February 8, 2013
Hey! Hey you!!

Hey! Friends and followers of Think My Face Looks Italian?… I started a new blog to document my adventures of becoming an “adult.” 

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www.big-girl-shoes.tumblr.com 

Check it out and if you laugh at least once, follow me. If not. Just follow me anyway and I promise I’ll make it up to you…give me a chance!!

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I’m worth it, I promise. 

May 25, 2012

I watched a man do pull-ups on the R train this morning. He winked at me, wiped his brow with a towel, danced to his music, then did another set of pull-ups. I looked around, not one person was watching him. They didn’t think it was unusual, silly, or HILARIOUS.

New York City: open your eyes, we are in the midst of greatness. 

May 19, 2012
Brooklyn. Good to be back.

Target dress section.

Leila and a woman are both scanning a rack of sundresses.

Lady: What size dis?

Leila does a double-take to make sure the woman is talking to her, no one else is around.

Leila: Oh, I’m not sure. This one is a medium, here’s a small…what size are you looking for?

Lady: I dink I like da pink betta dan da black.

Leila: Me too, I always like black better. Since moving to New York my dark laundry has increased significantly.

Leila laughs. Lady stops looking at dresses and turns to Leila.

Lady: I AM ON DA PHONE!! 

Bluetooth.

May 18, 2012
How To Pick a Trainer 101 

The other day my friend asked me what I would suggest when it comes to picking a personal trainer. I told her that for me there were a few factors: (1) someone who’s friendly (2) someone who makes me feel comfortable (3) a great motivator (4) (most important) their body.

AHHHH, I’m so shallow, right? I know. But listen, if you go to a new dentist and he has a missing front tooth, you’d get your insurance provider on the phone faster than you can say “gingivitis” to find another dentist. Why? Because if someone’s going to get on me about flossing daily, he better be living by example. The same goes for skinny bakers. If I’m in the market for cupcakes (because nowadays, who’s not in the market for cupcakes?) and the baker doesn’t have that fat-lady-glow, FOR.GET.IT. I’d say this rule basically applies to most occupations, except hairdressers. If you go to a salon and you like your stylist’s haircut, ask her who cut her hair, get their number and make an appointment with them. Don’t risk a bad haircut, it’s not worth it.

Finding a trainer is tricky because they’re going to see you in a pretty vulnerable state: sweating, weeping, gasping for air…or maybe that’s just me? Anyway, their job is to help you reach your goals by making you do things you might be uncomfortable doing, ie: “hip thrusters” in front of the entire gym. A really expensive game of Simon Says. My trainer is a guy and I chose him mostly because of factor #4 – I won’t deny that. I would have preferred a female trainer, just in case I forgot to shave my armpits or wanted to cry, but the lady trainer I would have picked (based on factor #4) gives me the stink-eye on the regular. I really like people to like me and when I say hello to her and she blatantly ignores me, I feel like a fat 7th grader trying to talk to a popular 8th grader in the locker room. So needless to say, factors 1 & 2 were out and factor 3 could have gone two ways:

Defensive Leila

Trainer Stink-eye: “15 push-ups”

Defensive Leila: “Nope.” (looks trainer up and down, crosses arms)

or

Please-like-me-Leila

Trainer Stink-eye: “15 push-ups”

Please-like-me-Leila: “Oh, okay cool, how are you? Can you just show me how you do this again? Your push-up form is SERIOUSLY perfect, it’s like you invented push-ups!! WHY DO YOU GIVE ME DIRTY LOOKS WHEN I SMILE AT YOU?????” (sobbing)

Sometimes if you go to your gym and say you’d like training sessions, they’ll randomly put you with the first available trainer and then you don’t even have to worry about any of these rules. But, if you feel like the person they gave you isn’t a good match, seriously go find the trainer with the Ken-doll-physique and call it a day.

You’re welcome.

May 14, 2012
l’inizio

I’ve been back in New York for almost two weeks now. It feels great to be back, it’s also surreal because sometimes I feel like I never left.  The first morning I was home, I got out of bed and looked around my apartment. I peered into each room, looking for changes, but there were none. Then I looked around my bedroom and checked to make sure I still had three suitcases to unpack (I did. Three enormous suitcases that I still haven’t unpacked, which I’m blaming entirely on the jet lag). It felt like I dreamt it all because Italy already seemed so far away. A really long, vivid dream that enabled me to gain 10 pounds, or like a coma with reverse effects (leave it to me to be in a coma and gain weight).

On the other hand, I know it all really happened because I’m seeing my own culture with fresh eyes. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing things for the first time, other times I see something that used to be second nature and think, “oh yeah, I remember that.” There are things about America that are just so different from Italy. iPhones are everywhere here. No one looks at each other. No one says “good morning!” as they pass each other. They just stay in their own world, in constant connection with people, just not the ones around them. I love my phone a lot, but more than wanting to update Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, I want to know people. Everyone is so “busy” here and so “important,” but my question is, what’s more important than each other? Another thing: Apples. They taste like chemicals here. What’s in the apples, America? Hm? What’s in the apples?! The big differences between Italy and America that I’ve noticed right off the bat have to do with apples. Coincidence? Yeah, probably.

It’s pretty cool to be able to eavesdrop again. In Italy, I could only be nosey a little bit because I only understood every 4 words. Then by the time I translated them in my head, I was just too tired. Being back in America means I’m just jumping into conversations – because I can. “I LOVED Jessica Alba’s dress at the Met Gala, too! She is gorgeous!” “J.Simps had the baby? About time, I feel like she’s been preggers since LAST May. Amiright?” Simply. Because. I. Can. Every time I see someone riding a bike, I have the sudden urge to say, “Hey, you!! I can do that too!!!! I know how to ride a bike now, and I LOVE IT!!!!” 

Since I’ve been back, I’ve decided to try juicing. None of my clothes fit, and I’m so addicted to caffeine and carbs that I am afraid I may never recover. So I did the most drastic thing I could think of: I cut both of those things out of my life completely and just started drinking everything in juice form.

Dirt. It’s what’s for breakfast.

It’s obviously not forever, but definitely until I feel like I can handle caffeine and carbs responsibly again. I actually really like it, I thought I’d be starving all the time, because I am usually always hungry. In the past, I’ve actually compared myself to a chocolate lab. This is because I sometimes feel like I could eat until I die. But surprisingly, I’ve been feeling pretty good. Sometimes when I’m preparing the juices, I think, this would rock if I threw a scoop of peanut butter in here - took out the celery and the beets, added a banana, maybe some chocolate syrup. But I don’t do it, because I’m strong-willed (and I know my options are this or I go and buy all new jeans. More than being strong-willed, I am cheap and on a budget more than ever since this trip). I haven’t even had cravings, which is awesome – although the other day I walked passed a little girl eating an ice cream cone, and I genuinely wanted to punch it out of her hand. I was totally jealous that she was eating ice cream, and I also wanted to inform her: “YOU WOULDN’T KNOW GOOD ICE CREAM IF IT HIT YOU IN THE FACE. GELATO FOREVER!!!!” The only truly bad thing about juicing is the caffeine withdrawals I’ve been having. Yesterday afternoon around 3:45, I felt drunk, I had a low-grade fever, and my brain felt like it was being squeezed. I was even having a hard time reading.  I’m pretty sure my body was just really pissed off at me: 

Body: “Leila, whyyyyy?? I feel so weird, I hate you!”

Me: “Body, this has to be done. We are in the express lane headed toward stretchy-pants-ville. I’m taking this exit before there’s no turning back!”

Body: “I miss gelato & gnocchi & NUTELLAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” 

Leila: “Shhhhhh, I know. It’s going to be okay.” 

Body: “OH REALLY?!?”

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Starbucks, because I’m a masochist. No… because before leaving for Italy, I shut my internet off and haven’t had a chance to deal with that yet since being home. If I want to use the internet, I find myself in a place that serves over-priced, caffeinated drinks and plays indie music. I also think I’m hoping for a contact high. Maybe by surrounding myself with the strong coffee smell, I’ll get a jolt of energy. It has yet to happen, but I’m still holding out. I’m like a true junkie. Lingering, twitching… I’ve also had to hold myself back from punching some venti iced coffees out of a few people’s hands and yelling “YOU WOULDN’T KNOW GOOD COFFEE IF IT HIT YOU IN THE FACE! ILLY FOREVER!!!”  

True love.

Detox does wild things, I tell ya!

I feel so blessed that I was able to experience everything I did within the last few months. Not everyone gets to do what I did, to see what I did, to learn what I did, and I feel like a different person because of it. Being in Italy helped me, changed me, and healed me.

