Sunday, December 9, 2012

Closing up shop and our role in the changing of seasons

In a few days, I’ll be leaving Labro. I'll spend time with my father's side of the family in Latina before I return to Canada on the 15th. In Latina, I’ll have more time to reflect and provide a more detailed update of what I’ve been up to since September (my gosh—three months have passed since my last update). I apologize for the grand absence, but you’ll soon see why I’ve disappeared. And I hope that the photos of SO MUCH TASTY FOOD and breathtaking views will make up for it. I extend much love and warmth to you guys, and I thank you for inspiring me to keep writing. You rock and I am indebted to you.
            Before I get to that extensive update, here are my reflections on my final days in Labro with the magnificent, life-changing, beneficent, and innovative Art Monastery Project. Cheers, carissimi. My fellow Artmonks of past and present, and all of our supporters sprinkled around the world and Universe, this one's for you.

-Vegan in Suburbia / "Piscina"

Photo by Sean Yoro
I spent last month writing 50 000 words in 30 days. It was part of the international insanity trip called NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month, whereby people from all around the world take part in the imaginative, idealistic, and intrinsically insane adventure of penning a literary work in 720 hours). Believe it or not, that requires a lot of typing with little or no chance to self-edit. It was a work of fiction, so it required that I become acquainted with the imagination that has lain dormant for quite some time, that I roll with whatever plot twist my wily mind decided to throw into the ambiance that I had painstakingly created, and that I type, type, type without stopping (it also begged for me to turn contractions into two words in order to increase my word count. Hey, turning all instances of “she’d” into “she had,” for example, afforded me 163 more words—and another hour or two of sleep!).
            So, you would think that writing a blog post to recap the events of the last three months would be transmitted with smooth fluidity from my brain, through my heart, out from my fingertips, and onto the computer screen. I mean, I thought that it’d be that smooth, but I feel that I cannot “just type.” Each memory and thought and event that surfaces begs for me to close my eyes and remember. More so than remember, it begs me to memorize, to feel—to inhale my surroundings and make them become me.
            Two weekends ago, my fellow Artmonks and I took a road trip in search of new opportunities for 2013. We headed south, and we were graced with temperatures that were a few degrees warmer than those that we had left behind in Labro. Our faces were caressed with warm sunlight even as our bodies shivered from the cold; our eyes dazzled by palm trees and vast plains instead of rolling hills; our lips and tongues amused by the sweet nectar of freshly-picked tangerines and persimmons; our hearts expanding and comforted by new, supportive friendships; our souls warmed by the trust shared between us and strangers that have become confidants and supporters.

            Here, in my bedroom in the monastery where I am the sole inhabitant, I turn around and behold the grey sky surrounding the snow-capped mountains, and my heart begs me to remember them. This was my home for six months; I watched the terrain change just as the terrain watched me change. I witnessed the lush emerald foliage turn crispy and yellow as the summer drought overtook the valley and most, if not all, of Italy; I admired the fields of poppies on one day and was reminded to cherish every precious moment—and appreciate when it’s over—when I arrived at that same field the following day and the red-orange beauties had been ploughed; I delighted at the solved mystery of the long thorny branches lining the sides of roads, when they all, within a matter of days, were adorned with a bounty of blackberries—our so-called Blackberry Epidemic.

            One day, we had more figs than we could possibly eat; the next, our fig tree was sick and its leaves fell one by one to the merciful ground. At the beginning of the summer, we were taunted by a pomegranate tree whose dried and long-decayed fruits from the previous season hung like little shrunken heads on the branches. Suddenly, these remnants of the previous year were replaced by myriad giant globes housing ruby gems, and if we didn’t pick the fruits fast enough, Mother Nature would get our attention by causing the fruits to crack open—she summoned us by facilitating and precipitating the consumption of this wondrous simple pleasure (if you are ever lucky enough to prepare a pomegranate for consumption that has burst open instead of being sliced, you’ll understand). And, the other day, I picked the last tomato from our vegetable garden that was lovingly tended to by our very special summer chef, Emma, who we affectionately called Nonna Emma, since her effortless, boundless care for us could be equalled only by our selfless grandmothers.

            We are not separated from the evolution of the seasons. These have been our intimate surroundings, the environment that we breathed and whose own evolution was impacted by our deep exhalations. Though our hair may be longer and our tans have disappeared, on the outside we appear to be the same people; on the inside, we have undergone about as many significant changes as the terrain. We’re different now. We’re changed. We’ve been marked in minor or major ways by the people we’ve met, by the obstacles we’ve surmounted, by the triumphs we’ve enjoyed, by the meals we’ve shared, by the embraces that have warmed our tired bodies and fragile hearts, by the art that we have created, by the tears that have been wiped away by loved ones, by the minutes and hours of contemplation, by the simple acts of kindness and compassion, by the moments of vulnerability, by the laughter that ricocheted off the walls and was absorbed by our swollen hearts.

