Laura and the Olive Oil

Five days ago, around four in the morning, I was wide awake. The afternoon before I had indulged in one too many espressos and I was feeling the consequences. I sat in the kitchen, with a mug of chamomile tea and attempted to review my notes from my course on Italian food and identity. I highlighted the points from the lecture that I found to be the most fascinating; I couldn’t wait to tell my roommates that pasta was eaten with sugar up until the nineteenth century, and that olive oil is a relatively recent condiment for food.

I thought they would flip out when they heard that last tidbit. Lard? Butter? Instead of their beloved olive oil? They almost cried when we ran out of homegrown oil last week. Marina diligently trudged to the supermarket, returning, head held down, with a store bought bottle. I swore I even heard Ilaria whimper. Despite the sadness that this event brought to Via Belvedere 10, I must say that most everyone seemed more embarrassed than anything else. It was the utter humiliation of the thing that upset them the most. I felt myself wrapped up in the sorrow and confusion. I too wanted to call la mamma to bemoan the situation, rail against the injustice, and beg for a new shipment ASAP. Alas seconds before I reached for my cell phone, I remembered that olive groves have never graced the cold and northerly soil of Cambridge, Massachusetts and on top of that I didn’t have enough credit on my phone to call the United States for more than 12 seconds.

The kitchen door opened. Marina stepped inside, surprised to see me awake at such an hour. She reached for a glass and sat down to drink a cup of water before returning to bed.

“Stai studiando?” she asked. Are you studying?

I grinned. I couldn’t wait to see her reaction to the truth about her beloved olive oil. I spilled the beans.

In the time of the ancient Romans, oil was a precious commodity. It was used as a cosmetic product. In fact even earlier, the ancient Greeks used to say “wine to drink and oil to spread on your skin.” I finished my mini-lesson by telling her that the first recorded recipe for tomato sauce, from the 1830s, listed lard, NOT oil as the cooking fat of choice.

Marina smiled and continued to sip her water.

“Aren’t you shocked?!”

She shook her head. “In fact in Puglia we always show a great respect for oil. It is practically a sin to let it drip on the ground. It is considered sacred. It only makes sense, that historically, it was equated with a luxury item.”

She put her cup in the sink. “Buonanotte, Laura. Buono studio.”

“Notte,” I replied.

Ok, so maybe she wasn’t astounded by the news. But I sure as heck was.

I anxiously twirled my hair as I read through more of my notes. “Hmm, “I thought, “I should probably buy some new conditioner, my hair feels rather brittle.”

I continued to read.  And then, just like that, I had an “aha!” moment.

“Why use fancy hair conditioners? Why not do as the ancient Greeks? Why not use olive oil?”

I grabbed our store bought bottle and ran to the bathroom. Leaning over the sink, I poured the oil over my head. As I combed the oil through my hair, I found myself gradually getting more and more tired. The rich, nutty scent lulled me to a sleepy state. I climbed into bed, smelling like salad and dreaming of the southern seaside and rocky cliffs covered in twist-trunked, feather-leafed olive trees.

I woke up to a shriek.

Apparently not everyone thinks of the Mediterranean when they see olive oil. I had (in my sleep, might I add) tossed and turned quite a bit. I managed to smear the oil all over my face and arms. When Marina opened the blinds to our great big window, the sun poured in and reflected off my, rather shiny, skin. My radiant complexion, however, only seemed to frighten her.

When I tried to explain, I was met with blank stares.

My roommates don’t take after their toga-wearing, olive oil bedecked ancestors. At Via Belvedere 10, olive oil is purely a culinary substance.

Settling In

Lately my house has been….quiet. My roommates lock themselves up during the day as they cram away for their upcoming exams. Entire days are spent in pajamas, studying.  Every day, however, around 1:15pm they emerge from their books to eat heaping bowls of spaghetti. Lately because of the added stress, no one is cooking elaborate Bolognese sauce. Instead they cook lots of pasta dressed simply in olive oil and peperoncino. Despite their encroaching exams, they find time to enjoy their midday ritual. After the plates are cleared, we sip sweetened espresso, peel Sicilian oranges, and break up a bar of bitter chocolate. After lunch it is back to studying; or in my case, back to class. Although many Italian students do attend lectures, many choose to simply study the material at home. At first my roommates seemed perplexed as to why I frequented class. Now my quirks don’t seem to bother them so much.

Onions. Wet hair. Peanut butter. These are still tense topics around here, but in general they draw less attention. In fact, I feel much more at home at my apartment and with my roommates than I did before. I am always glad when I look back on my decision to study abroad for the whole year, not just a semester. It has been the last two months in which I have felt the most acclimated, fluent and even appreciated. Leading up to December, I was struggling with the language and the customs. My roommates were kind, but seemed to be just as “cautious” around me as I was around them.