I ate spaghetti and meatballs in Rome, Florentine steak in Florence, gelato in every single major (and minor) city in Italy. I stood on a mountain top in Austria right after I tried wiener-schnitzel (common theme here seems to be food, hmm??).

I rode on the back of a Vespa driven by a really, really handsome Italian man. That’s like, every American girl’s dream, right? He took me to a pizzeria. That’s like, every American girl named Leila Graham’s dream. I was baptized in a river older than America.

Like an ice bath.

I’ve been able to meet and learn about so many people. I’ve heard so many amazing stories about people who, only 4 months ago, I didn’t know existed. The friendships I formed with the people I met opened my eyes to see that even if we are brought up in different worlds, we are all striving for the same things, and we all struggle with the same things. Hearing “NEW YORK CITY?!” from my Italian friends and “ITALY?!?!?!” from my American ones helped me to see that even though we are always thinking “the grass is greener on the other side,” it’s really not. It’s perfectly green exactly where you are. It’s really up to what you are willing to see. Thank God for what you have, because what you take for granted could be someone else’s dream. Take advantage of the opportunities God’s given you and know that having faith isn’t overrated. And finally, take the time to remember the moments you told yourself to never forget. You don’t have to be in Italy to live your life to the fullest. You just have to be alive.

Proverbs 3:6 

April 29, 2012
Chubby Fanny Pack-alino

Before I came to Italy, I was really scared of gaining weight. Our boss told us that we’d most likely lose weight here because the food is fresher, there are no preservatives, the portions are smaller, etc. But I love food a lot. I love cooking, I love eating, I love sleeping, and then waking up and eating some more. All of which are factors needed for a morbidly obese lifestyle. In America, I can control what I eat because I’m in control of my schedule. In Italy, I’m not in control at all. Between teaching, planning, meeting up with people, and the ever-changing schedules of the restaurants and supermarkets, you really can’t call the shots in your own schedule. If you go out to eat, you’re most likely going to order pasta or pizza because it’s easier, quicker, cheaper, and friggin’ delish. Carbs just love me so much that once they’re here, they never ever ever leave my body. I’m not one of those people who can eat carbs in moderation and still lose weight…or maybe I’m one of those people who doesn’t know how to eat carbs in moderation, and that’s why I don’t lose weight? ……………definitely the first option, it’s all the carbs fault.

Natalie and I did pretty well with exercising for the first two months, but within the last month and a half, it just didn’t seem to fit into our schedules. The ironic thing is that we ran regularly through the freezing months, but as soon as it got warm, we just…ate gelato.

The food that Heaven’s catered with.

Anyway, after the first month freak out of “I’M ONLY EATING CARBS, I’M GOING TO GET FAT!!!!!!” I planned to just eat like an Italian. I figured I’d be safe if I did that. But after some time it became pretty obvious that wasn’t going to happen. Mostly because we’re American. Now, I am not saying we’re American, so we’re fat and have no self-control. I’m saying that, when Italians find out you’re from America, they want to show you what Italy’s really about. Maybe they also want to see if the “Fat American” stereotype is really true. Which means one thing: Dinner parties. “My neighbor’s cousin’s wife’s sister wants you to come to dinner!!” or “I have a son. He’s 25. Come to dinner at my house this Friday?” There’s a protocol for Italian dinner parties. It’s usually 3 or 4 courses, then literally 10 minutes after the dirty plates are cleared, dessert is served along with some kind of sweet wine. This is followed by a hard alcohol. Sometimes it’s grappa (tastes like shoe polish), sometimes it’s Limoncello. Then, after all that, a teeny coffee…sometimes with a shot of Sambuca (a licorice flavored liqueur).

We’ve had multiple meals at relatives-of-friends houses that are like the previously described. And by multiple, I mean about one a week since we’ve been here. We went to Olivia’s landlord’s sister Mirella’s house. She’s the same lady who, about a month ago, made a “your mother’s ass” comment after finding out my family is from Southern Italy. For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know the story. For those of you who don’t, why don’t you read my blog regularly? Read my blog, you guys.

She greeted us and mumbled something about Southern Italy and then laughed. But I didn’t hear anything about my family’s body parts, so I just laughed with her. When we sat down for lunch, I was starving. I had three small appetizer sausages and cheese, and then the lasagna came out. She made the most delicious lasagna I’ve ever had (sorry Ma). She made everything but the cheese. I was full by the end of that, but, like I’ve learned the hard way - you can’t say no to food. You can’t stop eating until it’s time to stop eating; when the food is gone. The next course was similar to chicken cordon bleu but with steak. I was so full I wanted to die (talk about a First World Problem, huh?). That’s right when the salad came out. I had about 3 bites of lettuce and then just moved it around on my plate so it looked like I had eaten it. Mirella looked at me, I looked at her and then ate the rest of the salad. She cleared the table and immediately brought out Colomba (which is similar to a pound cake) and a pastry she made, 2 different types of wine, and then coffee. I was getting dizzy. I actually thought I might throw up, my eyes were watering, it was worse than any Thanksgiving dinner experience I’ve ever had. After the coffee, her husband brought out some liquor that he had made. Then came the fruit. My thoughts at this point: “We need to be done. I will literally fart at your dining room table if I eat one more thing. Capito?????” But I’m a lady, and ladies don’t do that, so I just shook my head no, smiled and said “grazie” until they stopped insisting.

The last time we had lunch (at 12:30pm) with them, the same thing happened. There was a lot of different alcohol they kept wanting us to try, and when I tried to pour water for myself in between glasses of wine or shots of liquor, they all said, “BASTA, No. No aqua. VINO!!!!” I had eaten so much that I didn’t feel the alcohol until I tried to ride my bike home (to be fair, it was the beginning of my bike riding days, and I was wearing a pair of high heel boots which, although totally adorable, were probably not the most conducive to bike riding). Mirella’s 30-year-old, single, handsome, Engineer son was outside seeing us off as I accidentally drove my bike into the side of the house and then fell over. He graciously picked me up and asked if I was okay, to which I replied, “Oh yeah! I’m great, I do that all the time.” WHAT? Really? The best you could come up with was “I do that all the time???” Way to play it cool. Don’t blame it on the Sambuca Zio Giovanni just forced you to take shots of. Next time why not go with something creative like: “Oh no, this is just the way we ride bikes in America…it’s a new, fun-obstacle-course-project-adventure thing. They’re making a reality TV show about it and everything. I nailed that trick, right?!”

"Gloraaayyy!"

After we had the fruit, Mirella said, “pui caffe??? (more coffee)” and proceeded to make more espresso…she then topped it off with vanilla gelato. By this time, I was angry with myself. Why didn’t you wear stretchy pants? What were you thinking wearing jeans to something like this?? It was very obvious that this was no sprint, my friends. This was a marathon, and we were in mile 25.

I waddled out of the house, and actually grunted when I got into the car. I involuntarily grunted. Natalie looked at me like, what is wrong with you? And then I whispered, “I can’t breathe…I didn’t mean to grunt. I just can’t control my body right now.” She whispered back, “I’m dying to unbutton my pants…”

The top right is in fact a plate made up of nothing but meats & fried cheese.

We’ve had so many food experiences like this, all a combination of true happiness and unbelievable pain. I was really upset about my jeans not fitting at first because I’m a chick and that’s what we do. But, I’m in Italy!! Am I going to eat chicken and salad for every meal? I have the rest of my American life to do that. They say “abs are made in the kitchen,” well, so is lasagna, pizza, tiramisu, cannoli, pastries, sausage, gnocchi…Every time I try to button my pants, I remind myself (and consider it a personal victory) that after 3 months I didn’t gain 50 pounds. “It’s just like 10 pounds…I can lose it!!” says the sobbing girl as she does lunges to stretch out her jeans. And when I’m done trying to squeeze into them, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that stretchy pants are the only option right now, I also remind myself that I’ve had gelato pretty much every day (except Thursdays, because that’s when Saran Gelati is closed), I usually start my days with a Nutella-filled brioche and a cappuccino (made with WHOLE milk), then have gnocchi or spaghetti for lunch with the most delicious bread, followed by a spoonful of Nutella, and then, who knows, if I felt up to it, maybe another little scoop of Nutella ––Nutella tastes great on saltines, by the way. I worked real hard at this 10 lbs, and I can’t think of a better to have earned it!

April 6, 2012
The Pepper of Life

One of my advanced students is a professional chef; she’s also Italian. Put those two things together and you have the Meryl Streep of cooking. When I found out she was a chef, I immediately asked if I could shadow her in the kitchen. She immediately said “SI!!!” Italians love cooking, sharing, people, and any opportunity to practice English. Win, win. She suggested we make Gnocchi (a small potato dumpling similar to pasta, but with a thicker, chewier consistency) and Frico (a typical Friulano food that consists of different fried cheeses). I was so excited! Not only because I love Gnocchi but because I’d be able to teach my mom when I got back to ‘Merica. My mom is an excellent cook. She learned from my nanny (her mother), who was also an excellent cook. As a child, I never had an interest in cooking. Mostly because when Monet was painting, it would be inappropriate to say, “so…what’re ya doin’ here? Want some help? I got this.” (My mom is that good.) 

