Saturday, March 24, 2012

First Maria's Mussels then Vinci & San Miniato

Tall and thin with a huge smile and bright sparkling eyes... it's curious how first impressions create lasting memories. Alessandro was a summer house guest of an Old Sacramento attorney. The attorney met "Alex" while vacationing in Piombino, Italy, located on the coast near the island of Elba. Alex, age 17, was a waiter at the Hotel Esperia, owned by his parents. He mentioned to the American tourists that he planned to visit United States, and a few months later arrived to experience the summer of 1984 in California.

I ran my public relations company from an office located in the law firm. Between the lawyers, staff, spouses, private investigator and me, 10-12 of us assumed the role of Alessandro's American family. He was charming and welcomed into our clan immediately. We taught him about California, life in America, and shared our favorite pastimes. We were there for him at a critical time in his development, when learning experiences would last a lifetime. In 1986, our "adopted Italian son" returned for another summer, and a few years after that, I lost track of him. Christmas cards to Italy were returned with no forwarding address. His folks had retired from the hotel, and by now, Alex had certainly grown out of his carefree adventurous teenage years.
Fast forward to 2011. The decision is made I will go to Italy with Barbra and take her photography class at the Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence. Coincidently, Alex received a misplaced card from me that had been mailed to the hotel several years prior, given to his parents, who still live in Piombino, and then forwarded to him. After many years of no communication, he easily found me via the internet. Imagine my surprise to hear from him and learn that he lived with his wife and two sons about 25 minutes outside of Florence. He invited Barbra and me for a Saturday visit. We would take the train.

Their house is in Fucecchio, between the San Miniato and Empoli train stations. I was excited as well as anxious about this meeting. After 25years, would I recognize this boy turned man? He had emailed a photo of his family and his oldest son was a carbon copy of the young Alex I knew. Would he still speak English? His recent emails had been quite understandable and delightful. What would we talk about? Somehow we always found something to talk about, I guessed we would again. Those uncomfortable feelings passed as soon as the train stopped in Empoli shortly after noon.

A tall thin man stood on the station platform as close as he could get to the incoming trains. He waved with joy when my head popped out the train door - and just then, a pleasant calm came over me, as if I was coming home, home to a place I had never been, and in a way I was. Alex and I shared experiences and relationships with several loved ones who have since passed. We are part of each others' history. Alex embraced Barbra and me with a pure sigh of relief and joy often reserved for long lost relatives. We drove through the streets in the town where 17th Century artist Jacobi da Empoli painted his masterpieces and we drove by a large industrial looking building with the words PRADA in big bold letters. Soon we reached the home of Alex and Maria and their sons, Andrea and Fabio.

A symphony of flavors floated from the mussel pot on the stove, through the living room, and out the front door. Maria was busy in the kitchen preparing lunch. She wore a pretty sunflower blue cotton sundress with its hem hiked up every 10 or so inches creating a scalloped billowing effect. She said this was her "house dress", but she looked pretty enough to go to a party. She was inherently warm and hugged me as one hugs an old friend. I was, in fact, an old story come to life.
There was no hesitancy in Maria's manner as she manipulated the pots and pans, sliced and stirred, and brought out one dish after another for placement on the kitchen table. The photos here show only part of our lunch. The table was quickly layered with so much food that it read like a feast in a 17th Century still life: sliced grilled eggplant, skinned potatoes, cheeses, cold meats, fresh green salad, breads… so many plates that after the meal, some were wrapped and returned to the refrigerator untouched. Our individual bowls of mussels were refilled from a seemingly endless supply on the stove. Alex encouraged us to use the garlic toasted bread to soak up the sauce - his suggestion did not need repeating.

Maria was scheduled to work that afternoon and Alex would be our driver. He drove us to meet Maria’s brother and pick up sister-in-law Barbara, (spelled with three a's, unlike photographer Barbra spelled with two a's) who enjoyed practicing her English while serving as our tour guide. Her delightful stories of the countryside, history, and travel kept us entertained and laughing all afternoon. The relationship between the family members was impressive in its unusual ease. They were all happy individuals and happy together.

