Friday, October 31, 2008

Sweating, Italian-style

When it comes to exercise, Italians don’t like to suffer too much. You’ll never see an Italian walking around town with sweaty clothes, matted hair or even a complete exercising ensemble (White sneakers are all the rage, but to be worn with ironed jeans). How they can look so good (for the most part) with such little exercise is one of the mysteries of this oftentimes contradiction-rich culture. Could be the diet or the balanced lifestyle or maybe it just boils down to good genes.

Although my skin is olive-toned (I’m 50% Italian), when it comes to exercise I am, without a doubt, 100% American. After about two weeks in Pisa, my living room routine of sloppy yoga poses, stretching and a few sit-ups was no longer doing the trick. I needed help. I needed a gym! I craved yoga, endorphins and sweat! Back in Charlottesville, I practice Bikram at Bikram Yoga Charlottesville : 90 minutes in a 110 degree room working on every muscle, tendon and ligament in my entire body. Bikram both exhausting and exhilarating, both relaxing and empowering. For me and apparently so many others, it really does the trick.

Needless to say, Bikram is not big in Italy. In fact, when I explained it to a group of students at a Hatha Yoga class I tried here in Pisa, they were completely horrified. All of that sweating can’t be healthy, they said. How can you stand it, and why would you? (Granted, a lot of my Virginia friends say the same thing until they try it for themselves). Even Laura, the yoga instructor, hadn’t heard of Bikram (didn’t the Romans invent the sudarium?), nor did she know of anywhere I could practice the more athletic-styles of yoga like Ashtanga or Vinyasa.

As I discovered during several free trial classes, Italian Yoga tends to involve 60 or 90 minutes of lying on your back practicing breathing. Maybe a child’s pose or two, but never a triangle, proud warrior or even a downward dog. Surrounded by sock-wearing Italians who’d never practiced yoga before and who had no intentions of doing anything but relaxing, I, a rather inflexible and relatively novice yoga practitioner suddenly became the most advanced yogini in all of Pisa, if not Tuscany. Incredibile!

Although a bit of meditative breathing could do me no harm, I finally decided to enroll in a Pilates mat class taught by a fantastic and very demanding Italian, André Sousa, at the Centro Nagual. Pilates is something I’d always been meaning to try in Charlottesville, but it took a sabbatical in Pisa (and the lack of much anything else resembling exercise here) to get me started. In addition to (Hatha) yoga and Pilates, Nagual also offers Tango, contact improvisation, juggling, African drums and belly dancing in its bright and warm studio near tree-rimmed Piazza Caterina. As the temperatures start to drop here and I spend more and more time at my desk, I am thankful for these opportunities to breathe out loud, stretch my muscles and have some fun. But I’m also glad that, when all else fails, I can put on my running shoes and jog along the Arno river, sweating, happy and alone in my Lycra.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Come to Italy. Improve your Spanish!

It might sound odd, but my Spanish has really improved since I arrived in Pisa two months ago. For 15 years, I have been hopelessly in love with the Spanish language and I’ve been happily chasing a long-term dream of fluency in both castellano and Latin American Spanish. But back home I am usually too busy running my language center (and teaching Italian) to actually take advantage of our fantastic classes. So when I got to Pisa and realized I finally had time to indulge in my linguistic fancies, one of the first things I did was search for language centers in Pisa. I was thrilled when I quickly discovered the site for the Istituto Linguistico Mediterranneo – a small, 27 year-old language center offering courses in Italian for foreigners as well as a variety of other tongues, from Arabic to Russian. A few minutes after writing an exploratory e-mail, I received a phone call from a very cheerful Eduardo and the next day we met in person. Eduardo, half Argentine and half Italian, and his Italian wife Rossana (both pictured above) own and run the school together, with joy and efficiency. One or both of them greet me with a smile each Monday and Wednesday afternoon, when I come for my hour-long individual lesson with my lovely Valencian teacher, Maria Gomez. For 60 intense minutes, Maria and I review and practice pronunciation (Spanish style) and grammar, build vocabulary (today we talked about clothing and fashion) and she always gives me a topic to discuss at the end – multiculturalism in the U.S., my favorite vacation and, lately, American politics. When I told her I was planning a trip to Cordoba, she devoted an entire segment of our lesson to the region and cuisine of Andalucia. The group classes are conceived in a similar way – eclectic, personal, conversational and ultimately, I’ve found, both effective and enjoyable. Now that the entire educational system of Italy is suffering scrutiny, huge budget cuts and constant strikes on the part of students and professors, it’s nice to know that at least one school in Pisa will not be touched or negatively affected.