            Allow me to say something very… “woo”, or hippie, right now: As the Earth is cared for and shaped and changed and loved by Mother Nature, we, too, have been cared for, shaped, changed, and loved by these elements that I have listed. And we will continue to change, and that’s important: what’s especially imperative, though, is that we don’t forget that we want to change the world, too. We can achieve this better by working together, but we shouldn’t be daunted by maintaining this passion and drive by ourselves once we are temporarily divided. Though we’re an unstoppable positive force when we’re united, when we’re apart, we can spread our fire in circles that we hadn’t even dreamed of reaching.
            Change is afoot. We’re part of it, and you’ve become part of it just by reading this.
            Like the Buddha said, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases from being shared.” In this same way, though all of our hearts were inspired and our fires were ignited by this unique entity called the Art Monastery Project, our fire will not diminish from being shared; it’ll only continue to inspire and thrive.
            As such, I don’t believe in goodbyes; I believe in “see you soons.” Even if we don’t see each other face to face again in the future, parts of us are marked—whether unbeknownst to us or with our conscious acknowledgement—and this means that I will see you or a part of you again in the way I make this meal, the steps I take to do this task, the way I meditate, the manner in which I deal with conflict, the decision I make regarding love or profession, the time I allow myself to breathe.

            We had one of the busiest weeks, since we are closing up shop here at the Art Monastery—putting belongings in boxes, suitcases, and trucks; gathering the change-makers in our lives to tell us how the Art Monastery changed their lives, in order for us to continue making the world a better, more thoughtful and intentional place in 2013; and spending as much time with each other as our tired eyes, minds, hearts, and limbs will allow. But breathe is the word that comes to mind to sum up this phase of the experience. It’ll get us through the inherent difficulty in not saying “good-morning” to each other every day, in not wishing each other “buon appetito” before sharing each meal together—in having to tell each other, as one person embarks a train and the other remains standing on the platform, each arm wave correspondingly pulling on heartstrings, that we’ll see each other soon.
            Like I said, this isn’t goodbye; the Art Monastery has changed my life and the best way in which I can express my gratitude is by giving as much back to it as I can within the parameters outlined by my other passions, obligations, choices, and priorities of my life and being—and even this is magnificently complex and beauteously intricate because the Art Monastery touches all of those categories now. The Art Monastery is part of my life and being now. So, as we prepare to bid each other fare well at least for the holidays, I know that I’ll be seeing these people soon—whether in person, in my own character, or even in seemingly mundane daily chores, like the way that I prepare bread, my method of washing dishes, my insistence on having an endless supply of fresh rosemary, and my vow to practice gratitude, always.
            Inhale; exhale.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Call me vegan-cheesy, but this one’s about the Ethereal Goodbye Contract

Sunset behind the clouds in Labro. Photo credit: Moi.
It’s an unintentional agreement that we make from the moment our parents or guardians drop us off at pre-school or kindergarten. It’s the ethereal contract that we sign in invisible ink while we’re inebriated by infantile innocence, a naïveté that we cannot help, so we cannot defend ourselves from this accord bearing our signature until the day we move on and subject others to the agreements they unwittingly made aeons ago.

Goodbyes: when we have to say them, it’s tempting to claim that we never signed up for them. But, alas, unbeknownst to us, we did, from our first engagements with other individuals. Goodbyes are part of every interaction we have. From the first day that we step into a classroom, however, we’re not conscious of the fact that, come the end of the school year, we’ll be saying goodbye to each other. Each academic year is a finite period demarcated by the end of summer (which entails its own farewells) and the beginning of the following summer. Even as our academic years pass by and our experience with farewells increases, we greet the beginning of September as amnesiacs, ready to start the cycle again with a clean slate. September carries only the delight of seeing one’s friends again and nary a thought as to the salutations that’ll be uttered ten months in the future (then again, if you were like many high schoolers—myself included—September was characterized only by the intense longing to be taking your leave of the individuals who you could not stand or who made your life particularly miserable).

Goodbyes… They are an inherent part of life in that everything is always in flux; everything changes. We, as humans, grow attached to people and to things, and even the most trained amongst us with regards to learning how to let go laments the departures, the evolutions, the metamorphoses of the aspects of our lives to which we hold on so dearly. Goodbyes are no exception, yet even as some may argue that saying goodbye to people of whom we have grown fond becomes easier as the years pass, it doesn’t mean that goodbyes stop being painful; they simply become easier to deal with once the initial pain subsides.

Forgive me for the lengthy preamble; my goal in talking about the Ethereal Goodbye Contract was to illuminate the funny trickery of brackets of time: in school, you have months and months and sometimes years and years ahead of you with the same people surrounding you, so the idea of ever leaving them doesn’t faze you, or it doesn’t even occur to you. As adults, departures and arrivals are part of monthly and yearly lives: you move out, friends move away, siblings go away to school, colleagues get new jobs, loved ones pass away, couples break up. Everything is in flux; the world is not static; we are but elements in the sea of life, which has been flowing since the beginning of time and will continue to flow long after our passing, when we are but particles in the soil, if that. As adults, we are fully aware of this entity called Time, but we may not fully engage in its obligations and limitations until, well, Time is running out.

