Notes on life and food in Italy from a Canadian in Rome.

Anversa degli Abruzzi
10/3/2020

The same

Even in the middle of a pandemic, even when it feels like so much in the world has changed so suddenly, it’s comforting to see how much Anversa degli Abruzzi remains exactly the same. The hillsides are the exact same startling green that they were last year at this time. The view from the house’s back terrace is identical, as is the old gnarled fig tree framing that view, despite a supposedly over-aggressive pruning undertaken during the lockdown. Inside the house, it feels like not even a spec of dust has changed since the last time we were there, months earlier. And outside, around the town, everything is reassuringly just as it was before: The groups of old women gossiping on the row of benches under the chestnut trees. The aperitivo in the piazza at Beppuccio’s bar with its generous bowls of salty snacks to accompany an ice-cold beer and a view of the town’s comings-and-goings. The faces (albeit masked). And the pack of hunting dogs somewhere down in the valley that yap and howl incessantly all through the night. It’s all the same, and it’s comforting.

Even in the middle of a pandemic, even when it feels like so much in the world has changed so suddenly, it’s comforting to see how much Anversa degli Abruzzi remains exactly the same. The hillsides are the exact same startling green that they were last year at this time. The view from the house’s back terrace is identical, as is the old gnarled fig tree framing that view, despite a supposedly over-aggressive pruning undertaken during the lockdown. Inside the house, it feels like not even a spec of dust has changed since the last time we were there, months earlier. And outside, around the town, everything is reassuringly just as it was before: The groups of old women gossiping on the row of benches under the chestnut trees. The aperitivo in the piazza at Beppuccio’s bar with its generous bowls of salty snacks to accompany an ice-cold beer and a view of the town’s comings-and-goings. The faces (albeit masked). And the pack of hunting dogs somewhere down in the valley that yap and howl incessantly all through the night. It’s all the same, and it’s comforting.

6/13/2020

Hello again

Hello – or better yet, hello again! In a moment of extreme boredom during one of those seemingly endless weekends in the depths of lockdown in which there was absolutely nowhere to go and nothing particularly interesting to do, I decided to resurrect this site. It was mostly an exercise in playing around in Webflow, but I think I also wanted to give myself a reason to actually write something every once in a while. So, as with previous incarnations of this site, I’ll be writing about the moments and scenes that make up my everyday life in Rome, about food, and (eventually) about travel – but probably in shorter, more bite-sized posts.

Note: I’ve deleted most of the posts from the previous version of Verbalized but have kept a few favourites, mostly dispatches on travel around Italy from memorable trips over the past few years.

Hello – or better yet, hello again! In a moment of extreme boredom during one of those seemingly endless weekends in the depths of lockdown in which there was absolutely nowhere to go and nothing particularly interesting to do, I decided to resurrect this site. It was mostly an exercise in playing around in Webflow, but I think I also wanted to give myself a reason to actually write something every once in a while. So, as with previous incarnations of this site, I’ll be writing about the moments and scenes that make up my everyday life in Rome, about food, and (eventually) about travel – but probably in shorter, more bite-sized posts.

Note: I’ve deleted most of the posts from the previous version of Verbalized but have kept a few favourites, mostly dispatches on travel around Italy from memorable trips over the past few years.

Vancouver Island, Canada
10/3/2020

Homeland

This post was originally published on August 30, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

The day before we leave, the temperature hits forty degrees Celsius and the humidity is clammy and close, inescapable. My suitcase gapes open on the living room floor; the fan whirrs continuously and stirs the air into hot, useless, frantic gusts. I sweat as I fold a jacket and sweater into the suitcase.

Outside, the asphalt has gone soft and gummy from the heat. The cicadas in the trees along the river are screeching relentlessly, and the air smells faintly like garbage. I love Rome, but I have also never been quite so glad to escape Rome.

