(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Month: September, 2011

La bella figura di Nutella

Our original jar of Nutella from this summer, almost empty

While we were in Garfagnana this summer, we found a commemorative jar of Nutella, the Italian chocolate hazelnut spread. It was designed like the old American jelly glasses of the 1960s, so that it could be used as a glass when the spread was gone. But its perky Esperienza Italia 150 design was much more attractive than the average American jelly jar.  In commemoration of Italy’s 150 anniversary of unification this year, it had a little narrative about Italy’s design icons–the Vespa, the Moka pot, etc.–with graphics substituted for some of the words.  And most charmingly, it included a picture of Torino, the home of Nutella and now our home, on the front.

Sarie and her two friends who were staying with us jealously rationed out the contents of that small Nutella jar.  After it was empty (probably a day later), we washed it out and took it back to New York with us.  It’s on a boat at port in Genova as I write.

The “Paesaggi” Nutella jar from earlier this week.  Never mind the pigs.  I think Sarie was making some sort of statement.

A couple of days ago, I was in a supermarket and saw different Nutella jar from the series, so I bought it.  This one featured Venice, and was labelled “Il paesaggi,” or “The Countryside.”  It featured the freccia rossa (the fast train Bob takes to Milan), the leaning tower of Pisa, and the beautiful blue of the sea.

Need I say that that jar is already almost half empty?  And this time there’s only one person eating it.

After finding this second jar, I got curious about how many designs there were in the series and looked them up on the internet.  Turns out there are four of them, and they are about to be replaced by Smurf jars.  (Not nearly as cute in my opinion.)  And design junkies love the Esperienza Italia series. So yesterday when I was out shopping and saw a third design, with Florence on the front, I snapped it up, too.  It’s my personal favorite because it’s about art and literature.  Though I’m very fond of the original design one, too.

As I was about to go to the counter (or pivot, really, as the store was very small) with my find, I noticed, behind the other Nutella jars, the fourth and final jar in the series. I greedily swiped it up and started to plop it on the counter.  But then I thought about Sarie eating half a jar of Nutella in twenty-four hours, and about my own American acquisitiveness.  It sort of took the fun out of the search.  So I put it back.

But somewhere in our future, I hope, is that last jar of commemorative Nutella, the one with Naples on it.

“Buona domenica!”

This will be another quick update.  We’re putting a bid on an apartment this week, because our furniture will be arriving soon! The apartment, if we get it, will require some work first, so we’ll be moving to a friend’s apartment for a month while the renovations are carried out. (The friend, meanwhile, has moved to NYC.) After two weeks of looking at apartments as a full time job, I now know the layout of the city and the feel of its various neighborhoods, the common features of apartments here, and how to carry on at least a rudimentary business phone conversation.  Of course, I sbaglio (mess up) every time I answer the phone, but you have to start somewhere.

In other news, Sarie passed her Italian language exam yesterday!  That means she’s allowed to sit for violin auditions next week at the conservatory.  For the audition, she’s learning a little Bach Musette.  The conservatory requires piano and she’s never taken a lesson. She can sight read, but hasn’t ever perfected anything.  And all she has to practice on is an iPad app!  This lowest common denominator of piano will, in the Italian fashion, determine her level in the conservatory.  But we’re not going to worry about it, because she’ll have the same teacher, regardless.

One difference between New York and Torino that has been surprisingly hard for me to get used to is that in Italy nothing much is open on Sunday, including grocery stores.  I’m sure it used to be this way in the US as well, but I’ve found that I’ve really had to adjust my thinking to prepare for Sunday every week.  Add to this the fact that I’m usually quite busy on Saturdays, and that you can’t shop on Saturday between 1:30 and 4:00, and it really pushes the deadline back to Friday.  And there’s Monday morning’s breakfast to be taken into consideration as well.  Italy is still a housewife’s world, and that world requires a well-stocked pantry.

On this, our third weekend, I finally started to get into the rhythm of shopping early.  I only had 45 minutes on Saturday because of the language exam, but on the way back to the residence, I stopped by at least four places to get food.  I found I was part of a general rush to prepare for the weekend.  I took a number (a favorite Italian custom) and stood in line everywhere I went.  I snapped up foglie (a flaky pastry) with prosciutto, some brioches (Americans call them croissants), milk and panna (cream, and I had to go with the kind in a box), some salad greens and onions, speck and pancetta (both cured meats), a couple of knots of fresh mozzarella, a bottle of red wine, jam, yogurt, and I once again struck out on the only Italian cereal we like.  By this time, I couldn’t carry another thing, so I went home.