This summer was different: I and the other artists who came here for the 90-day art-monastic summer retreat were knowledgeable, with each passing day, of the limit imposed by the contract we had literally signed. We knew our obligations outlined by this finite time and space, and we knew the boundaries imposed by it. And the novelty of this programme was that it was finite: 90 days—three months. We expected no more and no less. Yet, despite our knowledge and experience with farewells (most of us here have lived a quarter of a century or more), we jumped in. And, of course, it was worth it; it will always be worth it. It would be outrageous to not engage in emotional and professional risks for fear that one would eventually have to say goodbye. One might as well not pull the drapes from the window to display the rising sun, if embracing eternal night is preferable to saying goodbye to another day.

We all chose to jump in. And, one by one, a new friend has left and a void remained in the spot once occupied by this person in our community. The mark left by each person is indelible, whether he or she left a t-shirt behind, a bag of granola, or simply a memory or lesson; none of us remains unscathed, for better or for worse, by the presence of another person in this community. The sea continues to flow, and we are aware of the absence of the waves that the departed person once caused when they swam with us.

Two days ago, I allowed myself to feel the pain of the fresh departure of one of my friends here. I excused myself to cry in private, just for a moment, while everyone was making pizza (duuuuuuude). 

Okay, this pizza is from a different night. The pizza we made on this particular night was so scrumptious that we did not dare stop to photograph the individual pies but, instead, rushed straight to acquainting them with our faces.

Liz came to join me, as she, too, was mourning this friend’s departure. We embraced as my shoulders continued to shake, and Betsy joined a few moments later. What Liz said next struck me, tickling my linguistic nerdity (even in the most vulnerable of moments, theres always room to geek out on language. Try me):

A few days prior, knowing the farewells that awaited us, I taught our community, comprised entirely of Americans, how to say “I miss you” in Italian. The verb is mancare, to miss or to lack, to be missing or to be lacking. In a distinct manner from that of English, however, when one expresses that one is missing another person, the verb is conjugated according to the person or object missed; thus, Mi manchi literally translates to “You are missing from me.” If you wanted to say, “We miss him/her,” you would say, Ci manca (literally, “He is missing from us”). All the other permutations aside, the concept is clear: English favours the person who lacks another, while Italian, along with other languages like French, favours the individual who is absent.

This is where Liz’s assertion comes in. In perfect sombre lucidity, she professed how Italian captures the sentiment of loss, of missing, of lacking in way that English fails: in Italian, the expression of missing denotes a part missing from a whole—or, as Liz so eloquently and poetically put it, “a hole in the whole.” When someone is missing from us, it means that they were once part of us, or part of the reality in which we participated. In their absence, the whole that they helped create now bears a hole. And we are grievously conscious of it.

But the hole they have left is beautiful and beneficial in this lesson, this perennial adventure that is the remnant of this Ethereal Goodbye Contract. The pain that will slowly, or even quickly, evaporate or simply remain a mist of which we are sometimes aware serves as a reminder of the indelible nature of this person’s impact on us and on our lives. The pain will often be replaced by the memories of this person and the experiences shared. This delicate ache is the reminder that we were blessed to be touched by this person’s presence; it is a reminder that we have been changed.


... love ...

... and more love!

With three months left of this beauteous, inspiring, fulfilling, creative, and mindful journey, I am conscious of change. I will be saying more goodbyes in the coming days, and I will even be visited by my mum, to whom I said goodbye four months ago, and to whom I will take my leave again when she returns to Montreal and I will stay here for another two and a half months. The final days of summer are passing more rapidly than our recognizing the changing colours of the leaves. New cycles are ever beginning, fading, and ending, only to restart again. We’ll say more farewells, and it’ll be worth it. Change is always worth it; see for yourself

And, cripes, with Facebook and Skype (Im a poet and I didn’t even know it!), are we ever truly saying permanent goodbyes? I’ve been to Italy my fair share of times, but it turns out that I also have my fair share of loved ones in California whose abodes and neighbourhoods I have yet to discover...

Source: Elephant Journal

Until next time (I’m saying ’bye, but you know that I’ll be back),

Vegan in the Italian Boonies

P.S. Oh! Oh! Guys! Look! It was my birthday on August 17 and this is the cake that my darling friend, Emma, made me! Thank you, Emma! Mi manchi!

Vanilla cake with chocolate-coconut fondant topped with almond-coconut-cracker crumble, anyone?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

"This is community, man."

This post was composed a few weeks ago. At this point, many of the members of this fabulous community have come and gone, including the car that I was driving, which, as my friend said, "has sung her swan song"; a post on bittersweet farewells will follow in the coming days.

This is community, man.

