Friday, January 20, 2012


Ciao sorella.


Saturday, January 22, 2011


tu sei alto
non ce la faccio ad arrivare fino a te
Ma se fossimo in due
chissà, forse insieme a turno attaccando il Chimborazo potremmo
infine giungere a te.
tu sei profondo
non ce la faccio ad attraversarti
Ma se fossimo in due
invece che uno
panfilo e remi
chissà, qualche estate
arriveremmo fino al sole.
tu sei velato
ti guardano
e muoiono
Senza di te
sarebbe cosa ben strana
quella felicità perfetta da Dio soprannominata

Emily Dickinson (1862)


Sunday, February 07, 2010

Primo post ufficale dal Canada

The first post of 'An Italian in Canada' will be a short visual summary of just a few things that we learned to like here in Montreal. It's winter, so one has to accept it and take the best out of it. For us, this means mostly going ice skating on the very large frozen pond at La Fontaine park, five minutes from our apartment. Here you can see a small part of the pond, right after it snowed, with people skating on the clear paths. Notice the mom skating with her child in the carrier!
Right after it snows, people go out and have fun in the parks. I think I'd love to be a child in Montreal.
Squirrels are fine with the snow as well. However, they are so much thinner than the squirrels in Berkeley!

When it's not terribly cold, we walk around the city. One of our favorite destinations is Mile End, a Jewish area with three main highlights: two bagel factories, open 24 h per day, 7 days/week, and 'Cheskie', one of the best pastry places in town. I will give more details about Cheskie in a later post, when I have some pictures to go with the explanation.

The bagel factories have huge wood ovens where they constantly bake the bagels, after boiling them in water with honey according to the Montreal recipe. It's hard to choose between the two rivals, 'St. Viateur' and 'Fairmount'. They both make amazingly good bagels and tasting them hot right out of the oven is a pleasure, especially after a long walk in the cold. Here is a comparison of their sesame bagels:
(left Fairmount's bagel, right St. Viateur's).
St. Viateur is a bit cheaper and has a smaller selection of flavors. We tend to like the St.Viateur's warm sesame bagels the best, but the Fairmount's 'bleuet' (blueberry) and 'tout garni' (all dressed) are probably our favorite. I will take a picture of these places one of these days.

Another amazing place in Montreal is 'Adonis', a Middle Eastern grocery store that we discovered thanks to a friend of ours. I've been on this planet for more than 30 years, but I had no idea about what Middle Eastern food really is, before going to this store.

For example, here are two shots of their fresh cheese counter. These are some of the harder cheese. The feta section is not pictured, it occupies about the same space on the counter.
That big braided cheese is an unbelievably dense and salty cheese, with herbs in the dough. We still have to figure out how to eat it exactly. For now we have soaked it in water to eliminate some of the salt and then used it on pizza or inside our kofta sandwiches.
These are some of the soft cheeses. The labneh, especially the half goat labneh, is really good and we started using it either with cucumber and mint or just plain during our middle-eastern dinners.

The olive selection is as diverse as the cheese counter (no pic, sorry); the Lebanese and the Sicilian olives are particularly good, and they cost ~$4/lb!

Their meat counter is also amazing. We've been buying ground and whole Quebecois lamb, much better than New-Zealandese lamb, for a very reasonable price. Not to speak about their delicious hallal chickens for ~$6 each, or their merguez, a lamb/beef sausage, spiced with cinnamon and hot spices.

Another amazing discovery for us was the variety of Middle Eastern breads: pita, the one we all know, is really just their most common bread, which they sell for almost nothing ($0.99 for 6 pitas). Then they have long sheets of ~1 cm thick bread from Afghanistan, some discs that are ~1 mm thick and ~1 m wide, soft loaves.. We're trying them all little by little.