Everywhere I went, I heard people greeting each other “Buona domenica!” as they paid for their purchases.  “Have a good Sunday!” Europe may be largely secular now, but in Italy at least, many traditions are still in place.  Only the stores in the walking districts will be open, and that’s where most of the Torinese will be after their Sunday lunches, taking their weekend social walks.  It’s as much of a tradition as walking in Central or Riverside Park is for Upper East Side and Upper West Side families in New York.  They’ll be lined up at Grom for Ice Cream and getting espressos at all the outdoor cafes.  But they will not be at the grocery store.  And now that I’ve finally learned to think ahead and buy for the weekend, I think that’s rather nice.

Some favorite Italian foods: summer tomatoes (the ones from heaven), the best and most deeply green olives we’ve ever eaten, fresh pasta in a shop on Via Micca, fresh butter shaped like a shell, and our favorite lunch of cantaloupe, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and another cheese whose name I forget at the moment, but it was delicious.

Neighbors and neighborhoods, with some tomatoes thrown in

I’ve been looking at apartments all week. At first I couldn’t figure out how to find the ones I wanted, but now I seem to have gotten into the network and I’ve got realtors calling me. I’m getting to know all the different neighborhoods and different kinds of apartments. I’ve learned all the names of the rooms and real estate terms in Italian. I’ve gotten over my fear of the salutation “Pronto!” which is how Italians start a phone call. Sure, sometimes I miss who it is that’s calling, but eventually I start hearing familiar apartment descriptions, and an address.  That much I can understand.

So far I’ve seen two apartments that I was interested enough in to take Bob back for a look, but nothing is just right yet. I want central, but not on a busy street, light, old, enough rooms but not too much money, hopefully a furnished kitchen (Italians usually take their kitchens with them when they move), and something that doesn’t require too much work before we move in. I can usually get one or two of these things, but getting all is tricky here, as it is everywhere.

Tomatoes from heaven, close to the roof

As you can guess, since this is Italy, the food is consistently wonderful and the people are charming. Earlier this week, we had some tomatoes that were so perfect that Bob said, “If there are tomatoes in Heaven, they taste like this.” Ever since we’ve called them the heavenly tomatoes. Yesterday I waited in line with several nonne (grandmothers) to buy some more. It took a while–apparently they’re popular! (Update:  I’ve found out that these tomatoes are called cuore di bue, or ox heart. For salads, Italians like them not quite ripe.)

The proprietor of another stand put a bunch of parsley in my bag for free (does he know they charge $2 for a bunch in NYC?), and later, when I couldn’t remember the Italian word for chard (it’s bietoli), stuck a bunch of some other kind of greens in. I still don’t know what they are, but I’ll cook them tonight! And then there was the guy who shook my hand when I told him I was from New York. He was a stout, red-faced man wearing an apron. I asked him if he had been there and he stuck his hands together in a praying motion: “Before I die. Before I die!”

I met a proprietress today (that’s what they call apartment owners) who owned a whole building in a neighborhood in the south part of the center. She was probably close to 80, considerably shorter than me (which is saying something), and she wore one of those shapeless blue house dresses that old Italian women wear indoors. For some reason she couldn’t let us in the regular front door, so she took us through her apartment and out the back to the kitchen entrance. You could tell this was one of those apartments that had been lived in for a lifetime. It had antiques, books, rugs, and interesting momentoes everywhere. Unlike most Italians we meet, she spoke some English, and seemed to want to use it. She said she had been in New York many years ago.

The apartment she had to show us unfortunately didn’t have a second bedroom. I wish it had, because it was very interesting! The living room had the original stone floor with a geometric pattern and a small fireplace. “Un gioccatolo,” she mused. (A toy.) “Only good for roasting chestnuts.” There was a sort of square hallway with wide planked wooden floors, and then three marble-topped steps up to a bedroom with a coved ceiling with a frescoed border. It reminded me of something from some cheery catacombs, if there are such things. There were archways all over, and she had a lot of her own old armoires in the apartment, some of which she offered to leave for us to use. Though the building was built in 1882 (these buildings often have the year set in mosaics at the entrance), it didn’t look Victorian, but much older, because of the thick walls and shuttered windows. That’s typical of Torinese apartment buildings. They also have huge wooden entry doors which often open into a courtyard.

When we left the apartment and went back outside, it was starting to drizzle a bit. Some old ladies would be fussy about getting wet, but she said, “Piove!” in a lovely enthusiastic voice and held up her hands with a gesture as though starting to dance or conduct an orchestra. Then she said that if we ever needed anything, to call her. I think she just liked the idea of having us as tenants!

And this is only one of several lovely people I’ve met this week. The older people are particularly wonderful. And listening to them is a great way to learn Italian. I hope we end up with one of these people as a neighbor. And I hope we get invited to dinner.

Quick update

I didn’t mean to disappear off the face of the earth.  It’s just that I’ve entered the alternate world of Italian real estate.  I’m looking for an apartment.  And that, by definition, means I’m speaking Italian daily.  I’m learning all the real estate words.

