Saturday, December 08, 2007

This may launch me over the cuckoo's nest

It's not that I haven't had anything to say recently. When you're in your eighth month of pregnancy in a foreign country, your gripes and musings really stack up.

There's the obvious gripes of not being able to get the foods I crave: Jif peanut butter, Mexican food, soft cookies. But a wonderful woman at the US Embassy gave me two jars of Jif a few weeks ago; I can appease any food craving with a little peanut butter. Plus, the last time I wrote I had a serious aversion to all foods Italian, so really...things on the eating front are looking up.

And then there's the embarrassment and frustration at the doctors' the time I went to the OBGYN with Jack and S (female friend and translator) and I was told to get in the stirrups in full view of Jack and S with no towel, blanket, or gown for my modesty. At which point the doctor felt my insides and declared me "morbido, morbido" (soft, soft) in a manner that said the recipient of this news should be filled with pride...and yet somehow I wasn't.
Or when I went to the public hospital to make an appointment for my five-month-ultrasound and was told that there was a six-month-waiting list for that ultrasound. (!?!)
Or the time I went for a urine test and learned that some hospitals are BYOB: Buy Your Own Bicchiere (from the vending machine in the lobby).
Or the other day when I had my third ultrasound and was told by my doctor (using the first English phrase she's every muttered to me) that my baby is "just a little bit fat."
Or the time that we took Nora to the doctor (again) because her eczema was acting up (again), and we wanted to see about getting an allergy test. And the dermatologist looked at Nora and (two minutes after meeting my child) told Jack that "this child worries too much. She's too serious. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. And maybe her parents fight in front of her too much. She doesn't need an allergy test; she needs to go outside and play." Among the trees and grass and pollen that I suspect she might be allergic to. I relay this story to you two months post-visit. Nora's arms remained covered with bumps and a rash until we refilled the prescription from a doctor we'd seen at a different hospital.

There's the anxiety of having a baby in general. Looking for and buying supplies, deciding on names, etc. We still don't know if the baby is a boy or a girl. We had the doctor write down the sex, cut out the incriminating photos, and send it to my parents. So they know. As do any inquiring minds who emailed my father. But we're still in the dark. (Our money's on it being a boy, and we have no idea what we would call it. If it's a girl, Sofia is the front runner.)

Work has changed dramatically for me; we're living in a much larger apartment than the last time I wrote; and Nora's school gave the parents a calendar at the beginning of this school year. Life is good.

But none of those things have inspired me to write. Right now the thing I think about most is not the Christmas season or the work that I've let pile up or the shopping I need to do or the human I'm growing. No...the tiny creature that's consuming my thoughts lately is much, much smaller than my four-pound kicker.

We've got ants.

At first there were just a few. They showed up in our bathroom every once in a while. They weren't drinking the water or going after the toothpaste. Just strolling across the floor. It was a little disconcerting. These were not the orderly, purposeful, single-file American ants I was used to. But I laughed at them and called them Italian ants. Just making a passeggiata across my bathroom. How very Italian of them.

Since then they've started to blitzkrieg. Random, separated by a week or more, attacks. Go to bed; everything's fine. Wake up, and the cabinets in the kitchen are covered. Bleach. Buy ant baits. Go on with your life. Go into the restroom and discover that they're attacking the cough syrup. And the lice medicine (i.e., poison) we bought last year. They were swarming the poison.

And that's just it. It's not so much the ants that are making me crazy; it's that I don't understand what kind of ants I'm dealing with. These ants eat poison. These ants scurry and hide when I come after them. It's almost impossible to get them all because ten will be clinging to the backside of the Mentadent. Since when do ants hide? Since when do they do anything but walk in a line, get the food, turn around, deliver the food. They're not supposed to think, hide, plot, attack. But that's what these ants are doing.

So what can I do? I clean. Not at all my favorite past time, but lately Jack has been making jokes about my OCD behavior. ME! Instead of starving the ants or discouraging them from living in my home, it makes them walk farther for things like cough syrup or dirty clothes in the hamper in my bedroom! They walk over and around the ant baits, but apparently are not interested in going inside. I tried buying poison from the hardware store, but the man wouldn't sell it to me because I'm pregnant. And Jack seems to think he's right!

