“Auguri!” That’s how people say “Happy Birthday!” in Italy.  Everyone in our family has a fall birthday, and yesterday was Sarie’s. She turned 18.

I told her she was almost grown up.  “Stop scaring me,”  she said. So I replied, “But you’ll always be our dear girl.” Then I started cooking, which at times is more reassuring than words.

This is our second go-round of birthdays in Italy. I’m trying to get my cake recipes adapted. For years, in both Georgia and New York, I made the Thunder Cake from Patricia Polacco’s book with the same name. Somewhere in the middle of all those years, though, we switched over to my friend Susan’s Beet Chocolate Cake, probably because beets were readily available at fall farmers’ market in NYC, and besides, it’s a very moist cake.

In Torino, you can’t get beets at all until October.  When they arrive, they are come already roasted, for bagna cauda. This is fine with me, but I still can’t use them for beet cake, because I still don’t have a working blender or food processor.  (This is one of those Italian stories that I’ve left out.)  So we’ve reverted to Thunder Cake.

And we’ve had to adapt our icing recipe. You can’t get bitter chocolate in Italy. I kept hearing rumors of unsweetened chocolate, but when I’d get to the store where it was supposed to be sold, it would turn out to be sweetened, though sometimes not with sugar. My icing recipe is just too sweet unless the chocolate is bitter.

So I asked the people in the grocery store how they make chocolate cake icing. From what I understood from their responses, they don’t really do chocolate icing. They pour sweetened cream over the top of their cakes. I asked, “What do you use for sachertorte?”  (Sachertorte is a seriously chocolate German cake with glazed icing, widely available in Italy.)  They said I should ask at a pasticceria.

At the pasticceria down the street, the baker naturally thought I was trying to order a cake. This would have been an expensive miscommunication, given the price of the cute little meringue ghosts I bought from them last week when we had guests. But in the end he told me that they used cream, chocolate powder, and powdered sugar.

When I got home, Sarie, sensing an opportunity to lick the spoon, said, “Just leave it to me!  I’ll figure it out!”  So while the cake was in the oven, Sarie got out sweetened chocolate bars, powdered sugar, chocolate powder, and milk, and heated some of each in a pan on the stove. In the end, she said, she substituted chocolate powder for half of the sugar. The result was very viscous, and it didn’t quite cover the cake. In fact, it started to tear up the cake when I spread it. But oh, my, was it ever chocolate! I think this is a recipe worth perfecting.

Then we moved on to dinner. Sarie’s request had been, “Something with pancetta.” Somehow I picked up that what she really meant was, “Fall comfort food.” So I went with a mushroom risotto based on a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa’s Back to Basics.

As you might imagine, you can get all kinds of wonderful ingredients for risotto here in Italy: Several different kinds of risotto rice. Saffron in tiny packages just right for one meal. Shallots year-round. Smoked pancetta. Real porcini mushrooms. Broth hens with feet. And of course, all the wine you want.

Admittedly, when I saw how much the mushrooms cost, I drew in my breath. But I trust this produce seller, and they looked first rate. When I cut them, they made a spongey, whooshing sound. And they were very light and flavorful. Next time I can use the regular ones, but your children don’t turn 18 every day.

Risotto was one of the things we worked on in cooking class, though I’d made it in the US too. But now I have learned that no matter which risotto you make, there are always certain steps, which have distinct names in Italian. American cookbooks seem to skip the step in which you stir the rice in the oil or butter until it becomes transparent, just before putting in the wine. In addition, I’m starting to successfully negotiate the fine line between crunchy, al dente, and mushy rice at the end.

At any rate, this risotto looked warm, smelled smoky, and tasted comforting. We ate it with a fizzy red lambrusco. I honestly don’t know if that’s what it goes with, since I think lambrusco is an appetizer wine, but it seemed to make sense. Then we had cake, with silly pink candles on top, and “cream” gelato, which was better than vanilla ice cream.

