Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Adoring community life and relishing food in my face, all followed by a wary observation of disconcerting adventures

When I wrote my last blog post, I enumerated the topics that I wanted to cover in my following blog post. It was naïve of me to think that I would manage to cover those subjects without sacrificing more recent, relevant events. Here was my (unedited) list:

sunrise meditation / dumbfounding landscape / dumbfounded R.
day at the water / Colli sul Velino / old-man A., C. (hilarious and exceedingly friendly drunk friend) / imposition of wine / tipsy by 5
cuddling with Josie the Cat
market friend

Here’s what I now have to add to it:

running into my one and only Roman friend when the artists and I went on a Death Tour in Rome
pizza, several times—always vegan and always droolworthy (I have had pizza thrice since arriving here, and that doesn’t include the free focaccia I have had at the convent’s restaurant. I made a meal of countless slices before having actual pizza.)

vegan gelato. In my face.
vegan chocolate. In my face.
homemade bread. In my face. (Confession: Either I have a one-track mind for food or I am tired; either way, I will have you know that I typed “homebread” instead of “homemade” at first.)

Pancake Sunday! (Oh, yeah; sorry: pancakes. In my face. Gluten-free pancakes, too.)

The classic recipe by Robin Robertson for Spiced Banana Pancakes that I've been making since I went vegan almost nine years ago
A severely modified version (due to the different ingredients on-hand) of gluten-free pancakes, thanks to @JosianeRicher. Merci, Josiane—et mon amie qui est atteinte du cœliaque te remercie aussi !
Heck yeah, I'm psyched about pancakes! I'd forgotten the can of maple syrup at the convent, and I was prepared to take my pancakes to go and walk the 45 minutes back to the monastery. Thankfully, E. and L. pulled through and drove over there to pick it up, along with my two convent roomies. Score!
Did I mention maple syrup? Can you guess where it went? Here’s a hint: It rhymes with “grace.”
Taco Tuesday! (Okay, you get the point.)
Chuck marathon with my lovely foodie friend/chef
accepting a ride from a stranger (grazie, Franco!)
walking home alone at night (a better idea in theory than in practice)

The walk home

This is with the flash on.
crashing a feline meeting (not cool; always creepy)
–learning how to drive "stick" and laughing and stalling the car more than driving ("Why is this happening?!")
gratitude, gratitude, and more gratitude (some might call it a religion)

On the walk to the house from the convent
Our bounty of fresh produce

Okay, so I won’t bore you with the details, but, as you can see, there is nary a dull moment when one lives in the Italian countryside with a delightful group of Artmonks.

Two weeks ago, it was our friend’s birthday. When we asked his girlfriend about what would please him most as a birthday gift, she responded that surprising him with a meditation practice at sunrise would be a marvellous delight. He’s an actor, singer, and yoga instructor, not to mention an all-around peaceful, enthusiastic, joyous, and intelligent individual. Unbeknownst to him, we all arranged to wake up at 4:50 a.m. and set up chairs (we might have set up yoga mats on the lawn, but it had rained quite a bit the preceding day and night) on the grass, facing the mountains over which we would behold the sun at just past 5:30 a.m. We wanted our meditation to begin before our friend’s girlfriend woke him up; in this way, we’d already be meditating by the time he walked up the hill to start his day. Of course, sitting with our eyes closed, we weren’t fortunate enough to witness his incredulous stare when he made us out at the top of the hill, not adding even the tiniest of sounds to the chorus of birds chirping and roosters cock-a-doodle-doing in the early morning. Once our meditation practice ended, we smiled at our friend, and he speechlessly, jovially, affectionately thanked each of us sitting there—ten of us!—individually enveloping us in a long embrace.