Does anyone have experience with these ants that defy everything you ever thought you understood about ants? Can they be stopped in a way that won't give me a two-headed baby?

Help. Please.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


One of things we appreciate most about Italy is the food. Duh!

It all starts with simple, high-quality ingredients that vary by region, giving each region its own identity and version of"Italian Food." The food from Puglia or Calabria, down in the South are vastly different from the heartland in Emilia-Romagna or the northern region of Lombardi.

Below is the market in San Cosimato, Trastevere, Rome, where we get our ingredients. We get fruits and vegetables from Bruno (below).

All sorts of meat from this family of butchers (even though they're Lazio fans).

The seafood stall has all sorts of beautiful and strange creatures. Here are the Vongole: littleneck clams.

Of course, some people are too feeble to walk to the market everyday. So the market comes to them. Sometimes with a pulley.

Wine from Biaggio and Rosa. Below is Nora buying wine all by herself. She has no idea I followed her.

This is the fig tree outside of our window. We couldn't eat them fast enough in the summer. So good...

Sometimes we bring ingredients back with us when we travel. This is taken on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where the peppers are left to dry in the breeze.

So, when we get all the ingredients together, we've learned to prepare them in classic ways.

Mussels are cooked simply steamed in a large pot with a few inches of water in the bottom. After they open, they are drizzled with dry white wine, parsley, and red pepper flakes. Sometimes we throw in diced, cooked tomatoes. We always soak up the broth with a fresh loaf of bread. Sometimes I throw in some anise liquor to spark it up--a real treat. A little cilantro instead of parsley at the very end adds a nice flavor too.

Below is the fish from Cetara, on the Aegean seaside village in Campania's Amalfi Coast. The focus is on simple seafood.

Below is the pride of the Cetarese fishing fleet: anchovies. Here they are whole and very slightly breaded and pan-fried. They're about the size of Nora's biggest finger and have none of the same nasty flavor as the super-salty anchovies thrown on pizza al over the world. These are light, crisp, and addictive. See Nora below, becoming addicted.

Below is a whole sea bass, a langostino, and something that translates as "flying squid fish," or cuttlefish--all grilled, with a slight citrus bend.

More fish in Cetara, this time it's tuna and swordfish (tonno e pesce spada), smoked and sliced paper thin. It's like carpaccio, but with a distinct smoky flavor. Nora loved this and still craves it. Unfortunately, Cetara is the only place I know that makes this dish. Also on the dish: marinated anchovy and octopus.

This was so unique and interesting, I had to order it: gnocchi with a sauce of broccoli and squid ink on the island of Procida.

On the other sea, the Adriatic, the food is similar, but the preparation is very different. Here's Portonovo in the region Le Marche. Nora thoroughly enjoyed the complex flavor of the seafood risotto with a prawn.

My primo piatto: Tagliatelle with Vongole (clams)--excellent.

We learn how and why things are prepared as they are, then experiment with modern twists.

Amatriciana comes from the town close to Rome named Amatrice, and is basically a sauce of Pancetta (or Guanciale--cured pork jowls), garlic or onion, and tomatoes served over pasta--spaghetti, bomboletti, or bucatini. It is far and away Brandy's favorite. It's her barometer--she uses it to judge a restaurant.

Cooking at home (below) I sometimes add a diced, dried hot chili pepper. Or I caramelize some tomato paste on the side of the pan while cooking the rest and add some white wine.

Everyone asks us if we eat tons of gelato. Well, I'm with a pregnant woman and a young daughter, so the answer is...of course! I'd be a dead man otherwise. Nora's favorites are straciatella (chocolate chip) and nutella. Brandy's favorites change every week, but some she likes are pear/cinnamon, chocolate/banana, and semifreddo (like a mousse). Mine are spicy chocolate, orange chocolate, and chocolate mint. Below is Nora ordering away.

