Thursday, August 26, 2010

Writings - Final Drafts

I had to submit a writing portfolio for some of my grad school applications, so I edited and added to some of my Italian compositions. Below is the text. We're about to move to Oxford, UK for a year, so keep your eyes peeled for another blog . . . though this whole Master's Degree thing might take up a bit of time.

Orvieto, Italy
La Passeggiata

Don't be fooled by their futuristic footwear; the Orvietani are an old-fashioned folk. Don't assume that the expediency with which they shoot their espresso is any indication of a rushed existence. Life to them is, in fact, steeped in an intentional, historical slowness. It is to be savored. Orvieto’s citizens observe set times of day reserved for sitting, eating, sleeping, ambling, and eating again. This phenomenon remains impervious to the generation gap and largely aloof to the inevitable pressures of a tourist economy.

I find myself now in the midst of one such convention. I intended to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail at the sleepy bar I walked by during my morning shopping. Instead, my prosecco and I are surrounded. It's seven o'clock and, rather than slouching in front of Wheel of Fortune, the townspeople have emerged en masse to admire one another. There is a seamless interaction between young and old, learner and learnéd. Each has a part to play in this pageant down Corso Cavour and each performs that part with skill and grace.

By now I've risen to join the performance. From this more vertical vantage point, I can satisfy my curiosity about the contents of the countless baby carriages rattling past me. A particularly extravagant carriage catches my eye and the bambina inside is no less stunning.

She won't pick out her own clothes for a few years yet, but she's Gucci from bonnet to booties. Skinny jeans squeeze her well-rounded legs. She won't walk until August, so for now she strolls with us aboard a private coach. It's fully loaded, having more cup holders than there will ever be sippy cups. She doesn't suggest Cafe Cavour for tonight's aperitivo, yet there she's parked. She is tucked among the patio furniture and the discourse.

Her role tonight is that of a student of leisure. She notes every ensemble; she hears every "Sera!"; she giggles at every terrier and pug on parade. Her hands flap to mirror her father's animation. All the details combine to form a bedtime preamble that is also her induction into the culture of her future.

She rejoins the throng when the crodini have been drained. Excited for another round of moseying, she shares her newly mastered wave/"Ciao" combination with an elderly woman poking her head out of a window above. She gets the desired response from the nosey nonna and lays back into her cushions. Already, she's becoming an active member of this community of inveterate meanderers.
Eventually, the rumble of the cobblestones weighs on her eyes. The crowds are thinning and she is drifting. Tonight she will sleep for the final leg of her passeggiata.

The nonna in the window disappears from view. Not a moment later, she has joined us by way of massive double doors, which her husband closes by yanking with all his scant weight on one of the golden lion-head knockers. I can tell they have timed their emergence to coordinate with the latter portion of the parade, when they can negotiate the cobblestones unrushed.

For now, her husband accompanies her up the corso. They have a shared tempo, an understanding established years before. At the first piazza, he nods to her and peels off to join his bench posse for their nightly quarrel. She, however, will navigate the full circuit, only stopping for a chat or a necessity. She models a woolen skirt, nylons and practical heels—always heels. She's laden with bags, some in the crook of her arm, some under her eyes and where a jaw line used to be. She's regal in her wrinkles, somehow . . . or maybe she just looks a bit like Queen Elizabeth. The enormous onyx ring on her pinky betrays an enduring vanity—the result of dressing for decades in a couture country.

She's out now in search of a bit of gossip as much as a head of lettuce. The grocer up the road is happy to oblige on both counts. She parts from him having added a bundle of greens and some juicy details to her baggage.

Back on the move, I catch her faintly nodding in approval at the families passing by. This ritual seems to rejuvenate her. She's pleased to see the congregation of her neighbors, her family. Now she has found the energy to finish preparing dinner for her own portion of this flock, who should be assembling by her doors any minute.

She must make her way back to collect her husband and to stir the stewing cinghiale. She wends her way through the street towards home surrounded by Orvietani—her rhythmic limp is the pulse of this town.


Caught somewhere in the purgatory between youth and wisdom, one Orvietano generation takes its place behind the gelato cases and bar counters. They are an intriguing collection of beautifully polished faces and as-yet unpolished ambitions. They are the dreamers of this town-set-in-stone whose discontent flashes on their faces only when they think no one is looking.

