They got married!


Alberto and Sarie, photo credit Aldo Mattea

Sarie and Alberto met four-and-a-half years ago, at the conservatory. There’s been a whole lot of water under the bridge since then, but on Saturday they were married. Now they live in a nice house in a small town outside of Torino, with an apartment upstairs and their new English school downstairs, and family close by.

We had six relatives and a friend attend the wedding, which gave the whole experience an extra dimension in which people who really didn’t speak the other’s language well (if at all) somehow managed to communicate their happiness about the occasion. There was a cappella singing, trading of tongue twisters in the other language, a polaroid photo contest, and a silly dance. And then some of the Italians and Americans travelled around together for three days.

The honeymoon proper begins next week, and there will be a party for the newlyweds in Atlanta next weekend. I wish them many, many happy years together.



Thanksgiving Monday

I was going to post about illustration today, but my drafts kept turning into Thanksgiving posts, so here goes:

I took last week off to catch up on errands and prepare Thanksgiving dinner. I find that studying illustration, like any other work, leaves me falling behind in the rest of life. So, for my week off I had such tasks in mind as doing a shopping run at one of the big suburban grocery stores, getting my Christmas tree from IKEA, and registering for my A2 level Italian language test for immigrants, in addition to food prep.

Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the rainiest week since we moved into this apartment five years ago. The rain started out as an inconvenience, but by Thursday it had become alarming and by Friday the rivers were so high that the tour boats came unmoored and wrecked themselves against the city’s main bridge across the Po. The  city’s trains were in such a snarl that the transit authority actually called off a planned strike, whether out of mercy or because they figured no one would notice it anyway, I don’t know. Sarie missed three days of work due to the flooding.

Against this chaotic backdrop, catching up on my postponed errands took a good bit of willpower, but I plowed through them anyway. The immigration process will eventually get a new post of it own, no doubt. I’ll just say that I had hoped that going to the patronato during a flood meant that it would be less crowded. I was wrong.

Meanwhile I had planned out an elaborate staging process for cooking Thanksgiving dinner–Making broth and pie crust on Thursday afternoon after the patronato; making egg bread for dressing, pie, corn pudding, preparing the table setting, transplanting the tree, brining the chicken, teaching my English student and making dinner for Sarie and Alberto on Friday;  baking the dressing, cooking the beans, preparing fruit and cheese, setting the table, and many other last minute tasks such as chilling the wine, reheating the other dishes, and making whipped cream for the pie, and decorating the tree, all on Saturday before 1 pm. Is it any wonder I didn’t sleep well on Friday night? I think I was too tired to sleep.

By Saturday I was beginning to think that perhaps Thanksgiving was an unhealthy expat obsession of mine and that perhaps I needed to let it go. But in the end, everything came out right and the dinner had other good fruits (so to speak) as well. But I did not take photos. After everyone left at around 6:00 pm, I lay down on the sofa for a little catnap before doing dishes and…woke again at 1:00 am.

A few take-aways from last week:

Carrefour LeGru carries Ocean Spray smooth cranberry sauce in their ethnic foods section! If you’ve ever read one of my Thanksgiving posts, you know how fixated I can get on cranberry sauce. But you can’t count on it being there when you need it, so if you’re an expat with a nostalgia for Ocean Spray, buy it when you see it. I bought mine during the summer.

There is no substitute for self-rising cornmeal. I don’t know why that is, but I have decided it’s worth smuggling a bag over every year in someone’s suitcase. There is no Italian substitute. I don’t know what kind of magic pixie dust they put in that stuff, but I’m not questioning it ever again.

I have finally made myself a list of all Thanksgiving dishes, ingredients needed, time required to do each task and on what day it needs to be done, with all measures and temperatures converted to metric, to make the job easier. It has taken five years to figure out Thanksgiving in Italy, but I think I’ve finally got it. The basic problem with Thanksgiving food is that it all has to go in the oven, one item at a time.

It’s much more fun explaining pilgrims and Native Americans, turkeys and dressing, Abraham Lincoln and the fourth Thursday in November, and why despite the fact that the pilgrims were giving thanks to God, Thanksgiving is considered a secular holiday, to Italians, than it is explaining the election. Anything is more fun than talking about this election.