Just something small Mom whipped up

And the best way to describe my nanny, well…she was “The Queen of the Kitchen.” It was her way, or you could go sit in the living room and watch Jeopardy.

"Who got kicked out of the kitchen for $200 please, Alex."  

My mom used to say, “come cook with me. If you don’t learn, how are you ever going to get married?” I usually answered with an adorable response like, “TV dinners.” or “My inner feminist will NEVER succumb!” or “We’ll have a chef.” But in 2008 when I was living on my own for the first time, I quickly learned that either I start cooking or my options were Cheerios or tuna salad for every meal. Take-out gets real expensive, and literally only God knows what the Lucky Dragon’s cooking. 

"Help."  

I started with simple things: Scrambled eggs, pastas, etc. I [finally] got the hang of cooking salmon, after only burning it…a lot of times. The trick is low heat, or your apartment will smell like Vern’s Fish Fry for days (reference for people from Bennington only). I faced my fear of looking at, cleaning, and touching raw meat. Then I started trying new recipes. I very rarely followed them, but I liked the ideas. I became a vegan for about 6 months which means if you don’t cook your own food, you can’t eat anything. Unless, of course, you’re willing to spend $20 dollars on BBQ ribs made of soy. That led me to cooking with different spices such as: Cumin, ginger, and rosemary. Because let’s be honest, tofu needs all the help it can get, amiright?

Chewy air.

I got into the habit of calling my mom and cooking with her on the phone. Some of my most cherished moments are listening to her recite a recipe by heart as if she had been studying it all day and was just waiting for me to call. I fell in love with cooking. Being able to create something by mixing ingredients together is so amazing. Cooking for people is one of my favorite things. Sharing food that I have made and then seeing others enjoy it is such a special experience. Cooking is most definitely an expression of love. I also think the way I just described cooking is a pretty good indication I’ll have like 6 or 7 kids. 

Look out World, we’ve got potential for a new TLC reality show!

"Being able to create something by mixing ingredients together is so amazing" -Leila Graham on cooking/ baby making.

Orietta’s friend Isabella (also another student of mine) invited us to use her kitchen for cooking, so we decided to make an actual dinner. In Italy this means an appetizer, 1st course (pasta), 2nd course (protein and vegetable), 3rd course (salad), 4th course (dessert), [usually] some kind of extremely hard liquor, and a teeny cup of espresso. (Anyone shocked I’ve gained 7 pounds since living here? Anyone at all?)

None of my pants fit.

When we arrived at Isabella’s house, I met her 12 year old and oldest daughter, Maria. She spoke only a little English, but she understood it pretty well. I’m also getting better at understanding Italian, so as long as we all spoke really slowly, we were in the clear. We started cooking immediately, we had work to do! Chopping the squash for the gnocchi, washing the potatoes, cutting the onions. As I was standing in the kitchen, I became overwhelmed with emotions. I thought of my mother and my grandmother; the sounds and smells of the sautéing made me feel like I was home. In my family, the kitchen is where the most important conversations are discussed and where the most important life decisions are made. It was at the breakfast table that I learned the story of how my grandparents met.

Papa & Nanny. 

It was in my Aunt’s kitchen that my cousin asked his wife to marry him. Our kitchen is the first place you sit when you come into our home. It’s where strangers become friends, and then eventually family. As happy as I felt in that moment, I also ached for my mom. I felt myself get teary eyed wishing I could call my nanny, just to tell her what I was doing and to describe the color of the squash. To hear her say “yello??” when she answered the phone. Fortunately for me, I was cutting onions, so I was able to point at them and make a “gee-wiz-these-stinkin’-onions-are-pungent” face. Orietta noticed the expression and let me clean the squash. What an angel.

Orietta speaks great English, but it was fun to be able to play “bilingual taboo.” This is kind of like bilingual charades except they use one or two words, and you use your common sense to decipher what they are trying to say (I would have killed the SATs if they had a common sense section). The most fun thing about cooking with Orietta was that everything was judged by “feel.” For example, when I asked how much longer the potatoes needed to boil, she brought me to the stove, stuck a fork in one, and said, “Not yet!” This same method was used for the squash. The onions were ready when “they are this color.” I was totally okay with that. Cooking that way makes the most sense to me because that’s how I live. Basically 23 years of trial and error: “I just feel like…” I think you remember better if you feel it, that goes for cooking and life. Plus, I’m dyslexic, so if you start throwin’ numbers and stuff in there –– I get dizzy. 

Once the potatoes were done boiling, we peeled them–– the reason you don’t peel them before boiling is because you want to soften the potatoes without having them absorb all the water. Like I said, gnocchi is a small potato dumpling, so you want it to be chewy. Too much water changes the consistency completely. Water = the demise of a dumpling. Peeling the potatoes with a fork and knife was pretty hilarious, and by “pretty hilarious” I mean: I swear I’ve spent more than 3 minutes in a kitchen before. My potatoes just kept crumbling, and they were scalding hot so I couldn’t peel the skin off of the small broken pieces with my fingers. During this game of literal “hot potato,” I glanced over at Maria (Isabella’s 12-year-old). She was peeling the potatoes in one fluid motion like she was born to do this. Let’s just say, I was glad Nanny wasn’t there for that. She would have said something like: (Brooklyn accent) “Whattaya kiddin’ me? You call yourself Italian? You’re embarrassing the Irish in you too, ya know? Gimme that. Go watch Jeopardy.”

"Who got kicked out of the kitchen… for $400 please, Alex."

I finally got the hang of it, and by my third potato, I was on a roll! Just as Maria was finishing up… One word to describe that experience: humbling. The gnocchi process is so easy, but it’s long. It’s not something Rachel Ray would suggest. After the potatoes are peeled, you put them through a potato ricer. This makes them stringy, and it actually reminded me of play-doh, (but I didn’t say that –– it wouldn’t have translated, and after 30 minutes of using the translator/google/dictionary, it would have been one of those “not worth it” comments). We then mixed in the vegetables. We made spinach, pumpkin (squash) and plain gnocchi. We added flour, kneaded the dough, cut it, put it on a tray, and plopped (yes, plopped) it into a pot. When it rises to the top, after about 2 or 3 minutes, it’s done.

For the spinach gnocchi, we made a pesto sauce, the squash gnocchi had a tomato sauce with sausage, and the plain (the most traditional) had butter and sage. We also made the Frico which was super easy. It’s 3 or 4 different cheeses chopped up, put into a frying pan, and then fried “until it’s this color.”

Then it was time to eat. Yahhhhhhh, my favorite time!! We all sat at the table, and Orietta and Isabella began to serve. I watched as Orietta started with her husband, naturally. As she delicately prepared his bruschetta he lovingly admired her. I loved learning to cook but more than that, I loved being with these people. I believe that God gives everyone a real, true passion, and a huge part of life is finding what that is. Some are lucky, and they know their passion from a young age. Others journey most of their lives trying to find it. But when you do figure it out, when you work in it and explore it, it shows in your face. I also believe that one of the most beautiful things to witness is someone light up as they are working within their passion. You can see the spark. You can watch them glow with excitement. This is exactly what was happening with Orietta. She was the last to start eating because she made sure everyone was taken care of before she sat down. It reinforced any Italian women stereotypes I had (in the most beautiful way, of course). No one really spoke during the meal because everyone was too busy eating, which is always the greatest compliment for the cook. The silence continued until Isabella’s youngest daughter, who is often described as “a little hurricane” because she is such a burst of energy, started reciting all the English words she knew. She counted to 11 and then with a mouthful of gnocchi said, “OK! Basta!” which means “stop,” or “I’m done.” We all watched her and laughed as if she was reciting a monologue, because she was so enthusiastic you couldn’t help but be interested. The food was delicious, by the way. Really, really delicious. But the company was better. Imagine that. 

After everyone was finished eating, the women cleared the table (that’s not meant to be funny, that’s just what happened).

While we were cleaning the kitchen, I noticed that there was a saying written in cursive on the tile on the hood of the stove: “pimienta de nuestra vida.” I asked what it meant, and Isabella’s husband explained, “It says ‘the pepper of our life’ in Spanish.” 

Then he pointed to the other tiles that had pictures drawn on them. One had a man and one had a woman, and another had a small bowl filled with kernels of pepper. “This is us, and this (pointing to the bowl) is our family. When we built this house, we made the kitchen big so we would be able to put a big table in here. We wanted it to be a place that was always filled with people we love. Because that’s the pepper of life.” 