* * *

Arriving in Vancouver is a shock to the senses. The air is cool and the sky grey and low in that kind of typical West Coast summer way that actually feels nothing at all like summer. Everything is precise and orderly and clean and very Canadian, the opposite of Rome. The day after arriving, we wander the city in a jet-lagged haze under a soaking rain that creeps beneath our umbrellas. I drink a series of coffees, toting the paper to-go cups around with me in a way that I would never do in Italy. We eat burgers and fries for lunch, because it seems like a fitting introduction to North America, and Japanese food for dinner, because our goal is to eat only things that we can’t easily eat (or eat well) in Italy.

The next day we take the ferry over to the island, where I grew up. We rent a car – there is a mix-up, and we end up with the largest vehicle imaginable, a hulking boat of a SUV that gives me anxiety every time I think about parking it – and set out to explore, filling our days with the kind of hikes and outdoor activities that never really interested me while I was living here. We drive to Tofino, spend a few days walking forest trails and poking our fingers into tide pools along the area’s seemingly endless beaches. We eat a lot of fish. I exclaim endlessly over the way the air smells: sharply clean and briny, a mix of salt water, seaweed and damp rainforest underbrush that awakens all sorts of memories inside me.

We drive back down to Victoria, and I show Valerio the city I called home for twenty-six years: Favourite neighbourhood to stroll, favourite drive along the coast, favourite coffee shop with its tattooed hipster baristas and steady stream of cooler-than-you hipster customers (cooler-than-you hipsters are a prominent feature of Victoria). The weather cooperates, mostly. It doesn’t rain much, but I spend nearly the entire trip wearing the same two moderately-warm outfits and ignoring the suitcase full of summery skirts and dresses I packed (when you pack a suitcase in a heat wave, the possibility that you will not want light fabrics and bare legs in mid-August doesn’t fully penetrate your brain).

Two weeks seem to fly by. We have hiked, strolled, canoed, biked, and explored. We have eaten everything and anything that is not Italian (within a week and a half, we have been hit by an intense craving for anything and everything Italian). I have taught Valerio the rules of the road, Canada-style (mostly: the workings of a four-way-stop; lanes actually need to be respected; no, you can’t force slow-moving vehicles out of your way). Most importantly – I have appreciated the West Coast in a way I never did while living there.

* * *

Is there a word to describe a place that feels both foreign and deeply familiar? That’s what Canada is to me now, after seven years away. Part of it feels so effortless, like slipping into an old favourite t-shirt. After all, I was born and raised there. There are twenty-six years of that place inside me, making me who I am. But other parts feel strange and awkward – the precision, the enormous supermarkets with their freezing cold air and jaw-dropping variety of foods, the enormous empty spaces, the need to be excessively upbeat and chatty in all interactions, all situations. I kept forgetting English words, their Italian equivalents sliding into my mind instead.

Several times, when people asked us where we were from, I would say Italy, then hastily stop, backpedal, correct myself. We are not from Italy. One of us is genuinely Italian, the other is Canadian. Thoroughly Italianized after all these years – much more Rome than Victoria inside by now – but still Canadian. Canada may not be my home anymore, it may not be the culture I’ve settled into, but it’ll always be my homeland.

The day before we leave, the temperature hits forty degrees Celsius and the humidity is clammy and close, inescapable. My suitcase gapes open on the living room floor; the fan whirrs continuously and stirs the air into hot, useless, frantic gusts. I sweat as I fold a jacket and sweater into the suitcase. Read more…

Burano, Italy
10/3/2020

Bold and stark: The colours of Burano

This post was originally published on March 28, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

Burano is a strange kind of place. If you search for photos of it, you’ll mostly come up with shots of ultra-saturated rainbow-hued buildings bathed in golden sunlight and girls in sundresses twirling cheerfully in front of doorways. Any maybe it’s like that during the spring or summer, when it’s warm enough that your lips don’t feel numb with cold after a few minutes of wandering around – but I was there in winter, mid-January, the deepest part of the season where sundresses and warm sunlight felt like a long-lost memory.

So Burano, a tiny island in the Venetian lagoon, felt odd. Mostly empty, except for a few locals wrapped in heavy coats. Mostly shuttered, except for a bar off the central piazza that seemed like it was full of the town’s entire population.  By now, tourism has become Burano’s main economy – and in January, without boatloads of tourists out exploring, it felt like the island was holding its breath, waiting until spring and the return of high season.

