Friday, June 26, 2009

Calamity in the Cuisine: Culinary Catastrophe!

It all started one rainy morning, when gray, dreary skies kept us indoors with our meager kitchen stock at our disposal. Breakfast was coming, but in what form?

Eggs? Check.
Meat? Check, question mark.
Vegetables? Check, check, and check.
Milk? Check.

I was going to make a big, sloppy, U.S. Egg-style skillet dish with all of the above ingredients. I diced up some red and yellow bell peppers, some onion, and some tomato.

I pulled out the ground beef leftover from our spaghetti masterpiece. First question of the day: is it still good? Just a small aside, this entry is not for either the faint of heart, overly-worrisome people, or chefs, so please pardon our ignorance when applicable. We have no saran wrap or tin foil or anything of that sort to store things in. We keep forgetting to pick it up at the store. So the meat was in the 'freezer' of our mini fridge, which is hardly a freezer, until yesterday afternoon when I pulled it out to thaw for dinner last night. We didn't end up cooking, though. I'll admit, it had changed colors slightly since the last time I saw it. But it smelled like raw beef, so I assumed it was just a bit of harmless oxygenation. In hindsight, eating meat rust is probably not the brightest idea. But as I said, it didn't smell bad, and my motto with food is that if it smells okay, it probably is okay, unless it's chicken, in which case it may still not be okay, even if it smells like chicken.

So I cooked the ground beef and set it aside to wait until the other ingredients were ready. I rinsed the pan and threw in the peppers, onion, and tomato and let them sautee for a little while. Threw the toast in the toaster so that everything would be ready at the same time.

Then, I cracked four eggs into a bowl and whisked them (with a fork). Eggs come in half-dozen cartons here (that would be six if you're counting at home). Yet another sign manifested itself when one of the eggs was stuck to the carton. Eggs are not sold in a container that allows you to check them before you buy here. My Mom's words resonated deep down in the recesses of my memory banks, "Never use eggs that are stuck to the container, it means they cracked open and they might be spoiled." Smell test: check. Normally, I crack them straight into the pan, but I had so many things going on I wanted to make sure I had time to stir them around before they cooked too much. The fact that I was (quasi)-inexplicably changing my routine should have been yet another sign that all was not right with our breakfast.

I poured the eggs in, quickly sprinkled salt, pepper, and our spicy powder on them, then grabbed the milk out of the fridge. I dumped the beef back in with the rest of the ingredients in the pan. Expiration date on the milk is June 30th. Good by a long shot. It is my usual custom to smell milk every time I open it because, of all the things that can go bad, milk and eggs are the most potent and the most odorous when spoiled. For those of you who do not include milk in your scrambled eggs, I highly recommend it. It gives the eggs a perfect amount of fluffiness (I believe this is a trick from my Dad, although I could be wrong).

I only pour a splash of milk in, so it is a slow, careful practice not to overload the eggs with milk. In this instance, two things happened. One, I caught a slight whiff of something unholy. Two, I saw chunks of curdled milk plopping into my eggs. I instantly stopped pouring, my reflexes a fine-tuned machine when it comes to rescuing food. But it was too late. In the middle of our eggs was a small pile of milk lumps looking up at me with a scowling smile.

I cursed. I told Johnny what happened, but he had no immediate reaction. I thought to myself, the meat should have been my sign. The cracked egg should have been my sign. The change in routine should have been my sign. Someone didn't want us to have a delicious breakfast today. On the day before my birthday, of all times.

I grabbed a spoon and started scooping out the chunks. But with each successful extraction, I also succeeded in spreading the milk around, forcing it deeper into the non-navigable depths of our uncooked eggs. When I got what I felt was about all of the milk out, I made Johnny come look at it. We debated for a good five minutes. I cooked while we weighed our pros and cons.

Johnny hopped on the computer and Googled, "is it okay to cook with spoiled milk?"

Google's response was a resounding, no-questions asked, are you f'ing nuts, "No."

We questioned it. What's the worst that could happen? Stomach ache for a couple hours? Maybe throw up and get it out of our systems quickly enough to avoid any lingering effects?

Not on my birthday, not on abroad in Florence. The eggs were a wash. We had to give in to reason. It was just not meant to be.

The toast burned, by the way. I slathered peanut butter on the two pieces and poured the last little bit of jelly on top so that we could at least have an open-faced peanut butter and jelly. Of course the jelly would be running so low that I had to scrape the jar to get a satisfactory amount on to the bread.