By December things changed. My Italian improved. Soon we were listening to Italian music together, joking and sharing secrets. And then for Christmas my roommates pooled together to buy me a gift, a keychain engraved with our address and an attached note:

“To Laura, to remember that you will always have a home in Italy.”

My American friends and I always say that everything happens slowly in Italy. Lunch is a drawn out affair, sometimes lasting the entire afternoon. Walking is leisurely, never hurried. And friend making takes time. Nothing is rushed.

As much as I was touched by the keychain, I knew I had truly become one of the crew when my roommates sent me down four flights of stairs to our building’s electricity closet, to turn our fuse back on (Sara was blow drying her hair while Marina was reheating lasagne. Our electrical wiring is quite finicky.)

So although lately it has been calm at Via Belvedere 10 (save the occasional black outs), I have to say that I like it this way. I feel like I fit into the rhythm around here. It may not be fast paced, but hey we’re in Italy, where you wait 7 hours to take an exam that lasts 15 minutes.

Buon Anno!

The Frog

The Frog

Bologna’s new years tradition is both famous and unique throughout Italy. At midnight, on capodanno, the city burns a tall (size of a house) flammable statue of an old man in Piazza Maggiore. This symbolizes the death of the old year and the readiness to begin again, with a fresh start.

This year, however, the city decided to mix it up a bit. Instead of an old man, the city burned a frog. In Bolognese dialect the “frog” symbolizes frugality and penny-pinching.  This was a comment on the government’s spending cuts. Hopefully, the New Year will be more prosperous than the last.

The frog himself looked quite self satisfied, and even ported a crown. Of course, most of Italy’s leaders, as most students will tell you, are filthy rich, while the rest of the country suffers from severe unemployment. Especially the youth. There are no opportunities for the young graduates. And Bologna, a city with 100,000 students, isn’t about to let that go unnoticed.

Ringing in the New Year in Bologna was unforgettable, if not the slightest bit dangerous. I couldn’t help but feel that the raging flames from the bonfire/frog statue were too close, and I spent the rest of my time dodging flying prosecco bottles and contraband fireworks. Every year numerous people get injured, but it doesn’t seem to deter the city in the least. The police casually stand by and watch the debauchery unfold. It is a city sponsored party, Bologna’s own carnival. And it gets out of hand.

But at 5:00 in the morning, I had seen enough. I pulled myself away from the crowd and made my way home. I couldn’t wait to finally reach the safety of my apartment and drink a cup of tea before bed. Fifteen minutes later I was standing outside my apartment building. Within seconds I would be away from the noise, the drunken puddles of vomit, the glass shards and explosions. I pulled out my keys to open the lock to the iron cancello to my apartment. But something was wrong; the key didn’t fit into the lock. I looked closer at the gate; a piece of someone else’s key had broken off into the lock.

“No,” I thought, “This is some kind of joke…”

I tried again. The key didn’t fit. The gate didn’t budge.

I was exhausted. I called my friends and roommates; no one picked up.

And so at 5:15 in the morning I began my quest in search of my only two roommates here for the holidays. If we couldn’t get into the apartment, at least we’d all find a place to sleep together.

I followed my path back to the Piazza and beyond. On the verge of tears, I begged security guards to let me into discotecas, hoping to find my roommates inside.

My search didn’t last for more than an hour. At 6 am I was reunited with my housemate Sandra. We began our trek back to the apartment. Sandra seemed convinced that we didn’t need to find another place to sleep.

The lock was still broken when we arrived. But Sandra didn’t flinch. She pulled two bobby pins from her hair and picked the lock like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Learning how to open locked doors is a long-standing New Years right of passage. I find that New Years is often much more than a celebration. It can even present what seem to be insurmountable obstacles. Tales of the longest night abound in history. We burn fires to remind ourselves that the dark will not last forever.

The Longest Night:

Many years ago, stood a fortress on top of a green, green mountain. Inside that fortress, a mighty king held court. Each year the members of the court would host revels and festivities in honor of the New Year. But one year, the thirty-fourth year of the King’s reign to be precise, the New Year didn’t arrive. The King had grown greedy and jealous in his old age, while his subjects lived in poverty. Because he was undeserving of a new beginning, the New Year never came. The night was long and never ending. The people of the kingdom waited anxiously for morning. After many long hours, the kingdom was in chaos. The peasants from the countryside, the villagers, the shopkeepers, the merchants, banded together and stormed the King’s castle. They demanded that the King find the New Year and make the New Year return. The king had no choice. He vowed to begin his quest immediately.

For 364 days he braved treacherous terrain: rocky cliffs and muddy marshes, in complete and utter darkness. On the 365th day the King finally saw a glimmer of light seeping through the leaves of the forest and nestling into shadow pools on the cold ground below. The king followed the light until he reached a castle in the depths of a misty valley, encompassed by a halo of soft silvery beams. But when the King neared the castle he noticed that the walls were high, and the entrance bolted shut. The king was worn and weary and in need of food and rest.