Meanwhile, below is a photo (credit to Sarie) of one of my favorite parts of the city, the intersection where Via Micca meets Via Cernaia and Piazza Solferino.  I would like to live not far from here.

And my iPad is a real life saver in this search.  I can plug in any two addresses and get public transit directions on a map from one to the other, with time included.  On the go. And a little blue dot with my location follows me the whole way.

Torno subito! (Back soon.)

A casa–at least, it’s home for now

The pink pig, who goes on all our journeys with us, and her six babies.  They’ve settled on the bookshelf for now.

We have finally arrived in Torino.  We’re set up in a single attic room in a Torino residence until we can find an apartment.  A residence is a particularly European institution, I think.  It’s not quite a hotel, but it’s more like a hotel than it is like a true apartment.  Ours has a double bed, a sofa-bed, a Pullman kitchen, a walk-in closet, and a large bathroom.  Stylistically speaking, it’s a typical Italian combination of old (exposed rough-hewn beams, slanting ceiling, and plaster walls) and new (modern furniture, tiny iridescent tiles in the kitchen, stainless stair railings, and a skylight in the bathroom).

Above, our room as seen from the stairs to the bath and closet. And below, Sarie studying for her online classes, which have already begun.

But what we are enjoying surprisingly much is that it’s an attic room.  Last night we opened the two large side-sash dormer windows (almost no windows in Italy have screens) and watched the sun set while we ate dinner. From a certain angle, we could see the Alps. And down below all we could hear were the clinking of dishes and the occasional low horn of a train pulling into Porta Nuova station. Those are both comforting sounds, and to people used to the lullaby of Broadway, the minimum needed to feel like we’re in civilization.

(The sunset photos above, and roof photo below are Sarie’s)

Another thing we have discovered from our attic room is chimney pots.The ones across from us are all of all types, but the ones I like most are the rusty metal ones with decorative spires. They remind of the pottery dishes I used to get jungle curry in at the Thai restaurant across Broadway on 108th St.  Or perhaps they remind me of fanciful bird houses. On these tile roofs, they’re mixed with small satellite dishes, antennas, skylights, and other types of chimneys.

And if you look down below, you can see the ubiquitous lines of laundry drying, with shuttered windows and narrow balconies. Nearly every building I’ve been inside in Torino has a courtyard almost identical to this, painted the same shade of yellow. In most oil paint selections it’s called Naples Yellow. It’s Italian yellow, anyway.

I’m adjusting to a lot of things, the main one of which, of course, is a new language.  I find that I can understand the gist of what people are saying, but surprisingly often, there are important distinctions in the details. And I have the hardest time replying with the right verb forms!  Sarie, at least, is going to a language school to study intensively for her conservatory language test.

So far, everyone has been very kind.  And though I’m aware that I don’t look typically Italian, I’m flattered that old ladies come up and speak conspiratorially to me on the bus or tram.  That makes me feel like I’m in New York.  And as in New York, I’ve noticed that men don’t often get up for old ladies! A woman was complaining to me about this just this morning, but then I noticed she didn’t take a middle seat when it became free.

The other thing to get used to is unexpected closings. I know that many stores close for a while after lunch, on Saturday afternoons, on Sundays, and still on Monday mornings.  But there are also those spontaneous non-advertised closings, with signs on the shops that say, “Torno subito.”  (“Gone out. Back soon.”)  The orari estivi (summer hours) and the numerous holidays.

A primary concern at the moment is how to make sure we have something in our room to eat. Pullman kitchen cooking is tricky enough (no oven, so I make toast on the electric burners), but when I went to the supermarket yesterday after siesta, I discovered that the store was only open in the morning on Wednesdays. Finally I found another a few blocks away, and several other stores that were certainly worth the exploration. And someone told me about a market that’s open most mornings, if only I can get there. I’m sure we’ll want to eat a greater variety of foods by October, when we hope to move into our as-yet-unfound apartment. But for now, we’re happy enough with pasta. The sheer variety of it (the average grocery store devotes an entire aisle to pasta) should keep us busy for the next couple of weeks.

The faucet (above) looks remarkably like a swan, don’t you think?  And the teapot, below, resembles a UFO, especially when it starts rocking crazily on the burner as though it’s about to take off!

Il stile italiano

It seems there are two main kinds of Italian style–traditional, with wooden beams and white plaster, and modern, with clean lines and an experimental sensibility.  All of these photos are from our February trip to Italy. The photos above, of Antica Locanda dei Mercanti in Milan, show a pleasant combination to the two.  The photos below, of the apartment we stayed in in Torino, are more modern, but the building itself was from the 18th century, which lends to the charm of the apartment.  The furniture itself is not expensive (probably IKEA), but it is cleverly used.  Overall, the combination works.

And I put this text right in the middle of the  post because I had a annoying gap between the photos, and I wanted to hide it!