I’m not quite sure what it means to turn 18 in a country where people often go to high school until they’re almost 20, and may live with their parents until they’re in their 30s. But I’m proud of Sarie’s negotiation of the past couple of years, which haven’t been easy. Growing up doesn’t really happen at the flip of a calendar page, but this was a pretty good day to celebrate taking a step closer.


Conservatory redux

Conservatory starts again next week.  Thankfully, it’s close to the school and Sarie is able to use her three-hour break on Wednesdays to practice there.

Yesterday when Sarie found her assigned practice room at the conservatory, she noticed that there was a faculty meeting going on in the room next door. There were even some distinguished-looking guests. She decided that she needed to practice extra carefully, making sure her mind didn’t wander for any of the two hours.  Once or twice she even looked up to see an adult face peeking in at the door, but she didn’t waver.

Towards the end of the practice session, there was a knock. The American violin teacher, Christine Anderson, poked her head in the door. After forty years in Italy, she still has a casual Midwestern manner.

“We all think you sound great,” began Ms. Anderson, “But we’ve been hearing nothing but Mendelssohn for two hours!  Do you think you could play something else?”

A little while earlier in the session, a conductor had knocked on the door as well.  “I’m looking for one more second violin for my orchestra,” he told Sarie.  “Would you be interested?”

A paying gig, with professionals, for a production of La Traviata.  Of course she was interested!


After dinner, Sarie sat down to write the conductor for more details about the performance.  She wanted to say, “My parents think this is a fantastic opportunity,” in Italian.  (We do? Sure, why not!)

“I think there’s something wrong with the grammar here,”  I said. “For family members, you don’t use an article with the possessive.

“It’s right.  I just know,” insisted Sarie.  I started typing search terms into Google to settle the matter.

Sarie watched over my shoulder as I typed.  Then she started to laugh. “I think you need some different search terms, or you may find out way more than you wanted to know.”

I looked at the screen.  I had written, “Possessive Italian relatives.”

And she was right about the article.

Car parade

When I first heard of Torino, I was told that it was called “the Detroit of Italy.”  This wasn’t exactly a draw. I’d never even thought that much about cars before. And besides which, I wasn’t so fond of Detroit.

But when I moved here, I was pleasantly surprised.  Torino was nothing like Detroit!  True, Fiat is based here, thus the association with cars. But unlike Detroit (unless Chryler’s acquisition of Fiat changes things), people come to Torino from all over the world to learn car design.

At any rate, I soon I realized that I liked cars.  It may have started with Mini-Coopers, like the one on our street that has a British flag on the top. Or the Smartcars, which people parked on the street corners where there was no real parking space, or even sideways in a parallel spot.

Or maybe it was the car parade that started it.  One morning last fall, Sarie and I were walking to church when we saw an old-timey car drive by, one with a literal wooden “trunk” on the back.  The men riding in it were dressed like characters from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, wearing wool caps and goggles. Later, as we walked home from church, we found an entire exhibit of cars on Via Roma (sort of the Madison Avenue of Torino). As we walked among them, they began to line up for a parade. I never liked parades before, either. But this one was charming! After the parade, the cars all parked along Via Po, by the river. There we spent an hour or more examining all the cars and taking photos.

Cars from last fall’s car parade.  Frankly, I don’t know what most of them are, except that they are almost all Italian. But I know the one on the bottom is a Tesla, an electric car.

Then last summer, we took some friends to the Museo dell’Automobile, or car museum. The museum told the history of automobiles from steam power vehicles that a person could easily out-walk (about 2 mph), to the latest cars built to break speed records (currently 763 mph).  I liked the creative design of the exhibit space, and that in turn made me appreciate the design of the cars.

Economic conditions after World War II created a dichotomy in car design between Europe and the US. There was a blossoming of innovative small cars in Europe, including one that opened at the front! At the same time, cars in the US were getting bigger and bigger, and growing fins. One of my favorite European car models in the museum was the Cisitalia from the late 1940s to early 50s.  (My photos of these didn’t turn out so well, but you can see them in this link.)  Many modern car designers are also fond of the Citroen ID 19 series (the car below that looks like it’s flying).