My spritz server tonight lives in this limbo. He embodies Italian trendiness with his narrow jeans, metallic sneakers and hawked hair. He seems too young to be so adept with a tray full of prosecco flutes, but he whirls them past me with ease. His confident, practiced strut takes him smoothly between tables. He flashes his shining smile to any willing swooner. He is attentive to his customers and to potential customers streaming down the corso.

It is in these flickers of connection with those beyond the umbrellas of Caffe Cavour that I sense his regret. He blends with the crowd whenever he can, finding quick escapes from the inevitable refill request. Pride in full glasses and crisp crostini for his patrons can't fully satisfy him tonight. Could a stroller filled with his own heir and pushed by his own inamorata be the answer? Perhaps an affair with one of the new American girls in town who will sweep him off to a new life? Or maybe this young man wants a fast-forward button to bring him closer to a time when he has nothing more to worry about than finding an empty bench on which he can rest. Yes, he covets his neighbor's spot in the corso parade and the tourist's transient time in his small town. Yet, in and instant, his tray is full again and his smile is vibrant. He'll find another moment to dream before the night is over. For now, his must do his part to fuel our passeggiata.


Excerpts from A (Roasted) Guide to Orvieto

Best Host:
There is a tiny piazza in Orvieto that is home to a new eatery run by the town’s friendliest twenty-something chef and his cartoonish mother. Carlo and la-mama-di-Carlo are the proud proprietors of Da Carlo, a quaint ristorante down an alley just past the clock tower. You mustn’t miss a chance to experience this comedic duo and their inventive take on traditional cuisine. My favorite of Carlo's creations is the "Scrambled Tiramisu." In this deconstruction of the Italian classic, you'll dip homemade lady fingers into a cocoa-topped ramekin of the remaining Tiramisu elements, which are whipped together to create a smooth cream. The precise ingredients and transformative process are Carlo and his mama's secret.

Since Carlo is chef, waiter, and entertainer, your meal will proceed at his pace. So, be aware that he fully embraces the Slow Food Movement (or at least the slow movement of food). During a meal, Carlo has been known to spend half hour stints next to your table showing off his new cuckoo clock or begging for your hand in marriage. If you indulge Carlo’s bantering, he might suggest a toast with complimentary shots of limoncello to complete your three-hour meal: “To da United Stets offff America!”

Perpetually puttering at a safe distance, Mama Carlo is equally entertaining (though unintentionally so). While Carlo’s English is quite good, she will have none of that nonsense, always jabbering away in Italian despite your confused looks. During these rants, she will often berate Carlo for some wrongdoing or another. He will inevitably roll his eyes, call her crazy, and shuffle her off to the kitchen. So, if you find a study of Italian family dynamics entertaining and fresh ingredients delightful, don’t miss this show . . . and try his homemade gnocchi while you’re there—it’s the best in town.

Best Wine Bar:
You haven’t lived until you’ve had a plate of cheese and preserves at Orvieto’s Il Vin Cafe. The assortment is especially satisfying when paired with a cold bottle of dry prosecco. Easily the best wine bar in town, Vin Cafe also offers a nice change of pace in its food selections. You will be grateful for some lighter fare after a few days stuffed with umbrichelli and porchetta. Also, once you realize that the Italian bread we love in The States is nothing like the Styrofoam table bread real Italians use to soak up their sauces, you'll be happy to note: Vin actually serves bread in a natural, flavorful, wheat-brown hue rather than the bleached shades so prevalent around town.

Though your hosts will appear more like escaped Manhattan bistro owners than native Orvietani, they are quite friendly and certainly accommodating. The young chef in the back makes a fabulously fresh baby spinach salad tossed in a crisp lemon vinaigrette and will be happy to recommend the best local wine to enhance your culinary experience.

I recommend sitting at the table by the front window to achieve the ideal ambiance. Vin is positioned at the mouth of the Medieval Quarter, where you're able to observe the Orvietani making their way from the flower stand in Piazza della Republica to evening Mass held at the thousand-year-old San Giovenale Church. You'll find yourself lingering until Vin's uncharacteristically late one-thirty AM closing time, happy to spend four hours and two bottles of Orvieto Classico watching the neighbor's cat stalk an invisible mouse and helping the bartender practice his English.


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