Monday, December 31, 2012

Just a Minute: December Edition

reading…Reading is slow going for me now that I'm well into the pregnancy. I barely get a few pages in before I am completely snoozing. One book that has managed to keep me awake longer than most is The Chaperone. It's set in the '20's and is a story about silent film star, Louise Brooks and her chaperone from Kansas.

watching…Saw 5 Year Engagement and Silver Linings Playbook while my sister was here. I really enjoyed both. Silver Linings Playbook was one of the few movies I actually watched in the theater this year, and it was totally worth paying full price to see it. Quirky and at times super awkward, it was a really good story without being too sentimental, so I think even Nathan would have enjoyed it. Christmas Time in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and reliving our warm weather Christmas last year in Savannah, especially after our atrocious slog home through snowstorm Euclid (really, we're naming snowstorms now?). There's really nothing like Billie Holiday to get you in the seasonal spirit.

sewing...Now that my Christmas projects are either done or too little, too late, I can tackle all the cute little baby things I want to start making. Perhaps this, and this, and this, and maybe even these

baking…Well, just before Christmas I made some Orange Oatmeal quick bread, some Chocolate Scotcheroos (minus the sugar, still completely delicious), English Toffee, and Sugar Cookies. This weekend, I made a batch of super gooey brownies for my neighbor's 92nd birthday and homemade Honey French Bread. I think I might start being the "cookie fairy" for all the neighbors once a week, since one batch should easily cover everyone-hope no one is making a New Year's Resolution against sweets.

making...We are slowly but surely getting the baby's room ready. I'm collecting art for the walls, planning shelving to go around the top of the room, getting supplies to paint our armchair so it matches (Am I crazy?-I'll keep you posted. I think that's going to be an early 2013 project), cleaning out what used to be the craft closet, and buying tiny dresses to fill the newly empty craft closet.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Then and Now in Florence

I first experienced Florence ten years ago as a junior in college. My apologies to Nathan and Dean because I might have mentioned that fact a time or two on the trip. Or twenty.

Over the course of this trip, I had the particularly funny thought of the two versions of me in Italy. College me stayed up 'til all hours, drank liters of wine, went to sketchy Euro-trash disco-techs, got kissed by a gypsy, and bought a shirt with only strings to hold it on my body. Grown-up me was 20 weeks pregnant, so fell asleep nearly every time I sat still for longer than 5 minutes, had exactly 3 sips of wine the entire trip, went to sketchy public restrooms, got kissed by my husband (if I forced him), and bought baby clothes.

Fiesole, 2002
Fiesole, 2012

I'm not sure college me would be impressed by grown-up me's Italy trip, but I'm still pretty satisfied with this version of Italy (and myself) anyway. And I'll tell you, a grown-up salary let me eat a hell of a lot better than my Writing Center income.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Conversation #15

Me: (sewing on the couch) Ow, ow, ow. I just stabbed myself in the baby with a pin.
Him: (reading the paper) Hmm. So what kind of mattress do we have for the crib? This article says some are dangerous.
Me: I don't know. Go look.

Him: Ours is a Colgate, so it doesn't have any tris.
Me: Is that good?
Him: Yes, it says they can cause cancer.
Me: Oh yikes. Aww, you're such a good daddy, making sure our baby is safe.
Him: And you're stabbing her with pins...

Friday, December 28, 2012

Day 12: You Walk, I'll Take the Bus

Our last day in Italy dawned brightly much to our continued surprise. Our plans for the day included a visit to Fiesole, a small town above Florence. Dean and Nathan were happy to walk the few miles up, but I decided I would catch the bus and meet them at the top. While I waited, I wandered around the main square, did a little shopping, and found a little park with some good views. Before long, Nathan and Dean arrived to explore a bit before we found a hidden overlook to admire and stopped for some nibbles at a nearby bakery.

Back in Florence, Dean took us to the Palazzo della Mercato to go to the San Lorenzo Market. Filled with jealousy to have such a great place nearby where he can buy produce, cheese, fish and other delicious things, we bought some olives, dried fruit, and then (cue the angels) we made the greatest decision ever.

One of fishmonger stalls featured two guys cleaning, chopping and frying freshly caught fish and calamari to order. Nathan loves calamari, so I insisted we have a snack. We placed an order that one of the men quickly tossed in flour and popped in the fryer. They even gave us free glasses of white wine while we waited at the little counter. When our order was ready, he quickly salted it and handed it over. It was the tenderest, most delicious stuff I can ever remember having. I will dream of those delicious little creatures, I'm sure.