He called out, “I come seeking food and shelter. I have traversed many days. I am in search of the New Year. Please, I beg you, unlock this door so I may rest my tired legs.”

A deep voice resounded from beneath the castle walls. “Oh greedy King, your people are hungry while you feast on roast meats and exotic sweets. You wear ermine and they dress in tatters. Why should I allow you entry?”

“I beseech you to return to our land. I can no longer bear the darkness.”

“Ah, but oh King, it is not so easy. Not all are blessed with a new beginning.”

“But I have come many miles. I have not slept; I have not eaten. I have learned of poverty; I have learned of hunger. I miss the light and the morning sun. Please return. I beg of you.”

“I am glad you have endured these hardships. You have shown your inner strength and courage. But I am afraid it is not enough.”

The King clutched his sides. Suddenly he was too weary to stand. The words of the New Year were like sharp swords.

“Wait!” he cried out. “If not for me, for my people, my subjects. Grant them the New Year and I will happily die here.”

“Ah my King, you have grown wiser. I will grant you both your life and the gift of light. I promise to accompany you back to your fortress on the top of the green mountain.”

And just like that, the New Year opened the gate and the King entered inside. He looked about him, to thank the New Year, but he was nowhere insight. Instead, he saw his own castle ahead of him, glistening in the sunshine. His subjects greeted and called out to him as he walked the last stretch up the green green mountaintop.

And that is how the New Year returned to the land. The King never disregarded the needs of his people from then on. And every year on January 1st, the sun rises and the New Year returns.

In the Mouth of the Wolf

I haven’t gone to Art History class this week. I didn’t fly off to Copenhagen for the week, I’m not playing hooky, and I am not sick. My professor is on strike.

Last week about an hour into our lesson on frescoes by the Bolognese artist Guido Reni, the professor stopped in her tracks.

“Notice the depth and the layering of textures…”

(She cleared her throat)

“Excuse me, ragazzi, but I need to discuss something for a moment. Are you all aware of the budget cuts being made by the state that will cut funding for the researchers at the universities? If you’d like to join me I will be heading to Piazza Verdi to protest. We will continue our lesson in the Piazza as a sign of our refusal to accept these conditions. I’m sorry ragazzi, but how will I be able to face my children if I don’t speak out? How can I tell them to speak their minds, if I myself do not?”

I turned around to see if anyone else was in the least bit surprised by this random declaration halfway through our lecture. I saw a few nodding of heads before everyone packed up their bags (as if her statement was as normal as the bell for recess), and filed out of the room behind the professor. I tagged along, confused and curious. When we got to the square, there were lots of students holding banners and dreadlocked kids handing out leaflets; I even received a discount for an aperitivo cocktail and crostini (valid only for protesters).

The political science school is “occupata” or occupied. That means that the protesters (students) sleep there, and that no one can enter the building to attend classes. I’ve talked with lots of people about the various protests occurring and quite honestly, no one has given me a straightforward answer. Although the budget cuts my professor is protesting seem to be new this year, I have been told that the “protest” is a yearly occurrence, almost a tradition here.

The protests and lack of classes for a week, however, are only a couple of the many adjustments I’ve had to make to the Italian school system. Here there are no papers, no written exams (at least in the classes that I am currently taking) and no extra points for in-class participation.

My grade is completely based on the one oral final exam at the end of the course. However, as I’ve learned from my roommates, the exam date, like the punctuality of students and professors to class, is very flexible. Students can take an exam a year, two years, three or four years after they take a class. It is up to the student to study, as there are no attendance sheets, and professors don’t expect every student to attend class 100 percent of the time.

I’m currently studying for two oral exams. I have one tomorrow and one in a week (Italian Cinema and Medieval Archeology of Emilia Romagna). My exam for my Art History class has been scheduled for early February, which is in fact, after my spring semester courses begin. A lot of my American friends have complained about the “lack of organization” in the Italian school system. And maybe I am simply enamored of Italy at this point, but I enjoy that no one seems to be in a rush. Take your time. Con calma. Take your exam when you are ready (unfortunately, this rule doesn’t apply to me, as my program insists that I take my exam at the earliest possible date). Not to say that stress doesn’t exist here. Al contrario, my roommates plough through stacks of reading daily and, like normal university students, fret about grades and exams. However, the idea of staying up all night to study or write a paper is unheard of. Even the libraries here close around 6 or 7 pm (at the latest).  Everyone sleeps and no one skips meals in order to squeeze in an extra hour of studying.