Sometimes we need a little taste from home. Here is Nora showing off her enchiladas. Of course, we have to make some changes. I normally wouldn't put basil on top of chipotle enchiladas.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Cetara on the Amalfi Coast


We soaked up the last of the sunny days this year in the village of Cetara on the Amalfi Coast down in Campania. It's between Salerno and Amalfi and is one of the very authentic villages on this popular coastline, still depending heavily on its tiny fishing fleet.

Cetara hasn't really been discovered yet. I couldn't find much mention of it in any guidebooks--which is a big plus. But my favorite food writer, Carla Capalbo, stayed here for several months while writing her most recent book "The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania."

There are 2 beaches in Cetara. The first is at the end of the main road in town and small--about the length of a football field. Here's Nora talking to the fisherman who were using this sunny day to paint their boats.

The other is on the other side of the marina. This is where Nora and I swam with about a dozen others. The water was cool but not unbearable. Much like Barton Springs (about 68 F, 20 C). But it was too cold for the baby-maker. Sadly, Brandy only watched from the beach.

The town is known for its anchovies (alici). Don't even think of the super-salty blech! kind from that nasty pizza you had years ago. These are marinated, delicate, and flavorful. They're so far removed from that taste you are recalling right now. Here is Nora shoveling them down.

We played in the tidal pools and thought about catching some sea urchins. The water was more clear and green than the photo shows.

Here's the beautiful siren herself.

And another that looks like a painting to me.

One of the bet restaurants in town is Acqua Pazza. It's right in front of the main beach. The other 2 incredible restaurants are within an amalfi-lemon's throw: il Convento and San Pietro. I don't think I'm going to comment on this photo in front of Acqua Pazza.

The next time we go to Amalfi, we'll go to Cetara again, as well as the next town down the way: Erchie. Here's the bird's eye view.

To see more photos, visit my picasa photo page.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Morocco, Africa

Morocco: Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Rabat

Here are some pictures from our quick 5 day trip to Morocco. The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca (Dar El-Baida). The minaret is the highest in the world (210 meters, almost 700 feet) and the Mosque is one of few in the world to be open to non-Muslims.

Welcome to Marrakesh. Jack and Nora arriving at the train station after a grueling train ride through shifting desert sands. Not really--the comfortable Belgian-made train was a quick and pleasant 3 hours from Casablanca.

Marrakesh has a number of nice homes converted into very small hotels called Riads. They are usually 4 or so rooms surrounding a cool garden courtyard in the old part of town (the Medina) and are great places to get away from the craziness of the narrow alleys of the Medina. This one has doors that suit Nora's size well.

The zellij tile work of Moroccan architecture.

This is one of those things that really stands out in your imagination: the huge plaza in the heart of the Medina--the Djemaa el-Fna--a place that really defies description. Where else can you find the snake charmers...

Colorfully-dressed guys selling water...

Or serious religious men wearing Crocs?

Some views of Djemaa el-Fna once the stalls open with food cooking away.

Here we are riding camels.

Carpet buying in the Creii Berber--the Berber carpet Souk. After about 45 minutes of looking and negotiating and trying to figure out what makes each carpet unique among the piles of them, you break for some mint tea with the shop owner and come up with your final price.

The Place Rahba Qedima, where you can buy ingredients for all kinds of potions--chameleons for luck in your love life, live scorpions for some potion, and caged hawks, live turtles, squirrels and gazelle heads for some other reason. I'm a bit sketchy on the details. It was overall a very sketchy little back-alley market.

The Spice Souk--full of vivid colors and smells. The spices are earthy and no longer arrive after a 52 day camel caravan from Timbuktu.

More cool Islamic architecture in Marrakesh.

Nora really loved the camel ride. She got the friendly one. He seemed to pose for my camera. I was on the mean camel who eventually bit Brandy's butt.

We took a horse carriage back to the Riad one night. It wasn't the ridiculously expensive ride like you find in Rome. To tell the truth, it was the first time Nora, Brandy, or I ever rode on a horse-drawn carriage. Our driver was much nicer than this photo would have you believe.

We headed to Rabat for the last day of our trip and were pleasantly surprised by its large and open streets. And the endless ocean was a welcome site, the opposite of the labyrinthian Medinas.

I apologize to the entire Arab world. It's surprising that we Americans have such a bad public image.