again walked behind the hearse as it wove down to the main street and made the turn to go up to the cemetary. From the turn we carpooled, a short ride up to Veroli.

Cemetaries in this part of Italy are above ground, in structures that have up to six levels. The casket was placed in a vault in the newest section, then sealed with bricks and cement and a marble door. Eventually her picture will be affixed as well as her dates of birth and death.

Lucia's passing has left a hole in our hearts. Very opinionated, and never shy to express them, she was at the same time generous to me, the daughter-in-law, living in a strange new land. She always sent me sauce, fresh eggs, jarred tomoatoes, vegetables and fruit from her garden. She made her little grandson happy with her generosity. Who else would slip him coins every morning when he headed off to first grade (and then he'd give away the "1 Euro" coins and keep the .20 and .50 because they must be worth much more)? Who else will hand over a 50 Euro bill so he can celebrate Christmas, his birthday, or the festa of the Madonna del Giglio? Who else will sit with me and have a cup of tea after Sunday lunch?

Lucia, you are missed. Rest in Peace.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

My worst fear came true...

Well, when I filled my canisters I hesitated before putting both sugar and fine salt in identical containers, but I thought as long as I was careful and didn't mix up the tops I'd be fine. Yesterday, while making pumpkin bread I apparently did just that.

Towards the end of its prescribed cooking time, I checked on it and broke off a large crumb that hung over the edge of the loaf pan... and almost gagged! It was AWFUL and I realized that I had put a cup of salt instead of sugar in it. I reluctantly threw it into the garbage, disappointed, especially because it still smelled pretty good.

Today I'll make a favorite, an olive oil cake. you only dirty two bowl s & a whisk and it always turns out moist and stays that way for days. The recipe comes from The Improvisational Cook, by Sally Schneider. It's a variation of her brown sugar lightning cake. The only changes you make is to substitue 1/2 cup olive oil for the melted butter, and instead of vanilla and bourbon flavoring the batter, you use 1 teaspoon each of lemon and orange zest and chopped fresh thyme (optional). Trust me, it's great, especially with a cup of tea in the afternoon!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Gardens, continued

I did mention we've been busy in the gardens...and this weekend is the big festa in our town (fireworks and everything), including a market which will have lots of plants for sale. Can't wait! I need hanging geraniums for the boxes on the terrace and D. wants plants for his own little garden he started this week.

Over the last two weeks we've planted 40 lavender plants (think I need to learn to make soap or at least sachets!), a cactus garden (out by the front gate, far from the water hose) and agrumi--which means citrus: mandarins, clementines, lemons. Also snuck a peach in and still want an apricot and pomegranate.

This morning on our walk a lady gave me 25 tiny baby seedlings. Each one promises to grown into a small round green bush that will turn red in the autumn, then self-seed before dying with the winter. No one seems to the know the name. I have the little ones each in their own "bassinet" (flowerpot) and all together in the "baby carriage" (wheel barrow) so I can move them around with the shade now that they're kind of wilty looking. They like the shade anyway, and I'll eventually plant them in the flower box they are building out by my front door, this weekend, maybe!

Time to revive this blog!

I've decided that WAAAAAAAY too much time has gone by since my last post! I was busy (ahem). Last summer we spent about 8 weeks in NY. I initially thought we'd need all that time to change Real Estate agents or find renters for our house in Suffolk County, but on our third day there we got a solid offer so we really could have come back sooner, but didn't want to spend the money to change the tickets!

In the fall I attended a CELTA training course to get updated on all the new methods and materials for teaching English as a foreign language. That course was two days a week in Rome. Aside from leaving my house at 6:15 a.m. in order to arrive on time, it was a great experience. Now I just need a job! I'm looking now to line up something for September/October, part-time, two or three days a week.

My friend G. has been helping me a lot to get my gardens in shape around the house. I have wildflowers and weeds galore! Little by little we are taming the beds nearest to the house.

Last week one of my cactus' bloomed! It was a spectacular sight. G. says if I plant it in the ground it will get quite big, so we did. In fact with plants she donated from her own garden we planted a section out by my front gate(and far from my water hose) of plants that like it dry and hot! Little by little...