I’m not sure yet how oral exams affect my ability to retain and absorb information and ideas, but it is a question that I am pondering. Here before you take an exam you practice reciting your ideas in front of a friend. There is a sense of camaraderie and lack of competition that blew me away my first few weeks here. Even the equivalent of “good luck” in Italian is an interactive expression. Before a test your friends will call out, “In bocca al lupo!” In the mouth of the wolf.

And you, in response, shout, “ Crepi!” Let’s hope it dies!

I have to say that I prefer this healthier attitude towards test taking. It is definitely a mindset that I hope to carry with me when I leave Italy.

A Venetian Breakfast

We turn the corner: another narrow street, pitch dark, leads to a footbridge. There are no sounds around us, and yet the silence is far from harsh. The calm feels padded and brimming with stories. I swear I can hear the humming of the ghosts of gondoliers and the smack of their paddles against the water.

I expect to see ripples from their boats in the canal below, but the surface is still and glossy. All I see are our reflections: whiskers painted on our cheeks with eyeliner, pink noses, mice ears, an array of scarves and sunglasses. We have lost our way in the maze of streets of Venice and there is not a soul in sight.

Venice at 5 am is mystical and unsettling. In the hours before sunrise the city belongs to another time. In my mind I pictured the dawn: merchants decked in velvet brocade selling the exotic spices of Constantinople, artists’ apprentices rushing to the market to buy linseed oil for the great masters. I wanted the city to stay locked in the hazy hours before sunlight. I couldn’t bear to think of the 21st century, or the hoards of tourists who would soon descend upon the soulful streets.

How did I end up here, you may ask? In Venice at 5 am with a pink felt tail and whiskers on my cheeks?

Well it all began at around 2:00 am at my friend Susan’s Halloween party, when a small group of us (Italian and American students) decided to walk to the Bologna train station and hop on the first train possible. We wanted to eat breakfast in a different city and then make our way back to Bologna. It so happened that we were just in time for the 3:30 am train to Venice. Our costumes drew some stares on the train, but I didn’t mind. I wasn’t even perturbed when I stepped off the train and realized that my costume was far from a great choice to battle the bitter cold. I was too busy lost in my memories.

Venice was the first city I visited in Europe. When I was five years old my parents bought me three audio cassettes geared towards introducing children to classical music. They included: “Mr. Bach comes to Call,” “Beethoven Lives Upstairs,” and “Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery.”

“Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery” was my favorite. It told the story of a young Italian girl who was taken into Antonio Vivaldi’s school of music for orphaned girls.

The girl, Caterina, was swept up into a mysterious adventure through the darkest canals, the liveliest masquerades and the golden melodies of Vivaldi.

As a child, I was completely enthralled by this tape; I listened to it countless times. I became convinced that Venice was the most enchanting place on earth, and I begged my parents to take me.

They agreed. To this day some of my most vivid childhood memories are from that trip: my first bite of prosciutto (salty, sweet and disintegrating ever so slowly on my tongue), my first glimpse of a Titian (The Assumption of the Virgin Mary– I can still recall the fiery red of the Madonna’s dress), my first gelato (the flavor was panna cotta). I can still remember our trip to San Lazzaro, the island in the Venetian lagoon, home to Armenian monks who have inhabited the island for three hundred years.

***

I can make out the star-patterned frescoes from the Armenian monastery outlined in the cacao powder on the top of my cappuccino. The steam from the coffee slowly melted my face paint. Carnival was over. No longer a small child; I glanced at the window as the sun climbed higher and higher in the sky. It was 7:30 am; we needed to catch the train.

Benvenuti al Sud

I attend classes at the University of Bologna, and yet I don’t know a single Bolognese student. I live with girls from Abruzzo, Puglia and Le Marche (not one is from Emilia Romagna).

The students from Bologna and this region of Italy live at home and commute to classes. The students who hail from further away tend to rent apartments. Students from the northern regions will often return home for the weekend, and for this reason most of us Americans live with southerners.

Susan’s house is my favorite example. Her three roommates are all from the region of Italy near Napoli. Many times you will catch them speaking in Neapolitan dialect before they remember to switch back into standardized Italian for Susan’s sake. I like to think of their house as a mini Napoli in Bologna. They drink caffe non-stop and never cease in teasing us for drinking tea.

It is often said that each house has a smell. But never before have I visited a place with such a profound aroma. Susan’s house smells (always) of tomatoes, sizzling away in olive oil. In fact when you eat at her house, her roommates take pleasure in piling mountains of pasta, in sugo di pomodoro, on your plate and insisting that you aren’t really full, and could easily do with a fourth helping (and perhaps another sprig of basil?).

Well, it was with these roommates that I went last weekend to see Italy’s latest film release: Benvenuti al Sud (Welcome to the South). The film is a fictional account of a Post Office manager who is transferred from the North to a small village near Napoli. Stereotypes abound (the northerners worship stinky gorgonzola, the southerners drink too much coffee and never go to work), but Susan’s roommates thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

They would comment on each new scene, crying because they were laughing so hard, “It’s true! Oh but it is SO true!”

