Archive | November, 2011

Pest for a Day

29 Nov

I don’t have a traditional commute (defined as a route I take the office daily), as I work from home.  But more often than not, I am on the road and can define my commute as the path I take from my hotel to wherever I meet clients.  And certainly even my home base of Rome makes for some of the scenic commuting in the world.  10 minutes early for a meeting?  Why don’t I just nip into this 500-year old church with a Michelangelo sculpture?

(My friends, please stop laughing hysterically now at the thought of me 10 minutes early for anything)

It gets dark early now in Pest...I took this at 4:20 PM on November 29

I consider myself extremely fortunate in that my work allows me to travel all over the world.  This wanderlust can also be stressful, as most days I am trying to get to entirely new locations in unfamiliar cities in languages I don’t know.  However, the languages I can manage with various degrees of proficiency: English, Mandarin, French and Italian – can take me quite far.

As I write this over a quick meal, I recognize my coping strategy for a quick nutritious lunch in almost any city (as opposed to resorting to American fast food in Europe).  Spending 2 days in Hungary has done little for my proficiency in the language, so ordering what I’d like, and making sure it can be delivered quickly can best be accomplished with that ubiquitous fixture of any city in the world: the Chinese restaurant.

Anyway, while I am fortunate to travel to some of the most incredible cities of the world, my schedule rarely allows me to step into many sights.  I expect I hold the world’s record for lifetime visits to Paris without seeing the Louvre (which distresses me greatly). But fortunately my travels allow me to do 2 of the things I adore the most abroad – walk around and explore neighborhoods, and enjoy a quiet dinner at a local bistro.

Christmas Market getting underway in Budapest

For the last day and a half I’ve explored Budapest between appointments, and have been delighted by this city.  Budapest was never at the top of my list of places to see – no particular reasons for this, it just never stood out for me.  But I’m delighted to stumble across its charms.  I don’t know the names of the buildings I’ve passed of their illustrious histories, but that detracts none from their beauty.

I’ve stayed mostly in Pest; Buda is on the other side of the Danube River that slices in between the 2 historic twins. Throughout my wanderings in the city I’ve seen magnificent architecture throughout the city; a generally refined and elegant style that contrasts Rome’s equally delightful chaotic-ness.  The pedestrian street that runs behind my hotel (Bohem Art Hotel – stylish & efficient with free wifi and great breakfast) that is lined with little vendors selling mulled, hot wine.

Yum...hot spiced wine is perfect for chilly evenings

If this blog had “Smell-o-Vision” you could experience the spicy sweetness that warms you as you pass by each vendor.  The pedestrian laneway runs to a Christmas market, which seems to be still getting underway. Never mind, I’ll be on a veritable Christmas market pilgrimage this week – with stops in Bratislava, Brno and Prague.

For dinner last night I treated myself to an old and elegant looking bistro (Central) whose food and wine did not disappoint.  Proudly featuring Hungarian wines exclusively I was pleasantly surprised by both the flavor of a Pinot Noir-style wine as well as the fact that the restaurant served it in a proper glass.  The warm mushroom salad was nothing memorable but the oven roasted pork leg…heavenly.  Hungarians like their meat!

Roast leg of pork in Central Bistro...

Chariot for Caesar!

After dinner I walked along the Danube and reflected on the history that has passed along its banks.  There are tiles marking the reigns of Roman emperors…I couldn’t actually read them but could recognize that Flavius Csaszarok would have been Caesar Vespasian Flavius, the builder of the coliseum.  Further along, I smiled to see a posh restaurant called Imperator (the ancient military connotation of Emperor in Latin) along the banks of the Danube with a limo parked out front.   I think Julius Caesar would have liked this.

On to Bratislava!

Arrivederci Toronto, good morning Italy!

26 Nov

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Teflon Man Quits? We’ll see….

8 Nov

Berlusconi has survived uncounted confidence votes, and I was surprised he survived today’s until I just saw the news: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/09/world/europe/support-for-berlusconi-ebbs-before-crucial-vote.html?ref=global-home  Forget stripper scandals and the concern of the world on Italy’s looming financial crisis – what astonished me were his callous remarks this week in response to fears of Italy’s economy:

Italy is a rich country, restaurants are full.

The extent to which this statement is utterly disconnected from the reality that most Italians face is astonishing.  And yet, most Italians voted for him, AND most Italians despair of the state of their country today.  I constantly badger Alessandro about this.  Obviously, Berlusconi’s control of the media has a major influence on the views and thoughts of the average Italian.  But more than that, the many Italians who voted for him felt:

Someone as rich as Berlusconi will not be corrupt because he doesn’t need the money.

With someone like Berlusconi I don’t think it’s only money that is the appeal – it’s the endless ego stroke of being in power and being of ultimate influence.  Oh yes and there is the equally compelling:

Berlusconi is a successful businessman and therefore he can run a country.