I think I preferred seeing Burano like this. I’m sure it’s lovely in the spring – windows thrown open and streets humming with activity – but I enjoyed the way the island’s colours took on a certain starkness in their winter version, bold and graphic and empty. It felt like stepping into a movie set, or into one of those modern paintings made up of a few swipes of primary colour and a lot of white space.

Burano is a strange kind of place. If you search for photos of it, you’ll mostly come up with shots of ultra-saturated rainbow-hued buildings bathed in golden sunlight and girls in sundresses twirling cheerfully in front of doorways. Any maybe it’s like that during the spring or summer, when it’s warm enough that your lips don’t feel numb with cold after a few minutes of wandering around – but I was there in winter, mid-January, the deepest part of the season where sundresses and warm sunlight felt like a long-lost memory. Read more…

Venice, Italy
10/3/2020

Venice: The allure of Italy’s most unique city

This post was originally published on February 2, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

If you ask me, a good portion of Venice’s appeal lies in that fact that it seems so unbelievable. Here is a city that regularly floods, seawater gushing out of canals and covering sidewalks, creeping under doorways to invade homes and businesses. Here is a city of islands knit together by over four hundred small bridges, a city where water replaces streets, where boats replace cars, trucks, scooters and bikes. Here is a city that seems hostile towards the very old, the very young, the disabled, the distracted, and anyone who has to pull a wheeled suitcase for any distance at all. And yet, here is a city that is completely captivating and totally charming, even – or especially – in the middle of winter.

Most cities, even truly ancient ones like Rome, still feel to me like they’re firmly established in the twenty-first century. It doesn’t take much – a few cars go a long way towards setting a sense of time. Venice doesn’t really seem to exist in any particular era. The low-slung, bluntly boxy train station is definitely not ancient, and the wide and busy Strada Nuova with its touristy shops and chain restaurants advertising tourist menus and take-away coffees couldn’t be anything except modern. But as soon as I stray from these areas by even a couple of streets, time falls away. The laundry hanging to dry everywhere and gondolas sliding through the canals feel timeless – at least until I spot a gondola with selfie sticks protruding from every possible angle, a sight that brings me fully back to the twenty-first century.

Venice shows its age, but it does it in the most graceful, captivating way possible. Colours are softened with time and salty sea air into mottled pastel tones. Stone looks as smooth as silk. Doorways sag, rooflines droop, entire buildings lean towards the canals. A startling number of bell towers are not just slightly, but extremely crooked. If I think about the city’s underpinnings – wooden pillars driven into the silty lagoon floor hundreds of years ago as the foundation for all these buildings, walls that are attacked by waves, tides, seaweed and barnacles every single day, and bridges that are crossed by thousands of tourists each month – it’s impressive that the city is still standing at all.

What’s also impressive is the casual, elegant way that Venice puts hazards directly in front of an unsuspecting wanderer. Most cities seem to do a decent job of protecting residents and tourists alike from unnecessary dangers. Venice, on the other hand, is full of sidewalks running alongside canals, dark and narrow streets that dead-end directly into water, doors – even in hotels – that open into water, and slippery stone steps leading straight down into the canal. I spotted numerous life preservers attached to walls and doors, and even a long knotted rescue rope dangling into the canal beside a set of particularly algae-slicked steps.

I have to wonder: how many tourists walk directly into the canals each year, so distracted and overcome by the city’s otherworldly beauty that they forget to watch where they’re going? How often do people topple into the water after a long and wine-laden dinner or even just fail to notice where the sidewalk ends and the canal begins while walking at night?

Venice at night is incredibly atmospheric, but it’s also incredibly dark – the kind of inky, close darkness that I usually associate with being deep in the countryside. There’s something vaguely disconcerting – but lovely – about standing in the middle of a city and hearing nothing except the sound of rain hitting the canals and waves making soft kissing noises as they lap against boats and buildings. Where else in the world does an after dinner stroll take you up and down countless bridges, past boats bobbing gently and through a tangled web of tiny nonsensical streets with (at least during the winter) hardly a single person around? Venice is so unique that it almost feels unreal.