Below are a couple of cars from the streets of Torino.  My favorite cars that I see on the streets are the tiny ones (Italians must like them too, since mi Amore means my Love), but occasionally I’ll see a very attractive sports car. Ironically, we are carless for the time being, since none of us has an Italian license yet. Once we finally get licenses and buy or lease a car, we’ll probably choose something practical.  But at the very least, I’ve discovered another aspect of Italian design.  Viva la macchina italiana!

Photo credit on this last car goes to my friend Sinming, who came to visit us last weekend!  Her family went to the car museum, too, and that’s what inspired me to write this post.

Two books about Italy and Italians

I’ve just finished two books with an Italian theme, so I thought I’d review them here for anyone who might be interested:

Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the FutureGood Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future by Bill Emmott

This book is a primer on Italy’s current government and economic woes by a former editor of The Economist. I picked it up because I wanted to understand my adopted country better.  And given Italy’s status in the news lately, I thought it was important to do so.

It’s easy to read and understand, and it’s seemingly even-handed, though I admit to being a novice in the subject. One of the big take-home points is that self-protection and heavy regulations prevent Italian businesses from being able to grow to world-leader status, despite Italy’s obvious talents in food, design and engineering. I nodded heartily when Emmott mentioned that bureaucracy makes immigration so discouraging that many foreign firms don’t even bother sending people here.  I also nodded when he said that lack of international outlook and merit-orientation stunts Italian universities’ competitiveness, especially in R & D.  Bob works a lot with university patent developments, so he sees this first hand.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I was disappointed in some the examples Emmott gave towards the end of  successful large businesses: Autogrill, who brings us airport catering and the Italian equivalent of quick-stop highway food; and Winx, a cartoon subsidiary of Rainbow promoting scantily clad and not-so-imaginatively-drawn fairies to young girls. (They claim to be morally good, but that’s quite a mixed message.) Rainbow may disapprove of how Berlusconi’s Mediaset precludes television competition in Italy, but I can’t help but think that the Winx would be welcome at Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties. I guess Emmott just had to use the most economically robust examples he could find, but it makes me ask myself–are these the Italian products most worth growing into internationally successful businesses? I think there must be better ones!

Overall, though, the book is addressing a more important issue than business success alone: Will Italians look beyond protecting their own private interests long enough to do the long and painful work of cleaning out corruption and building an effective government? Will the innovative, courageous, and idealistic impulses of Italians win the day and reverse current ills? No one knows, but as someone who lives in Italy and shares in its success or failure, I sure hope so.

The second book is much more lighthearted!

Un Italiano in AmericaUn Italiano in America by Beppe Severgnini

This is the first adult-level book I’ve ever completed in Italian, so I’m sure I missed some of the subtleties and the humor, but I chose to read it because 1) an Italian friend gave it to me and 2) because I’ve just completed the inverse of Severgnini’s premise: my first year as an American in Italy.

The book is light and episodic. Italians will find it funny that Americans keep their buildings as cold as a refrigerator in the summer, and that Italians like to complain about it. Severgnini is fascinated with shopping in large grocery stores, American familiarity in manners, e-mail, and of course, fast food. He laughs at the excesses of “political correctness,” circa 1994. He thinks that his Italian name is too difficult for American marketers to spell, not realizing that they can’t spell Anglophone names either. And I smiled when I got to the part in which Severgnini took friends to a 4th of July celebration in Washington DC–complete with a well-planned meal, a wicker basket, and summer white linen outfits–and wondered by they were getting stared at. It’s at moments like this that his Italian charm comes out the most.

But a lot of what Severgnini recounts in this book is peculiar to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in 1994, where and when he was a foreign correspondent. It often reads more like blog posts for the crowd back home than like a true probing of the American spirit. The chapters are vignettes, now dated. Towards the end, he does try for a few pages to seriously assess what Americans are like, he comes up with five English words: Control, Comfort, Competition, Community & Choreography.