We will probably go to a restaurant in a little while and wallow in a slight bit of misery at the thoughts of what could have been. But we will take a little spending and peace of mind over violent bodily rejection of our breakfast.

Also, on a totally unrelated note, what is with the celebrity deaths all around us? Ed McMahon was a fixture on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, widely considered Hollywood's greatest sidekick. Farrah Fawcett was an international sex symbol and a fashion icon in her day; she remained beautiful until the day she lost a three year battle with cancer.

But Michael Jackson: how do you pay homage to one of the world's greatest entertainers, and the butt of more jokes as a result of his transformation from child star to the King of Pop, and then freakish regression to asexual man-child who found himself constantly surrounded by criticism, controversy, and legal battles? I recognize, appreciate, even celebrate what he has done for music and culture, and he will no doubt be remembered for generations to come. But what he became was far from a role model worthy of our praises. Watching his downward spiral was both comedy gold and tragedy, woven together into an unfortunate string of bad luck, bad decisions, and bad jokes. The hard part is figuring out whether to be sad for him or relieved that he doesn't have to live in a world that hasn't accepted him since the early 90's. I don't think I care as much as I should, but I just thought I'd write something down about it. It's always a good way to figure out how you feel about something. Share your thoughts on here if you have any. I'm curious to hear how other people feel.

One more quick shout to USA soccer, who stunned the world the other day in upsetting #1 Spain in the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup. Our goals may have been lucky, and the win may be written off as a fluke, but you don't shut out one of the best offensive teams to play the sport in a long time with luck alone. Spain's 35-game unbeaten streak in international play came to a crushing end with the loss.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Homemade Italian Feast

Bored of our plain spaghetti with red sauce, we decided to get a little fancy with the Italian staple. We went out for a stroll on Monday to go to the Uffizi Gallery, only to find out it was closed. It was also raining a little bit, but not so much that it was a hindrance.

Since the gallery was closed, we took the opportunity to just wander the town. We did a little window browsing looking for souvenirs (still a fruitless endeavor) and a tee-shirt for me (also unsuccessful). We gave up eventually and got hungry, so we went to the market on the way home.

1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 tomato
1 jar of pomodoro sauce (pure red tomato sauce)
1 package of ground beef
1 package of italian sausage

Preparation and Cooking:
Johnny diced up the veggies (add in some onion that we already had in the house) while I set some water to boil (with a little salt and oil) and cooked the meats. For those of you at home, ground beef cooks slightly quicker than sausage (which I had also cut up), so keep that in mind if you are ever combining them. I sprinkled some of our spicy pepper powder on them as they cooked. I tried to slightly undercook so that when I combined all the parts of the sauce later, they could cook a little more in the pan without being overdone.

Once the meat was satisfactory, I drained the grease and put it on a plate to hang out while everything else was prepared. I rinsed the pan (we don't have a lot of pans here) and put a little peanut oil in the bottom, then threw the diced peppers and onions on to sautee. Meanwhile, the water was boiling, so I threw in a healthy handful of spaghetti noodles (I break them in half to make serving and eating easier).

Next, I poured the tomato sauce over the veggies and let that start to bubble a little. I turned the heat down so the sauce would have a little time to absorb the flavoring from the veggies. Sprinkled salt, pepper, spicy powder, and chili flakes into the sauce.

Then I threw all the meat back in with the sauce and the vegetables, and I threw the diced tomatoes in as well.

We made toast (plain old white bread and butter). Poured some cheap white wine. Serve and enjoy!

This picture doesn't look too appetizing, but I assure you this was delicious.

Monday, June 22, 2009

European Adventure: Cinque Terre

Hands down, the greatest hike a person can ever take. This, while not for the faint of heart, is a beautiful trek through the coastal hills of the Liguria region of northern(ish) Italy. If you take the low road, which we did, the entire journey is about 11 kilometers, or just under 7 miles. Don't let the relatively short distance fool you, though. There is an elevation difference of about 500 meters, or about 1,640 feet, between the lowest and highest points of the trail. And let me assure you, you don't just go up and down once. But I don't want to give anything away. Let's start from the beginning.

Sentioro Azzuro
The famous trail along the coast, sometimes called Sentioro No. 2, literally means, I think, Sky Trail, or Blue Trail, or something like that. It passes through the Five Lands of the region, so we'll take them in order.