The pepper of life. Pepper, the spice that brings a spark to your food, that lights up your face. The passion spice. La pimienta de la vida.

I thanked Orietta on the car ride home and told her how much it meant to me that I was able to cook with her. She said, “I am so happy that you are interested in cooking. Not many girls your age want to learn how to cook. They don’t want to have to take care of their husband and family. They only want a career.” I said, “Well, one day I hope I can take care of my husband and have a career. But, right now it’s just me…” She laughed and said, “You go back to America and make this gnocchi…you’ll get a husband in no time.” 

Hahaha. Basta.

My sweet Nanny. 

The pepper of life.

March 24, 2012
44 Hours of Rome

First things first, it’s the SISTEEN Chapel, you guys. It is in Rome, and we saw it. 

We had a total of 44 hours in Rome. We left Friday morning at 7:00 and arrived around 1:30 that afternoon. It took us almost 7 hours total to get there. In America, if someone said “hey, let’s go somewhere [more than 4 hours away] for the weekend.” I’d say, “Nope.” But, in Italy, I’m a different gal, ya know? In Italy, I’m like, “WE ARE 7 HOURS FROM ROME? LET’S DO THIS!!!!”

How my phone suggested we get to Rome.

I was apprehensive about the whole hostel thing because I heard about bed bugs, so I googled information on them and the movie poster for “HOSTEL” came up. After that, I officially ruled it out. We ended up spending a little extra money on a hotel, but we avoided bed bugs and getting murdered all together. Natalie and I watched a special on Rome by the Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown.

Sammy B.

She has a series called “Passport to Europe” where, you guessed it, she travels all over South America………………..No. She travels all over Europe. Each episode is 30 minutes, so it was perfect for us, considering we had less than 2 days. She showed us the big tourist attractions and told us little, fun facts. She also suggested that the best, most efficient mode of transportation in Rome is a private driver. This is obviously the most realistic option for someone who’s not a TV host on the Travel Channel.  We talked about renting Vespas or maybe bikes, but everyone warned us that the drivers in Rome were some of the craziest in the world. After seeing a guy on a Vespa almost get annihilated, I now concur. Walking (on the inside of the sidewalk, close to the buildings) is the way to go.

When we arrived Friday afternoon, we immediately went to the hotel to check in and get cute (that’s what girls do). Our hotel was nice and really, really white. There were 3 twin sized beds and one painting on the wall. We were on the first floor, so when you looked out the window, it wasn’t scenic at all. The cafe across the street didn’t look romantic; it looked like people were sitting in an audience watching you. But because we were by the lounge area, we were able to pick up free wireless. This made up for the sterile, cold, white hotel room. I get weird about hotels because I watched a lot of 20/20 as a kid, but this one smelled like bleach so I pretended that meant it was really clean! Our plans for the afternoon/evening were to see the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. My personal plans for the afternoon/evening: Eat spaghetti and meatballs. In northern Italy that’s not a typical dish, so this would be my first experience eating spaghetti and meatballs in Italy. I’m pretty sure I talked about it for two days before we left for Rome. After getting settled in, we went straight to the Colosseum. We rode the subway, which was neat. The differences between New York’s subway and Rome’s subway: Rome’s subway doesn’t smell like urine, I didn’t see any rats, and a lot of people were smoking on the platforms. I can only recall someone smoking on the subway platform in New York once. Actually, twice. The first I didn’t see, just smelled. But the other time, it was a guy wearing a cheetah print dress and eating pizza he picked out of the garbage can; therefore, I didn’t count the smoking as his biggest felony of the day.  In New York, you’ll get a stinky subway neighbor occasionally. New Yorkers are pretty serious about their personal space, and, the truth is, if someone looks like they smell, they usually do. The beauty of that is that you can choose to sit somewhere else. In Europe, they trick ya! In New York, you see a beautiful, stylish girl and she smells like she soaked her clothes in a vat of Victoria’s Secret perfume. In Rome, a beautiful, stylish girl smells like a big man’s armpit after “running” 6 miles in a sauna sweat suit. It’s appalling. 

Finally we got off at the Colosseum stop (that’s actually a stop on the Roman subway system). Next stop, Roman Ruins, please stand clear of the closing doors. Bing bong. The Colosseum was literally across the street from the train station. Something I’ve found really interesting about Italy: There are ancient ruins 200 feet from designer clothing stores. What a juxtaposition (oooow, good word) showing what Italy was and what it is now. You step out of the train, and there she is. Great, huge, immense, enormous, extensive, colossal. 

Beaut.

It’s amazing to think of all that went on inside: The criminals who were massacred by lions and tigers, the sickos who watched it for fun, the theater performances, the Gladiators. Then there’s all the people who have visited it: The countless families, school kids on field trips, all the visitors who got horrible, really expensive gelato outside of it (Roman gelato count: 1). Also, the architecture. I mean, who built it? How did they know it would stay in tact? How did they build it? How long did it take them? Why would they allow that guy to sell that awful, awful gelato outside? It wasn’t creamy at all. It actually tasted like Italian ice, which I don’t mind if I’m expecting it. But I was not. Inside we walked around and took pictures of ourselves —- and the arena. Being inside was truly amazing, and I really appreciated getting to experience it first hand. I also really appreciated all the “tour guides.”  There is something about ruins/history/art that just brings out everyone’s most intellectual self. For example, I overheard a man say “The only known cause of the structure’s degradation is that the elements in the Colosseum’s stones mixed with the elements in nature, which naturally caused erosion.” Yes, if by “the elements” you mean a huge, raging fire and multiple foreign invasions, then you are correct. It took a lot of self control to not jump into the convo and point out “the spa, indoor pool and jacuzzi the gladiators used in between battles.” People are redunk (silly way to say “Ridiculous,” Mom).

If I were a tour guide, I would say “This looks like it may be a bench. It was probably of some significance at one point 2 billion years ago, but now, it completely beats me.” That was pretty much how I felt while touring the rest of the ruins. Natalie and Olivia love that stuff and wanted to see as much of it as they could. My most frequently asked question while walking through the ruins was, “can I sit here?” Because, honestly, are they ruins or benches? How are you supposed to know? And, aren’t they technically ruined anyway? So why can’t I just sit and rest mah dogs? 

Benches or Roman ruins? Your call.

Next was the Trevi Fountain, which gained most of its fame from “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” — kidding! Or am I?  

Gordo. 

The Trevi Fountain was seriously amazing. It was beautiful, gigantic, and looked like it was built yesterday because it was so well preserved. It was like something you’d see at a resort casino in Vegas. There were so many people surrounding it. We all threw a coin in, which ensures a trip back to Rome. Olivia threw a dollar bill in, which was actually really smart because it’s absolutely worthless here. But who knows now if she gets to go back to Rome.  Then we got gelato (Roman gelato count: 2). This time I got caffe. It was good, and I was happy. I sat by the Trevi, ate my ice cream, listened to the sounds of the fountain, pretended I was in a movie, and then realized it was real and that my life is beautiful.

Mmm, mm good.

We checked out several different restaurants, even though they basically all offered the same foods. Imagine going to dinner in Little Italy. There are a lot of restaurants, but every single place is Italian. I think the three of us are a little gun shy about restaurants in big cities because of the Venice-boney-salmon experience. Plus, our expectations are high. We’re Americans in Italy. Every meal has to be better than the next. We walked up to one restaurant and the Maitre d’ immediately approached us. He then said, “All fresh foods. We cook fresh. No microwaves” ……What? All I heard was, We cook with microwaves. Nothing’s fresh. NOTHING IS FRESH HERE. Do not eat here. Moving on….we found a place called “That’s Amore” - seriously, were we at a chain restaurant in Boca Raton? No. We were in Rome. Out of all the restaurant names, they chose to name their restaurant after a Dean Martin song. I could ask why, but I know the answer: Americans are ridiculous. I asked the Maitre d’ if they had spaghetti and meatballs (case in point). He said, “I can do that for you.” And if that exchange wasn’t weird enough, that’s the restaurant we chose. When our waiter came to get our drink orders, I was shocked by his uncanny resemblance to Dudely Moore.

Dudz.

I asked him where the restroom was. He said “At the end of the hall.” I said “Right or left?” He replied “There is only ONE way!” Eeeesh.  Ascuzzzziiiii me, Dudz. Tranquile. He was kind of a grump the whole dinner, but whatevs. I was about to eat spaghetti and meatballs in Rome. Don’t rain on my parade, Dudely. Dinner came. It was really good. Not better than my mom’s, but it was still a pretty perfect night. I’m all about “cliche,” and I’m not sorry about it. 