The honey and molassas aisle is amazing as well. Did you ever have grape or fig molassas? Or honey from rose flowers? We tried the grape molassas, and I liked it quite a bit. It tastes very grapy indeed. The same is true for their juice section (apricot and pomegranate are the less extravagant. We recently got sour cherry and guava juice). And their halva section sports tubs in all sizes coming from many different countries. So far however our favorite is still the halva we bought a few months ago somewhere else in Montreal, the Jean-Talon market, which will be the subject of a separate post.

If these items still haven't convinced you about the richness of Middle Eastern food, here is what will: their baklava section.When you get to this counter, you understand why Islamic heaven is represented with streams of honey. Piles and piles of at least 20 different types of baklavas, or baklava-like sweets, are showcased attractively.
And the truth is, they are all really, really good. They are surprisingly different, some of them more buttery, some crumbly, some have filaments of sugary crunchy dough around them, some taste more like rose, others have a lemon hint, they can be filled with almonds, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts... Hard to stop pointing at them when we buy them.

So, this is really one of the things that for now make Montreal worth living in: its mulitcultural aspect and the amazing bagels, croissants, breads and donoughts that can be found at each corner. I'll talk about Portoguese and French bakeries in another post. Hopefully we can avoid eating too many of them while we wait for the winter to be over.

Let me finish this post with a comparison of two pictures of parcs close to our apartment: Parc de La Fontaine in January:
And Parc St Louis in November:
Walking through the latter park while going to work used to make me feel so happy, when the trees still had beautiful yellow, green and red leaves! I can't complain, though. I don't mind the snow, and really, it's been a mild winter. Also, I saw beautiful sceneries that I would have never imagined, such as the air filled with ice crystals, all shiny, when it's close to -20C. I can enjoy them provided my eyelashes aren't frozen shut, which sometimes happens because of the humidity freezing between them.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

Viaggio attraverso gli States

Hello dear readers--and welcome to the last official post of the 'Italian in the US'.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I moved to Canada with Matt. I have a new job in Montreal, and we've been living here for the past 3 months. To get here, we decided to take a road trip from California to Montreal.

We wanted to take it easy, and have a relaxing trip to conclude our peripatetic summer. We didn't plan much in advance and packed as light as possible, leaving most of our stuff with the movers. We took just some clothes and two bikes, so we could bike around along the way.

The plan turned out to be slightly wrong: The day of the move the movers told us they wouldn't bring any of Matt's wine and liquor collection, because they thought they would have a lot of trouble with it at the border. So we ended up driving all the way with two boxes full of buzz, without knowing what we were going to do with it once at the border. We just knew we were not going to pay the crazy duties imposed by Quebec on alcoholic beverages, corresponding to 100 to 140% of the value of the bottles.

We left sans itinerary from Berkeley on August 30th. Here is a map of what we actually ended up doing.
As you can see, we didn't follow the straightest path, which would have been I-80, because we wanted to visit Matt's mom in Idaho Falls, and drive through Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks.

Our last picture from California was from the beautiful Donner lake.
Goodbye, California! We hope to see you soon again.

We arrived in Nevada at sunset, which was quite pretty, but didn't take pictures of the landscape. We spent the night in Reno, at my dear friend Fiona's. The evening with her was really nice, and the area where she lives is quite nice too. However, when the morning after we visited downtown Reno, I was somewhat disturbed by all the casinos and the consumerist traps. We decided to enter one of them, with the main purpose of changing a huge amount of coins that Matt collected over the years. This procedure turned out to work quite well--no fees, unlike the CoinStar machines at grocery stores!

After leaving Reno, we drove all the way through Nevada, up to Idaho Falls. Matt's mom lives there and we wanted to get there in the evening. It was a long drive, especially because most of Nevada is a big desert with just bushes here and there... I liked seeing these empty spaces for a while, as it's something that can't be found in Europe, but after 4-5 hours they started to get boring. When we saw the first mountains at the horizon, Matt felt more at home.

Before getting to Matt's mom's, we stopped to take a few pictures at Twin Falls canyon.