The first stretch of the hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola is affectionately referred to as Via dell'Amore, or Lover's Walk. There is a spot along the way with a kissing bench and a gorgeous backdrop of the deep blue Mediterranean. Behind the bench, which actually has a rudimentary carving of two people kissing as its back, is the deep blue of the Mediterranean. People put locks anywhere they can with their names written on them as symbols of their eternal love. Very romantic, but Johnny and I decided that was not really necessary for our trip.

This stretch was mostly paved, but the views (below) were astounding.


Our first sign that Manarola was close, unfortunately, was the train station. We came across it after coming around a bend in the cliff line. Our path took us up and around it, though, so at least we didn't have to trudge along the tracks.

Then, we caught a view of the city, high atop a craggy jutting rock. These towns were founded by Dark Age colonists who wanted to protect themselves from marauding pirates, so they are in very strategic places with good vantage points and sheltered harbor. Manarola's 'harbor' isn't really a harbor in the true sense of the word, though, as it would be hard to navigate much more than a dingy into the town itself, as you can see for yourself below. The two non-landscape pictures are of the central 'square' in the town and a strange carving in a little fountain just below it.

This is the Manarola harbor in all its glory.

On our way out Manarola, we got--of course--some amazing views again. I should probably stop saying that. From now on, when you see "we did x," assume the view was indescribably spectacular. The water along the coast is a blue that Crayola could never dream of capturing. There is a hint of green reflecting from the lush hillsides. Try imagining the deepest blue sky at high noon, and make that the color of the water. As we climbed and descended amongst vineyards and olive gardens, that was the glory we were treated to. There were locals living on the hills in practical little houses, fully self-sufficient, never having to leave their land for anything. The prospect of living that sort of lifestyle is intriguing, if not a little claustrophobic.

The next town is the only one not directly on the water. Corgnilia sits high up in the rocks, overlooking the rest of the lands. You can't actually see any of these towns from any of the other ones, but for some reason they have always been linked as the Five Lands of the Italian Riviera. We didn't stop here for whatever reason. It seemed like we just passed the outer edge of the town as we followed the Sentioro.

This was the town as we left on our way to Vernazza. In a blunt bit of foreshadowing, it turns out Johnny is not nearly as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Throughout the hike, I either saw him stumble or heard him stumble countless times. Twice he just missed smashing his camera on the rocks. Keep that in mind. And before you clever kids try to guess what happened: no, his camera was not damaged.

As we made the descent to Vernazza, the fourth town, it began to drizzle. We were both hiking shirtless so it got a bit chilly. We put shirts on before arriving in town after making the decision to stop here for food since it was starting to rain.

This was on the way.

This is the approach to Vernazza. Next to Monterosso, this was the most beautiful town on the itinerary.

And the view as we left. Towards the right hand side of the picture below the food, if you look where that little cluster of blue and yellow umbrellas is, is the spot where we ate lunch. Just outside of the built up part of the city next to the coral colored buildings. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was good. We got a couple beers with names we couldn't pronounce. As an appetizer, we ordered bruschetta with pomodoro (tomato) e (and) pesto (pesto). For the entree, we each got pizzas. Johnny's was a frutti di mare (literally, I think 'fruit of the sea' or 'food of the sea') that came with octopus, mussels (in the shell), prawns (in the shell, with heads) and cheese and tomato sauce. Mine was mozzarella with ham, artichoke, and something else I don't remember. I had them hold the olives. Very good pizzas, and just the right amount of carbs (and the wrong amount of beer) to get us going on the next stretch.

Forgot to mention, the red pepper flakes you see in the pizza picture were taken from the apartment as well. Again, sorry girls if you read this. We were being economical, and those things are impossible to find in Florence. We view them as an absolute necessity to most meals.

Little did we know that we were in for the hardest stretch of them all. I didn't count, but I would estimate that we went up and down at least 1,000 steps throughout the city and the trails.

As I said, this was the hardest stretch. We went straight up, straight down, hugged cliff sides on walkways that were no more than a foot or two wide. We had to pass people coming the other direction, which was tricky. But the place looks like a fairy tale. We went deep into the forest, crossed bubbling creeks, ran into countless stray cats. At one point, we actually found a cat neighborhood, I kid you not. There were little pet tents scattered around a rock grotto, and several cats were lounging on the rocks and in the dirt. We saw farmers at work, hikers from all over the world, lizards, birds: nature at its most purest. No one had strewn empty bottles on the side of the paths. No one had defaced the purest parts of the coastline with graffiti or office buildings or anything remotely human.

