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come right in, take your shoes off, have a glass of wine....

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Digesting Italy

There's nothing sacred anymore. All things personal are no longer personal. Watch TV for 10 minutes and all manner of advertising for "personal care" will bombard you - from the pills that help men think they're 18 again to discreet adult drollies. Jamie Lee Curtis has gone from being known as "the Body" to "the Activia lady". She actually guarantees that you will have spectacular bowel results in two weeks or she will come to your house and help. Well, maybe not. There are so many bran cereals claiming to make you poop, it makes my head spin. Not to mention other parts.

I shall assume that you are now saying, "What does the state of the digestive tract have to do with Italy?.... and do I really want to know?" My answers: everything. And, yes.

Italians spend a huge amount of time thinking about digestion, or more appropriately, indigestion. If you have experienced dinner in Italy, which can offer seven courses and go on for hours, you undoubtedly were offered a pre-dinner drink known as an apertivo. Italians believe that drinking an apertivo, such as Campari and soda "opens the stomach". If you sidestep the drink and immediately dive into your antipasto, followed by pasta and grilled fish, insalada, cheese, and, of course "dolce" (dessert) without first awakening the GI tract, you are absolutely asking for trouble.

However, when digestive trouble occurs, Italians have a fool-proof remedy and it does not involve yogurt or bran. It is called "mangiare bianco", which means "eating white". Their diet becomes a strict regimen of food that's some shade of white.... chicken, pasta in cream sauce, rice, etc. If it's white, it's right.

Besides the use of the apertivo, Italians also believe you can avoid needing the special white diet by imbibing in a drink at the other end of the meal. This drink is known as the "digestivo". Bottles of these plant and herb-based liquors appear at the conclusion of heavy meals to assist the gastric process. The belief is in the make-up of the liquors, which are based in the restorative properties of mint, myrrh, artichokes, and aloe. Most "digestivi" are distilled and because the herbs are mostly "amaro" (bitter), they taste simply awful. In my opinion, the taste is something close to the way kerosene smells. These concoctions usually have a very high sugar level, which is necessary to make them more palatable. In my quest to find that one tasty digestivo, up to this point in time, I remain unsuccessful.

"Grappa" is another popular digestivo. It is made in stills and comes from grape skins, seeds, and any remaining juices left over from wine production. The debate among Italians involves which drink is more effective - amari or grappa. The main argument from the pro-grappa camp is that amari is full of sugar, which renders the potion ineffective. The amari fans claim their drink is better due to the herbs.

One amari drink that I tried is called, "Sambuca". Its made from anise and is quite popular. The reason I ordered it was not only as part of the above-mentioned quest, and in the interest of my sluggish digestive system (jet lag can have strange effects) but because it was so pretty.

The Italians call this drink "Sambuca, ghiaccio e mosche" (Sambuca, ice and flies). It didn't look quite so appetizing after I heard "flies" and I couldn't get a satisfactory explanation as to why that term was applied to the floating coffee beans. However, this digestivo wasn't as bad as the others....as long as I constantly chewed a coffee bean while sipping it. And, as always, there's a story - the reason there should only be three floating coffee beans is because this number represents health, happiness, and prosperity. Which must all come from having good digestion.

Regardless of the opinions and arguments, I think the reason these drinks help the digestive process is because they are all high-proof liquor. Italian moonshine. The smell alone could wake the dead. The liquid heat upon swallowing is so intense, it is felt all the way down. Literally.

(Drinking grappa also makes you make funny faces.) My theory for why grappa works so well is this: after ingesting the digestivo, it creates a small blaze in the stomach, which consumes all the food. Then the GI tract has nothing to worry about. Travelers hint: always carry chewable Rolaids.

I am returning to the land I love in less than two weeks and my quest for a tasty digestivo will continue. My Italian friends are convinced that, with their help, I will find the digestivo of my dreams. And I will discreetly report my personal results.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Got Milk?

Sometimes there is just too many good things about Tuscany. Things that make you go AHHH or OHHH. When driving around on all those crazy, winding, skinny little roads you never know what might be responsible for making you utter (or in this case, udder) a "I'm astounded" sound.

Admittedly, there are the predictable awesome (and, by the way, it really irritates me that the current youth population uses this wonderful word to describe something as idiotic as a new tshirt or some unusual body piercing. The definition of the word is meant to be applied to the likes of Michelangelo's "David"....truly awesome) landscape scenes, the picturesque hill top villages, the vineyards... there are hundreds of moments which can produce guttural-inducing sounds.

There is also the unpredictable moments of astonishment. Those I-never-expected-this" moments. But this is Italy and, bottom line, at this point in my relationship with the country I love and lust after, I am never really surprised anymore. Amused perhaps is the better descriptive word.

Amusement is what is felt when rounding the corner on a very small country road out in the middle of nowhere and being blinded by a brightly colored sign, "Distributore Automatico" - Latte Fresco".... and added in English, "Fresh Milk".

What's this? An automatic fresh milk dispensing machine? In the middle of the Tuscan hills? Okay, so I was a bit more than amused. I was surprised. But not awed.