Please and thank you.

It was probably 10 by this time, and we were exhausted, so we walked around a bit more. It was Natalie’s birthday weekend so we wanted to do some shopping. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where any stores were, so we just did a lot of walking only to find all the shops were closed. Then we got gelato. While trying to decide gelato or no gelato, Olivia actually used the phrase, “when in Rome…” and that sealed the deal.  (Roman gelato count: 3) I got mint chocolate chip this time. It was amazing. As we were crossing the street, a Vespa came whizzing around the corner and almost hit us. Guess who it was? Dudz.

The next morning: 6:45-wake up, 8:30-straight to the Vatican to see the David. 

Leila: “Who’s ready to see the Daviiiiiid?”

Natalie: “I AM!!!!!”

Olivia: “That’s Florence.” 

The next morning: 6:45-wake up, 8:30-straight to the Vatican to see God and Adam. We bought the Roma Pass, which is a card for 30 euro. It gets you into a ton of different places, a lot of museums, free public transportation. It’s really a great idea if you’re planning a trip to Rome in the near future, or ever. 

Little piece of gold.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t get you into the Vatican, so we ended up waiting in line and then paying to get in. Worth it. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was seriously a masterpiece. I cannot draw or paint on paper, so the thought of laying on a scaffolding, painting a ceiling, and having a ton of people expect it to look like more than organic shapes…. impossible! I learned a few different things about the process of painting the chapel: a) It took Mike 6 years to complete. 2) He didn’t paint it, he just directed a team. Regardless, it sounds awful. I think directing it would have actually been worse.

"BARTHOLOMEW! Jesus’ hair! It’s too short. Jesus did NOT have a bob!!! Do not make me climb this scaffolding, Bartholomew*!! Do NOT!" - Michelangelo

*Bartholomew was obviously the laziest, most uncooperative team member on Mike’s painting squad. 

I definitely thought that the entire ceiling was covered with Adam and God touching. I’m not sure why I thought that, but now that I’ve been there that just makes feel bad about the fact that I know nothing about art. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, but I’m not super good at obeying ridiculous rules, so… 

Stickin’ it to the man. (And by “man” I mean the Pope) 

After touring the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Peter’s Square, we ate lunch at a tiny hosteria. This place was not a tourist attraction; it was actually hidden on a small side street. There was a picture on the wall of Roberto Benigni with the owner of the hosteria, so it had to be good, right? We actually met an American there who said his friends [who live in Rome] recommended this place. He said they told him never to tell anyone about it, because it’s only for locals (what hypocrites, right?). Anyway, there was only seafood on the menu, and the waiter spoke about 6 words of English. So when he was trying to explain the menu and we couldn’t understand him, he would run to the kitchen and then bring the items out to the table for us to see: Clams, shrimp, and mussels. At one point he told us that “granchio” was “scarbs.” When we said “no capito” he pretended his hand was a claw and walked it across the table. Then his partner brought out a crab so we could see what he was saying. The scarbs were delish.

After lunch, more ruins. The Forum, Palatine Hill, something else…………….more rocks. I had mentioned that I should have researched a place to take a cooking class while they went to visit the ruins. Natalie said “Urgh. That sounds awful.” You’re right, making homemade fettuccine in Italy is much, much worse than staring at a 5 billion year old rock. She’s my best friend in the whole world, but we are very different people.

Natalie and I in a nutshell.

Natalie really wanted to go the Apostle Paul’s jail cell to see where he wrote the book of 2nd Timothy. So we walked about 3 miles (because we couldn’t find it) up this hill, down that hill, to the right, and over these steps, then back down because we were supposed to make a left. We asked several different people where it was, but they had no idea. A few times during the process Natalie and Olivia were running to try and find the cell like they were on the Amazing Race. I’m really not sure why because it is a jail cell, and it will never leave. Ironically, unlike prisoners, jail cells cannot just flee, girls. But, hey…when in Rome, jog to the ruins. 

Natalie and Olivia on the way to Paul’s prison.

The only things left on the list of sights to see were the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, and Campo Dei Fiori. We went to the Pantheon right as it was closing, so we were only able to spend 5 minutes in there (Thank all the “gods” in the Pantheon). Then it was dinner time. My favorite time. I ordered pesto, it was delicious. Pretty close to my mom’s, but not better because Mom cooks with love. This pesto was obviously devoid of love, but I enjoyed it. The waiter found out it was Natalie’s birthday, because we told him. Olivia asked if they sing. He said “I will check. My manager is here, so I can’t sing until he leaves.” What? That’s not what they do at Chili’s. The manager usually sings too. I miss America. After dinner, we were leaving, and the manager who doesn’t allow birthday songs asked us where we were from. Then he said, “because this is your first time in Rome, I will warn you about two things you need to be aware of: 1) some places will tell you they don’t cook with microwaves. They do. 2) If the menu doesn’t warn you that they don’t cook with microwaves, it’s because they do. You have to beware.” Beware? I am a 5ft 3in 23 year old American female. I need to beware of creepy men abducting me, cutting me into teeny pieces and cooking ME in a microwave. But, thanks. I’ll beware. Strike 2 for that guy. 

Roman men are truly a work of art. They are unbelievably attractive, tall, dark, handsome. Everything just comes together nicely. I feel about Italian men the way Olivia and Natalie feel about ruins. Thank You God for those handsome Italian guards, You did so good. During our time in Rome, there was a rugby match between Italy and Scotland, so the city was swarming with Scottish men. Normally, I would’ve loved this. Who doesn’t love a guy with an accent? But from what I witnessed, Scottish men are rude and obnoxious. Not trying to generalize, although, yeah, from now on all Scottish men are total jerks and I’ll be calling their Kilts “skirts”  until I am proven wrong.

Least sexiest thing in the world.

The adorable accents don’t even make up for the behavior. Men of my generation need to get it together because so far, I’m disappointed. 

We decided to go to Campo Dei Fiori next, but since it was at the other end of the city, we took a cab. Our driver, Guiseppe, was probably 70 years old. He was aggressive and knew his way around. He actually drove a little like my Uncle Tony. Swerving in between cars, honking his horn, cutting people off, mumbling under his breath. It was good to get out of the car, stand on my own two feet, sit, kneel, and pray. Campo Dei Fiori reminded me of Bleeker Street. Nothing to write home about, except…..for this….small sentence….Then, the Spanish Steps, which are literally steps. I would have really loved to sit there had it been earlier in the day, but at this point, I felt dead. It was now 12:30am - I had been up since 6:45am running around Rome, literally. With all those ruins we jogged a lot(?).  I was ready for bed. As I laid in bed that night, I thought about what an amazing day I had just had. All the sites, the food, the guards, and how my legs felt like they had been Nancy Kerrigan-ed. WHYYY, WHYYY??????

Fin.

Rome: We came, we saw, we conquered. 

March 16, 2012
La Bella Vita.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write another entry. I know everyone is dying to read about my life, and by “everyone” I mean you, Mom. 

I love you, Mamala.

We’ve been in Italy for over a month now. Can you believe that? CAN YOU BELIEVE IT YOU GUYS?!!??! It seems like just yesterday I was experiencing overwhelming emotions while eating Italian pizza for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I get pretty emotional every time I eat the pizza, but nothin’ like the first time (insert Bryan Adams “Heaven” here). Although I’m still very much in love with Italy, the honeymoon is over, kids. I’ve reached the point where I’ve realized that Italy has chronic bad breath (literally, hygiene isn’t the top priority in “the boot”). However, if Italy and I were on a honeymoon, then that means I am committed. I’d never consider myself an optimist (I can find gray in a rainbow), but I plan on making the best of this and enjoying every single thing. I’m even enjoying the small but numbing caffeine headache I’ve had since my body realized that although cappuccinos are delicious, and sweet, and adorable, they have roughly 1/4 the amount of caffeine that an American coffee has. I could take this opportunity to wean myself off of caffeine a bit, but I’d probably murder someone in the process and we can’t have that. Like I’ve said before, I’ve had multiple, in-depth conversations with my parents before leaving America about Amanda Knox. 

I miss Dunkin’, baaaaaaaaaad.