And this was all before Monterosso was in sight. That changed everything. The beauty of Monterosso is unparalleled. After climbing stairs until our legs burned, resting, and then descending more stairs until the other side of our legs burned, we were greeted with a voyeuristic preview of what was to come.

Monterosso is known for its beaches. Many would argue that Vernazza is actually the most picturesque of the five towns. It would be a tough argument to win, though. This place is incredible.

At this point, as we walked into Monterosso, where our day had started, we were beyond exhausted. To bring my foreshadowing full circle, just as we approached the final guard station checking our Cinque Terre cards to ensure we had paid our fee to hike the trail, Johnny yelps. There was a small, sharp rock jutting out of the dirt that he managed to kick head on with his big toe. At first, we thought nothing of it, but when I looked down, his toe was split open and oozing blood. He got the picture on his camera, so I can't post it here. Fortunately, we were literally five feet away from the guard post and a first aid kit when it happened. It was gross, but he soldiered on.

We went straight to the beach and laid down in the rocks around 3:30 or 4pm. Didn't even lay out towels. We just passed out laying in the rocky sand, listening to the waves gently crash, kids laughing and playing, and a soft breeze across the water. Cue music.

We took turns swimming in the Mediterranean, washing off the day's toils from our skin, while the other person stayed ashore to watch our bags.

Around 5:30, we got up to find food and a train schedule and ran into one of the Australian kids from our class. We knew he was going to be there at some point, but we never got in touch. They were on their way out, so we just walked around a bit and sad our goodbyes so that Johnny and I could find dinner.

We settled on a place called Barabba's in White. It was just after 6 when we got there and their kitchen didn't open until 7. We waited at a table and got a bottle of wine that turned out to be Prosecco. It was called Spumante Monterosso, but it was actually made further up in northern Italy, despite the name. Prosecco is, as far as I can understand, the Italian version of Champagne. Our server, with whom Johnny fell in love instantly, brought us some snacks (no charge) while we waited. It was a big panino with ham and mozzarella that she had cut into bite-size niblets. In front of us, a small, net-enclosed soccer field was full of kids playing the world's most famous game. To our right, the water. To the left, the town. Behind us, the bar in the restaurant. We just relaxed. Enjoyed the wine. When 7 o'clock rolled around, we ordered sort of tapas style. We split a pasta dish that was called, I think, Cacio e Pepe, which was a Roman-style (spaghetti) noodle in some oily sauce with pepper. We ordered calamari fritti with tempura vegetables and some french fries (strangely, we were both craving french fries when we, surprisingly, saw them on the menu) to share as well. The food was delicious. We took our time getting finished up, then paid and headed to the train station.

The train schedule to get home was nothing short of a nightmare. We had tickets already to get back to Spezia, so we did that. Upon our arrival there, we were lost as to how we returned to Florence. The ticket window was closed, as was the information desk. There was one operational machine to self-serve tickets (biglietta: "bee-lee-YETT-ah"). There was a long line full of impatient people behind some non-Italians struggling with the machine.

We commissioned a particularly fed up Italian woman to press all the buttons for us so that we would not delay people. She was more than happy to oblige. We had to take one train to Viareggio, then switch onto the train to Santa Maria Novella, our stop in Florence. The timing was absolutely perfect. We waited about 5 minutes for the train to Viareggio. When we arrived there, our train was scheduled to leave in 5 minutes. We got on, and it was delayed about 2 or 3 minutes, but left relatively promptly.

Three hours later from when we left Spezia, we were walking home in Florence, where the temperature had dropped considerably.

My hands are tired of typing, so this will do it for the details of our journey. More internet problems when we got home, but I have finally figured out the problem. Now it's just a matter of avoiding it. I will discuss that later.


The Ultimate European Journey: First Night

As you should have read below, we arrived in Monterosso around 9:30 or so at night. We had a basic plan. Find something fun to do. Find a quiet, secluded spot on the beach to sleep after exhausting the fun. And...break.