I always wonder what it would be like to live in Venice. At what point would it cease to seem charming to have packages delivered by boat, garbage collected by boat, a new washing machine delivered by boat? Would it get tiring to have to criss-cross a multitude of bridges – stairs going up, stairs going down – just to bring home some groceries? And at what point does someone learn the city’s labyrinth of streets so well that they stop coming up against watery dead-ends every few metres?

After even a few days in Venice, going anywhere else is jarring. It’s strange to see cars again, and asphalt and cobblestones instead of turquoise water. It’s easier to actually live in Rome – or anywhere else, for that matter – than in Venice. But it’s infinitely more interesting to imagineliving in Venice, the city that manages to be both entirely improbable and very real at the same time.

If you ask me, a good portion of Venice’s appeal lies in that fact that it seems so unbelievable. Here is a city that regularly floods, seawater gushing out of canals and covering sidewalks, creeping under doorways to invade homes and businesses. Here is a city of islands knit together by over four hundred small bridges, a city where water replaces streets, where boats replace cars, trucks, scooters and bikes. Here is a city that seems hostile towards the very old, the very young, the disabled, the distracted, and anyone who has to pull a wheeled suitcase for any distance at all. And yet, here is a city that is completely captivating and totally charming, even – or especially – in the middle of winter. Read more…

Favignana, Sicily
10/3/2020

Favignana: The challenging paradise

This post was originally published on September 15, 2018 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.

The first thing you need to know about Favignana is that this island might not be for you.

It’s not for you if you like your vacations to be mindlessly relaxing, full of kilometres of uninterrupted golden sand and no-effort beach days that’ll take you from your room to the water in a few easy steps. It’s not for you if you’re looking for lush green landscapes dotted with impressive villas or sleek five-star hotels with sea-view infinity pools, or if you’re after the dramatic cliffside luxury of Capri or the postcard-perfect multi-layered colours of Procida.

As far as islands go, Favignana is particular. It makes an imposing first impression; a steep-sided mountain with a castle perched dramatically on top looms over the port where the ferries from Trapani and Marsala come and go, and at its base is a massive old tonnara, brick smokestacks reaching towards the sky, testament to the island’s long history as a tuna fishery.

The port itself feels frenetic – at any given moment, cars loading onto one of the ferries cross paths with foot traffic from the hydrofoils, a group of old men sit on plastic chairs outside of a busy coffee bar, smoking and chatting and shouting out greetings to passing friends, and a couple of fisherman sell the day’s catch across from the bar while rows of brightly-coloured wooden fishing boats bob in the background. Bikes and motorini weave their way through everything and park anywhere; two town policemen stand at the entrance to the port, but their presence seems to be more symbolic than practical.

Then there’s the town, spreading out from the port: low, blocky sand-coloured buildings that look like they’d fit in just as well in North Africa as they do here, on a Sicilian island. The town is not picturesque in a postcard kind of way – but then again, it is. You just have to let it work its magic.

Take a stroll down one of the town’s buzzing main streets – lined with restaurants, bars, and shops selling local specialties – in the early evening, as the sun paints everything gold before it slides behind the mountain, and try not to fall in love with it. The next morning, fall for it even more as you pass an old man selling vegetables out of the back of a battered green Ape and another selling cactus fruit, carefully de-spined, by the side of the road as you make your way to the bakery. Buy a brioche filled with – no, nearly exploding with – pistachio cream, and eat it on a bench by the sea.

And then you slather yourself in copious amounts of sunscreen, get on your bike – you’ll have rented a bike, of course, because it’s the best and also the most fun way to get around here – and head off towards the beach. Except that “the beach” is a bit of a deceptive term on Favignana. There are a couple of actual, sandy beaches on the island – one of them right on the edge of town overlooking the port; the best one about fifteen minutes away by bike if you’re pedalling at a relaxed, vacation-appropriate pace (ten if you’re feeling a bit guilty about the blob of pistachio cream that you ate for breakfast). It’s called Lido Burrone, and it’s got powder-fine white sand that almost looks pink where the waves curl in, limpid water in shades of perfect turquoise, and the possibility to rent a sun bed for the day.