Okay. But more telling, to me, was a quote near the beginning of the book:

Per gli italiani che arrivano negli Stati Uniti, la soddisfazione non e’ vedere un film sei mesi prima che arrivi in Italia, scegliere fra cinquanta marche di corn-flakes e leggere due chili di giornale la domenica mattina. Cio’ che ci rende felici e’ combattere con la burocrazia americana. It motivo? Allenati a trattare con quella italiana, ci sentiamo come un torero che deve affrontare una mucca. Una faccenda deliziosamente rilassante.

My rough translation, since I don’t have the English version:

For Italians who arrive in the United States, the greatest satisfaction doesn’t come from seeing a film six months before it arrives in Italy, choosing from among fifty types of Corn-Flakes, and reading a two-kilos worth of newspapers on Sunday mornings. What makes us happy is combatting American bureaucracy. Why? Because, being used to the Italian kind, we feel like a bullfighter facing a milk cow. It’s a deliciously relaxing undertaking.

I hear you, Beppe.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to take Torino (which means little bull) by the horns. But for now, if wanting to fathom the basics of life in Italy makes me an American control freak, so be it. I’ll give you all the movies, Corn-Flakes, and newspapers you want in exchange–and the thermostat, too.


Last week Sarie and I went to the small town of Rovigo in the Veneto region. It’s almost all the way to Venice. The buildings were brighter than in Torino, the accent was a little different, most of the menus had seafood with bigoli (thick spaghetti), and there were unlocked bicycles everywhere.

We went for a violin competition, the Premio Nazionale delle Arti.  We went in order to see and meet some good Italian violinists, and that’s exactly what happened.  Sarie made friends with the other girl who went from the Conservatorio G. Verdi Torino and now they’re scheming to do concerts together.  That alone was worth the trip.

And we had a little time to walk around and take some photos.


In other news today, we had our appointment at the questura and everything went well.  I felt like a child feels after getting out of one of those doctor appointments in which they have to get vaccines. That wasn’t so terrible!  I think going to the patronato helped.

Castle concert

The Neo-Gothic Castello di Roccolo

Yesterday Sarie and two friends played in a Baroque concert in a Neo-Gothic castle south of Torino.  All week I’d imagined the trio playing in a dark stone tower with arrow slits for windows and gray walls practically oozing damp from the predicted rain. But instead we found ourselves in the garden, in a warm, sunny Neo-Classical greenhouse overlooking a classic Italian patchwork plain of light industry and farms. I could hear horses neighing below.

Admittedly, we didn’t know until the last possible minute how we were going to get there. The initial transportation plans morphed quite a bit, so that in the end we found ourselves asking the conductor on the train where we needed to change trains and then get off. Sarie and I traveled with the group’s oboist, Alberto, who met us at Porta Nuova station wearing a trench coat and fretting about the oboe’s sensitivity to rain and cold.  (Reeds are pretty touchy.) The conversation on the train ranged from English to Italian and Piemontese, and touched on Chinese and Elvish.

The ostensible plan was to meet another conservatory student, Bruno, at the closest station to the castle.  Bruno had planned–or not planned–the whole thing, since he was a tour guide at the castle. As we walked out of the station and stood in a small traffic circle, the town looked closed and deserted. But at just that moment, I heard a revving motor and a compact car came speeding towards us. It swerved around the traffic circle by the station and came to a neat stop.  Out jumped a young man with slightly longish dark hair, Ray-Bans, bright red chinos, and the smile and posture of an extrovert. Upon meeting Bruno, I began to forgive Italy, for the four-thousandth time, for its lack of organization as compared to New York. It was hard to become angry with someone who was so genuinely affable.