All smiles for our festive Summer Solstice celebration in June
Though my sleeping quarters, shared with two room-mates, are at the monastery, I live, work, cry, eat, and laugh with a total of ten other people. This is our community, and every day I am grateful to be a part of this beautiful company. The other day, however, I learned how far this community truly extends.

One of our immediate community members injured herself a few weeks ago while walking on a narrow path. She twisted her ankle severely enough that she hasn’t been able to walk on it without feeling pain. After two weeks with scant improvements, we deemed it necessary to see the town doctor.

If one needs to pay a visit to the doctor’s office, one needs to wait until Wednesday, from noon to one, or Friday, from nine to eleven. The doctor, whose main office, I believe, is located in one of the nearest larger cities, comes to Labro to serve the community for non-urgent concerns (for urgent health issues, a 40-minute drive to the hospital in Terni would be necessary).

His tiny office is sandwiched between the pharmacy—a nondescript room with a counter, a cash register, and white walls lined with shelves filled with a small variety of pharmaceutical, hygienic, and cosmetic products—and the post office, the latter being about twice the size of the doctor’s office and pharmacy combined. In the same building, though on the other side of it, is the bar, by far the largest of all of the businesses that this edifice houses. It’s basically all you’ll ever need in one convenient spot (okay, maybe not all: the four restaurants in town are about a sixty-second walk away).

This past Friday, then, we visited the doctor. It’s a short walk away from the monastery, but a car ride was still necessary due to our friend’s injured foot. As such, I picked her up—not stalling the car even once!—and drove her into town. Of course, that’s when my anxiety started to crest: on a road made so narrow by parked cars that one has to back up—one of two banes of he or she who is learning how to drive standard—to let oncoming traffic, if there is any, pass; in the glaring openness of the glares of onlookers who can’t fathom the idea of a grown person not knowing how to drive (I can drive! I can drive! Gosh, why couldn’t I have learnt to drive in a car with standard transmission!). The idea of finding parking, let alone managing to park in the spots that are all in front of the fairly populated bar without stalling at least twice while advancing or reversing, was positively nerve-wracking, leading me to giggle uncontrollably.

I found a spot, my friend patiently encouraging me, and decided that I would move the car closer to the sidewalk once a few locals left the premises. That’s the opposite of what happened: one of these onlookers approached the automobile, and I rolled down the window. He suggested that I not park there, because, eventually, the garbage truck would need to pass on that narrow road and I’d be obstructing the path; I’d be taking a chance by leaving the car there, but, according to this man, who knew if the truck would even come? (Ha!) He suggested that I park farther ahead, past the bar, which would require not only that I back up but that I do so uphill (hills: the second bane of one who is learning to drive a standard automobile). 

I explained to him that my only issue with moving the car was… well, this is embarrassing… My issue was, and I quote (translated), “I’m Canadian [hahahaha. What does that have to do with anything? See? Panic makes me completely idiotic] and am used to driving an automatic car. I am learning to drive standard, and backing up can be difficult.” It sounds like an excuse, and maybe it was, but I was simply explaining why I was taking my sweet-ass time to move the vehicle. He responded in perfectly witty Italian fashion: “Well, you reverse in automatic cars, too, no?” I laughed and responded, “Of course, we do, but… it’s not the same.” He explained where I should park, saying that he’d move his car from his parking spot, allowing me to fill it. It wasn’t a legal spot, he explained, but its prime location in front of the doctor’s office would render my friend’s one-legged trip to the front door simpler.

I waited for him to pleasantly take his leave, appreciating his concern and well-meaning commentary. I allowed myself to be nervous and giggle with my friend. And then the awkward back-up struggle began, at which point our friend the local returned, on the driver’s side of the car, this time. Having understood the universal gesture of, “get out: I’ll move the car for you,” I opened my door and let him in. He backed the car up the hill, out of my former spot, and back onto the narrow main road, all while speaking Italian to my friend who speaks little Italian. I reclaimed my spot in the driver’s seat and thanked him profusely for his help.

I accelerated forward on the road and encountered a friend, C., that I’d made the last time I was here. He was standing with our new friend earlier, and as I slowed down to say hello to him, he greeted us and then listened to what the other man yelled to him from down the road. C. indicated that I should advance to the end of the road and turn around so that I could advance rather than back into the spot.

I got there; I got my friend to the doctor’s; I got to experience the adage, in a special fashion, of, just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to support a 25-year-old Canadian learning to drive standard in Italy. And boy, do I ever have the support of this community, who never once cracked a joke or was mean-spirited; they were nothing but sweet, kind, and helpful. Once again, am I ever blessed and grateful to call this community my family for the next four months.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

It's finally happened

This post was written two weeks ago.

It’s finally happened.

Last night, after our 15-minute opening performance at the Calici sotto le stelle enogastronomic festival in Labro, I met one of my friends for dinner. We went to a restaurant that’s open seasonally, a locale more upscale than what I’m used to or what my wallet would allow. We hadn’t any choice, as the pizzeria at which we wanted to dine was closed for the day, due to a broken oven. So, we made do (and to say, “we made do” feels like sacrilege, since I daresay that the meal we enjoyed there was worth every penny).