Every day I am interrogated by Italians who are underemployed, underpaid, unemployed  – how could I possible leave Canada for Italy?  In 10 years of power Berlusconi has never been able to match the economic growth, prosperity and cultural achievements of Italy in the 60s.

Italy is a country of crooks and it takes  a crook to manage us.

Well, yes, I have learned that Italians are deservedly well-known for their scoff-law attitude, but at the end of the day with Italy’s economy in shambles I am convinced that Berlusconi’s interests and understanding not account for the average person on the street.

Like a cat with 900 lives, I honestly doubt that Berlusconi will actually willingly step down.  As a public citizen, he would no longer be immune from the 100s of legal cases against him.  We’ll see….at least Alessandro has admitted that although he voted for him in the past, he never would again.

Pondering Loneliness in Shanghai

6 Nov

“I don’t want you to feel alone,” Alessandro told me, from 6 time zones away. I had just landed in Shanghai, in the midst of a grueling multi-city solo tour of China for business.  In less than week I’d traveled to Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Nanjing and now Shanghai.  With a travel schedule like that, you barely have time to feel basic bodily functions, let alone subtle emotions.

Now my schedule would allow me a respite of a few days in Shanghai, and I pondered why his words were reverberating in my consciousness.

I like to travel alone, often even prefer it.  While I’ve had many magical experiences traveling with friends and family, I am thrilled by the adventure and freedom of solo exploration. I have a great sense of direction and have always found that locals are more than willing to help or assist a stranger in their midst.  Not to mention the joy of just going with my own flow and rhythm of travel, rather than discussing all decisions with a committee.

As I reflected on the unexpected impact of Alessandro’s words to me, I realized that it had been a long time – almost another lifetime – since I’d been in Shanghai.

It was the spring of 2005 that I visited Shanghai for the first time.  It was exactly 3 weeks after my husband and I had decided – after months, and years, of fighting, separating and attempting to reconcile – that divorce was inevitable. Over the next 6 months I travelled to Shanghai no less than 4 times, before finally settling there in the winter of 2005 for an extended stay until spring.

Now where am I supposed to go?

Shanghai formed the backdrop for the most agonizing time of my life.  Within the space of a few months in 2005 I had turned my back on every stable element in my life – my 10 year marriage, my little cottage home, my job, and my friends in Hawaii, which had been my home for the last 6 years. At the same time that my marriage was painfully imploding, it seemed that all my friends in Hawaii were getting married and joyfully welcoming their first children into their lives.  My happiness for them was clouded by the knowledge that this environment was no place for a disillusioned divorcee. The process of understanding what was broken in my marriage led to a larger evaluation of what was broken in my life.  I had taken a deep hard look, and did not like what I saw; realizing that I had been coasting through the last few years on a safe and comfortable mediocracy.

I’m not sure why I choose to pass this period of my life in Shanghai of all places. Perhaps I no longer felt comfortable in the structure of the society I knew. And having lived abroad before I knew there is a wonderful thing that happens.  With expats you can form a tight, almost instant circle – they are kindred spirits who know without speaking your wanderlust, your seeking and your challenges.

I remember, just weeks after the finality of my separation, siting in a cafe and pondering my imminent dating life.  It had been 10 years since I had been on a date; I had been a mere girl then. I knew nothing of how adults interacted…I remember at that moment an adorable blonde boy tapped on the window outside the cafe whe I was sitting. Ah. Flirting, I presume? We established some kind of comminicattion through the glass. When we put up our driver’s licenses to the window to the window to learn each others’ names and where we were from, I also saw he was 10 years my junior. Joined by his friends, they motioned for me to come otside and join them.  Nope, for some reason I couldn’t leave the safety of this wall of glass. They persisted and apparently decided they had to meet me, as they entered the cafe and boisterously invaded my table.  Suddenly without the glass barrier keeping them at a distance, I came undone.  In my life, I’ve never experienced a panic attack and here I was – sweating, shaking, and sweating so much I could feel persperation dripping off my nose. I am still surprised I didn’t throw up on them!  Incapable of concealing my anguish, I told them they were making me nervous.  As they left I knew they could never fathom the reason why I sent them away.

When I arrived in Shanghai I had never felt so alone in my life.  Failed marriage, traumatic and doomed post-divorce romance, I felt completely lost in Shanghai.  Shanghai had been the backdrop to the most lonely and lost period of my life.

It’s astonishing to look back and think of how much has happened in these past 6 years.  After leaving Shanghai I lived in Toronto for 5 years, being

6 years later, a world of difference....

welcomed by a network of similarly eclectic and spiritually-minded souls such as I.  I launched my business, and although it didn’t evolve the way I had imagined, I am grateful for what I learned and accomplished during the process.  And I met Alessandro, my soulmate; and after 4 years of balancing a very long distance relationship, I finally moved to Italy.

