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Pressed: 52 Weeks Begin Now: Week 26: What I Learned in Italy

30 Mar

52 Weeks Begin Now: Week 26: What I Learned in Italy.


52 Weeks Begin Now: Week 26: What I Learned in Italy

It seems that I always learn many things when I travel. Here are some of the things that I found important to me on my recent trip Italy to Florence, Sienna, Cinque Terra (all five villages) and Genova, from March 15 to 29th, 2014. I was particularly open on this trip to new ideas because my life was in transition before I arrived. Therefore, my head, heart and spirit were listening for information that would help me consider the next steps in my life. Travelling always provides answers to me when I have questions in my life.

Language Keeps Us Connected: It struck me on this trip, more than at any other time, that languages are all very similar in the end. If you really listen, it all makes sense. Although I relied on my Italian language guide periodically, I learned that if I paid attention I could decipher the messages. In most cases, English and French helped. In other cases, it was just exchanging words, expressions, gestures, anything, and then we found some common ground. I could hear the similarities between Spanish, French and Italian, and at times, English words. It was powerful to consider how we are all really speaking the same language through some etymological connections. The non-verbal language is still the most powerful of all the communication systems. The inflection, gestures and eye contact we share with each other is truly all of the information that we really need to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings. The smaller details require words, and when this is necessary, we find them.

Bells Remind Us to Pray: I was moved by the bells that rang from all of the church, cathedral and bell towers wherever I went in Italy. I could hear them when I was climbing the trails of the Cinque Terra, or when I was sipping wine in the Chianti vineyards. Their gentle timbre sang out to me throughout my holiday. They rang first thing in the morning, calling people to mass, and awakening me gently from my sleep. They rang in the middle of the day, calling people back to pray, or to celebrate someone’s special occasion, like a wedding or other special occasion. They rang in the evening, and sometimes later at night. They rang for funerals, and sometimes they just seemed to ring for no reason at all. Whenever the bells rang, they stopped me from doing what I was doing, and I considered them for a few minutes. They call for us to pray and think of a higher power that connects us as a whole people.

Good Food is Everything: These people take food very seriously. The discreet details about the quality of the ingredients, how they are pulled together in complement of each other, and then there is a taste exaltation later in the evening when everyone has time to come together and share in the daily festival of eating. People eat together here. Food is not just a means to and end, rather, it is a time to gather and exchange what is happening in people’s lives, and to celebrate the food with each other. The food was rich and intoxicating. Granted, my body is not designed for wheat, dairy and eggs, but I found that by embracing the experience, I found a new appreciation of the culture. I lived out the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

None of my food experiences will match the taste sensations of my own homemade fresh pasta in first ever Italian cooking class. As well, my favourite spaghetti vongole in white wine sauce, Florentine pizza, pistachio gelato or tiramasu held a close second place. Unfortunately, despite my rigorous exercise of hiking mountains and ascending and descending numerous stairs, I still managed to gain weight while in Italy. Therefore, portion control, or some modification of the Italian diet would be required if I lived in Italy. However, I think that I can take some of the joy of cooking and eating back to Canada, regardless of my food sensitivities and while still staying at a reasonable weight. I just need to try different recipes that might bring just as much joy to the food experience. I think the key is simply to slow down, take time to find healthy and good quality ingredients, while creating the time to relish cooking and eating them together.

Communicate Openly: People communicate very openly in Italy. I found people hugging and kissing in public places. Rapid conversations over important topics happened all around me. Arguments, and animated ones, seemed to happen anywhere and at any time. People seemed comfortable letting out their feelings regardless of the content or context. Unlike the festering land mines or the nuclear bombs of some of the emotional arguments that I have observed at home in my Canadian culture, there was just a general outpouring of feelings in Italy. In all of the ones I observied, there was no time to wonder what might happen in them because they were over before they began. By the time there was much contemplation, the outburst had vanished like a freak weather squall that hit me while hiking up in the Cinque Terra trails. The rain came, and then the sun came out to dry me off. I found it refreshing to see people communicating so overtly, and it reminded me that it is healthy to say out loud what we really feel without fear of repercussion, hard feelings or grudges. That’s amore!

Climbing Stairs is Rewarding: This is a country of stairs. Everywhere you go, you have to climb up or down stairs in order to make your way around the towns and cities, and, as well, to go between buildings. It is truly inspiring to see very old people making their way so capably where I would have thought the obstacles of the stairs would be prohibitive of the elderly. Instead, the stairs simply serve as part of the daily exercise, and might explain the long life span of the average Italian citizen. Where we do everything to avoid stairs in Canada with escalators, elevators and electric walkways, Italy makes no such concessions. If you want to get around, you have to embrace the stairs. Some of them are wide and shallow, or deep and steep, or crooked and uneven. In general, your legs get a good work out, and you have to stop periodically to catch your breath. It always feels good to get to the top, like I felt when I made it to the top of the mountain in Monterosso, and looked down over the five villages of the Cinque Terra trail. It was a rewarding triumph to manage it…and yet, I had to then climb down the daunting 1000 or so stairs to get back into town. As well, climbing 467 stairs to the top of the Duomo in Florence made me appreciate staying in health so that I can travel into my retirement years.