Let’s back up for a second. Allow me to explain; I mean, I did prelude this post with a clip from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Before taking a seat at this restaurant to which my friend had once been, I inquired about the menu, speaking with the owner in order to ascertain the veganism of any of the menu items. As I’d been having good luck with using the Italian word vegetaliana (or vegana), having the person with whom I was speaking immediately understand the implications of such a label, I put emphasis on the l and reiterated that I didn’t eat dairy products (a silly move, I must say, since dairy includes only cow-milk, and goat and sheep milks abound in Italy) or eggs. I assumed that saying any word that began with vegeta, regardless of its ending, would speak for itself—that is, it would be clear that vegeta means “no meat.”

I was wrong.

Let’s go back to the clip (scroll up, if you please, friends).

With the chef, we figured out a dish to order, a magnificent and delicious dish, if the oral description could do it any justice—penne with asparagus, tomato, and truffle mushrooms—and our hunger dictated that we’d order a salad to satiate our rebelling stomachs. As we swished up the last drops of vinegar with pieces of gratis dry bread, our pasta dishes were delivered. I beheld the glorious dish, giant penne at the base of the beauteous meal, atop of which lay olive-oil–coated pieces of wild asparagus, delicate truffles, chopped fresh tomato, and—meat? Those crimson chunks didn’t resemble any fruit or vegetable I’d ever seen, and I’d been fooled by the texture as well as appearance of many an eggplant and mushroom in the past. Nay, those pieces were clearly the flesh of an animal. Before the waitress could step away, I inquired politely: “Ma, scusi, questa è carne?” (“Excuse me, but… is that meat?”)

She responded, incredulously yet matter-of-factly: “Non c’è di che. È pancetta.” (“It’s nothing. It’s pancetta.”)

Pancetta, my dear friends, directly translates to stomach, in the diminutive form—so, “belly,” insomma. Even some of my omnivorous friends are revolted by it and refuse to eat it. If you can, ahem, stomach it, head on over to Wikipedia to learn more:

Anyway, so I responded, after several eye blinks to make sure that I was not imagining what she was saying, “Ma… per me è qualcosa: sono vegetariana.” (“For me, it’s something: I’m vegetarian.”)

She walked away to explain to the other chef what the issue was, and this chef’s explanation, though differing in the words expressed, betrayed the same sentiment: This isn’t meat; it’s pancetta. The chefs scurried off after we had agreed on a meal that would be identical, just served with shaved zucchini (maybe they used the last of their truffle and asparagus on the meaty primo? Sadness abounds) and tomatoes instead. They left us with the initial dish for my friend to nibble on, after we’d established that her meal contained egg pasta, so we couldn’t engage in a simple swap.

That’s when my clever dining partner was quick enough to point out how our scene matched almost perfectly that from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Ah, in nine years of veganism, this had never happened to me, and I am simultaneously amused by its happening in this Mediterranean land.

I apologize in advance for the absence of a photo of my meal, but I hope that a wordy description will suffice. The meal delivered to me about ten minutes later, after my friend allowed me to dip slices of bread into the shallow ponds of tomato sauce on her vegetarian plate, was a welcome, meat-free sight. It was so fresh that I immediately burnt my tongue on the julienned zucchini sprinkled in a delightfully helter-skelter manner atop the large penne. It was worth it—no, really: it was so worth it, and it was worth the wait, too.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I am cheap—nay, I am frugal. I will splurge on items that merit elevated expenditure, like sundried tomatoes, almond butter, and a ticket to my favourite band’s show at a venue in a different city. This doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally beat myself up mentally for the expense; I tend to force myself to justify the expense, looping in my brain until I convince myself, usually successfully, to let it go. It didn’t take me too long to make peace with myself at the end of the meal last night: everything from the wonderfully al dente pasta and the piping hot and perfectly salted zucchini to the deliciously green hue of the olive oil made every one of the sixteen Euros worth it. I splurge on olive oil when I’m in Canada, and this dish reiterated why splurging on good, high-quality foods is worth our dollars and cents.

I will confess that this sentence was uttered by me as we walked home, satiated and delighted, at the end of the night: “I don’t care if she spat in my food—that meal was f***ing delicious.”


Thursday, August 9, 2012

The company of visitors from near and far—and pushing me at least three kilometres out of my comfort zone

Not for a moment did I ever take for granted the visits I received in Toronto this past year while I completed my Master’s. From August 2011 to September 2012—under twelve months—I received twelve separate visits from friends and family. I had two room-mates, as you may recall, but being graced by the very special company of loved ones from home was, well, entirely special.