All of us here in this community talk about how special this experience is; this gift is a magnificent example of this. Here we were, barely a week into our acquaintanceship and we were not fazed by the concept of waking up before sunrise in order to offer a unique present to our new friend. That is generosity; that is selflessness; that is gratitude; that is the beauty of community.
About half of our current community
On the complete flip side of that experience was our, well, festive afternoon at the lake with revellers in the neighbouring community of Colli sul Velino. On our day off, our group decided to head to a nearby lake to have a picnic, swim, play hackey sack (yours truly initiated the hackey circle), and sit around our guitar-playing friend. The sun was beaming down, the water was warm, the ambiance was charged with positivity, familial and welcoming sentiments, and wine. Lots of wine. Holy moly, the fount was endless. Let me explain: I walked in ahead of a small group of my friends, and a man at a table full of people in their fifties and sixties stood up and, clearly and amusingly possessed by Bacchus, raucously announced our arrival and his desire for us to pose for a photograph. Though I speak Italian, I couldn’t understand the undertones of his announcement and invitation, if there were any: Was this lake private? How obvious was it that we weren’t from around there? Had we broken some cultural rule by not announcing our own presence or saying hello to our fellow lake visitors? 

Our friendly companions are seated in chairs, on the left
The gentleman in the white t-shirt is he who provided us with home-made wine. Bless him!
In hindsight, I scold myself for the shyness demonstrated and my lack of regard for those people in my vicinity and will be sure to greet those who cross my path. It’s already a normal practice of mine and of my friends here, that is, to greet with a polite buongiorno or buona sera or simply salve when we see someone who is a stranger or an acquaintance as we pass by on our evening walks. We even greet the doggies we pass—but I don’t think I’ll continue to greet the jerk dog who scared the bejeesus out of me yesterday afternoon.

Quick side-note: This dog usually barks manically at passersby from behind a fence, but, yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting him on the road. I won’t lie: my first thought was “motherf***ing hell.” To my relief, after he barked to alert his master to the presence of an interloper, he hopped away to where his master was hidden amongst tall crops; then, quite unexpectedly, he ran out behind me, barking and growling to make his presence known and felt. I cooed a non ti preoccupare (“don’t worry”) at him as I removed my sunglasses, wanting to somehow convey that I was not a threat through gazing at him in the eyes and not concealing my face. He proceeded to make his presence and identity clearer at least five times by running at me while growling, all while his master called out in vain for him to return. It was not cool, and my initial expletive-containing thought quickly changed from an adjective to a noun. When the dog finally ran off and I celebrated the fact that I still possessed the same surface area and volume of my skin with which I’d first approached the terrifying situation, I had to catch my breath which, unbeknownst to me, had accelerated to such an extent that I had to remind myself that I had been walking downhill the entire time and not up. Regaining mobility in my legs, too, proved to be a feat I hadn’t experienced since, I don’t know, I met Davey Havok of AFI at HMV downtown in 2006 and he said he liked my tattoo (shut up).

But, I digress. People at the beach: fun times, and not the least bit scary, even when wine was offered—nay, forced upon us by this drunk man. And this drunk man was a complete stranger, too. It’s true: after we posed awkwardly for that photograph and I confirmed vocally that we weren’t breaking any legal or cultural rules (it probably would have been culturally frowned upon, actually, to turn down the wine), I promised that, once we set our belongings down on the patch of grass that we wanted to claim as our own for that afternoon, we’d head back to have a drink with them. In all honesty, I don’t believe we were granted more than five minutes to settle down before we were summoned back to their table. This merry gathering of people excitedly conversed with me, the only Italian speaker in our group at that moment (more of our friends were on their way), as I floated between speaking, listening, interpreting, and translating—all while having a glass of home-made wine all but forced upon me. Might I add that 1) the wine was bloody delicious, 2) the glass was filled almost to the brim, and 3) it was about four o’clock in the afternoon?

We chatted and partied with these elders, and I even had a conversation in French, which was sprinkled delightfully with Italian words and expressions, with a woman who had spent much of her working life as a teacher. It was jarring, though, to try to understand this woman who was speaking a language with which I grew up, while Italian conversations rushed on forth around me. As this conversation drew to a close, the man who’d poured me my first glass poured me a second, and he was not shy about tipping the glass up and urging me to drink more. It was hilarious but I assured him that the wine was good and that I drink slowly because I’m a lightweight!

Tipsy by 5 p.m.: classy.

The afternoon ended with hackey-sack playing, inside-joke creating, guitar-playing, swimming, and seeing two of our new elderly friends join in our sing along, pour vodka down the throats of their companions, and jump into the lake in their skivvies. Italy, the land that always keeps you on your toes. Che bel Paese!