My concern has always been that places like Italy might be too demanding when I get into my 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (and beyond). Perhaps this is not a bucket list place. However, perhaps the key is to stay in better shape at home so that these trips are manageable all of the way through my lifetime.


Pressed: 52 Weeks Begin Now: Week 24: The Art of Pizza Making and Life

19 Mar

52 Weeks Begin Now: Week 24: The Art of Pizza Making and Life.


The Whoas of the Celiac: Unfortunately, I will not make many actual pizzas in my lifetime because I struggle with all of the ingredients. My Irish heritage has plagued me with the gift of gluten, dairy and egg issues that are typical of the Irish. However, “when in Florence, Italy” I chose to learn about the art of building a pizza in a class with a well-known pizza chef, Davide Rafa in The Food and Wine Academy of Florence (with permission). In doing so, I was reminded to think carefully about life and am richer (and fuller) for the experience. I caught myself wondering why I waited this long to learn the art of cooking something special in the good company of enthusiastic (and hungry) students. I realize that it is likely because food, for me, for most of my life, has been a means to an end (staying alive while busy), and keeping a growing boy from the brink of starvation every hour of every day until adulthood.

However, as a result of this short course, I thought about cooking food differently as I listened to this wonderful chef explain the love and art of the pizzeria. As he spoke, I saw the pizza metaphor for life emerging.

The Crust is Everything: It takes some skill and patience to bring this little ball of dough to life.

First, the choice of flour makes or breaks the pliability of the crust. We need to make sure that we are choosing soft flour for our crusts. If our flour is not ground soft, we need to sift it down until it is as fine as icing sugar. Then, it is necessary to hollow out a circle in the centre of the flour and fill it with the water and active yeast (that has been sitting in room temperature waiting for this moment to bring the flour to life). Slowly, you bring the flour, little-by-little into this little circle, while whisking it gently with a fork to build moist consistency and an easy texture. You cannot push the pace of this process, or it gets sticky and unmanageable.

Next, you pull the dough together and gently, and repetitively knead the dough away from you into a moist and flexible egg. You lift it gently from the bottom, and then ever so carefully knead outwards. You repeat this often. If you push down too hard, it gets gooey. If you knead it in too many directions, it gets tangled up and rips apart. If you put too much flour in it in an effort to speed up the process, it loses its pliability. You need to slowly and tenderly bring the dough to a smooth and flexible round ball. Once you have succeeded, you cover it, and wait for it to rise.

Remember to drink wine while you wait.

After that, you push down with flat fingers and start pulling the ball into a flat round base. If you push too hard, the crust will be too thin. The ingredients will then soak through, or it will burn in the fire. If you do not knead it carefully and evenly, it will start to take on an interesting shape instead of the desired circle that truly is the mathematical genius of the perfect pizza. With patience and careful kneading, flipping and pulling it outwards, the pizza crust begins its life. Its whole purpose is to support the rest of the marvellous ingredients that we choose to put on top of it.

The Choice of Toppings: This is the fun part. You get to add what you want on top of the pizza. He explained how important it was to keep the key ingredients fresh and simple. “Don’t add to much of any one thing so that all of the ingredients blend and complement each other”. This means that you do not want to have too much sauce, cheese or seasonings. The goal is to have a taste sensation that is balanced and full. I chose to use tomato puree, dry mozzarella, salami, oregano, basil and at the end, some olive oil.

The Metaphor: I suppose we could all interpret this process in multiple ways, but I chose to see the following in the pizza making experience:

-We need to consider our base. It needs to be the right size and density to support our dreams. We need to be patient with ourselves and work at being flexible. If we spread ourselves too thin, we burn in the fire. If we are not round and balanced, some of what we take on, falls off, or becomes difficult to slice.

-The spirit within us, like the yeast, needs to be alive and meaningful or it will not rise.

-We must always think carefully about what we add into our lives as “toppings” to bring us joy and fulfillment. If we put too many things into our day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year experiments with truth in an effort to experience it all at once, it takes away from the present moment of enjoying just a few tastes of life at a time.

-It is best to cook together in life with good mentors, friends and family. It is the process, not the outcome in life, that makes life worth living and this is always more enjoyable in good company.

-And always remember to drink wine. (I suppose that this is intended to be a literal translation from my pizza lesson as we all enjoyed a lot of it).

My first pizza experiment resulted in an odd shape, despite my efforts. However, it was delicious. Others around me chose other toppings, and they too, were very happy with the results. We were happy because we made time to slowly and methodically build our pizzas together. We expressed loving every step in the process. Eating it was just one part of the enjoyable process, albeit, it was the outcome for which we were all waiting.

Take care to make delicious pizzas with your life. Take time. Be patient with yourself, and do it so that you can savour life to its fullest in balance and wellness.

“Chi ha tempo, ha vita”
(He that has time has life).

**Permission to re-print elsewhere is provided to The Food and Wine Academy of Florence with reference to the author’s link Adventure Ahead by Shelley Robinson, Canada