Susan and I laughed throughout. Scene after scene, we recognized the daily life of her apartment: the dialect, the food, the sense of humor and the hospitality. However, the film, a light-hearted comedy, became almost unbearably sad alla fine.

After about an hour and a half of uncontrollable laughter, Susan’s roommates were silent. The final frame of Benvenuti al Sud showed the turquoise Tyrrhenian and “O sole mio” played as the credits began to roll.

“I miss it,” murmured Federico.

“Voglio tornare a casa,” crooned Mario to the tune of O sole mio. I want to return home.

Susan’s roommates are no longer college students. They are in their late twenties but have chosen to live in this city because of the work opportunities. They long for their homes, the fresh mozzarella and the limoncello. They remain homesick southerners in this northern city.

“There is no work in the South,” Alessandra says. She remains quiet for a moment.

“But there is no place like it.”

More notes from the kitchen

As I started talking with my friends about my culture clashes in the kitchen, they were more than eager to share their own experiences. Here are three of their tales:

Susan and the carbonara

My close American friend on the program, Susan, has had some interesting stories, but this one, or the carbonara-story as I like to call it is my favorite.

One evening Susan decided that she wanted to make carbonara, the classic roman dish. She’d eaten it at a restaurant here, and when I told her it was simple to make, she immediately ran off to the mercato, determined to replicate it in her kitchen. I told her that the eggs in the dish helped create the creamy sensation of the sauce, but I forgot to tell her that there isn’t actually cream in it, at least not in Italy. Americans seem to have decided that cream belongs in carbonara. Susan didn’t buy spaghetti at the market; she figured she’d use the pasta she’d bought the day before: tortellini. Well, the whole thing didn’t turn out so well. She mixed the eggs and cream and it all congealed into a lumpy mess. Susan was horrified, not that her food hadn’t come out as planned, but horrified that her roommates would walk in any second and see what she had cooked. She tried to choke down as much as she could before dumping out the rest. But she couldn’t just casually toss her disastrous meal in the trashcan. No. She needed to make sure that they wouldn’t see her failed attempts at Italian cuisine. She carefully slid the leftover pasta mass underneath yesterday’s egg carton, empty juice box and bitter coffee grounds, all seconds before her roommates arrived home. Susan grabbed a seat and attempted to steady her breath. She put on her best smile as Mario, Federico and Alessandra bustled into the kitchen.

“Ciao Susan!” they exclaim happily, as they light up the oven to prepare a tomato and sausage sugo for spaghetti.

“Are you hungry? Would you like some pasta?” they ask.

“No thanks,” replies Susan. “I already ate.” Easy enough, she thinks. They never have to know about the disastrous outcome of the carbonara sauce.

But of course this is Italy. And not asking someone what she/he ate for a meal is about as rude as not being offered a seat at a job interview.

“What did you eat?” They inquire.

“Oh,” replies Susan confidently. “I made tortellini with carbonara.” Don’t tell them about the cream in the sauce and everything will go swimmingly…

Horrified, her roommates look at each other.

“Tortellini?”

“Yes.”

“Alla carbonara?”

“Yes.”

“Dio!,” steps in Mario, God. “Tortellini is always always cooked in brodo (in broth). Alla carbonara?! Never, NEVER! It simply is not done!”

(Mario is very passionate about Italian cuisine)

So passionate, in fact, that he decided it was his obligation (as an Italian) to cook Susan a second dinner.

Claire and the zucchine

The first vocabulary lessons Claire, Susan and I learned when we arrived in Italy were food related.

Lasagne not Lasagna.

One cookie is in fact biscotto. Multiple are biscotti. (same goes for sandwiches: one panino, two Panini)

The word stracciatella can refer to at least three different food items: 1)Vanilla gelato with streaks of hardened dark chocolate, 2) a creamy oozing cheese, and 3) a chicken soup with silken strands of parmesan swirled throughout.

But the one word that we had the most trouble with was zucchine. For some reason or another we’ve masculinized the word in the United States into zucchini.

One evening, as Claire likes to tell the story, she was sautéing some zucchine in olive oil to eat as a side dish to her pasta. Her housemate walks in and asks her what on earth she is doing.

“What am I doing?” Claire responds, startled.

“Yes,” replies her housemate. “What are you doing with those zucchine?”

“I’m, I’m, I’m sautéing them.”

Her housemate stared at the zucchine, then at the can of tomatoes sitting next to the stove.

“Ah ok! If you’d like I can add the zucchine to the tomato sauce for you. But normally, I’d advise you to sautee the tomatoes with a bit of onion first.”