I might have said enough already, and I also have photographs to share, so I’ll cut this short. First, though, I have two last items on the first list. The first is cuddling with Josie the Cat and her purring magically. I never grew up with cats, so the whole concept of a living being having a physiological and audible pleasure reaction is so frakking cool, I can barely contain my squeals of glee. Purring! I mean… purring! That delicate, gentle thunder reverberating in the tiny body of a sweet feline. I mean… purring! Purrrrrr. Of course, I was not greeted by the same glorious reception when I happened upon a veritable colony of felines in the country. Nope, not at all.

And, last but not least, when I joined two friends on a shopping trip, I connected with Sousa, the Bangladeshi man who, well, mans the outdoor produce market in Terni. At first, I wasn’t sure how to interpret his curiosity as to our origins, his questionably sly wondering of dove sono i vostri fidanzati? (“where are your boyfriends?”), his giving us free strawberries at the end of our shopping venture. He seemed to be a genuinely kind, observant, and friendly individual, and I look forward to attending the next shopping venture so that we can connect with him again. What truly astounded me was his keen ear: when he heard me and my two friends speak English, he pointed out that our English was not the same. My two friends are from California, and I, as you know, am Canadian. Ta-da! I can barely detect accents in the speech of different Italians, a language I know well, but this man effortlessly picked up the nuances in the accents of a language he doesn’t even speak.

Seriously, I totally nerded out on that observation, not to mention how psyched I was to have a new friend—an honest, generous friend who knew where our significant others were and yet still wanted to share strawberries, and even his life story, with us.

Until next time,

Vegan in Suburbia

Beware the photo assault!

The view from Ristorante Ulisse, the outstanding restaurant in the convent where I live
One of the few moments on my dark walk home that contained light
When E. bakes bread, I run away with it and make almond butter, banana, and jam sandwiches for breakfast the next morning!
E., our chef, is a mage in the kitchen. She came up with this banana-fig bread. Uuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhh.
Saturday evenings and Sundays compose our time off, and that includes our chef. R. and I made pasta and veggies.

My decadent plate of pancakey goodness. Bam.
Sunset over the hills of Labro
Labro proper
Someone you might know
 Please excuse the change of font from that of my previous posts. I have a preference for this one, so I'll be sticking to this font from now on.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Luggage reunion and other fabulous introductions

Written on June 3, 2012. The Internet connection has been spotty, so I’ve had a chance to post this only now.

One of the lovely views beheld on the downhill portion of the walk from the monastery to the house

Social stimuli overload! Emotion explosion! Intellectual discussion ecstacy! Love overflow! Alimentary delightfulness paroxysm! Hippie enchantment! (OK, I don’t actually know what the last one refers to, but “hippie” and “enchantment” are both related to my first week in Italy at the Art Monastery.)

So, here I am. I’m sitting on the soft bed of one of my friends here while she is out of town. The orange mosquito netting hanging by the balcony door is blowing in the gentle evening breeze. Birds chirp all day long, and they have not ceased their song as the sun prepares to set at ten to eight. If I look to my left, I see mountains—nothing but mountains and greenery, though the mountains grow faint, blurry, and blue as one attempts to gaze farther in the distance. If I were walking and observing them, I would quickly lose my balance: the closer you walk, metre by metre, the more the mountains distance themselves from you. It is astounding.

Over the past week, I have joined a new family. I have made nine new friends, reunited with four—rather, five, including Josie the Cat—became reacquainted with this little town of Labro and its charming and vital protagonists. It’s peculiar and comforting to go to a place that is so foreign yet feels so familiar; it’s bizarre to know a town so well and feel at home and yet to feel profoundly that there are people who are missing—namely my Canadian friends and family—from the beauteous personal and natural landscapes that flank you.

What really caught me off-guard when I arrived was the acute apprehension I felt towards the idea of walking around the hotel or around the town proper by myself, terrified of being recognized—not as a familiar face but as someone who is not from here. I had spent eight months in Toronto bathing in anonymity, sinking under the delicious ripples of the all-enveloping waves of Canada’s largest city. I could do, say, wear anything without being noticed (oh, and I have, proudly flaunting the flag of braless and sandals-with-socks expeditions), talk to anyone with not an inkling of fear as to what they might think or what they might say. I felt indestructible and new—well, indestructible, not so much, given my bike tumbles, but hey, at least I got right back on my bike and, for lack of a better expression, kept on truckin’. (Disclaimer: This feeling [thanks Heavens] faded instantaneously upon my first solo journey to the post office. On that note, stamps are expensive, but the journey was worth it for the chit-chat with the post-office worker. She's got spunk!)