We arrived to Idaho Falls at sunset. I really liked the sight of the sprinklers in the fields in the evening and I got a few pictures from the car.
A rural, peaceful view.

We stayed at Matt's mom's for three nights--we kept delaying our departure as we were having a really good and relaxing time. We took our bikes out of the car, and we biked around a lot, among fields of grain..
.. beautiful sunsets...
.. and of course a few visits to the town of Idaho Falls, which hosts one of the most impressive Mormon temples I've ever seen in my life.

I really enjoyed visiting the places of Matt's childhood and young-adult life. For example, we tried the formerly known 'The Blue Room' burger place (the name changed with ownership, but people still call it by the older name). This dark dive makes the best hamburgers I ever tasted in my life. In fact, before trying them, I never knew hamburgers could be actually good. After this life-changing experience I even find myself craving hamburgers, and being really frustrated because I have yet to find a competitor. What is the Blue Room's secret? In Matt's opinion, a cheap, spongy bun (which emulsifies with the fat on the tongue), warmed on the grill before stuffing it, and very greasy meat.

We also tried Reed's ice cream. Made with fresh whole milk and huckleberries, it was a delight after a long day of biking around. All these things we had to try before leaving, and the possibility of enjoying of Matt's mom's company (and of her venison) made us delay our departure of a few days.

Before leaving, I took a few pictures of her house, made from stacks of logs, each cut to match the natural shape of the one underneath. It is really beautiful and unique both outside..
..and inside.

Back on the road, I took a few more images of these beautiful fields and immense blue skies, which open the heart and make you feel a sense of awe and infinite possibility, maybe similar to what hundreds of years ago some explorers felt.
Now I know why Matt from time to time says he misses the sky, here in Montreal.

After not too long, the road started descending through Swan Valley.
It's a beautiful, lush and peaceful valley..
..crossed by a river.
It would have been nice to stop the car and go for a walk, or even better, a bike ride (there's a nice little 'around the block', 126 mile loop starting here). However, we wanted to get to the National Parks.

So, here we are getting close to Teton pass. I just couldn't get over the vastness of these landscapes.

On the top of Teton Pass:
And finally, the Grand Tetons appeared.
We entered the park, and stopped at Jenny Lake.
The water was really clear, with green accents. A jewel.
Let me just show you a picture of happy Matt.

I took a few pictures of the giants while going away. Seeing them is amazing, maybe also because they are the only really high mountains in the area, and they dominate the landscape.
A detail of a glacier.
Grand Teton National Park continues into Yellowstone National Park, which by itself contains enough attractions for three or four national parks.

At the beginning, Yellowstone Park shows beautiful mountainous scenery.
.. and large, clear lakes.

But pretty soon, you realize that in this pretty scenery something really unique is hidden: gurgling hot pools of sulphurous water!

These are inhabited by bacteria that can survive really high temperature, acidity, and sulphur concentration. These amazing creatures create vivid colors in the water, so that a landscape that could seem taken straight from a medieval representation of hell actually becomes pretty and attractive.

These are called something like 'The paint pots'.

These weird pools filled with hot and smelly water are just a few meters from this beautiful bay.
The whole bay was actually created by a volcanic eruption, and quite a lot of activity is still going on.

As we drove, we spotted a huge geiser eruption on the opposite side of the lake we were on. I managed to get a picture of the last of it.
Our next stop was at the 'Mud volcano'. The way there borders this pretty, peaceful river in a valley.
But right before getting to the volcano, you start seeing something unusal: really colorful vegetation that borders a small bubbly lake.
Pretty soon some noises and a stink of sulphur makes you understand you're there:
I have a small movie of it, so you can feel a little bit closer to it.

We walked around the area for a while, and saw quite a few more of these hot sulphur lakes.
The area will keep changing, as some of these lakes will become less active and some more, unpredictably. It's quite impressive to see and think about, in the middle of the otherwise peaceful scenery.