Needless to say, Montreal-Toronto visits are easy and cheap to complete, since these Canadian cities are only five hours apart by car or bus, four by train, and one by plane. Montreal and Labro, by contrast, are separated by six time zones and eight hours on an airplane. Naturally, the likelihood of receiving visits is slim to nonexistent…

Nevertheless, in the past month, I have spent time in Rome with Alex and Ally, my cousin and his girlfriend, now my Veggie Soulmate and grad school partner in crime; my paternal cousins and great uncles, in Prossedi, Latina; E. and her husband, whose wedding I just attended; Madame @Acquafortis herself, who trekked to Labro with G. just to spend an hour or two with yours truly (and humbly). Most recently, I received word of my dear friend, Vanessa, planning to visit at the beginning of Autumn. Woo!

stylistic pause — Jeez. For a positive blog post, I sure have a knack at starting each paragraph with a negative adverb or adjective… There’s a literary term for that—for the method of stating a negative fact in order to underline its opposite. There is only so much information that one call recall from a year-long Master’s degree, but I’ll be back…

I am amused by and grateful for the timing of these visits, as they didn’t occur before or during the intense and trying period of the final week of June and first week of July; rather, they gracefully and most welcomingly took place in the weeks following that difficult time, as though something in the Universe thought, “Hey, look. Shit was lookin’ shitty. How’s about some familiar and familial faces, eh?” Living in my current space, love is never lacking, but to behold the tanned face of my little cousin (so he’s only nine months younger than I. Whatever. He’s still my little cousin) and my Veggie Soulmate in Roma Termini train station was almost too much to handle. What a gift; what a joy; what a blessing. What made this reunion extra special and emotional was that the three of us had visited Rome together in May 2010.

I had had a banana... and an apple... and some cookies for breakfast over the span of three hours (6 a.m. to 9 a.m.), but when hunger strikes at the train station, rosemary focaccia is the vegan's best and tastiest bet.
Reunion at the Spanish Steps <3 p="p">
When in Rome (haaaaa), I usually have cicoria for an entrée; here, in cicoria's absence, I opted for fries. Meh!
This crust was definitely too thick to be considered a typical Italian pizza north of Naples, but I won't say that the thick, fluffy crust was unwelcome. Also, I ate 90% of this pizza. Hey, it's not my fault that the waiter took forever to remove it from my face!
A sculpture in the piazza in Prossedi
The piazza in Prossedi. As you can tell, the architecture is old, so construction's overdue. It's unfortunate, however, that it should be taking place in the summer, when visitors and citizens alike would like to use the piazza.
A selection of picturesque and quaint views...

Me and a newspaper

The most recent visit, a delightful afternoon with @Acquafortis on Saturday, was followed by a Sunday workday. It was unusual to have such a schedule, as Sunday is our day off; in order to accommodate performances by some of the artists at a local medieval festival, Giornate Medioevali, the rest days were shifted. What was most unusual, however, was my participation in the rehearsal of a performance piece.

In case I haven’t fully explained my role here, other than touting the title “Language Artist” rather clumsily, allow me to clarify: I have joyfully embarked on this six-month journey and employment at Art Monastery Italia to serve as the resident Italian expert, doing everything from translating promotional material, interpreting at the grocery store, and making telephone calls; to serve as the assistant to the Executive Director, completing a variety of tasks related to the daily functioning of this organization; to serve as a community member. It has been a delightful and welcome surprise to be included in the development of the original theatre piece that Liz and the cast have put together, Ad Mortem: I have translated several pieces of text for the show.

What I didn’t expect (rule number 1... of life: have no expectations or, if you have them, expect them to be blasted aside) was to take part physically in some of the artistic performances—and I had the following day’s soreness to attest to how physical it was (or maybe my reinstating my pushups-and-situps routine the day prior played a bit of a role). Allow me to illustrate: the artists have been invited to perform the opening piece for the enogastronomic (that is, wine-and-food–related) artistic festival, Calici sotto le stelle (“wine glasses/goblets under the stars”), in Labro. It is a yearly summer celebration that takes place almost every night for a full month; this year, it began on July 21 and will end on August 25. On each night, for only €25, the gastronomic masterminds behind local legend Boccondivino (the name of the restaurant can be translated as "divine mouthful." I can't help but smile when I ponder this) offer artfully paired wine with delectable dishes, all in the open air atop Labro’s picturesque torrione, surrounded by music and artistic performances.

To open the event on each of these summer evenings, a fifteen-minute artistic performance takes place. And this is where we (and my soreness) come in. From eleven until approximately five p.m., we worked with one half of Boccondivino’s two founders; she directed us, instructed us, moved our limbs, congratulated us, corrected us, and fed us over the course of the day. As you may know, my artistry is restricted to writing, and, even then, I seldom write creative works. I will unashamedly declare that I cannot dance and, thus, do not pretend that I can. Shakira pronounced it correctly: “hips don’t lie,” and mine are surely no exception; when they are prompted to move on a dance floor, my hips loudly declare that they were not built to sway that way. Maybe this is why I took to rock shows at such a young age: no dancing required—just jumping! That’s my kinda atmosphere.

