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.