We haven’t really traveled to any big cities in the last few weeks. We’ve just stayed local to get to know our students. Enjoying the culture. Everyone usually knows I’m Italian (for the record, I am half Italian and half Irish. Okay, Dad??). When they ask what part of Italy my family is from, and I tell them Naples and Sicily, I’ve gotten (on more than one occasion) “…MAFIA!!!!!!!!” as a response. Or they hum the theme to the Godfather which is just awkward. We don’t speak the same language, but we all know they’re trying to make fun of me. I can’t make a joke back because sarcasm doesn’t translate. I don’t even know what I’d say in response to that, “Yeah, and Austria is close by.” So I’ve started making a small air gun with my fingers, pointing it at them and pulling the trigger. Then I yell “MAFIAAAAAAAAAAAAA” Kidding. I don’t do that. Why would I do that? That’s not even funny. I just giggle at them like I do anytime someone makes a joke that’s not funny. “Hahmmmhmmhah.” Or I just stare into their eyes. Then they know what they did. That silent, quiet reaction is a Sicilian thing, for sure.

My reaction. 

The other day a lady made a comment about Italians from southern Italy, then mumbled something, and then said “ahh your mother’s ass” in Italian. She obviously didn’t know I knew any curse words in Italian, but I do. My family is from southern Italy, of course I know those words. Those were the words my mom and grandmother yelled in the kitchen after burning the garlic. I definitely used the air gun on her. I shot her right between the eyes with my imaginary gun, just like Michael Corleone would have. Really showed her. Ain’t nobody talks ‘bout my mama’s hind parts. The other day I asked my landlady what was so bad about southern Italians. Her response: “Layla, southern Italians are very smart, very intelligent, very good talkers, and they are extremely creative people.” Okay. Sooooooooooooo?  “They are also a little lazy and entitled.” Ah, that makes sense why they bother the northern Italians so much, they’re smart, creative and awesome (smirk). It also cleared up why my mom, aunt, and uncle think they’re going to get $200,000 for my grandmother’s dining room set. Just kidding, you guys. Keep holding out. You’ll probably get it. 

I’m pretty sure older Italian people believe that if your neck and arms are not covered, you’ll get sick and die. If you walk around your house barefoot, you’ll get sick and die. If you go outside with wet hair, you’ll get sick and die. I do my best to respect “the rules,” but the other night, while teaching an English class (with a fever), I absolutely had to take my blazer off (that’s right, I wear blazers). There was also something wrong with the heat in the classroom, I’m in Italy, but it felt like Africa. Anyway, I took my blazer off, and what a mistake that was; within the first 5 minutes of everyone entering the classroom, every single person over the age of 45 said “Ahhhh FREDDOOOOO???” I said I was okay and tried to explain that I felt really hot and sick. They looked at me like, Of course you’re sick, you’re about to die too! You’re wearing a short sleeve shirt in March. I dealt with this for a few minutes before putting il blazalino back on. The sweat dripping down my back the entire 90 minute class was the less of two evils. The Italians were satisfied that I was no longer “freddoooooooo,” and I didn’t need to work out the next day because I definitely sweat off the spaghetti carbonara I had for lunch. Win. Win. 

It is absolutely vital that you keep your receipts here. If you don’t, you’ll get sick and die. The other day, there was a small “debacle” with my cell phone. The cell phone lady charged my credit card, but didn’t put the money towards my account. We went to a Voda Phone store (real life cell phone service here in Italy) to get things cleared up. When the clerk asked for the receipt, I said, “I’m not sure if I kept it.” Well, my goodness Mary Ellen, with the look she gave me, I might as well have slapped her mom. I THREW OUT A RECEIPT? WHAT KIND OF HUMAN BEING AM I? Answer: A horrible one. I could imagine all of my deceased relatives yelling things in Italian, rocking back and forth, holding their faces with their hands, praying to St. Anthony (the patron saint of lost things), asking “whyyy???” and “how???” and doing that backwards hand thing. I started to dig through my purse, to see if I had the receipt and but mostly to avoid the Voda Phone lady’s angry eye which was now twitching. I thought of my mom and how badly I let her down. She has K-Mart receipts from ‘92 in a cabinet above the desk in our kitchen. I wished my purse was big enough for me to climb into. I was ashamed, really ashamed. I just kept digging (well, basically just moving my arm around my purse, there was only so much digging to be done, ya know?). Holy crap Leila, you threw that receipt away? HOW could you?? It’s got to be in here. Especially since this purse is a huge indication that you may be a hoarder. You’re the worst person on the whole entire continent of Eur— UP!!! What is this? Voda Phone receipt??? VODA PHONE!?!?!?!? THIS IS THE RECEIPT? YES!! BOOOOYAAAH! WEEEEEEEEEE0o0o0o0oEE!! Suck on THAT Voda Phone lady! Guess who’s an awesome little receipt-keeper? This girl!! The one who says words like “booooooyaahh” in her head!  Yeah. That’s right!

I bought a pack of gum the other day. I kept that receipt. It’s in a pile with the rest of receipts I’ve been saving in a container called “the garbage”……

In our apartment, there is a tiny study that our landlord used to use as his office (he’s a doctor). Sometimes he and his wife need various things from the office, so they politely knock on our door and say “permisso, permisso” until we say “AVANTI” and then they enter. Seriously, if you say “YES,”  “SI,” or “OKAY,” they won’t enter. You have to say “AVANTI.” It’s like Italian “Simon says.” I know this because one day I slept until 1pm. Natalie wasn’t home; I don’t remember where she was. I just remember she was out living her life like a normal human being. When I was woken up by the knock knock "permisso" I groggily answered, "YES! COME IN! SI, OKAY!" I heard "Permisso?" "SI!" "Permisso?….Permisso?" "ENTER-ANTI—AVANTI!!"  The magic words. [Northern] Italian people are very polite and private. But on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes we come home and our garbage has been sorted and taken out. I’m not complaining. I’m a New Yorker: we pay people to do our dirty work. I actually feel like I should tip our landlady a few bucks for dealing with that headache, and I would if I didn’t have to start the conversation with "Hey, so listen, here’s 10 euro for sorting the trash….." 

A few weeks ago we went to a Vineyard for a wine tasting. I was never big on wine, but now that I’m 23, it’s obviously time to pretend I enjoy it and understand the differences. 

Things I know about wine: 

  • It’s a liquid
  • It’s made from grapes  
  • It’s different colors: red, pink, white, white with sparkles
  • It’s really cheap in Italy. Like, a buck a glass
  • Red wine teeth make you look ridiculous

I usually just agree with whatever the people I’m with are saying about the wine.


Example 1: 

Person: “this one is very earthy…”

Me: “mmm, yes, soily…like, dirt, is how I would describe it.” 

Example 2: 

Person: “This wine has good legs”

Me: “Yeah…and the arms are also extended a lot so it’s really delicious.”  

Example 3:

Person: “It has a floral taste…”

Me: (whispers) “I wish it was Welch’s.”

Boom. Wine connoisseur.

We started with white wine. First, Prosecco (“white with sparkles”) and then Pinot Grigio. When the guy set that on the counter, I said “ahhh, yes, Pee-knot Greegeeo.” After he looked at me for the longest second of my life, I realized in that moment maybe that was something to save for my closest friends, or just no one. But definitely not with an oenophile. But then he burst out laughing, looked at the label, read it out loud and said “hahahaha, Pee-knot Greegeeo!!! Hahaha.” 

Leila exhales. 

Wicked close call.

We’ve been bike riding a lot, I’m always up for a bike ride. I’m like a little kid on Christmas morning when it comes to bike riding. I’ll pretty much run all of your errands if it means I get to ride my bike. At first I was awful at getting the bike started, one time I almost rode right into an oncoming car. I completely avoided eye contact with the driver and just pretended like nothing happened. If I hit a moving car with my bike, I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted. Actually, yes, I do. I would have grabbed my bike and tried to start again, then after realizing it wasn’t happening, I’d drop the bike and run as fast as I could away from the “scene of the crime.” That would easily be known as the funniest, most embarrassing moment of my life. Since learning how to ride a bike, I’m amazed by all the people with bike riding horror stories. “My friend’s sister’s best friend’s cousin got hit by a car while riding a bike, almost died. It was a rough 5 years.” Or “My friend fell off of her bike and broke 4 bones and needed reconstructive surgery on the left side of her face.” Or, “have you seen City of Angels?” “That’d totally be a buzz kill if I DIDN’T LOVE BIKE RIDING SO DARN MUCH!!!!!!”

Banditz the Bicicletta and I in front of the Dolomites.  

The language barrier has been a big struggle, especially for me. Words are my life, but in Italy, it seems that mispronounced words are my life. A language barrier is like speaking to a deaf person. Sometimes I am absolutely amazed by the fact that people speak a completely different language than I do. I know that’s very evident and makes me sound ignorant, but, when I have epiphanies I just go with them, join me, won’t you? Think about this, because it’s amazing: there are completely different words for the same verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc. that we use everyday. The: Il/la, Cat: Gato, Dog: Cane, Peacock: Peacockalino. Okay, no. I wish. I don’t know the Italian word for Peacock, but I still love adding “lino” to words, so I took advantage of this opportunity.