I can faintly perceive the echos of past loneliness as I walk the streets of Shanghai, but now, I am so grateful to feel such a presence of love and belonging in my life – as far away from alone as I could possibly be.

Food Paradise in Northern Italy…oh yes, and there’s wine too…and single men!

1 Nov

It’s not that Italian women don’t care about food, but I never cease to be amazed by the passion and expertise that Italian men express regarding food.

A few weeks ago, we spent the weekend in one of the world’s elite wine regions, during the autumn wine crush.

Paradise? Yes, unless you are a vegetarian.

We were “helping” Aldo Marenco, a family-owned organic wine producer in la Langue of Piemonte Italy.  Having just hand-picked the harvest, it was urgent that the grapes be crushed before they started to ferment. I am sure they would have done just find without our complete lack of expertise, but they graciously allowed us to watch and participate in this ancient ritual first hand.

Claudio Marenco is the son who took over the wine production from his father, Aldo. Today they grow and make the classic wines of this region – the soft and easy drinking Dolcettos and Barberras,  as well as the region’s most prized vintage – Barolo.

The Bounty

It was Claudio’s idea when he took over the vineyard from his father to certify the wine production as organic.  As a small family-owned/operated vineyard, many of the processes were already done by hand with close attention to the natural and ancient methods of growth.  Grapes were hand-picked; not only because the uneven terrain demanded it, but also because machine-picking the grapes causes the delicate fruit to break prematurely, thus fermenting prematurely and not under the strict control of the vintner.

Me, working the farm, with Claudio’s help

As we “worked” alongside Claudio, Aldo and their neighbour, their hands coarse from working in the fields, the conversation more often than not turned to food.  We were in the process of shoveling the leftover grape skins (“must”) from the press to a truck (to be taken to a grappa production facility), when the neighbor started extolling the many culinary uses for the must.  First, he told us, you can wrap a local semi-soft cheese in the must – marrying the sharp tannins in the skin with the mellowness of the cheese.  Or you can layer the must, alternating with pepperoncino slices, for several layers, marinating in olive oil and salt.  I smiled as these men stopped their work in the field to exchange recipes and culinary tips.

The men, taking a break from their labors to chit chat about recipes

Forget a bowl of stale chips…this is what you get on the side when you order a glass of wine at an enoteca in Dogliani

Although the world knows Piemonte for its powerful wines, wine itself often seems like a backdrop to the extraordinary food here.  Interestingly enough, few Piemontese had ever heard of the Slow Food movement, even though it formally originated in the local town of Bra.  I think it’s because the slow food mentality is so ingrained in this region, that it’s simply taken for granted.

Our work on the press had to be completed by 2 PM, because that’s when lunch was served.  Claudio lives a kilometer away from the vineyard where his family’s home sits.  At 2 PM we were invited inside for a classic meal prepared by Claudio’s mother and joined by his 2 nieces.  It was one of those moments that you want to hold onto forever – after working outside in the sunshine surrounded by vineyards rippling away in every direction, to join 3 generations of a family to sit down for the midday meal – we stepped back to an idyllic place in time.

During the course of the weekend I developed a theory.  Although I know that Piemonte literally means the foot of the mountains, I think it must actually mean “carnivore” in Latin.  Each meal was layer upon layer of delicious meat.  And all the ways to prepare – and not prepare – meat!  Such as, I didn’t know that you’d want to eat raw pancetta, which is essentially bacon.  But in Piemonte, you do.

Claudio’s bread!

The multi-course lunch (even featuring bread baked by Claudio himself!) was delicious, although perhaps counter-productive?  We needed a nap afterwards.  In the meantime, Claudio went through his meticulous process of checking his wines, ensuring that the temperature in all vats and barriques would allow optimal fermentation.

It’s idyllic here.  I started fantasizing that living here was a branch of my life that I had not followed yet…and the mind started to fabricate plans. But for Claudio there’s a problem with this life Piemonte. His home and his livelihood are intertwined with this land, and you can imagine that growing up here it would be impossible to leave for anywhere else.  But according to him, for a single guy in his early forties there is no chance to meet single women.  Although Claudio’s a catch – he grows organic wine! He makes his own bread! I assumed he was exaggerating.  But a Saturday night in Dogliani was remarkable.  At a chic and atmospheric enoteca that would be bursting with single women in Toronto, the men here outnumbered the women at no less than 10 to 1.

Paradise, but you have to work for it

At the end of the weekend I was disappointed to fly to Paris, as I suspected I couldn’t possibly maintain this level of luscious indulgence in such an idyllic environment…I was right.  Next time I’m bringing some of my single girl friends!