We walked around trying to find a good bar in Monterosso, and it turns out only one exists. It is absolutely overrun with American college students. They were beyond obnoxious. It was actually almost embarrassing to us that Americans are perceived that way in Europe. It's no wonder everyone hates us around the world. The bar was small and expensive and crowded, but the beers that were available--the draft only had one or two beers working at a time because the lines heat up and they won't pour properly--were pretty delicious. We managed to swoop in and grab a table as soon as a big group got up that was right in the middle of the bar. It was called something like "Fast Dice" or "Easy Dice" but I can't remember for sure, and I can't find it on Google.

Anyhow, we set up shop and watched the train wreck around us of ridiculously drunk American kids mixing with ridiculously drunk American adults and caught highlites of a few of the Confederations Cup matches on TV behind us. We struck up conversation with everyone that came near in the long-shot hopes of finding a free place to stay for the night. I chatted with a group of brother and sisters who were very nice, all from Chicago. One went to Purdue, one to Indiana, the brother was silent, and the third sister was a political consultant living in Iraq. She looked like she was 18 at the oldest, so I don't know how that's working out for her. Then, three Swedes came and sat with us for a few minutes, but they were a little bizarre. One of the two guys was a close-talker and had Johnny cornered. The girl was a little difficult to talk to because her English was pretty poor. The third guy was silent until he asked if they could leave. We were grateful.

Two Australian girls came by that were pretty boring as well.

Then finally, the magic happened. Two American girls, cousins, came and started talking with us. They were really cool. One was an aspiring pro golfer, but has recently decided that she might move to Tempe to get certified as a PGA instructor and then teach golf in Hawaii. The other is hoping to start a masters in Sports Administration or something similar in the near future. They were staying in the Hotel Punta Mesca on the other side of town with their two guy cousins, who were at home sleeping. The four of them had a 5:15am train to catch. As we talked, it became clear that they were concerned about us sleeping on the beach and offered to let us sleep in their extra bed. They were staying in an apartment/hotel that had two bedrooms and a pull out bed in the kitchen that was unoccupied. We quickly accepted and bought them a drink as a show of appreciation. I think they might not have wanted it.

Anyhow, the moment we stepped outside, two things happened. (As a preface, I just added these two girls on Facebook, so if either of you happen to come across this post, I hope you're not offended by our perspective. You two went above and beyond generosity for two absolute strangers. This is all meant in fun). One, we began to sense a little apprehension in their disposition at allowing two strangers to stay at their place. Two, a serious monsoon hit Monterosso - lightning, thunder, downpour, and strong winds. They were committed. So they said they had to make sure it was okay with their cousins if we stayed, and that we would walk over there and find out. The walk was very chilly, but it was fun. I didn't bring a jacket. Johnny did, and the two girls had shawls.

We got there and waited outside while they went in and talked it over with the cousins. We didn't hear any talking, and we're not sure they actually talked to anyone, or if they just decided it was too weird. Either way, they came out a few minutes later with really apologetic looks on their faces. They said their parents had given strict rules on the use of the hotel, among other things, and allowing two strange young men to sleep there was obviously excluded from the 'allowed' category. We were disappointed, but not surprised. They did throw us a handful of blankets and pillows and told us no one else was staying on this floor, so we would be safe to sleep there.

So, we did. They said they would wake us around 4:45am or so when they left for their train. We went head to foot, by the way, in case anyone is wondering. It didn't cross either of our minds that we could move the bedding and not sleep cuddled together in the same part of the hallway. Exhaustion is a funny thing, that way.

I think Johnny was asleep by the time that photo was taken, and I stayed awake for a few minutes listening to the storm. I've always loved thunderstorms. It was a bit of a restless night; I woke up several times in the 2-3 hours we were in the hall, but it was not too uncomfortable. Right on cue, they came out a little before 5am and woke us up. They said we could go into their room at that point and sleep in a bed, but that we had to be out by 8 or so. They also said we could take advantage of their breakfast in the morning. We were too groggy to know what that meant, so we assumed they had left food in the fridge or something.

We went to our separate rooms and fell asleep instantly. Alarm was set for 7am.

The Following Morning
We woke up and started searching the kitchen for food. When I say search, I mean we did a 360 and saw every nook of the room, which was about 8'x8' if you don't include the bed. There was nothing but these weird little individually wrapped baked things that were not good. They did have a shower, though, so we took full advantage of that. Our original plan had been to shower in the Mediterranean in the morning before starting the hike. Had we slept outside, we would not have needed a shower at all.