The American in me, sometimes feels like, what do you mean you don’t speak English? You’re a doctor. You used bilingual charades for the word ‘throat,’ just now. What kind of doctor are you?  The language barrier makes adults look dumb and kids look like geniuses because they can conjugate verbs without even breaking a sweat (I sweat when conjugating verbs). Teaching adults basic English is surreal, I’m used to teaching children and that feels natural. But, teaching a 65-year-old man, who just so happens to be your landlord and a doctor, the ABC’s and the days of the week is very unnatural. “Hi, Dr. [Landlord], how was your day? Save any lives? Oh, whoops! It’s actually pronounced “WENS-DAY” silent “D” there. Oh, and before I forget, here’s my rent check, also somethin’s up with the left burner on the stove…”

A few weeks ago, after we reviewed the alphabet, a lady asked me to “seeng dee alphabeta soong” I looked at her like I didn’t know what that was because my group consisted of a psychologist, a retired account executive and a nurse, all very intelligent, highly educated people and I wasn’t about to sing that to them. She said, “YOU KNOW! ‘Now I know my Ah, bay chee’s!!!” “Oh! THAT Alphabet song……” I replied. “SEENG it! Ah bay chee…!” I sang it. She clapped and bounced up and down the whole time. Everyone else just stared at me. I couldn’t understand their mumbles, but their faces didn’t say “we are loving this!!” 

In the beginner class that I help teach…well that’s just nearly impossible. I could literally make noises like “wooogie-dooogy-bababa-neeeo-wowowow-banana!” and it would mean absolutely nothing because it all just sounds like unfamiliar sounds to them. Or I could say, “ATTENZIONE CLASSE: I got a tattoo of the word “BUTT” on my lower back last Saturday.” And, again, absolutely nothing. (Just kidding, Dad, it’s not on my lower back, it’s on my right shoulder.)

Educational Illustrations

We try to exercise as much as we can, even if that means biking 8 miles to the gelato place. Earned it! The other day while running our usual route a lady asked, “scuzi, hai una sigaretta?” translation: “Excuse me, do you have a cigarette?” While we were running. We were wearing exercise clothes. It was very obvious that we were exercising. And, if we weren’t wearing exercise clothes and we were just running in regular street clothes, maybe we were running away from something, in which case, we probably didn’t have time to stop for a smoke break. Was that really the most appropriate time to ask us for a cigarette, ma’am? Oh, as a matter of fact, I do! I keep my smokes in my iPod armband, that’s why I got this thing! Great for smokin’ and joggin’!” Moments like that make me love Italy. You can’t write that stuff and that’s the best stuff to experience. Life is funny. 

We’re headed to Rome tomorrow for Natalie’s birthday weekend extravaganzaaaaa. The Colosseum, The Trevi Fountain, The Forum, when I asked if we could go to the Sixteen Chapel, Natalie said, “hopefully we’ll have time, I’m not sure the Sixteen Chapel is in Rome.” It’s totally in Rome. And she calls herself a fan of art? Pssh, who’s the cultured one now? Sixteen Chapel, here we come! 

March 3, 2012
Venice x 2 + Verona = This Blog

We’ve traveled to a few big cities so far: Venice, Venice, and Verona (in case you didn’t get that from the title of this entry). I was so excited about Venice. We took the train into the city and got there with no problems. Oh wait, that’s not what happened. My bad. We were about 30 minutes outside of Venice when our train broke down. Now, I’m used to public transportation completely screwing up my life because I’ve lived in New York City for three years. The MTA is infamous for unexpectedly re-routing the trains. For various reasons: impromptu construction, the conductor’s shift is over and he wants to go home, some jokester lit a diaper on fire and threw it into the express track and now all trains are running local, etc. In New York I can go with the flow because I know it. In Italy…not only do I not know it, but the conductor on the loud speaker sounds like an Italian Chewbacca so I didn’t even stand a chance to figure it out. Fortunately, there was an English speaking man on the train who was willing to help us. He said his stop was one before ours so he’d “accompany” us to make sure we were okay. Naturally, in situations like this, my mind immediately goes into “preparation mode” where I scan my surroundings, because all I hear is my mother yelling “BE AWARE!!!” while I see my father drinking raw egg yolks before doing pull ups in a dark room, just like Liam Neeson would. Then I wish I had a Ricola, you know, to prepare my vocal cords in case I need to scream bloody murder. And then I quickly review my emergency self defense moves in my head. I make sure I watch his hands at all times and sit with my keys ready to STAB, if necessary. But, instead of being a sicko, he was actually a really nice guy who gave us explicit directions to a couple of really nice, authentic, Venetian restaurants with really delicious “foods.” He even drew on my map of Venice different places we could get discount gondola rides. 

Really Nice Guy, I’m sorry I assumed you were a perverted-kidnapper. 

After about 40 more minutes, we finally arrived in Venice. As I stepped out of the train station, I got butterflies and it reminded me of the first few times I saw the Empire State Building up close after moving to New York. Everything was so new. Then I got a whiff of something AWFUL and, sweet peach molasses, it brought me right back to Venice. That Canal is a legit stink-hole. Beautiful, but vile. 

We really didn’t have any idea where we were going, but all three of us needed to use the bathroom, so we picked a direction and figured we’d walk until we found a Starbucks. But that’s just because we’re American. There’s no Starbucks in Italy, you silly goose!! That’s when a small Italian man offered us a three course meal for 11 euro. AND OF COURSE THAT’S NOT TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, ALSO, HERE’S 5 HUNDRED EURO AND A TRIP TO PARIS. We went in completely forgetting about our friend from the train giving us directions to his favorite Venetian restaurants.  It was really our bladders that made the decision. Although thinking back, the consequences of peeing in the canal probably would have been better than the lunch we ate. I ordered vegetable soup, salad, and salmon. The vegetable soup would have been delicious if it wasn’t 15 green beans in salt water. And the salmon, that was obviously bred in the Grand Canal, had about 2 million very tiny but very sharp bones in it. One of my favorite moments during lunch was Olivia taking a bite of salmon and then spitting it back into her napkin while whispering “So many bones….” My other favorite part was our waiter telling us his name was Casanova and then inviting us to spend the night with him. Apparently that’s “a thing” here in Italy. After he said that, I laughed at him and asked if he was joking. He wasn’t. In Italy it’s highly inappropriate to leave your server gratuity, but it’s OK to “have sexy time” with him. Call me old fashioned, but as safe and sanitary as that little rendezvous sounds, I think I’ll stick with the ol’ 20%. Ohhh Casanova, I’m sure my dad would be thrilled to meet you. And what a romantic story to tell the grandkids, hmm? 

Omega-3.

We walked to the Rialto bridge, which was beautiful. Looking at the canal from all the way on the bridge is really surreal.

 

I thought I was having dejavu, but then I realized it wasn’t dejavu. It was me realizing that the set designers at Disney Epcot are seriously ON IT. Way to go, Walt & Co.

Next we went to San Marco Square. I was so excited about seeing the PIGEONS. Usually that wouldn’t excite me, I’m not that much of a weirdy. As a matter of fact, in New York, I usually yell “DISEASE!!!!” as I shoo them away, but at San Marco Square it’s all about the pigeons. Florida: beaches. Maine: Lobster. San Marco Square: Pigeons. BUT NOOOO. There were no pigeons. Actually, there were about six, but they were flying towards the water and I wasn’t about to chase them (because Natalie wouldn’t let me). I was so disappointed. I came to Venice to see pigeons, and I didn’t see no pigeons. I sulked for a good 7 minutes until Natalie said, “WE ARE IN VENICE!!!! VENICE ITALY. There is beautiful art work and architecture ALL AROUND YOU and you’re sulking over lack of PIGEONS?” 

Point made. I’m embarrassed. 

Then we went into a big church. Basilica San Marco or something. It was huge and dark. I’m not big on history. And as I just said, I went to Venice to see pigeons so, why anyone would think I would care about the history of this 14 million year old city is beyond me. I’m actually that person in a museum that’s usually like, “…that statue’s naked, you guys. Look.” So if you’re a history buff or you want to have a serious conversation about art, I’m probably not the person for the job. However, if you’d like to listen to made up conversations between the statues, complete with different accents, well, then I’m your girl. I appreciate art, who doesn’t like to look at pictures? I just don’t have a passion for it. Don’t judge me. 

After a while of walking, we started to head back towards the train. But not before stopping for hot chocolate and some pastries. I got a ball of chocolate. Literally a ball of chocolate. It was amazing. It was like someone took a chocolate donut and rolled it into a ball and then covered it with chocolate sprinkles made in Heaven. Yeah, that’s a good way to describe it. 

Thanks, God.