Yes, it was a milk machine.... in the land of wine. Yes, those enterprising Italians never miss an opportunity to serve their fellow man or woman, even kids in this case. And to make a few denari.

The blinding sign with the arrow pointing directions sits beside a lane leading to a farm (there is also a life-sized plastic cow to attract your attention) and to the structure protecting the dispensing machines. Put a few coins in the first machine and select a plastic or glass bottle. Next machine renders the incredibly fresh cold milk. Unpasteurized to boot! (There have been no noticeable side effects reported so far.)

The friendly farmer was asked whether the milk hoses were connected directly to the cows. He answered, smiling,"Sfortunatamente no, ma li sto insegnando a mungersi da sole." ("Unfortunately not, but I am teaching them to milk themselves.")

What's not to love about this awe-inspiring country? Now, if they will add "Distributore Automatico - VINO", that would be awesome.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tuscany: Wanting It All

Tuscany...... ahhhhhhhh.

The word alone evokes images of lush, swelling countryside....beautiful hill top villages.... centuries-old "palazzi" with ground floors like prisons and upper stories like lace....old hidden monasteries set deeply into idyllic valleys....medieval villages perched Disney-like on craggy tufa....views that stretch the horizon and the imagination.

As good as it is for me to just be there, to explore and discover, to observe the beauty of the landscape and the people, to eat the nothing-anywhere-like-it food, to drink the orgasmic wine, to immerse myself in the history....I want more.

I think there are lots of travelers who want more. I can't be the only one who wishes they could be transformed into a local. It's not enough to know the language (which I don't) and the customs (which I sort of do). I want to be a participant rather than an observer. If someone would just grant me a wish. Some Italian genie. I would wish that I was Tuscan. Born and bred.

This will probably not happen, of course. No more than my childhood wish, which involved staring down at our garage from my second floor bedroom window, convinced that if I just stared long enough and hard enough, a white pony would be in there.

Wishing aside, I have come up with a way to vicariously become a participant, a local, a Medici-wannabe. I place myself in the middle of a lively piazza in a lively village. Then I spy on the locals in a search for someone who looks interesting and who I could follow around. No hard staring is involved, but I do choose my unwitting guides carefully and I always maintain a discreet distance in my attempts to transform into a Tuscan local. And I must say, this practice has led to places and experiences that generally do not make the guidebooks. So far, I've not been arrested for stalking.

One of my favorite villages is Greve. I really enjoy the Saturday open-air mercato. This market is a huge social gathering for the locals. Plus the vendors offer everything from kitchen gadgets, to fresh produce, to linens, to cheese, to live ducks, to a sandwich made from a slice off a gigantic roasted pig, which rotates on a spit inside a rolling rotisserie.

On one particular Saturday morning, I noticed when the cheese man (his white truck was drawing the biggest crowds) motioned to his helper to take over. It was almost lunch time and as he clomped down the cobble stoned street, I followed him. Discreetly, of course. He ended up at a cafe called, "Enoteca Fuoripiazza". It was filled with locals (I can spot a foreigner from several feet away) and the aroma coming from the kitchen was heavenly. I chose an outdoor table where I spent the next hour enjoying a plate of bruschetta and insalada caprese. With two glasses of wine. Maybe three.

During this lovely pranzo, I could hear the locals talking the talk of daily life. My limited knowledge of the language permitted me to eavesdrop somewhat. There was not a turista in sight. I felt so very Tuscan. I considered dying my blonde hair black. Prima Italiana.

Directly across the very narrow street was a fruit and vegetable shop. An older woman was visiting with the owner about a wedding. They were joined by another woman who had a toddler in a stroller (in Italy so many grandmothers take care of so many grandchildren). The two women talking with the shop owner mentioned getting a gelato for the bambino. I had paid my bill and, upon hearing the word "ice cream", decided they were my next victims.

The gelato shop was waaaay around the back of the piazza buildings. I would not of found it on my own. Once again my sneaky technique worked beautifully because the caffe-flavored gelato was not of this earth.

As I wandered back towards the central market, I rounded a corner and was engulfed in a crowd of people and deafened by the loud, tolling church bells. I was in front of a church and within moments a bride and groom appeared in the doorway, accompanied by cheering from the crowd. Obviously, THIS was the wedding the older women had been discussing! Another victory for the transforming Tuscan!

As I followed the crowd, they arrived at a courtyard, which was set up with festive tables and lots of white bows and frilly decorations. I stood on the sidelines, smiling and enjoying the happiness when someone nudged my elbow. I looked to my left and a lovely lady offered me a glass of prosecco. Maybe, just maybe, she thought I was some long-lost cousin....

I drank the wine, tried to overhear some conversations amongst all the singing and dancing, and came away with the name of the ristorante that the family would be going to that evening to continue the party. Later, I asked my friends if they knew of "Taverna del Guerrino" and they said, "Si!"... and told me it was located in the ancient tiny village of Montefioralle. We decided to go there for dinner that evening. Upon our arrival we could hear the wedding festa, which was being held outside on the back patio. The meal, not to mention the company, was simply divine.