You'd think this was the high food point of the day, but nay it only got better from there. Luckily we split the calamari among the three of us because next Dean took us to his favorite panini place. With no visible signage, it is so lucky he ever discovered it because there we had some truly amazing sammies. I will probably dream of those too.

After lunch, Nathan and Dean had an aperitif back at our hotel before we determined to go see the Boboli Garden. Not surprisingly with our Italian luck, we arrived at 10 after 3, mere moments after the last entrance ticket sold (they stop at 3). We tried one more garden but arrived there at 3:30, just as the ticket seller placed her chiuso sign on the counter. Sigh. It took some adjusting but Nathan and Dean decided to find a path on the shores of the Arno to walk.

A long walk as the sun set along the Arno and Nathan's mood recovered. Dean suggested we wait for Sarah to meet up with us at a nearby bar in the courtyard of a building that used to be a jail but has since been remade into condos. We had some drinks and enjoyed the evening.

When Sarah arrived, we were off to enjoy a meal at Trattoria Cibreo, a renowned restaurant run by Chef Picchi that features reimagined traditional Tuscan and Florentine dishes. We ordered lots of delicious dishes so that we could try a little bit of everything. Pâté, risotto, zuppas, crostini, polenta, rabbit, chocolate mousse, panna cotta, and some other tasty dishes that I can't quite recall, all chosen from our handwritten menus and described in lovely Italian-inflected English by our friendly waiter.

Sated, we toddled through the streets of Florence in a slight drizzle. We said arrivederci to Dean and Sarah and then to the Duomo. It was a pretty amazing trip, but both of us were pretty anxious to get back to our routine, our bed, and our cats. I guess now we're adventurous for a limited time only before we require a recharge.

No separate post is really even required for the flight home because it went so smoothly and was uneventful (even my flight meal was pretty great) except for one of my bathrooms being out of order, which I thoroughly did not appreciate.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Day 11: To Firenze

Our Italy trip nearly over, we took our trusty Fiat back to the Florence airport and caught a bus into the city. We checked into our hotel (Hotel Paris, a slightly worn old palazzo a couple of blocks from the Duomo) and headed to find some panini for lunch. Much to Dean's later dismay, we went to the same slightly expensive panini place we had eaten at on our previous Florence visit. They were really delicious though-on crunchy, crusty fresh bread.

We went for a walk to the Ponte Veccio, walking along the Arno while we ate, and then up to Piazzale Michelangelo to get the loveliest views of the city. After a small rest in front of San Miniato al Monte, we headed back down the hill to meet up with Dean next to the Uffizi.

Dean took us to see the impressive Stanford building which is a lovely palazzo that still houses the descendants of its original owners on the top floor. My favorite part of the evening, however, was getting to visit Dean's host family for a homemade Italian dinner of crostini with freshly pressed olive oil, pasta arribiata, and tiramisu. The olives that the oil came from had been picked just a week before from the family's own olive trees by the whole family (and Dean and Sarah), so the olive oil had not yet mellowed like the stuff we're used to having in the States. Fresh olive oil is neon green and has a very peppery, almost prickly taste. It was very different, but excellent. Dean's host parents were very friendly and welcoming, even though only Filomena spoke English.

After stuffing ourselves, we headed back to Sarah's apartment to play Euchre for an hour or two before we returned to the Palazzo Paris to have a frustrating shower with a handheld showerhead attached lower than shoulder height which also wouldn't stay upright until I rigged it to the curtain bar with a hair tie before hitting our twin beds. Oh, Hotel Paris, you made me never want to leave.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Day 10: A Lunch of Lake Fish

A bit of rain and foggy weather on the last day in Montepulciano, but we showed the city to Dean and his girlfriend and then headed to a restaurant in Castiglione del Lago recommended to us by Giacomo. There, I had another of my favorite pastas on the trip. It was pretty close to gnocchi in a red sauce with fresh Parmesan. So good I had to talk myself out of licking my plate clean.

After our leisurely lunch, we strolled through town again and bought some tasty gelato. We took Dean and Sarah to the train to head back to Florence, and Nathan and I went on to explore Cortona.