And did you know that despite the fact that Italians don’t know when Thanksgiving is, they now have Black Friday? Thankfully, I didn’t see anyone charging any stores.

And now, back to the drawing board and my plate of Thanksgiving leftovers! It’s Advent!


The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

The feast of St. Francis is almost over here in Italy, but here are three reasons to post about it anyway: In the first place, I attend a Franciscan church and I have a soft spot for the friars’ gentle ways and their love for the poor. In the second place, St. Francis is the patron saint of Italy (and animals). And in the third place, I recently found this lovely post card painted by Pauline Baynes, who is probably best known as the original illustrator of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. As you can see, the post card emphasizes St. Francis’s relationship with animals and also that he was the first to popularize nativity scenes. He was a man who sought to imitate Christ in all he did.

And…it’s also my sister’s birthday today. Happy birthday, Leah!

                                     St. Francis, by Pauline Baynes

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!



I’ve been wanting to go to Rome ever since we moved to Italy, and finally made there it last week. Most Italians we talk to say it’s their favorite city. Certainly it has deep roots, and points of interest from almost every era. It has a similar serendipitous energy to New York, the organic beauty of an old European city, and the warmth and unpredictability that I’ve come to associate with Italy.

The ostensible reason for my trip was to meet with a tax attorney who knows both the Italian and American systems. (I’ll say as little about that as possible.) Sarie and Alberto went with me, Sarie to try out a Baroque violin, and Alberto because he had never been.  (And no doubt, they wanted to see Rome together.)

The unpredictability follies began on Wednesday, before we’d even arrived. The proprietor of the AirBnB we’d rented called and said there was a problem with the plumbing in the apartment, and could he upgrade us to a better one? In some ways the new apartment wasn’t as suitable as the original, but what else could we do? We agreed. Then on Friday, as we came home from a full day of walking around the city, the woman who managed the second apartment met us saying that the other guy had booked ours with someone else–a group of five who were arriving that night!  She did a spectacular sales job on another apartment upstairs, and they moved us up immediately. By the time we were settled it was 9 p.m. and I still had to cook dinner, using utensils I’d counted on having from the other apartment. So I “borrowed” a few from downstairs!  They even allowed us to bring the DVD player with us so we could watch Don Camillo.

We were amused that the new apartment had tiny LED lights on the bathroom ceiling inside the shower. They changed color. Other than that, our accommodation follies were thankfully ended.

What follows are some photos from our time in Rome, with a few explanations.  Enjoy!


Above, top: The street where we stayed. Middle: A street of steps around the corner.  Rome is the City of Seven Hills, after all. We were on the Esquiline, in the Monti neighborhood. Bottom: Someone across the street was airing sausage in the window on Saturday morning. We were intrigued.

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From the Colosseum and the Forum. 1) A view of the Forum from the Colosseum 2) Nice tourist photo of Alberto and Sarie in the Colosseum. 3) A frieze of the Sack of Jerusalem from the Arch of Titus, as you enter the Forum 4) The Nympheum, a grotto under the Palatine Hill 5) Some excavations of houses on top of the Palatine Hill, beyond which is a line of typically Roman trees.

Sarie took the last three photos above.

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On Friday we met a cousin of mine for lunch near Piazza Navona and then went on to the Vatican Museum.  I particularly wanted to see the Sistine Chapel, since I’d tried to go three times on my last visit to Rome (in 1984), but never succeeded. This time I was not disappointed, but no photos are allowed. This was just as well, because I would have taken way too many.

But I enjoyed all the other Vatican frescoes too,such as Raphael’s The School of Athens, The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (above center), and a corridor of frescoed 16th C. Italian maps, including one of Torino and its surrounding towns. Some of the names were a bit different, but we recognized most all of them, including Alberto’s home town.

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And finally, what trip to Rome is complete without St. Peter’s? It is enormous in scale, richly appointed, and of course, it’s the center of the Catholic Church. We had the idea of going to mass there on Saturday night, but unfortunately we never made it.

Near our apartment was another papal basilica, Sta. Maria Maggiore. It’s smaller than St. Peter’s, but still grand. I went there by myself on Saturday to see its famous mosaics, but my photos didn’t turn out so well, so instead I’ll post a link to a virtual tour. It’s well worth even a virtual visit!