We grabbed a few things that we assumed would be thrown away if we left them--uncooked spaghetti, and about 50 packs of chamomile tea--and headed down. As we walked out of the hotel, we noticed the breakfast buffet. We went in and made sure it was free to guests and began to chow down. After our first course, we were approached by a server and asked what room we were in. I showed him our key and said "4," which seemed to satisfy him. Until about five minutes later when the hotel manager came over and confronted us about where we were staying.

As it turns out, anyone who stays in an Italian hotel needs to register their passport information with the front desk. The police check everyone regularly, so you can be hauled off to jail for not being registered, or the hotel can be fined significantly, or some other strange form of European punishment could be enforced. Anyhow, we tried to explain the situation as best we could, not wanting to get our saviors in trouble. He ended up being really nice about it. He even let us finish eating before we left. And we took some bananas from the buffet for the road. These things were massive. We handed in the keys and, with full, happy bellies, headed toward the train station to begin our hike from Riomaggiore.

Along the way, we got a decent look at Monterosso in the hazy early morning light.

We decided that this was the perfect European experience.

Future Note: Writing this on Monday from our apartment in Florence, we just used the bananas to make what might have been the greatest peanut butter and banana sandwiches of all time. No joke.

Pisa and Spezia

Pisa, once a huge sea-trading power (around 1000-1300 AD), has now become, as far as I can tell, an official tourist trap. Rick Steves doesn't suggest much more than walking around the world famous Campo dei Miracoli, the "Field of Miracles" that boasts the Duomo, the Baptistery, and of course, the Leaning Tower. There is also a large university that still holds some world renown somewhere in the city, though we didn't find it. The field is boasted as the greatest lawn in Italy, and so far we have no reason to argue it. It is a wide open expanse--sort of, it has those three buildings at its center--of lush green that is chained off with "Do not walk on the grass" signs every few yards. People walk all over the grass. I'm not sure if they even think enforcing the signs is worth a feeble attempt. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

We looked up the train schedule ahead of time and found a 3:30 train to Pisa, so we headed there around 3 to get tickets. I told the lady at the counter we were heading to Cinque Terre but stopping in Pisa, so she gave us a ticket to Spezia Centrale via Pisa Centrale. She never spoke a word. We found our train about five minutes before it was due to leave and got comfortable. The ride was about an hour or so. We almost had to pay a 40 Euro fine each for forgetting to validate our ticket, but the attendant was very nice and we played the dumb American card to a "T." We watched three Italians try to dodge him and get the fine for not having tickets at all. Along the way, the terrain changed from urban to rural to mountainous and beautiful. The name of the mountain range is proving harder to find than I expected, but it is an extension of the Alps of northern Italy.

Rick Steves recommended busing it to the Tower, rather than taking the 45 minute walk through Pisa's heart. We declined to take his advice and walked it instead. No regrets at all. The walk due north took us through one long street market that was bustling with people--locals walking their dogs, tourists shopping, restaurants, street vendors, you name it--and the architecture was very pretty. It looked exactly like Florence, really. We even had to cross the Arno River here, as it cuts through both cities identically.

Once past the market, we came upon some ruins that I now know are the remains of the old city walls. Our first glimpse of the Tower was exciting, though it was criss-crossed with power lines. As we rounded the corner and entered the Campo dei Miracoli, we were offered a much nicer view.

The sky was a perfect mix of bright blue and fluffy white clouds, for the most part. The sun was somewhat low in the sky directly over the Duomo, which gave it a sort of spiritual aura as we approached, which you can see in the picture above.

We headed clockwise around the field and saw a fashion model photo shoot for wedding gowns going on that had attracted a large crowd. We stood and watched that for a little while. The models seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Then we hopped the 10" chain link that was supposed to keep people off the lawn--everyone was doing it--and set up shop about 100 yards west of the tower to eat our packed lunch. We brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples. (Strange aside: Peanut butter does not exist in France. We were told it is too unhealthy mixing the peanuts and the butter. Instead, they use Nutella. Get it?)

The sandwich and apple weren't nearly enough, but we exercised a little discipline and decided to wait until we got to Monterosso and Cinque Terre to get a quality dinner. So we took some more photos, opted out of doing the whole 'holding up the tower' picture, and started the scenic walk back to the train station - Pisa Centrale.