“No, I’m not making pasta sauce with zucchine.”

“Then what are you making?”

“I’m just going to eat the zucchine as is. With olive and salt. I like it that way.”

Her housemate looked confused. She walked over to the stove and prodded the zucchine with a wooden spoon.

“Ahhh…interessante,” was all she could muster as she sat down to eat her plate of prosciutto and sliced asiago.

Lizzie and the banana bread

Lizzie missed home. And her mother’s baked goods. She dreamed of cookies, muffins, and… banana bread.

She finally decided to try her hand at baking in her Italian kitchen. She didn’t have American measuring cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, or even baking powder, but somehow she managed to pull it off. She substituted a large cappuccino glass for the standard cup, espresso spoons for teaspoons and lievieto paneangeli (a type of fast acting yeast used for cakes) for the baking powder. The batter was perfect; rich and cluttered with moist chunks of mashed banana. It looked just like she had remembered it. She poured it into a buttered pyrex and gently set the pan into the oven (which she had preheated paying careful attention to the exact conversion from Farenheit to Celsius). Fifteen minutes later, her apartment smelled wonderful. Just like home.

She sat at the kitchen table, barely able to take her eyes off the rising banana bread in the oven. Around her swirled the scents of vanilla, cinnamon and toasted butter.

And then she heard it: the fast unnerving sound of ice breaking, and the thud of sludgey water.

Lizzie ran to the oven. The pan had shattered. And the batter was everywhere, lining the entire oven. Glass shards mixed with mushy banana dripped down the oven door.

Turns out the “pyrex” wasn’t really a pyrex after all.

Lizzie was mortified. She spent the rest of the afternoon scrubbing down the oven- desperately trying to make up some sort of logical excuse to tell her roommates. When they arrived home from their classes, Lizzie blurted out the entire story and apologized for the disorder in the kitchen.

She had prepared herself for the worst. But her roommates couldn’t have been more good-natured. After she finished apologizing, they simply laughed.

“Come on let’s go.” They told Lizzie as they grabbed the keys and headed for the door.

“Where ?” she asked.

“To buy a new baking dish,” they replied.

“You aren’t mad about the mess?”

“Why would we be mad? Kitchens are made for messes.”

Mangia

It isn’t easy to figure out the workings of a home: how to close the front door properly (before I was showed how, I would bang it shut, rather loudly, six or seven times each morning before it would stick; I was informed later that this would wake up the entire household), how to adhere to the around-the-house dress code (NO bare feet), how to use the kitchen.

The kitchen is rather large, but for six girls, plus guests, it gets a little cramped. Normally, everyone cooks for themselves. Kind of. That’s when it gets tricky. Sometimes they want you to share their food: the cured ham that their grandmother made, the biscotti that they baked that morning.

Certain items in the kitchen are communal. The olive oil, I was told, was a communal item, as are salt and sugar. However, the first time I went to fry an egg, I faced a serious dilemma. Next to the stove, were five large water bottles filled with oil, each one a different shade:  golden yellow, bright green, dark like deep-sea water. Which one to use? I grabbed a random bottle and poured a bit in the pan before anyone could see me. Or so I thought. One of my housemates entered.

“Oh hey, I hope you like it. That one is from my village!”

It turns out everyone fills up large bottles of olive oil from home and brings the bottles with them to Bologna.  Everyone’s oil is different. And each one has a distinctive smell. When you open up the cap, the fragrance is almost overpowering. The room is suddenly transported to Puglia or Abruzzo or Le Marche. In traditional Bolognese cuisine, olive oil is used less frequently. The food is rich. Tortellini are stuffed with parmigiano and mortadella. Pastas are dressed in butter. But here, on Via Belvedere 10, we pour olive oil over everything.

Two nights ago I declared that I was cooking an Armenian dinner. My roommate offered to take me grocery shopping. So far, I’ve only been to the supermarket. Frankly, I’d been too intimidated to visit the mercato delle erbe, the grand covered market directly across the street from my apartment .How do I buy apples? Do I tell the fruit vender how many I want or do I ask for a certain weight in kilos? And how the heck am I supposed to convert pounds to kilos? Inside are dozens of fruit and vegetable stalls. Lining the walls are butcher shops and cheese mongers. I’m glad she offered to help. My Italian vocabulary does not even begin to cover the names of various cuts of meat. After the butcher ground the meat we requested (meat is only ground on request), we bought eggplants, peppers and tomatoes from her favorite fruit vender.

Afterwards, I realized I needed some spices and ran off to the local super market. The spice section, however, was limited- oregano, black pepper, perhaps some cinnamon (if you’re lucky). But I was in desperate need of cumin (cumino). I ran to another shop. No luck. Then another. My friend suggested an international grocery store.

