(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Month: November, 2014

Imago Christi update


A couple of months ago, I wrote a bit about Sarie and Alberto’s new film project, Imago Christi. Now they’ve made a couple of scenes and are seeking funding to continue. Meanwhile, here’s a short videoblog about the project. You can also follow their movie news on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (#imagochristifilm).

Meanwhile, Sarie is having a great time learning to sew historical costumes. If you follow some of these accounts, particularly Instagram, you can see her progress!

Translating Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has passed now, but I thought I’d say a little bit about the preparation process. After all, before Thanksgiving, we were all too busy shopping and cooking, right?

Thanksgiving takes on a new dimension for expats. First of all, it becomes nostalgic. We’ve adopted a new language, new foods, a new way of life, and sometimes new holidays. Thanksgiving is our chance to be American.

Secondly, it’s a holiday that Italians are curious about. After all, it involves food, and almost all Italians love to talk about food. So right away we have an interested audience and get to be ambassadors, sort of.

But expat Thanksgiving requires a few adjustments to the menu.

Surprisingly, the turkey is easy. I just go downstairs and order it from the butcher, who has several American customers and knows the routine. “Ciao, cara! I’ll order you a female turkey,” he says, and I hear him ask the vendor to add another turkey to the order, and to make it as small as possible. The main problem is getting it into my IKEA oven.

Pumpkin pie has its own adjustments. Italians are curious about the Halloween pumpkin. I think this is partly because the idea of having a whole different word for one variety of winter squash makes them think maybe they’ve missed out on some category of good food. Then they want to know if pumpkin pie is connected to Halloween, since they don’t really celebrate that either. And they’re not really sure when Thanksgiving is (that floating holiday thing is confusing), so maybe they go together? And naturally they seem disappointed when you tell them that a Halloween pumpkin isn’t much good to eat. How American! What’s the point in getting rid of a few seeds when it ruins the taste?

Naturally there’s no Libby’s canned pumpkin available for the pie, but a large orange winter squash, sold in large slices this time of year, works just fine. What’s harder is finding a good pie recipe that doesn’t use evaporated or condensed milk. This year I made two using a new recipe. They look sort of fluffy and taste almost like they have the whipped cream already added, but I’m not complaining!

The dressing is particularly tricky. Since our family’s traditional dressing is cornbread based, I’ve tried to substitute with every possible type and consistency of polenta, including polenta mixed with flour, but nothing works quite as well as the old standby, White Lily Self-Rising cornmeal. This year I brought back a bag in my suitcase, and that seems to be the only acceptable solution.

And finally there is the cranberry sauce. Even before we moved to Italy, our family jokingly said that this was the one item on which we would not go organic, local or foodie. Nothing but Ocean Spray smooth jellied cranberry sauce, with the lines imprinted from the can, would do. But finding the necessary can in Torino is becoming increasingly tricky. At first there was a gourmet store, Paissa, that carried at least the whole-berry version in a jar, but they moved and when the store finally reopened, its stock was much reduced from its former exotic glory. Last year an American friend brought me two cans of cranberry sauce from the military base in Vicenza. But our friends moved too. This year I walked all over town, in the rain, following false leads and eventually discovering that the distributor of Ocean Spray had stopped carrying it.

Part of the problem with finding some of these ingredients in Italy is that it’s hard to describe what they are. This is definitely the case with cranberry sauce:

Sapete dove posso comprare un vasetto di sugo di mirtilli rossi? (“Do you know where I can buy some cranberry sauce?” Only I’m not sure sugo is the right word, because it means something more like a pasta sauce than chutney.)

Succo di mirtilli rossi? C’è un negozio bio in Crocetta che l’avrà. (“Cranberry juice? There’s a healthfood store in Crocetta that should have it.”)

Mirtilli rossi? Cosa sono? Vuol dire ribes? (“Cranberries? What are those? Do you mean currants?”)

È un tipo gelatina? (“Is it a kind of gelatin?”)

And finally, I heard one store employee say to another:

“Do we have cranberry sauce?”

“Cranberry sauce? What’s that?”

“You know! Americans use it to stuff the turkey on Thankgiving!”

But no can or jar, smooth or whole, made its appearance. Finally, on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I gave up and decided it was time to start cooking what I had. Sarie dejectedly posted on Facebook that this would be the first Thanksgiving in her memory without cranberry sauce. Within an hour, she had a message from an Australian friend, saying that she thought there was a can of unexpired cranberry sauce left over from our American friends’ dinner last year. A few more phone calls and a trip on the subway, and I had the precious jar of Ocean Spray in my purse. It may have been the last jar of cranberry sauce left in Torino. And we ate every bit of it.

For next year, I’ve figured out what to do about the cranberry sauce, at least. There’s an online American food vendor in France I can order it from. But the cornmeal, that will just have to go into my suitcase.

And all of the other days, I’m fine with eating agnolotti and ragù, polenta and turgia. Va bin parej!

Inductive reasoning and the academy


 Powdered pigments at a local art store

This week was the start of the Accademia Albertina. As usual, the Italian inductive-learning process has collided with my not-quite-infallible Italian language comprehension to produce confusion. But slowly, my faulty model of the Accademia is being replaced by experience, and soon enough I’ll know what I’ve gotten myself into.