Keep pedalling. You can come back here later. Follow the road as it curves along the coast; scruffy fields studded with prickly pear cacti and the occasional blocky house to one side, rocky outcroppings and the sea along the other. At certain points, you’ll spot clusters of bikes and motorini parked haphazardly off the edge of the road – that’s how you recognize the best places to swim, which, for the most part, tend to look so intimidating from afar that you almost certainly wouldn’t stop on your own.

The island’s residents and more hard-core visitors might spread out their towels on the rough rocks and find a place to wedge in their beach umbrella. You probably don’t want to do that. Save your sunbathing for Lido Burrone, where you can stretch out in the sun without a chunk of rock poking into the small of your back. Instead, pick your way gingerly over the rocks (you’re going to want something a bit sturdier than flip-flops here, if you’re not interested in tearing your feet to shreds), find a way to get yourself into the water with minimal bruising, and then… ah. This is why you came to Favignana.

The best places to swim are all concentrated around the eastern part of the island, interconnected by dusty, mostly-unpaved roads that meander their way through a strangely pitted terrain that looks like it’s been chipped away by a hammer and chisel. In a way, that’s exactly what happened – until relatively recently, the island was mined for its tufo stone, the ground transformed into a series of pits and tunnels, Escher-esque staircases dropping off into nothingness and fingers of rock pointing towards the sky.

Now the quarries are partially grown over, their hard corners softened by prickly pear cacti and caper bushes or transformed into lush, private sunken gardens. It’s these quarries that make some of Favignana’s coastline so interesting; both Cala Rossa and Bue Marino, the two most spectacular swimming spots, require near-acrobatic manoeuvres around imposing stone blocks in order to get in and out of the water.

It’s worth it though. You came here for that this, for the chance to swim in water so clear and so intensely turquoise that it looks like it’s been lit from underneath with neon lights or Photoshopped into blatantly exaggerated saturation in real life; that you have to scale a slanting stone staircase so narrow and precarious that handholds have been carved into the rock face in order to actually get into the water is a minor detail. This is just what you do on Favignana.

When you’ve swam until you’re thoroughly steeped in salt water, haul yourself back up the precarious staircase. Right at the top, in a low-slung tent of questionable hygiene, is where you’ll find the best food on the island. Inside, tomatoes bob around in big metal bowls of tepid water before being slashed open on a stained cutting board. The tomatoes are slapped onto sesame-crusted, oil-drizzled bread, copious amounts of anchovies are scattered over top, and a handful each of capers and basil are added. The sandwich – it’s called Pane Cunzato, and it’s a Favignanese specialty – is like a brick. Don’t think too hard. Just eat it. It tastes like sunshine and salt and earth, and at this moment, it just might be the best thing you’ve ever eaten.

The next day, explore the other side of the island, the part that begins after you bike through the tunnel that takes you under the mountain with the castle on it. There’s less here – some houses, some cows, vegetable gardens and a vineyard, but not much else. It’s beautiful, though, and there are more spots to swim; more rocks to scramble over on the way to the sea, more intensely turquoise, perfectly transparent water afterwards to convince you that it’s worth it.

And it is worth it. A few days on this island are better than the best spa for melting away stress and tension. Within twenty-four hours you will be sunburned, despite your most diligent applications of SPF 30. You will be chaffed from biking in your bikini (you start off fully-clothed, but after seeing everyone else whizzing around in nothing but swimsuits you throw caution and modesty to the wind), your hair will be salt-encrusted and wild, and your shins will be battered from all those rocky entrances into the sea.

But you’ll feel relaxed. And happy – like you’ve managed to grasp onto a piece of pure summer – and exhilarated. How can you feel anything but exhilarated when you’re bouncing on a bike down a dusty lane, a castle towering overhead as you pedal through an almost surreal landscape towards a perfect crescent of the most enticing, inviting, electrically blue water you’ve ever seen?

Favignana is definitely not for everyone – but you just might fall head-over-heels in love with it.

The first thing you need to know about Favignana is that this island might not be for you. Read more…