It was very foggy in Cortona as we parked and headed up the steep main street of the city. Nathan aimed us to the very top, and we climbed and climbed and somehow found more paths heading up to the lovely church at the very steepest part of the city. Above the church, amidst the clouds, we walked around the fort. We caught a few glimpses of the valley below us. We also saw a very strange looking structure that we decided to go explore.

This old building turned out to be a sort of mausoleum nestled below the city. It was actually very lovely. It  seemed much more visited than most cemeteries in the US.

We walked around a bit, careful to be respectful of the people visiting the graves of their loved ones, and then we headed back down to the car to make our way back to Montepulciano and to our last dinner in town before our final leg of the trip in Florence.

Dinner in Montepulciano was accidentally awesome. The place we ended up choosing looked incredibly sketchy, but our first choice was closed. This hole in the wall promised pizza and kebaps, but when we went in, the pizza turned out to be freshly made wood-fired with delicious toppings of proscuitto, mushroom, artichokes, and fresh green olives

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Things I've Been Making

Chicken & Broccoli Casserole
Turned old car key chain into an ornament
Put together a live tiny tree
Fish Tacos
Made a feathery cat toy
Chinese food four course dinner
Sugar Cookies
Gift tags
A holiday flower arrangement
Chocolate Scotcheroos (but I left out the sugar and they were just as good)
Sweet Potatoes with Pecans, Goat Cheese, and Celery
An ornament for Nathan's stocking
Orange Oatmeal Bread
Cloth napkins
English Toffee

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Day 9: Nathan Actually Buys Something

After a quick breakfast on Saturday morning, we headed to the Umbria region, to Arezzo, to go to the antique market which takes place the first Saturday of every month. I will point out that Nathan put this activity on the to do list just for me because he knows how much I love antiques. It was pretty amazing. Every street was filled with vendors and gorgeous old things-jewelry, furniture, art, and books everywhere I looked. I was careful not to look at anything too closely because I didn't want to fall in love with anything I couldn't fit in my suitcase. Such a shame too because there were so many beautiful tables and armchairs, etc. that were super inexpensive until you factor in trying to ship them home.

Anyway, we came upon a tent with tons of small boxes of odds and ends. One of the boxes contained small armless painted pewter Italian soccer players. (A little background first: Every year Nathan and I give each other an ornament as one of our stocking stuffers. In past years, Nathan's ornament is usually a reference to a place we've traveled in the last year, and yes, he likes to go the odd route). He decided that one of the small armless guys would be the perfect addition to our ornament collection, so he picked his favorite out, making him the only one to purchase an antique at the market.
After wandering around Arezzo and getting a snack of delicious cotto crudo (I think?), which is a sandwich stuffed from meat they hack off a whole roasted pig right in front of you, we headed next to Castiglione del Lago, another small-hilltop town that is perched right over a large lake. We explored the small town, buying a few things (wild boar salami, an olive wood cutting board) and then walking along the lake shore. Castiglione del Lago was pretty far off the tourist track, lovely in the slight fog and very peaceful.

Panicale was another incredibly small town that was recommended to us by a couple at dinner at our agriturismo the night before because of a delicious restaurant that served lake fish. Unfortunately, yet again, we got there around 3 and the restaurant was closed. We found a cozy cafe/bar with a view where we could have a small bite, and Nathan could try a new digestif. A little disappointed to miss out on a fish lunch, we headed back to Montepulciano to play some cards before we headed in to town for some dinner.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Day 8: Eating Grapes Off the Vine and Spying on the Neighbors

Another sunny day inspired Nathan to try to interest me in hiking again. As my soreness had finally worn off from our Cinque Terre adventure, I was only somewhat hesitant until he assured me this hike was much shorter and very flat. He even showed me his intended route on a map. It did look short. After exploring our hosts' land (they had an orchard of olive trees that covered the hillside below our agriturismo and ended at the grapevines we could see lining the other side of the valley), we'd head a couple yards down the road to a road that circled around and came back right to where we were staying.

Giacomo (our main host at the agriturismo) pointed out a good path through his property. It was a lovely start to the morning. Nathan found a walking stick, a persimmon tree to sample, and we watched the old neighbors climbing their olive trees far above us to harvest their olives.

We gathered a few things for our longer hike from our appartamento and headed down the road to the start of our walk/hike. This road was gravel and seemed more like a very long driveway. It wound its way down among a number of new vineyards and a few houses. We came upon a whole field of grape vines that were still heavy with ripened grapes, some already rotting right on the vine. We found a bunch that were still tasty and popped wine grapes in our mouths as we walked.
We passed a house where the whole family, with everyone from their three-year-old to the grandparents, were out harvesting olives for the day. That scene felt like the Italian equivalent of the American image of jumping in a pile of fall leaves as the epitome of fall.