We all climbed into the two-door car with our bags and instruments, and Bruno speed through the narrow streets of two small towns, accelerating over bumps and turning into alleys briefly to stop short in front of notable churches on the way to the castle at Roccolo.  The entire conversation was conducted in a combination of lightning-fast Italian and Piemontese, but Sarie and I understood some of it.

Once at the castle, Bruno gave us a quick tour of the grounds and then the musicians got to work setting things up in the greenhouse.  Occasionally they would jokingly refer to the arrival of the “green coffin.”  This was the virginal that Matteo, the other member of the trio, was bringing to play basso continuo on.  When Matteo and his father drove up, I got the joke: The main component on the virginal was a long box with a lid, the size of a coffin, and it arrived in a station wagon of adequate dimensions for a hearse.  When it arrived, the musicians (by now all dressed in black), went to remove it from the back of the car.  In no time they had it set up and tuned, even though the bottom key stuck all through the concert.  The keyboard contained only four octaves.

At a few minutes before 4:00, a number of middle-aged couples materialized, while the group decided, at the very last minute of course, how to introduce themselves. Bruno had disappeared. In the end, Alberto did an excellent job. It seems that Italians have a talent for making extemporaneous speeches.  The rest of the concert (which was actually Telemann, Buxtehude and others, with no Monteverdi whatsoever) went off without a hitch, notwithstanding Alberto’s banging on the oboe between movements and his protestations that it was behaving horribly.

During the concert, I tried not to be overly-concerned that a co-worker of Bob’s, who was to give us a ride home, had not yet arrived.  Towards the end of the third of the four pieces, however, I was relieved to see Carolina and her husband enter and take a seat at the back.

After the concert, we all walked around the grounds some more and toured the open rooms of the castle, which housed a short history exhibit. Built in 1831, the castle had belonged to the Duke of Azeglio. Queen Margherita of Italy had been a guest, and this being a Romantic castle, it was of course rumored to have its own ghost. The few parts of the castle proper we saw were dark and crumbling and only half-restored. And by this time, it was indeed raining after all, causing many of our group to make spontaneous references to Wuthering Heights.  Carolina had even read it in English.

On the way home, Carolina was most entertaining.  Facing backwards the entire trip, she spoke to us in Italian, and we replied in English whenever we got stuck (more often for me than for Sarie).  She tried to think of not-too-difficult books for me to read in Italian.  She recommended various friends and relatives to help Bob get his Italian driver’s license and to get Sarie through the piano portion of her conservatory program. Her husband was quieter, but would occasionally chip in a phrase or two in English with a booming voice and a hint of a smile.  His contributions were always apt.

When I mentioned that I had no idea what we were going to have for dinner, Carolina spouted off a whole week’s worth of instructions for quick meals. My favorite: Fettucine Alfredo. Fry up some cubed pancetta while you boil the pasta. When the pasta is done, add it to the pancetta while bringing over a little bit of the cooking water. Then break in one fresh egg per person and stir.  She was all for taking me to Eataly (which is open on Sunday!) as we arrived back in town, so she could show me the best cuts of veal. But I realized that if even if you have a quick dinner idea, shopping adds to the prep time, and it was already going on eight.  So after I remembered a quick vegetable combo that I could spoon over mozzarella toast, I declined.  But we have plans to go shopping just as soon as we both have a Saturday free!

I have to admit that, as I started the day, I had been very tired and a little irritated at how I almost didn’t get to go, at how we would have to rush to the train and wouldn’t have time for lunch, at how Bob was sick and needed to work instead of going, that our promised bus had turned out to be non-existent, and that the way that the musicians got paid their small honorarium, predictably, involved a lot of paperwork.

But in the end, the serendipity more than made up for the annoyances.  Even though we’re not fluent Italian speakers (I’m pretty awful), we made new friends. We saw and heard a portable virginal, got to walk around the elegant castle grounds (which reminded Sarie and me independently of the Cloisters in Manhattan), and the kids had a lot of fun playing Baroque music. And since the whole thing was their idea to begin with, I think this was the best part of all.