I finally found the precious spice at a small Indian market around the corner. I returned to the kitchen, my prized cumin in hand, smile on my face, only to encounter the suspicious looks of my housemates.

“Cumin?” They asked. “But what is that?”

“Here,” I said, hand outstretched. “Smell it.”

One coughed. The other wrinkled her nose in disgust. My roommate told me it smelled like “Kebab.”

“Troppo forte” was the general consensus. Very strong.

But their suspicion didn’t stop there. My housemate asked if I wanted help chopping.

“Thanks,” I replied. “Would you chop the onions?”

“Sure. How many?”

“Four”

Her jaw dropped. “I’ve never used more than one onion at a time,” she exclaimed in a voice of horror mixed with deep curiosity.

I began chopping up garlic.

“That too?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yup, and after it is done, you eat the stew with rice.”

I held up the bag with the rice. I could tell from her expression that she had never before seen basmati rice. Here, the rice section of the supermarket is mostly reserved for the risotto making varietals: carnaroli, arborio.

Basmati rice, cumin, four onions. The dinner was downright exotic.

They must have spent five minutes staring at their food in silence. Tentatively, my roommate took her first bite. I stared at her, holding my breath, as she chewed slowly. Everyone was watching for her reaction. She met my gaze, and slightly nodded her head in approval.

“Buono.”

I was relieved. I hadn’t expected them to be so unadventurous in terms of food. But my Italian roommates are not like their American counterparts. They don’t eat Thai food one night, and Indian the next. They eat Italian food. They cook Italian food, and when they get take out, it’s Italian. However, by the end of the evening, the stew and the rice were gone.

Tonight, it’s their turn to share their own gastronomic traditions. My housemates are hosting a dinner party, and they’ve been cooking all day.

This morning when I woke up, the kitchen was filled with my housemates. They were slicing zucchine, kneading dough, and picking through a large wooden crate of mushrooms that took up half the kitchen table.

Here is the menu:

Deep-fried mini calzones (called panzerotti) stuffed with cherry tomatoes, basil and cheese

Focaccia stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto.

Focaccia stuffed with eggplant and peppers.

Pizza bianca (pizza dough cooked with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt).

Pasta with zucchine, mushrooms, sausage and cream.

For dessert:

Panna cotta

Coconut cake with nutella frosting

To drink:

Coca cola

Beer

(Some traditions are cross-cultural).

Casa

I began my housing search on my second day in Bologna. With a brand new telefonino in hand, I made my pilgrimage to Via Zamboni, the hub of student life in the city. There, on a side street, I found hundreds upon hundreds of housing announcements.

Affitasi. Singola. Doppia. Posto Letto.

Rooms for rent. Singles. Doubles.

The first phone call was the worst.

“Ciao. Sono una studentessa Americana. Ho visto il tuo annuncio…”(this became the basic template for future phone calls- I’m an American student, I saw your ad, etc.)

“No Erasmus.”

“Oh um ok…grazie”

Erasmus, a European study abroad program, is pretty much a synonym for any foreign student here in Bologna. “No Erasmus” was an occasional requirement for potential housemates.

I decided to live in a doppia. I wanted to have an Italian roommate, and as a plus, double rooms generally cost less.

When you make the phone call, there are several important questions to ask. Is the room still for rent? What is the address? What is the name on the campanello (doorbell)?

The Bolognese housing hunt is stressful, to put it mildly. I saw about fifteen places until I found my apartment. There is a definite protocol that is difficult to pick up on, especially when you’re desperately trying to string together a coherent Italian sentence.

A house visit is like rushing a sorority. The housemates decide if you’re the right fit for their house and social group, and you in turn try and figure out if you like them and the house. If you do, you text or call them within the next 24 hours to tell them. Usually, they take three to five days to make their decision.

I visited 15 houses before I found the right one. I thought I was going to lose my marbles. For some reason or another, every apartment I visited had some strange, bizarre quirk about it. “Quirk” isn’t even the right word. I like quirky. I didn’t like these apartments.

Some were just down right filthy, like this one on Via Petroni:

The house was inhabited by six guys. They had advertised a double room for a girl, but I didn’t see another girl in sight. They seemed friendly enough, but were all too excited when I told them I was American. “An American girl!,” they exclaimed, eyeing me up and down. “When do you want to move in?” I looked at the half-eaten pizza crusts on the bookshelves, to the faded mattress on the floor, and tried to smile. “I’ll let you know.” Saying no has never been easy for me. I felt something brush by my foot. I looked down and saw their cat leap onto the mattress. The brown, mushy cat food, was sitting out on the kitchen tiles. “ Oh, you have a cat?” I asked. “I’m terribly sorry but I have very severe allergies.” Well, it was somewhat the truth. A quick  “Grazie” and then I left.