As it turns out, Spezia Centrale was not the train station in Cinque Terre we thought we were getting to. It is more of a hub, and we needed to get an additional ticket to get up to Monterosso, the northern most land of Cinque Terre. It was about 8pm when we got to Spezia, and fortunately the ticket window was open for another 25 minutes. We were confused at first, but between the ticket window and the informazione guy, we got it straightened out. Our train didn't leave for another hour so we decided to get dinner in Spezia.

A short walk led us to a piazza with a large Red Cross festival going on. There were EMTs and medical personnel everywhere, with lots of people eating and some live music blasting. We did not really know what the deal with the food was there, so we pressed on and found a little pizzeria across the street where we could still hear the music. At one point, they played the theme song to The Last of the Mohicans, which may be one of the greatest movie compositions of all time.

We got pizza and had some Peroni. The woman running the pizza shop was really nice, but her English was not really nice, so we had a little trouble getting organized there. The pizza was good, a little burnt, and the beer was cold and delicious. We ate our fill and headed back to the train station to wait for our delayed train to Monterosso.

We arrived in Monterosso around 9:30 or so with the plan of finding a bar, making some friends, and then sleeping on the beautiful beaches of Monterosso al Mare. We would wake up to the rising sun and hop back on the train down to Riomaggiore to begin the famous trek up Cinque Terre's majestic coastline.

That story will be for another post, as it is full of excitement, suspense, intrigue, hilarity, and a little pain and suffering, but it was all worth it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Weekend

Not a whole lot going on in Florence at the moment. We've had a lot of class this week, so there hasn't been much sight-seeing or adventuring. Today, however, we are heading to Pisa to see the Tower, and the one or two other sites worth looking at in that town, then heading onward to Cinque Terre.

The plan is to stay in a hostel in CT tonight after Pisa, then conquer the four hour coastline hike that takes you through each of the five lands of Cinque Terre. We will probably add on some detours into the mountains during that hike.

This entry is more to let people know we will be sans computers until Sunday night, most likely late. Have a good weekend!


Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Student Abroad

It started with the trip to the Accademia, which I already chronicled. I won't retell that story, so read below if you're interested.

On the way back, we passed one of the many street markets Florence has to offer. Nothing worth noting, but I stole a quick photo.

Class was the same old, same old. Half of the people in class, if they show up, leave at the break. The entire class doesn't pay particularly close attention to the lectures. And for decently good reason. The professors don't seem to agree. One frequently cuts the other one off, and he is relatively hostile with the student responses. Not so much actively hostile, but more passively aggressive with the way he scoffs or rolls his eyes no matter what anyone says. At the very least, he'll show a frustrated cringe at the side of his mouth when he is displeased, which seems to be constant.

Of course, we Americans maintain our studiousness, as you can see. As it turns out, American law school is much more difficult and demanding than any other law school. The international students treat it as if it were undergrad, where nothing particularly matters.

After class, we made our typical train ride home to the Santa Maria Novella train station. We stopped at the market to pick up a lemon and some more wine for the apartment. The lemon was for the sword fish we bought yesterday. After consulting with Melissa, I had a basic recipe for how to prepare the pesce spada, and all I was missing was lemon. On the way, we caught the sunset yet again.

I'm afraid they might stop being so spectacular if we see them every day. Though if that's the worst of our problems, I certainly won't complain.

The basic gist:

No measurements: put water in pot, pour rice in pot, pour a dab of peanut oil in pot, sprinkle some salt in pot, turn heat on, put butter in pot. Watch rice cook.

Pesce Spada
Thaw. Coat bottom of pan with peanut oil. Put a dollop of butter in pan. Put sword fish in pan after removing bone and skin. Turn heat on low. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and spicy peperoncino powder on fish. Let cook. Put a little more butter on fish. Flip fish. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and spicy peperoncino powder on other side of fish. Let cook. Flip fish. Repeat.

Rice: "I am finished cooking."
Me: "Okay. I'll turn off the burner."

Pesce Spada
Turn off heat. Squeeze lemon wedge on fish. Flip. Squeeze lemon wedge on fish.

Distribute rice evenly. Distribute sword fish evenly. Enjoy.

The rice was absolutely perfect I think. It was moist, a little sticky, and flavorful. The fish was a little bland, I may have overcooked it a tad. But it was decent. We added some cayenne pepper sauce to give it a kick. That did the trick. All in all, I'd say my first time cooking sword fish was both a success and a learning experience. What more could a man ask for?