Tranquil, culturally-vibrant and full of conveniences (no need to carve out time for errands with everything you need just outside the door) Pisa is the perfect place to indulge in personal enrichment of every kind - but especially linguistic. Note: ILM is located one block from the Pisa Centrale train station and is a pleasant 15 minute walk from Market Tower. If you take Italian lessons in the morning, you could even hop on a train for an afternoon trip to Florence or Lucca. Or do like I do and just head home for lunch!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Focaccia, Fish, Pesto and a Playful Port

Genova is one of my favorite day trips from Pisa, and I highly recommend it to everyone from foodies to families to art and architecture lovers. A two hour (ICplus) train ride from Pisa Centrale snakes up the Tuscan, then Ligurian coast and offers gorgeous glimpses of seaside villages and craggy inlets in between the many dark tunnels. A port city, Genova feels much more exotic than Tuscany with its many spice and confection shops, ethnic groceries and restaurants. As a region, Liguria is blessed with a microclimate that provides year-long temperate weather and flourishing flora like orange, lemon and palm trees, flowering plants like bougainvilla and a special type of basil that makes Genova famous the world over for its pesto.
Called a “vertical city” because of the way buildings rise up from the port and cling to the surrounding hills and to each other like a tower of cards. (Keep your eyes peeled and you might spot a genovese entering his house through the roof, instead of the door.) I love simply moving through the varied spaces of Genova: the narrow caruggi (lanes) of the medieval quarter (the biggest in Europe), the sweeping piazzas such as Piazza De’ Ferrari with its exploding fountain (and a fantastic focaccia bakery across the street at Via XXV Aprile 22r), the baroque churches that appear out of nowhere and the generous embrace of the recently renovated (by genovese architect Renzo Piano) port. Art lovers will enjoy the Palazzo Rosso and Bianco museums along the Via Garibaldi as well as the small gem dedicated to the surreal, theatrical work of illustrator and set designer Emanuele Luzzati (link).
Genova is heaven for children, especially those under 10, and offers a handful of big spaces and sure-fire attractions that many Tuscan towns do not. Not only does the port sport the biggest aquarium in Europe, but it’s also home to a new children’s museum, La Città dei Bambini, which has exhibits for children ages 1-12.
If you take the 9:02 train from Pisa and arrive at Piazza Principe at around 11, here’s a game plan that works well with the impending lunch hour: Pick up a map at the train station’s info spot, then stroll for a while, taking Via Balbi to Vias Garibaldi and XXV Aprile (peek at Piazza S. Matteo and around the narrow shop-dotted streets for a while) to Piazza De’ Ferrari, then see the Duomo and Christopher Columbus’s house before stopping for lunch at Sa’ Pesta trattoria on Via dei Giustiniani (2 blocks south of Via San Lorenzo). In this charming, popular trattoria (tiled walls, wooden tables and stools) you can taste Genovese specialties like trofie al pesto, farinate (chick-pea pies cooked in a wood oven), stuffed anchovies and a variety of seafood dishes like moscardini affogati (baby octopus stewed in a tomato sauce) and an exquisite octopus and potato salad (insalata di polpo). After lunch, you’ll have a good 4 hours to explore the port and its bigger attractions like the aquarium, children’s or Luzzati museum, before strolling slowly back through the medieval quarter, perhaps stopping for an aperitivo in Piazza Matteotti before heading, tired but exhilarated, back home.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Back to the Origin : Biscotto di Prato