Our private tour took us to the villages of Vinci, home of Leonardo daVinci, and San Miniato, built on three hills overlooking the lower Arno Valley, a primary route between Europe and Rome in the Medieval times. On the train ride back from the coastal towns in Cinque Terre, we saw a tall watch tower perched atop a hill like an angel on a Christmas tree. That was San Miniato and the walk up the inclined pathway to the tower, although only a few blocks long, caused every calf and thigh muscle to burn and beg for mercy. At the top of the hill, couples lounged on the grass under the shade trees. The spectacular views and serenity provided an outdoor sanctuary for lovers in the early stages of discovery. 

Our stop in Vinci was nothing short of awe inspiring. Walking on the hills Leonardo knew so well just made you want to breathe deeply, with eyes wide open, in hopes of being infected by the surroundings that fed his genius. We arrived at the end of day after the museum closed. This provided a good excuse to return on another trip. The street, however, exposed a fascinating built-in outdoor museum. The strange angles and shapes embedded in the ground enabled viewers to examine the thought pattern of daVinci’s mind.
Back at Alex and Maria's, Maria had returned from work and was preparing a second remarkable meal - dinner (those recipes will be shared in another story.) After dinner Maria gave Barbra and me each a bookmark to remember our day. Mine is a frog which is taped to the monitor of my computer.

It was dark when they drove us to Empoli to catch the last train back to Florence. Inside the train, I took a final look out the window to capture a lasting memory of the day. Both Alex and Maria stood on the platform as close to the train as possible. I wiped the tears from my eyes. Maria wiped her eyes. Alex smiled that big Italian smile and his eyes twinkled as if to say, don't worry - we'll all be together again, but this time it won't be 25 years.

Thank you Maria for sharing your recipes!

In California we can buy shell fish in months that contain an "r" (January, February, March, April, September, October, November, December).

Here's what Alex said when I asked him about seasons in Italy. "We don’t really have a season for shell fish, let’s say that during wintertime we find mussels from Sardinia, Liguria and Adriatic sea, while in summertime we find mussels from Spain, but at the end we have mussels all the year !"

NOTE: I considered rewriting the recipe as you might see a recipe in a cook book, but decided it's best in Alex’s own words - in reading his explanation you'll share the warmth of Maria’s kitchen.


"Let’s speak about mussels…

Well take couple of Kg. of mussels that must be cleaned, wash them and put them inside a pot, then put a little bit of extravergine olive oil, parsley and cut garlic, half a lemon (squish it), and a little of hot pepper (chilli peppers), (do not put any salt in the pot ) then cover the pot and lite the fire with a low flame; after about ten minutes, open the pot and put in half a glass of white wine, and let cook for other 10 minutes; taste if they are cooked at the right point and serve them. It is also good with the water that they produce, to put some toasted bread that can be rubbed with some garlic.

Hope they are clear enough, but please tell me for any doubt.

Maria is happy that the frog bookmark watches over you !!!!!

Good appetite !!!!!!!!!!!!


Alex and Maria

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Excess of Accessories… the Street Market at Piazza San Lorenzo

You can never have enough… what? To some it's jewelry, money, romance, or chocolate, but ask another person and the answer might be travel, museum passes, or fast shiny cars. I like color. To this end, I wander the street markets in hopes to pass close enough to the rows of hanging scarves that residue from the dye slips into my pores, changing my Scandinavian white skin to the pearl pink of an oyster shell with the iridescent quality of the woven silk. I walk the streets of the market place often, not looking for a trinket to take home or yet another unnecessary accessory, but rather for a color rush.
The street market is perhaps the perfect visual representation of the phrase “organized chaos.” The abundance of items are showcased by clever display techniques and offer an advanced lesson in structural engineering. The two primary display methods used are to hang and to lay. Scarves are systematically knotted, draped, and layered, right next to purses which hang one overlapping another like crackers neatly spread on a cheese plate. The soft hanging items play the clear proper notes like the string and horn sections in the orchestra while the rigid table top items bang together with the calamity of the percussion section.