We reached an actual paved road and then walked along it until we came to the next winding road that led back up toward our agriturismo.  I realize that none of this sounds particularly strenuous so it may seem unwarranted to keep calling this a hike, but it did end up taking 2 1/2 hours. I qualify anything longer than an hour as a "hike." Plus, it was well after lunch so by the time we made it into town (Montepulciano), we were trying to find lunch at 3 again. Sigh. We never learned.

This time we did get lucky and find a place that made excellent "super" pizzas that was open even at 3. I had a normal pizza that would qualify as enough for two people, while Nathan dominated a "super" pizza, which was big enough to cover our small table.

After lunch we explored the historic part of Montepulciano, which is a rather compact set of streets that have a sprinkling of churches and a fort. I really can't get over how many ornate churches are in even the smallest of Italian towns. We also saw the building in the main square that apparently plays a rather large role in one of the Twilight movies, though I did not recognize it until my brother-in-law's girlfriend told me. I will say that Montepulciano feels like the sort of town that would have vampires if they existed.

Dinner that night was an amazing spread that our hosts at the agriturismo made from scratch for three couples staying in the various rooms/apartments. We attended with another American couple from RI and a couple from Northern Italy. It was pretty fun getting to know people while eating local salami and cheese, pasta (pici, kind of a thick spaghetti noodle specific to the region) made from scratch, freshly baked bread, guinea hen, thick super chocolatey pudding, and wine that Giacomo made from their own grapes just for the family.

We cut our leisurely meal a teeny bit short at 10 pm to go get Dean and Sarah from the train station 20 minutes away. They were coming to visit Montepulciano and the surrounding towns for the first time with us for the next two days. We found them pretty easily in the nearby (ghost) town where they had waited patiently on us for an hour, brought them back to our place, played some Euchre, and then constructed a nest on the floor for them to sleep (made of couch cushions, comforters, and shredded newspaper).

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Make it Merry!

I've decided that I'm going to make something every day from now until Christmas. It might seem like a daunting goal, but I'm not going overboard on the "making" definition. I'll count Christmas cookies, crafty things, paper snowflakes, and all my various sewing projects that I'm hoping to tackle before Christmas, so I don't think it will be difficult at all.

I'll show you a peek of one of my Christmas projects that constitutes yesterday's "make." Don't look too hard though, family.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Day 7: Pienza and Montalcino

The morning of the end of our first week in Italy was clear and bright with a lovely view of the valley below where our agriturismo was perched. We headed in to Montepulciano to attend the Thursday morning outdoor market (it was packed with locals and I found some fun gifts to bring home to the family) before visiting the nearby towns of Pienza and Montalcino. Both are  small hilltop, walled towns to the west of Montepulciano.

Pienza is a lovely small town that really had no tourists (no English-speaking ones, anyway). We walked around and found the highest point with good views. November 1 is a holiday in Italy, so there were not a great deal of things open, though we were perfectly content to wander the winding cobblestone streets.

We headed next to Montalcino with the plan to get some lunch. We are slow-learners and continuously ran into the issue of looking for lunch too late in the afternoon when many places close to get ready for dinner. This often led to my becoming somewhat panicked, which I was good at keeping hidden (Nathan disagrees.) We were looking for pizza and the agreement was that we would stop at the first pizzeria, no deciding needed (deciding often held us up quite a bit in actually getting to our meals in Italy).

We found a little cafe as we walked that had crispy pizza ready to eat. All you needed to do was indicate how big your square of pizza should be, they'd weigh it, and it was yours to stuff in your face. Unfortunately, we found our cafe just in time to get behind two construction workers who practically cleaned them out of pizza. There was enough for one more person, so I got a sandwich instead. It was decent. But I wasn't hungry anymore, so we were both relieved.

Montalcino is best known for its Brunello, an extremely expensive wine that is made from a red grape grown only nearby. Needless to say, it's a very wine-centric town, so there are enotecas (wine bars) everywhere. Nathan and I were, sadly, nonplussed by Montalcino, as he is not that into wine, and I cannot be right now.