In sum, we all enjoyed our visit, and I’d go back at the slightest provocation! But as the train rolled out from the tunnels near Genova and I saw the Po Valley spread out bright green on both sides of the train windows, I felt at home again. Shortly afterwards, the clouds parted in the north to reveal one glowing Alpine mountain, covered with new snow. Funny how one  can get attached so quickly to a place. I still can’t speak the language half the time. And yet it’s home.

The eucatastrophe at the center of the world


Historiated initial ‘R'(esurrexi) with the Resurrection, angels supporting heraldic arms to the left, in a Missal. Origin: Germany.  Public domain image from The British Library.

In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien explains why fairy tales are so deeply satisfying and, far from being escapist, are instead spiritually realistic. His language isn’t easy to follow, but it’s worth sticking with it. He starts out by defining a fairy-tale as a eucatastrophe, or a tale with a sudden favorable resolution:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of…the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale); this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace; never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in brief vision that the answer may be greater–it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt-making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels–peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving; ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  The story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-enimently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed…The joy would have exactly the same qualiy, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives; such joy has the very taste of primary truth.  (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks…to the Great Eucatrastrophe.  The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.  But this story is supreme, and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.

The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all this bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

How very satisfying. Happy Easter!

Easter windows

DSC_0059 DSC_0058I’m always interested in what’s displayed in the window of Amici Miei,* a nearby pasticceria.  This week, as Easter approaches, the windows are full of pane di pasqua (Easter Bread, and yes, that’s an egg on top) and agnelli pasquali (Easter Lambs).  I think the lambs are made out of a sweet almond paste.  The bread, in some versions, is braided.

Another popular Easter dessert is the columba, or dove. It’s a type of bread made from the same recipe as panettone, which is the main Christmas dessert, except that it’s baked in the shape of a dove and is usually a little smaller than a panettone (which means, literally, “big bread”).

So far, I haven’t eaten any of these Easter desserts.  I’m pretty content just to look at them through the glass.  But I thought this particular lamb’s expression was pretty funny, so I had Sarie take a picture with her phone.  I do confess, however, that one reason for our self-control was that we were on our way to get one last hot chocolate from Grom.

(*Check out the link for some nice photos of their other pastries and also of Il Padellino, our favorite local pizzeria.)

Christmas trip

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Top to bottom: Withholding carrots from greedy Freddy Boy, the game “Things” degenerates into the same five silly answers, and the free sticky pad from Aeroporto Malpensa is a hit gift.

Sometimes it happens this way.  You have one of those Christmas vacations where it rains almost constantly, where people get sick or are going through a hard time, and where the young people are saddled with so much homework that they hardly have time to visit.  In general, the time seems entirely too short.

Still, you do what you can. You stay inside and build a fire, and pile blankets on the sick.  You forgo the gifts or else become very creative with what you have on hand, and you play games, read Dickens, or do puzzles instead. There’s a Pileated Woodpecker in the front yard. You turn one of your homework assignments into an essay on the absurdity of having so much homework.  You walk in the woods or feed carrots to horses. You laugh at the disruption of it all.

It’s still Christmas.  We still get to see both sides of the family.  We still get to visit the place (more or less) where we were all born.

It’s still a good trip.  I hope yours was too.


Top to bottom: Talking around the tree, toasty hand warmers for the musician from my gift-creative sister, this year’s puzzle (my mom sends her regrets as she evades the photo).

Merry Christmas!


…Christmas tells us that God became breakable and fragile. God became someone we could hurt. Why? To get us back. And if you believe this and take it into your life, you’re blessed. As you take in the truth of what he did for you—how loved and affirmed you are—you’ll be able to let down your defenses in your own relationships with other people. You won’t always need to guard your honor. You’ll be able to let down the barriers down. You’ll be able to move into intimate relationships with other people.

What is in the package of Christmas? His vulnerability for intimacy with us, which gives us the vulnerability to be intimate with the people around us. If you believe in Christmas—that God became a human being—you have an ability to face suffering, a resource for suffering that others don’t have.

 –Tim Keller

We’re here in Georgia after a twenty-one hour, three-legged flight.  The days leading up to Christmas were busy, so I haven’t been able to write.  But our hearts are full, and we’re glad to be here.

Merry Christmas! I’ll write more when I’m able.