We boarded the train we needed with no problem. Sat, relaxed, talked about the day: Casanova, splintery salmon, salt soup, my ball o’ chocolate, all while paying attention to stops. When we got to the stop before ours, we collected our things and headed towards the door. We did everything right. When our stop came, I tried to lift the latch on the door, but it wouldn’t open. It was jammed. I pulled and tugged at it like an idiot, but nothing. I’m pretty sure I made some loud, noises that were supposed to be “WE HAVE TO GET OFF HERE!!!! I CAN’T OPEN THE DOOR.” But if I recall correctly, it just sounded like “AUUUUUUHHHHHHHH! EEEEEEEE. UUUUUUUUURRRRRRR!!! DOOR!!!!!!” Then the train started moving again. Onto the next town. Whoops.

We got off at the next stop. I have enough experience with trains to know that if we get off at the next stop, it’s only a matter of time before another train comes back through. Right? RIGHT, RIGHT!?!?!?! It wasn’t like we missed our stop and then our train turned express bound for Prague. It was only one stop over, about 7 minutes away. The only concern was being unable to understand the announcements, and I knew that if the trains here in Italy were anything like the trains in New York, after a certain time everything slows down and it takes longer to get places. Fortunately there was another English speaking man who helped us get a return ticket and explained the train schedule to us. We went to the train station cafe and sat there for a while. We watched the train schedule change from “ON TIME” to delayed by 15, 20, 30, 40 minutes. We also watched the train station cafe fill up with a lot of twenty-something Italian gentlemen. Normally a situation like that would be awwesssooommeeee. But, like I stated before, I like my men like I like my Starbucks: tall, skinny, vanilla. I’m not really interested in an Italian espresso macchiato. Especially after “The Situation” from last week. Plus, I was really tired. And yeah, maybe a coffee of any kind would have been great at this particular time, but I just wasn’t feelin’ it. Alright, enough with the coffee-men analogies already. I didn’t want coffee. Literally or figuratively. I wanted to be home safely, and I wanted for the train to stop being delayed, and I wanted to understand what Chewbaccalino was saying on the loud speaker. After about 30 minutes of waiting, a satire about the American Presidential Candidates came on the TV directly above our heads. Three American women sitting under a TV that was showing Italy’s version of SNL, and 20 young Italian men watching. Precious. After trying to ignore everything around us for what seemed like the longest 10 minutes in the history of the world, a train showed up! But our train wasn’t supposed to be here for another 35 minutes, so it couldn’t have been ours. BUT maybe it was. Which is when, in a moment of pure panic I looked at the lady working behind the bar and yelled “ASCUSI!!!!! (points out the window) IS OUR (points to myself) TRAIN?” “SI! SI! SI! SI!” she said. We grabbed our stuff, and we ran to catch it. We made it and sat down just in time to look out the window to see all those twenty-something Italian men standing at the window waving. Now, for those of you who don’t know, the correct translation of “Excuse me” in Italian is “SCUSI” not “ASCUSI.”  So, yeah.. I didn’t do a great job defending my country’s intelligence or should I say, “my countries smartness” that night, but…we also weren’t the ones voluntarily hanging out in a train station bar at 11 o’clock on a Friday night. So asco0o0o0o0ozi me!

We made it home. We laughed the whole train ride back, all three minutes. That’s right. Three minute train ride home. We could have walked. But then we wouldn’t have had the experience of looking like complete idiots and where’s the fun in that? 

The next weekend, we did it all again. Back to Venice. The same creepy, small man tried to get us to eat at Casanova’s restaurant, so we figured we’d give it another shot. I even got the salmon again….. HA. KIDDING. We didn’t eat there. I told him, “I’d rather eat fish from the canal, no grazie!!” That’s the beauty of the language barrier, all he got from that was “No Thanks!” We knew our way around the city this time, so we made our rounds to all the sights. We really went because it was the first weekend of Carnevale, and if we were in Italy during that and didn’t experience it, well that’s about as ridiculous as no pigeons in San Marco Square again. AGAIN. NO PIGEONS!!!!!! This was one of the coldest days we’ve had since we’ve been in Italy. And there’s not really a ton to do in Venice. It’s a “walk around” city and we had done most of it the weekend before so we waited until it was dark and then people started to come out dressed in Carnevale attire. It was mostly older people dressed in elaborate, beautiful costumes that probably cost more than my undergrad. Don’t get me wrong, it was really amazing to see, but I’ve gone to Times Square for New Years. I’ve seen the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. I’ve watched a man light a diaper on fire on the W4 St. platform. It takes a lot to impress me. And, maybe it was because I was freezing, but I couldn’t help but think: It’s time to get a new hobby, old Italian people. Time for a new hobby. Then I got a chocolate ball, got on the train, got off at the correct stop, and was happy. 

The following weekend, Verona: The City of Lo0o0o0o0ove. 

We took a bus to Verona with some of the students from the American school here. It was about a two and a half hour bus ride, not bad at all. I kept myself busy by asking Natalie questions like “How many minutes until we’re there?” which she ignored. But when I asked her “what is Verona famous for?” the kid behind me defiantly said, “UUUUM. Romeo and Juliet!?!?!” When I realized he was serious and he thought I was too, I jumped right on board with:

Leila: “Who? Romeo and Julia??” 

Professor Literal: “Juli-ET. It’s a play. Written by Shakespeare.” 

(cookin’ with gas now)

Leila: “Woah, woahhh. Shakespeare?” 

Professor Literal: “You’ve never heard of William Shakespeare? He was a famous writer, he wrote tons of famous plays.” 

Leila: “Oh. Okay. So Romeo and Julie lived in Verona? And Shakespeare wrote a story about their lives? They were siblings? I think I got it. Was this recent?” 

Leila stares blankly into the camera.

"Who’s this guy? Shakespeare had an earring?" 

Sometimes people make my job too easy. 

Verona was beautiful. It’s the quintessential Italian city. When you’re walking around you hear fountains splashing, children giggling and yelling in Italian. People drive Vespas and park them outside of cafes. Those very cafes have tables with huge white umbrellas outside. It’s like you’ve stepped onto a movie set. I liked it much more than Venice, although Venice is beautiful. Verona is just… more beautiful. Our first stop was the Verona colosseum which was enormous. Like I said, I’m not a huge history buff, but there’s something to be said for a place that’s housed hundreds of men being eaten by lions. I don’t care who ya are, that puts life in perspective. 

What 23-year-old girls do in colosseums. 

At lunch, we picked the different sites we’d like to see. Juliet’s wall, which I knew about because of the movie “Letters to Juliet.” In the movie, young women come to Verona to write letters to Juliet asking for advice on love. I actually find that a little ironic considering Juliet committed suicide in what I think is easily the worst missed connection in history. Two minutes longer and she would have woken up, Romeo. 120 seconds. Then you could have taken all the parents out to lunch and worked this feud out. Or you two love birds could have just run off to Venice, opened a restaurant, cooked pigeons and salmon, and sold them to tourists for 11 euro. Anyway. Back to Juliet’s wall. You can’t stash letters in it like they do in the movie. It’s more of a wall of filth, covered in gum and graffiti. Sounds so romantic, right? It looked like a bathroom stall at a high school in Bedstuy, Brooklyn.

Nonetheless, I read it, I marveled at it, I took pictures of it. It is kind of magical to think about all of the people who have come from all over the world to write their names on that wall. How many stories have intersected there and how the power of love compels people to chew gum, stick it on a wall, and then write their boyfriend’s initials on it. A bathroom stall for the world. Ah, love. After that, we went to Juliet’s balcony where Romeo climbed to confess his love to her. Can I just say, that kid was committed! I’m no rock climber, but that didn’t look like an easy wall to climb. He basically had to scale the building to get to her. So, yeah, Romeo earned his keep that night. 

Julie.

After doing all the touristy stuff, Olivia suggested we climb to a look out point at the top of a mountain. I suggested she was out of her adorable mind, but went along with it anyway. Let’s just say the Brooklyn in me was not a happy camper. But, when in Verona, do as the Veronian’s do………………which is most likely drive a car or vespa. Alas, we had neither, so we hiked. As much as I did grumble the whole time (and I do mean the WHOLE TIME), once we got to the top and I was able to see the entire city of Verona, I realized it was worth it. 

We took 400 pictures, and then climbed back down. Then we got gelato, that was my incentive. Win. Win. Win. 

After a few more hours of just wandering around Verona and doing some shopping, it was time to get back on the bus and head home. Which would have been the perfect ending to a lovely day, the bus was “toasty” and perfect for nap everything was working in my favor, except someone on the bus took their New Balance 811’s off, and the air was thick of stale sock. I did not love that. 

So uncool, man, so uncool. 

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