I digress. However, without revealing the opening of the festival, of which I have been a part for the festival’s entire duration, I will tell you that I mounted a cart, was carried downhill by it, was carried by a friend of mine, pulled said cart, and ate a lot of cherry tomatoes. And then I walk home, sometimes after sampling the wine and each course of the meal and ogling the dreamy waiters.

Just another day on the job…

Pleasantly out of her comfort zone and relishing the mistakes she's making,

Vegan in Suburbia

Monday, August 6, 2012

Un giorno nella vita monastica presso l'Art Monastery

A day in the monastic life at the Art Monastery is the English rendition of the title of this blog post. Also, though our schedule has changed since I composed this post two or three weeks ago, the events in this post remain accurate. And here they are:

At 08:45, whoever wants to meditate is welcome to sit for half an hour. We meet in the beautiful makeshift temple in the western quadrant of our property. The only potential difficulty in this daily spiritual activity is that I don’t sleep on this property; I live in the monastery, which, as I’ve described many a time, is located a 45-minute walk away (actually, at this point, I can make it in 40). I and my two room-mates walk, drive, or are picked at around 09:00 and driven to the communal house in order to arrive in time for breakfast, but I have recently decided to wake up early and leave by foot on my own by 08:00 in order to make it for morning meditation. That way, I’d also be guaranteed to sneak 45 minutes of rather rigorous physical activity in my day—to justify the consumption of Emma’s meals (see my previous post if you missed the droolworthy photos).

On the first morning of this new, exciting schedule, I discovered the single flaw in my plan: allowing exactly 45 minutes before meditation to walk to the house from the monastery does not account for the wiggle room necessary for chatting with farmers.  

*** Word Nerd Alert!!! *** 

I can’t help but think of my linguistics studies and Chomsky’s affirmation that human language offers the possibility to create infinite sentences out of finite means—infinite creative expressions out of finite words. Has something along the lines of “Note to self: leave the monastery early enough to fit in time to chat with farmers before morning meditation” ever been uttered? Probably not! Whoooooaaaaaaa. 

*** End Word Nerdiness!!! *** 

Where was I? Ah, yes: chattin’ up farmers. No, seriously, this is a normal part of my day. I noted in my previous post the cultural importance in the countryside of greeting anyone whose path you cross or who crosses your path (I tend to take this a step further by greetings all mammals—and butterflies).

Oh! Oh! Speaking of which—we had a goat sighting the other day, and three separate people on two separate occasions have seen or heard a wild boar. Dude—Pumbaas abound. In the country, if you look behind you at any point, it’s not to check if you’re being followed by a person; you’re checking to see if you’re being followed or hunted by wild boar, stray cats, guard dogs (shudder), or goats.

Anyway, yesterday morning, I left the monastery at 07:55. While listening to The Shins, I padded along through alternating patches of shade and sunlight down the hill and then started to march uphill at the precise halfway point of the hike. I paused on my path as I saw an unfamiliar dog sniffing the greenery ahead of me. “Please don’t notice me,” I pleaded silently, and the dog went on its merry way. As I turned the bend, the familiar dogs of our friendly farmer friend, Benito, trotted towards me to greet me—all four of them. I turned off my iPod in order to give my full attention to them, petting and cooing to them one at a time as their excited delight waned and the elderly Benito materialized in all his shirtless glory.

Though the name, "Benito," is an unfortunate one—being that it was the given name of Mussolini—my friend named the darling, sweet-tempered, and gentle dog that he adopted here "Benito," as he was touched by the generous and sweet nature of our farmer friend.
We spoke about the weather and the unfamiliar dog I’d seen, who, Benito said, is the playmate as well the father of one of his dogs. I told Benito that the apricots he’d given us the day prior were delicious, and I notified him of our having finished the wine we’d bought from him the previous week (€2/litre for red and white wine—say whaaat!). At a lull in our conversation, I expressed my delight and comfort in the company of his dogs, since they reminded me of Bijou the Dog, our family dog who passed away in 2010.  

And then he introduced me to his kittens.  

I had said that, when I moved back to Toronto, I would adopt a cat, because having a dog would require more time and work than my life as a PhD candidate and concert, poetry-slam, vegan-potluck, sangha–frequenting self could commit to. At that point, in an almost dramatic, ceremonial fashion, he opened a rusty gate to reveal a cat with a litter of three or four kittens huddled around it. They were only a few weeks old, he said, and I was besotted. He gathered one up into his weathered but gentle hands; still grasping my iPod in my left hand, I could only pet it with my right. The animal freak inside of me was freaking the frak out, squealing so loudly that I fail to recall whether Benito uttered anything to me in those brief moments.