However, the worst of all these places was a small apartment off Via dell’Independenza:

I visited it with a friend who thought she was interested. The apartment seemed quaint: tiny, old and cosy. The girl was enthusiastic and the guy who lived in the single seemed shy, but friendly. My friend, however, didn’t accept their invitation to sit down and talk. She dragged me out of the apartment about as fast as she could. “What was the matter with the place?” I asked.  “It was so cute. There was all that light streaming through the bedroom window. I mean, I know it was small, but the people were friendly and they had all those cool posters.”

“Laura,” she replied. “I got a weird vibe.  I can’t explain it.”

I thought she was nuts. I called them up and told them that although my friend was not interested in the place, I definitely was. Would it be ok to stop by tomorrow and meet with them?

The next day I arrived, convinced that I had finally found a place (at this point in my search I had seen about eight apartments). The minute I walked in, I sensed something was off. The apartment was dark and still. The girl showed me her room. Her pupils were dilated and she kept staring at me while I stood there in silence. Something is very wrong, I thought. The roommate, who I previously pinned as shy, had a sort of glazed look to him and a grin straight out of Edgar Allen Poe. The small apartment, which I had believed to be small and charming, was closing in on me. I stood in the kitchen and mumbled a few questions about rent and electric bills. The whole time, I could hear their rapid, unsynchronized breathing. I glanced at the table where they had written down my name and number on a napkin. A clear tube of white powder was resting on the wooden planks. Was I imagining this? The girl followed my gaze, looked back into my eyes, then grabbed the tube and stuffed it into her pocket. Her face remained emotionless. “I, um, I’ll , well… Ciao,” I mumbled and bolted for the door.

After that particular visit things got slightly better. The apartments got cleaner, the people, more normal. But nothing clicked.

The following Friday, I spent the entire day trekking around the city, looking at apartments. By 6:00 pm, I was exhausted. I had one final appointment, but I had already decided I wasn’t going to see the house. I called my friend to ask her where we were going for dinner. “Don’t you have a house to see at 6:30?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied sheepishly. “Go!” she demanded and hung up the phone.

Via Belvedere 10 is not a beautiful building. Unlike the other apartments I’d seen, it didn’t have massive medieval doors or a red stucco façade. I was convinced it would be a dud.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Five girls were waiting for me when I got off the elevator. They laughed and chatted as they led me to a marble floored room, with high ceilings and enormous window overlooking the street.

“This is the room?” I asked. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“Yes,” they replied.

“Bella”, was all I could muster. I was speechless.

We sat in the kitchen as they explained the rent and down payment. The kitchen opened up onto a balcony, where they kept bags of onions and glass jugs of olive oil. Ragu was bubbling on the stove. It smelled like home. And just like that I blurted out, “I love your house. I’d really love to live here” (but in Italian). I held my breath. Would I have to wait five days before they gave me a response?

“Ok,” my future roommate replied. “You can move in on Sunday.”

This statement was followed by a long silence. I took a deep a deep breath. I was so relieved that I almost started to cry. They took notice. “Sei contenta?” (Are you happy?) they asked me.

“Sì, molto contenta.”

“Anche noi siamo molto contente.” We are also very happy.

Italian for Seniors

May 19: final papers turned in

May 22: final exam complete

May 25: finally sleeping; life is bellissima

June 1: panic strikes; I forget how to say “I’m hungry” in Italian

June 10: I sign up for a weekly conversational Italian course at my local adult education center

The night before the first day of class I found myself flipping through my first year Italian text book. Should I take notes on Chapter five, in case I don’t remember how to properly use the subjunctive? I was aware that my anxiety was a reflection of my own jitters about leaving the country. Hopefully this class would help. I  set aside my notebook and pencil to take with me the following morning.

I walked into class, and I immediately stood out. My classmates seemed perplexed as to why I was there. I was wondering the same thing. I was 50 years younger than they were. While they were discussing their grandchildren, I was telling everyone about dorm life at Cornell. I wasn’t sure I would go back. The age gap, I thought, was just too darn big.

But the next week, I decided to give it another go. Giorgio kicked off the class by singing Neopolitan love songs from the 1950s. Sofia shared a recipe for risotto. We affectionately nicknamed Giancarlo “Il Professore” after he described his years as a Greek professor and a teacher of ancient history. It was my own Italian family and I loved them all.

Eight weeks later, and I still have nightmares about the subjunctive. However, my approach to the language has changed dramatically. I no longer view Italian as another course on my schedule which I have to master but a community of speakers on a grand adventure. Italian united our class: the professor, the ex-soldier, the yoga instructor, and the one itinerant Cornellian.

I will hear the voices of my fellow classmates as I wander the streets of Bologna. They will never cease to encourage me to speak up and stay confident. Don’t be afraid of making grammar mistakes, they will say. Just remember to never order a cappuccino after 11 am.