Here, though, in a town of under one hundred individuals, anonymity is literally impossible. Not even the animals ignore the presence of newcomers: the farmers’ dogs are trained to bark at passersby, animal or human. When the dogs do bark, the farmer is just as likely to peek his head to see what the disturbance is. And although we walk by several times a day, the dogs keep barking at us, because that’s what they’re trained to do, and once we leave, the farmers will continue to investigate the cause of the disturbance when the dogs do their raucous duty, because that is what they do to ensure that their land is safe from predators or trespassers. But for now, we are an anomaly—visible, noticed, and yet appreciated and a cause for intrigue.

This is home for the next six months. This is my family. One of my new friends expressed that she is falling in love with each and every one of us, because of our passion and willingness to take risks and engage in this spiritual, professional, intellectual, and emotional journey. What a beautiful, splendid sentiment. I am happy, satisfied, delighted, and fulfilled here, though I have left my love and my family in Canada. And I am grateful, because these loved ones in Canada and elsewhere have been nothing but supportive, encouraging, and joyful at my embarking on this delicious journey. So, before I continue, allow me to take a moment to express my gratitude for your patience, understanding, love, support, courage, and wisdom in my wild expeditions: thank you. You seriously rock.

Oh, and one more thing: I got my motherfrakkin luggage, suckaaaasssss! This is true: on Thursday, six days after arriving in Italy, and following countless telephone calls to Air Canada (thanks, Mommacakes and company) and Globeground/Lost and Found Fiumicino (thanks, WIND; you made lots of extra money off of me, dear telephone company), my luggage was delivered to the monastery where I’ll be residing until the end of August. Praise the Heavens! I could fall asleep with my mum’s crocheted blanket draped over my body; choose a sweater to wear that was not my purple sweater, lovely as it is; put on one of my tuques on chilly nights. As the days grow warmer, the sun, hotter, and her rays, more piercingly dangerous, I was especially grateful for my sunblock.

See, Air Canada, for all the trouble they caused, and before they knew whether they’d actually manage to recover my luggage, promised $100 USD to procure items that would be necessary for my well-being—you know, like undergarments and toiletries (I won’t lie: I was super tempted to spend some of it on NOVI più dark chocolate [insert the sound of Homer Simpson drooling here], but I was too busy idiotically spending 30 euros on two bras). Anyway, to my dismay, every cosmetic product contained parabens and other scary ingredients. In a moment of acute clarity and wisdom, I figured that risking a sunburn was better for my health than pasting chemicals onto my porous, absorbent skin. Well, the very day on which I’d been notified of the victorious arrival of my suitcase, I and a large group of Artmonks meditated together in the sunlight. It was magnificent. I won’t go into all of the details and delightful challenges of focussing on my meditation practice while trying to ignore whether the tickly feeling on my skin was a crawling insect or a bead of sweat coursing down exposed skin; however, it must be expressed that the tanlines left from resting the backs of my open palms on my thighs are ridiculous, not to mention the hilarity of the tanlines left by my watch, four necklaces, and myriad bracelets. Naturally, my necklace tanlines have been the cause of much laughter over the past few days, and, although we spent the day at the lake today (my next post will contain hilarious photos and anecdotes of this day), I made no attempt to rid myself of this silly solar christening (I did put on my newly acquired vegan, paraben-free sunscreen, though).

Allow me to return to the opening exclamations of this blog post, though. Living and working with artists who live in an intentional manner is always intellectually as well as emotionally stimulating; living with artists of this type offers twice the stimulation when you’re living with them in a foreign country. I will probably fail spectacularly in attempts to capture all the fantastic, thought-provoking, and poignant moments of the past few days, but here are a handful of thoughts and events that immediately come to mind:

One of the fine people here, who is a dancer, choreographer, and all-around fantastic woman, in our introduction circle on the first night when all of us were together for dinner, expressed wonder and dismay at this: we thirteen people are gathered here from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds, brought over and invited specifically to exploit, positively, and employ our respective expertise and passions, yet this rarely happens in conventional society. “Why can’t it always be like this?” she marvelled. Truly: why is it so that we cannot, or do not, freely explore and employ our passions fully while making a living doing so? What is preventing us from doing that? Is it our culture, “society,” our families, ourselves, or a combination of the aforementioned? What can we do to change this? Do we change society or our immediate environs or just ourselves when we make a conscious decision to be passionate and intentional in our day-to-day lives, regardless of whether we make a meagre or substantial living as we do so?