We headed up the hill to the Fort, basically the only official tourist attraction in Montalcino, where Nathan got seriously peeved to be asked to pay €4 to climb up to the parapets, the highest point in Montalcino. No matter how many times I pointed out that charging to visit things is normal in Italy (and really pretty much any and every tourist location), he continued to be majorly bent out of shape to find out that things weren't free. I think I need to take him to the Willis Tower (formerly Sears) so he can put this in perspective.

On the way back, we headed to the grocery to buy supplies for dinner. We had a little kitchen in our place, so we bought some tomatoes, ravioli, cheese, and spinach to make our own dinner. Nathan also came across the digestif, Cynar (chee-nar), made from artichokes, which he bought "to sip" after dinner. It smelled like it might taste okay mixed with Coke, but I was not fully convinced. This may have been the first alcohol I was not disappointed to miss out on.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Just a Minute: November

Boy, November flew by!

Image from Amazon
reading…Just finished This is Where I Leave You by Jonathon Tropper. A bit like mixing The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen with High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. A little heavy, but the end wasn't a downer and the narrating voice was great which made for a quick, enjoyable read.

cleaning…When we were at my parents' over Thanksgiving, we took a stab at cleaning out some of our childhood/high school belongings. I ended up dragging my CD collection back to Chicago to sort through it. I have a rather embarrassing plethora of movie soundtracks (Does anyone even remember the movie Go? Well, I have the soundtrack, among many many others.) and a rather large stack of country music, including no less than 12 Garth Brooks CDs (oh, Lord, I even own his Chris Gaines oddity). One thing my sisters and I agreed on as we went through our piles of things is how painful it is to think of all the money that those many ceramic Disney figurines, CDs, or teddy bears represent.

Image from Amazon
listening…I bought Holidays Rule from Amazon this week because they had it as a $1.99 special. It's pretty good. Among my favorites are I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by The Civil Wars and What Are You Doing New Year's Eve by The Head and the Heart. It's a good mix for background party music.

Image from fellowfellow
lovingThis wreath. I adore it. I bought a huge square boxwood wreath at a thrift store this fall, but I haven't tackled adding anything to it yet. This makes me want to try. I could definitely make this work.

making...I'm nearly finished with the stocking stuffers. I think watching a good two movies while hand-sewing should finish them off. Maybe when they're done, I can get started on some fun baby projects. First order of business, baby pants from a pattern my sister gave me this year.

Image from King Arthur Flour
baking…I made some dried cherry and pistachio biscotti this weekend. I used my usual recipe, and just added about a cup of pistachios and a very large handful of dried cherries. Though I was a bit disappointed in how it turned out (a bit crumbly for some reason), Nathan assures me he loves it. I think perhaps I cooked it too long during its first bout in the oven. Our oven is so temperamental. I sort of secretly hope it dies, so I can justify getting something awesome. But then again, our microwave will have to die first and our refrigerator has some incredibly frustrating crisper drawers, so maybe the oven will need to live a lot longer...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Barn Project

A few of my Indy friends were in town earlier this fall, and I took them to a neighborhood-wide garage sale. Poor things, they ended up carrying some of my purchases back. I hadn't yet told them that I was pregnant, so my purchase of a wooden barn (along the same lines as a dollhouse) struck them as puzzling. "You could use it to hold your shoes," said one.

My plan was to fix it up and give it to my dad, a farmer and occasional cowboy, to have at home for when his someday grandchildren visited. It looked pretty sad when I bought it, a bit mildewed and weather-beaten, but I had a vision.

One weekend before my dad's birthday, I sat down and got to painting. I used acrylic paint I already had on hand in a dark red, black-brown, grey, and white. It took about 3/4 of a small bottle of each to paint the whole surface, which was lucky because I have no idea if I could have matched that paint in a store since it was leftover from other projects long finished or abandoned. I used scotch tape to make the straight white lines around all of the openings and hand painted the curves.

You can see the paint bottles behind the barn.
I also used the masking tape to keep the red paint off the roof and
floor and to keep the roof color off the walls. I painted the lightest
color (the floors) first so I could be messy with that one.

I even bought some tiny plastic farm animals from a market in Italy to help populate the barn and found an old tractor online. I also found some tiny hay bales at Michael's, which I just couldn't pass up. They were super messy though, so I finally covered them in glue (which dries clear) so they'd stop leaving hay everywhere. We took the barn home to my dad on Thanksgiving, and I'm pretty sure it was a hit. (The cats loved it, anyway!)

My little barn cats.