I arrived at the Accademia on Monday morning at 9:00 to find a courtyard full of Goth-lite teens chatting and smoking. I noticed a sign with an arrow and the room number for my course, etching, but the number was nowhere in that cul-de-sac of courtyard. Eventually, a school employee told me which entrance to use, and I realized that the numbers outside were only for the room just inside the door. You had to walk through several interior rooms to get to the correct one, which wasn’t listed outside.

Finally inside my classroom, I found three other women, none of whom looked anything like the Goth-lite students outside, and none of whom I had ever seen before.

I did recognize the man who had proctored the exam, though. Turns out he was the printmaking professor. He started talking almost immediately, and kept on talking for an hour-and-a-half. He gave a history of the course at the Accademia from the 19th century. He went through every item on the materials list in great detail, without giving out the list. Then he described some of the printmaking procedures we’d be doing.

All this time, students were coming in and out of the room. Some just poked their heads in the door, looking lost. Occasionally some came in and stayed. One group stayed until the professor asked them what their major was, at which point he told them they had the wrong room. Many of the students were Chinese and seemed to know one another well. At one point, all the Chinese students went up to the desk for some instructions from the professor, and left.

The professor explained that there would be a completely different group of students tomorrow, so he would have to give the same information again. Finally I realized that these students all had different majors, and the coming and going corresponded to the number of hours they needed for their major. Never mind that they many of them didn’t get all the information because the professor had started his talk an hour ago!  Eventually his speech slowed and I realized that we could leave. It was 11:00 am. and I didn’t need to return until Wednesday.

This morning, Wednesday, I went back for the figure drawing course, which was what I originally signed up for. I didn’t take any art supplies with me. I figured that since Monday’s etching class was just a presentation, today’s figure-drawing would be as well. Besides, several people had warned me not to bring my stuff until I knew whether the room was well-secured, because there was a lot of theft.

Once again, there was an entirely different group of people waiting to enter the classroom, none of these whom I had seen before, either. The same professor let us in, and other students dribbled in as well (including some of Monday’s), until eventually a group of about 20 students accumulated, mostly retirees. Most of the retirees seemed to know one another, and there was general round of fond greetings and cheek-kissing, as well as introductions to the five or so of us who were new.

The professor started talking again. He talked for an hour-and-a-half. He started out with how it was okay to use student-grade paint, because we were students, and why buy a top-notch racing bike when you didn’t have the legs for it yet? This morphed into a lecture on the spirit of art, and eventually I recognized that he was touching on the same familiar lecture themes I had heard in my years at the University of Georgia: Copying vs. bringing out something of the soul, technical facility vs. searching, the inner silence required for an appropriate level of concentration, modern painters’ appropriation of various aspects of their classical predecessors’ work, etc.

I noticed that he often used modern Italian artists as examples. I knew who all save one of them were, but other than Morandi and Giacometti, they weren’t names American art students would be likely to know. They also called Mark Rothko “Roch-ko.” But then, Americans call Michelangelo “Michael-angelo.”

Eventually the professor left, and the students who had brought their materials started working with the model. Meanwhile, I had asked when the art history lectures were and was told to check with the secretary’s office. So one of the other new women and I went up to the office to check. We saw two class times posted outside the door, but we knew there should be several more, so we went in to ask.

“We’re closed,” said the woman behind the desk.

“Oh, sorry,” said my friend. “We just wanted to know, what are the times for the other art history classes?”

“You know as much as we do,” was the answer.

So, anyhow, at least I knew that there was an Ancient Art History lecture tomorrow at noon. For art history, I have decided to concentrate on the types of art that I can see fine examples of here in Italy, which is to say, Western art through the Baroque. I’ve already seen a lot of first-rate modern art in the US and other parts of Europe, and I am fairly familiar with non-Western art from the Metropolitan Museum.

When I took the entrance exam for the Accademia in September, I had no idea how much work the course involved or what the hours were. When I arrived for the beginning of classes on Monday, I knew there were three subjects involved (etching, the model, and art history) and thought that the course lasted every morning from 9:00-12:00. I had planned my other fall activities accordingly. Now, two sessions into the actual course, I can see instead that etching lasts from 8:00-2:00 on Monday and Tuesday, and the model sessions last from 9:00-6:00 on the other three weekdays, but those hours really depend on how long the model is there, which seems to be until 3:00. I still don’t know when art history is, aside from Ancient Art.

But the inductive reasoning technique (a dribble of data points which, long after you have made your decision, eventually produce a big picture) is pretty typical of Italian institutions. Thankfully, since I am in a non-traditional course without exams or a diploma, I can really pick and choose what times I want to show up, though I am partial to showing up at times when instruction is given.

At least I’m not like a grad-student friend, who started her master’s in psychology last month but didn’t know which program (of three, with different requirements) she had been admitted to, because the results wouldn’t be posted until the morning classes began. In fact, thirty minutes into the first lecture, the results were posted online, but then then they were immediately taken down and students were told that due to some mistake they wouldn’t know which program they were in until they were three weeks into their classes!

And then there’s Sarie, who re-enrolled at the conservatory in June expecting to switch to Baroque violin only to have them close the program. This week classes have started at the conservatory, but she’s still waiting to hear from a private school about an alternative Baroque violin program.

Perhaps the situation in Italy is best summed up in a sign I saw this morning. It said:

“Tranquilli. Ho tutto fuori controllo.”

“Stay calm. I have everything out of control.”

This should probably be the national motto of Italy. And of artists. Which kind of makes sense.


 A gipsoteca, or plaster cast store, near the Accademia.