A few days into my stay here, I had a moment of panic: How would we possibly reintegrate into conventional society once this stay ended? How would we leave behind the positivity, the laissez-faire attitude, the openness, the boundless kindness, the generosity, the mindfulness, the peace, and, of course, the passion, surrendering ourselves not just to the demands of our normal lives (though “normal” is a relative concept, as all of those positive traits describe the norm of our lives here), but also to the cynicism, the close- and absent-mindedness, the selfishness that permeate much of the North-American modes of thought and living? Then again, is not what I just expressed a pessimistic thought? Is not what we are doing here providing the necessary tools to employ in changing modes of thought and living elsewhere?

After lunch on yet another balmy and sunny late-spring day, a group of us walked back to the monastery from the house where most of the group resides. The trek takes a solid forty minutes, up- and downhill (but mostly steeply uphill). Along the way, there are several farms and barely double the amount of houses, and a vivid green landscape, lined with fruit trees of various types, with the constant backdrop of rolling hills; these flank the hiker on both sides. At one of the houses, a vivacious trio of dogs ran out at us, and we stopped to pet them and speak with the owner of the house and companion to these adorable animals. His name is Benito, and his dogs are gentle shepherding dogs. I acted as consecutive interpreter between my friends and Benito and his two kind farmer friends for the duration of our 20-minute conversation. It was positively lovely and moving (disclaimer: I frakking love chatting with old people). What truly caught me off-guard and overwhelmed me with emotion was when one of the men exclaimed with genuine douleur in his eyes and voice: “If there is a God up there, why didn’t he make us all speak the same language?” I joked and blamed it on the Tower of Babel, but he continued, indicating one of our German friends, who speaks English, who was carrying a conversation with this man through me: “It pains me because he can’t understand what I’m saying, and it pains him because I can’t understand what he’s saying.” It was an honest and simple sentiment, and I was touched by its expression and the depth of this emotion shared with complete strangers.


I think that I have spilled enough of my thoughts so far, but I can’t depart without talking about food, of course! Please forgive me in advance for not including photos of said food; though we are going to start taking photos of our meals (I'll eventually provide more details on the reason for that), it didn't feel appropriate to whip out my camera during meals during my first week here. Mark my words, though: not a soul leaves a scrap of food on his or her plate—not even I.

Where was I, though? Ah, yes: Believe it or not, our group of thirteen is blessed to have a personal chef. You read right: a personal friggin chef. And she is bloody amazing. She is so rad that, even on her very first day here, a day when most people would insist on recovering from jet lag or simply be sucked into its sleepy depths without being allowed to emit a word of protest, she insisted on cooking us a meal. I mean, she’s rad for myriad other reasons, but daaamn, can she cook! Needless to say, she and I bonded quickly.

Ever since that first day, she has blown us away with every meal she cooks—Sunday brunch included (and Sunday is supposed to be her day off!). She’s made breads, biscuits, focaccia (can you tell how carbopassionate I become when I’m in the Land of the Boot?)—all vegan. She’s made Italian-style beans, Asian-Italian fusion meals, spicy lentils, flavourful eggplant-and-zucchini stir-fry, luscious polenta, spicy chickpea curry, Mexican rice, cicoria (oh, blessèd cicoria!), potato salad, spicy green beans—and she’s been here for barely a week! Emma was willing and excited to adapt to incorporate all of our nutritional needs and dietary preferences. I’m the only vegan here, but there are two pescatarians as well as one person with lactose, gluten, and almond allergies. And she effortlessly pleases us all with healthy, hearty, wholesome meals. Praise the Heavens.

I can’t stress enough the importance of that forty-minute hike between the house and the monastery.

Sending love, gratitude, and respect,

Vegan in Suburbia