The outdoor market guarantees the opportunity for discovery – my second favorite reason for wandering the streets. “You’ve got to get those,” I overhear a college student with a purple stripe in her waist length chestnut hair say to her friend with braids, “Get those fuchsia colored ones. No the tangerine.”
“I just couldn’t,” replies the blond girl, adjusting the strap on her gingham sundress, “Momma will just kill me when I get home.”
“No she won’t,” says the first girl, tugging at the waist of her red leggings, “Trust me, she’ll just be glad you made it home and didn’t move in with that cute waiter at the Old Stove,” she says referring to the local pub in Piazza Signoria, a favorite beer drinking karaoke haunt of students abroad.

There are blocks of stalls set-up in the streets around Piazza San Lorenzo, the closest street market to my home on Via Ricasoli. I have learned to walk each block in six different ways. I don’t zigzag back and forth but rather walk from one end to the other, either on the right side, left side, or down the center – and then repeat the process from the other end. As I approach from different directions, the ever-changing color stories of the stalls provide new sources of inspiration.
The colors show in patches: larger items popping like ornaments on a Christmas tree, and smaller trinkets blending together mosaic-style. Vendors take full advantage of the space by hanging goods from the 10’ tall cross bars of the “porta stalls,” which are actually wagons. In the morning, the petals of the wagon open outward creating stalls with a kaleidoscope of surprises for the tourists. In the evening, the remaining products, along with the hinged canvas awning, fold neatly back into the wagons and are rolled into nearby warehouses for overnight storage and restocking.

Next to the souvenir stall (magnets, bottle openers, key rings, etc.) is a stall with men’s clothes. Today, just above my eye level, a white shirt hangs with pair of papaya colored linen pants. “Ah Marcello” I say out loud, imagining his strong bronze arms extending through the rolled sleeves and his bare legs rubbing against the nub of the linen. He wears bright colored pants, I have determined, so that I can easily identify him in a crowd.

I have not seen him for days and now, imagining him wearing those papaya pants, my eyes scan the crowds in hopes to catch a glance of my Marcello. I search the crowd until finally, my wish is granted – I see a man from behind – red shoes, red shirt and short pants in color called chartreuse.
“Ciao Bella,” I hear him say to a girl and I am jealous. “Bella, Bella, youa coma herea and Ia giva youa extra special.” His words to her make me even more jealous. I can’t see his face as he speaks to the girl, so much younger than I that she is certainly inexperienced with real men, men like Marcello. She seems plain and ignores him. I want her to go away. I won’t ignore him. “Bella, Ciao Bella” he says again and this time she walks away, leaving room for me to get closer.
“I’m here Marcello,” I think so loudly that my face flushes crimson. “I’m here for you Marcello,” I think even more loudly as I approach in hopes that my thoughts speak to his manly desire. And then, as I anticipate our eyes meeting with passion, he turns and like a wind-up toy repeats “Ciao Bella, youa coma herea and Ia giva youa extra special.”

“Yikes,” I gasp, my body responding with such shock that I almost lose my footing on the cobble street. It’s not my Marcello at all – it is a buffoon waving a rainbow colored duster at some leather jackets. Having caught me blatantly excited, he smiles even bigger with delight. “Bella, Bella, wherea youa go, Bella. Coma backa Bella, Ia hava something special fora youa,” I hear him say as I quickly turn and scoot down the street, away from the marketplace, away from the color fix of my day, away from my dream of a chance meeting with Marcello.

The stalls are starting to close and the sun is going down. The festival atmosphere of the street market quickly slips away when the daylight dims. I’m shaken by my aborted search and the heart pounding anticipation, followed by the jolt of disappointment. I plod indifferently from street to street until I reach my home, my safe haven on Ricasoli. I aim my key toward the shoulder high keyhole just as someone inside pulls the door open. Dulled by my sadness, I don’t want to speak Italian right now, so I don’t raise my eyes. My head hangs down as I brush against a large figure in the doorway and step into the long dark hallway leading to the stairs to my apartment. “Ciao Bella,” says Marcello as he pulls the heavy door closed behind him and walks out into the golden glow of the Florentine sunset.