These monastery-to-house walks are an unpredictable mixture of unbridled fright of barking canines and boundless charm of minuscule felines. My workday is bracketed eloquently by silent meditation in our roofless makeshift temple in the morning and peaceful Gregorian chant in this same temple, just shy of eleven p.m. Working hours contain a mixture of healthy anxiety related to making calls to Italians; laughter and thought-provoking conversation over meal-preparation, dish-washing, and delicious shared meals; pleasant but painstaking hours of research or translation, sprinkled with infallible Internet crashes; caring embraces and careful wisdom-sharing; and driving lessons—and no longer stalling the car on these mountainous roads (knock on wood)! I said it before, and I’ll say it again: living amongst the Art Monastery community is a delight and treasure for all of the senses.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A delight to the senses

This post was written over several days, starting three Wednesdays ago. 

The endless, occasionally disruptive chorus of cicadas (I’m thinking of morning meditation today, when I chose my meditation practice over perpetuating the functionality of my eardrums). Charles chanting post-lunch to break the silence that we humans impose on ourselves for one lunch per week. The sweet breeze swooping in almost silently to provide some respite from the ongoing heat that has yet to be broken by any precipitation in over a month. The occasional yip from our canine companion who shares the ups and downs of our day with us. This is what 13:34 on a Wednesday at the Art Monastery sounds like.

Of course, there is also the constant breathtaking visual of the surrounding hills, the fig leaves that delicately shelter the ripe figs from the sweltering heat, the chairs nestled between an opening in the trees that overlook the valley, beckoning to any visitor to pause and ponder the grandeur of this landscape that envelops us. 

Finally, one cannot ignore the fading tickle of our tastebuds having just been tantalized and awakened by Emma’s casually outstanding meal of vegetable chow mein for lunch. Sure, we may be in Italy, but Emma has found an enchanting way of replicating (foreign) tastes of home with local ingredients and those that have been imported, thanks to our discovery of a multicultural grocery store squeezed between the bus station and the train station in Terni—a key location, it seems, given the constant transit of foreigners in that part. Though the produce at this store varies, we have been fortunate to have plantains, sweet potatoes, and ginger grace our p(a)lates over these past six weeks. 

Side note: I used to despise peas—like, they would incite a gag reflex in me. The only way in which I could consume them without a consecutive display that would make people in my surroundings quickly disperse was if I ate them in a samosa or in curries. Here in Italy, I dont know what happened, but I have on occasion crowded the rest of my food on my plate to the side in order to delight in peas unadulterated taste. WHAT HAPPENED? I mean, its not like Ive started eating that unruly, disgusting spawn of the soil cilantro (shudder). No, they're just peas... and they're not eggplant (swoon) or anything, and, in theory, peas still gross me out, but I have grown to love them.  

Don't tell my mom.

Peas in chow mein!
Peas with a ridiculous assortment of food!
Peas and white beans!
I made myself rice pudding for breakfast a few days ago. Ta-da!
On days off, when our spectacular cook is entitled to not cook at all—but she often does—we sometimes order pizza. Of course, theres no delivery, but we live within walking distance of three pizzerie. Life aint so bad, eh?
Italiane—le più amate is inscribed on every one of these pizza boxes. The thing is that Italiane has no grammatical referent; by gender and number, it could refer to either the pizzas or Italian women. So, the caption could translate to "Italian [women]: the most loved" or "Italian pizzas: the most loved." Hahahahaha. (Upon further inspection, there's also a vespa, grammatically feminine, on the box. I guess it means that things of Italian origin are the most loved. Ah, yes...)
Our humble dining area at sunset
VEGAN COOKIES AT THE GROCERY STORE! Breathe. Okay, I've seen vegan foods at the grocery store in the past, but seldom do I ever see the Vegan logo. Rock on! On a side note, these cookies weren't very tasty, but they were tasty when dipped in coffee.
Emma felt like having sandwiches, and I have to say that I totally dig when her cravings match my own. She made the panini from scratch and we chopped up all the fixings. Heeeck, yeah!
Polenta... fresh rosemary from our garden... rock salt... Aaaahhh, the little things in life...
Bread. All kinds. All the time. Fresh. No order of adjectives necessary. Just periods. Period. Bread. Face. Yes.
After two months here, in addition to the two that I spent here last year, I can say that my role here and the daily routine have finally become clear. Despite the rigid schedule, what one learns quickly about its rigidity is that it must be responsive to massages—that is, it must allow flexibility for surprises and the unexpected, like needing to be ready in ten minutes in order to play the role of interpreter on a friend’s visit to the pharmacy, or pausing to accommodate a visit from our wonderful landlords, which interrupts the planning and filming of our humorous and sweetly sincere IndieGoGo thank-you video.

IndieGoGo Thank You from Art Monastery Project on Vimeo.

In short, living amongst the Art Monastery community is a delight and treasure for all of the senses. For now, let’s ignore my trying to avoid burning my wrists and thighs on my laptop as I sit in the sun, not to mention scalding the soles of my feet on my black flip-flops that devour the merciless heat, or being blinded by the reflection of my MacBook’s shiny metal. Oh, Sun, your touch is a vital part of this experience, too.

Gratefully and scaldingly yours,

Vegan in Suburbia