If you order a ‘biscotto’ at any café in the United States, the barista will likely offer the following incorrect correction: “You mean a biscotti?” Just like the ubiquitous panini, this particular noun has lost its singular-plural distinction in the conversion from Italian to international food lingo. As my students learn in the first or second lesson, Italian nouns are either singular or plural, masculine or feminine. Instead of adding an ‘s’ as we do in English and Spanish, Italian noun plurals are formed by changing the final vowel in the appropriate way (based on the gender and spelling of the singular noun). A singular, masculine noun ending in ‘o’ like biscotto becomes plural by changing that ‘o’ to an ‘i’: biscotti. The same goes for un panino (due panini), un cappuccino (due cappuccini) and so on. (Most feminine nouns end in ‘a’ in the singular and form the plural with the final vowel change to ‘e’: una banana – due banane; una linguina – due linguine - una pasta – due paste).

So how do we respect Italian grammar and make our barista happy at the same time? Well, if you’re not in the mood for explanations, the best way to avoid a linguistic faux pas is to either get in the habit of ordering multiples - “Four biscotti, please!” – or to phrase it like this: “I’ll have one of your almond biscotti, please!”

Now that I’ve gotten this grammatical pet peeve off my chest, it’s time to turn to the biscotto itself. The second question I might be asked at my local Starbucks equivalent would likely involve a selection on my part: “Which flavor biscotti would you like?” the barista might ask, pointing to a bowl of biscuits, each about as long as a banana and an inch or so thick, “Chocolate, cinnamon or vanilla dunked in milk chocolate?” Such a question would be senseless in Italy, for a few reasons.

First of all, biscotto (plural: biscotti), simply translates as ‘cookie’, just like latte means, simply, 'milk'. (For the coffee drink, ask for un caffelatte.) So if you request a biscotto or two at a pasticceria in, say, Pisa, they would look at you questioningly and point to the display case full of cookies. Quali biscotti, signora?? Which cookies, ma'am? Secondly, the baked confection that has become synonymous with the word 'biscotto' in the States is actually a mutated version of a very specific cookie from Tuscany: the biscotto di Prato, also called the cantuccio (lit. "little corner") di Prato. Why Prato? Because it was in this lovely and lively city located only only 17 kilometers from Florence, that a baker named Antonio Mattei (nicknamed “Mattonella”) perfected the recipe for his family’s traditional Tuscan almond cookies - 150 years ago this year. The cookies are still sold in Mattei’s original bakery at 22 Via Ricasoli (Prato’s elegant shopping street), which boasts original wood and marble counters, many framed awards from the 19th century and the original painted wooded sign on the exterior.

Prato also happens to be the Sister City to Charlottesville, Virginia – my adopted home town and the home of my language and culture center, Ecco Italy. Prato’s province is home to Poggio a Caiano, native town of Filippo Mazzei – Thomas Jefferson’s long-time friend and a revolutionary in his own right. Though I respect Mazzei and the many cultural offerings of Prato and Poggio (the Medici Villa, the excellent Pecci Contemporary Art Center, a Textile Museum, Carmignano wine) I must admit my true epiphany came in the form of a blue paper sack filled with a kilo of Mattei’s finger-sized biscotti di Prato. The Platonic Ideal of the Biscotto! The Original Biscotto!
Here’s the list of ingredients printed on the side of the blue sack: farina di grano tenero (tender wheat pastry flour), mandorle (almonds), zucchero (sugar), uova (eggs), pinoli (pinenuts). That’s it! Firm and crunchy (thanks to the toasting and the huge chunks of almond), but also slightly chewy and moist (thanks to the eggs), these pinky-sized biscuits are toasted brown on the outside and golden on the inside with a strong almond flavor and a hint of pine nut. Perfection....especially, most Tuscans would say, when dunked into a glass of sweet Vinsanto wine. But I prefer to savor them solo - to indulge in the original biscotto di Prato, after so many years of bland, bloated “biscotti.”

One is definitely not enough – un chilo di biscotti, per favore!