I know if I just keep wishing hard enough this transformation could happen... in stages. No one can convince me that the events in this story happened by chance. It took wishing, a bit of staring, determination, will, and a plan. I intend to continue in my quest.

Maybe I'll try for that pony again, too.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Enchanted TuscanyTours (or "How I Became A Tuscan Tour Guide"

It was September, 1999, when I met Franco Lombardi. My sister, Dede, and I were in Tuscany on a buying trip for her wine shop in Des Moines, Iowa. We had an appointment to meet him at his Chianti olive farm, "Podere Pornanino", which sits out in the middle of all the photos you've ever seen of the Tuscan countryside. Our Italian friends had told us he made very good oil and that's just what we wanted for the wine shop.

I was impressed with Franco as soon as we met. He was the epitome of the Italian man.... he swaggered... he was egotistic, witty, and charming. He was 60 years old, a retired civil engineer who had lived in other countries during his career and, when he retired, he purchased a place in Chianti that just happened to have a few thousand olive trees.

And he was absolutely passionate about making olive oil. His efforts began as a quest to make a good oil for family and friends. That effort has morphed into world wide notoriety. He used the old world method of picking the olives by hand and continues to do so to this day.

That beautiful afternoon, as we sat outside, drank wine, and ate olives, the more I learned about his passion and his goal towards excellence.

That meeting was the start of a beautiful friendship, which led to the start of my tour business. At some point, Franco said, "You enjoy Tuscany so much and seem to know quite a lot about it. Why do you not bring others with you?"

At the time, I was a Director of Nursing, and contrary to previous DON positions, I was actually enjoying this job. However, fate intervened in May of 2001, after receiving a glowing evaluation 3 weeks earlier (a little back-patting here.... I instigated a "customer satisfaction" program that raised all hospital department scores within a 3-month period), I was told my job "was being eliminated". This was not true since a hospital cannot function without a DON. The truth was that the CEO, who I helped hire and who needed dental work, did not want to pay my salary any longer and I, not the job, was being eliminated. In his squinty little eyes, I cost too much.

Regardless of the fact that I was instrumental in saving this hospital from financial ruin and closure. Regardless of the fact that I was the only DON who (there had been 4 in the two years preceding me) could manage a nursing staff made up of a majority of people who had never worked anywhere except in this small rural hospital and who were dead set against any change. The dental-challenged CEO got his comeuppance, however. Eight months after the CEO hired the nurse who I had hired to be my clinical manager.... she left. I don't know if she was fired or just gave up, but she couldn't handle the job. Upon hearing this news, did I feel a bit of smug self satisfaction? You bet, but I digress....

After the shock and anger related to my sudden departure from the hospital wore off - it took about a week - I not only redecorated my kitchen in a Tuscan look (see the article about it in "WomenInc" magazine ("Turning a Wallpapered Kitchen into a Little Bit of Italy", 2007 March Homes Edition, www.womeninc.com - BTW, I am a contributing writer), but the idea of taking fellow travelers to Tuscany became more and more enticing.

I contacted about 20 friends and asked if they would be open to the role of guinea pig for my maiden tour. Several responded with a "SI!", and I took the first five. I had planned on keeping the groups small to preserve the sense of intimacy and fun that I had always enjoyed while dashing about Italy with my sister and others. Small numbers meant that we could do lots of things the big tours could not. To this day, I shutter when I see those huge tour buses or the massive groups of headphone-wearing people waddling through somewhere, following a microphoned guide who is holding a stick up high with a fluffy duck impaled at the top. I knew from the beginning of my venture that there had to be a better way.

I took my lead from Franco Lombardi. I knew from his experience and wisdom that sometimes smaller was better. As long as the product is excellent. The passion came naturally.

Of course, the tours include some "must-do, must-see" touristy things. One cannot, or should not, go to Tuscany without seeing Florence, Siena, San Gimignano.... but there is a way to see these tourist-saturated spots without feeling overwhelmed. It starts with knowing the right people (oohhh, I have a deal you can't refuse.....) and utilizing the expert advise and knowledge they impart regarding what to see, where to go, and what time to do these things.

Guess what? I know the people who not only make the olive oil, but the wine, the leather, the cashmere, the cheese, the food, etc etc etc.... and sometimes I can help get that deal you can't refuse!

Allora... (that means sort of "but, anyway...") I have Franco Lombardi to thank for my tour business. Oh, and I suppose I could thank the mini-toothed CEO, but I won't. Because I know I would have started Enchanted Tuscany Tours at some point in my life anyway. www.enchantedtuscanytours.com

I am defining a life experience by living it. This is one of those dream/success stories that I used to read about. You know that old saying, "find something to do that you just love and get someone to pay you for doing it". Granted, I loved nursing, but sharing Tuscany with others is beyond just having a job. For all people who believe in destiny, I am fairly positive that I lived during the Renaissance. And that I was a Medici. Basically, a Princess. I know this because when I get to Italy, I always know that I'm home.