In front of the 'Mud volcano' was the 'Sulphur caldron'. You would think no one would want to go close to a 'sulphur caldron', right? However, look at who was there.
A bison! I never saw one in my life before Yellowstone Park.

However, just a few meters after the cauldron, we entered a plain plain full of them. An amazing show.
Here's one close up:
Sulphurous lakes, geysers, mud volcanoes, bison. Just when you think you've seen everything, Yellowstone park discloses one of its most beautiful jewels: its own Grand Canyon.
It was almost sunset when we arrived there, and the reddish color of the rocks forming the canyons was very vivid.
We kept driving through the park in the evening, and left it at the East entrance. The landscape remained beautiful even at night: We saw lakes lit by the moon reflecting into their water, and going through Bighorn National Forest, the dark shapes of tall rocks towering over us. We wanted to get to I-90 and stop at some motel along the highway; However, around 1 a.m., we suddenly found out that the road we were on stopped, almost at the end of Bighorn Forest. We weren't the only ones caught by this sudden interruption: There must have been a hidden sign quite a few miles before, which nobody saw. We really didn't want to have to go back on the winding roads so late at night, so we stayed at a motel that fortunately (mm.. was it by chance...) was just there at the road interruption.

The morning after we saw few more towering rocks, although less dense than before--we had passed most of them at night.
We drove for about an hour still on the mountains, and then finally hit I-90. For quite a while the landscape in North Wyoming remained pretty flat and uninteresting.
It got better again in Black Hills National Forest, where some pretty lakes cheered us up.
At this point, we were looking forward to seeing Mount Rushmore. This is the most famous monument in the USA, a mountain where huge heads of four presidents are sculpted. A "symbol of freedom" according to every guidebook.

However.. I'm sorry, I know I will dissapoint and maybe offend someone by saying this, but I don't think I've ever seen something more kitchy, awkward and plain ugly!
They look like caricatures. What's with the tight-lip smile on Thomas Jefferson (second from left)? I won't comment on the others' expressions. Seeing these huge things in the middle of a forest is particularly weird. And they are surrounded, obviously, by the mother of all tourist traps. That's right, they actually trap tourists (in traps made from sticky caramel), and then sell their watches and flag lapel pins as souvenirs. (Good thing we weren't wearing either.) [last two sentences added by Matt]. I'm not sure why this monument is considered so beautiful and symbolic. It just ruins the majesty of the scenary, and I wonder if the presidents would have liked their faces dominating these forests.

We drove on, and for fifty miles we saw a billboard every half a mile advertising 'Wall Drug'--we were promised we could see dinosaurs, jewels, paintings, horses, and have delicious ice cream and 5-cent coffee! It was a difficult offer to turn down after miles and miles of the desert plains of South Dakota, even for those of us who pride ourselves in being resistant to advertising.

Indeed, Wall Drug didn't disappoint, with the quality of humor evident on its welcome sign:

It's a huge mall whose fortune started when Ms. Dorothy Hustead, the wife of the store's owner, decided to give out free ice water to attract the weary travelers through the surrounding deserts. It still attracts crowds disproportionate to the surrounding population. We got an ice cream from a Polish cashier, who was in South Dakota on exchange for the summer. We wondered aloud how she ended up there and asked if she liked it. She said that even though there wasn't much to do in Wall, at least she was saving money... Her suggested flavor of ice cream, chocolate, unfortunately didn't taste like chocolate at all!

On the other hand, we liked this reproduction of Mount Rushmore just about as much as the real thing:

We did enjoy the kitchy atmosphere of the store, and the free ice water. We left for a bike ride in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, aiming for the Badlands. However, the grasslands turned out to be a huge expanse of rolling hills swept by fierce winds. After half an hour of biking up and down the hills, we decided to turn back and get a final glass of free ice water at Wall Drug before driving away.

This stop was quite pleasant, especially because for the rest of the day the landscape was rather bleak. We spent the night at a hotel at Mitchell, South Dakota, where we were given an executive suite without any increase in price.

We continued driving the next day through similar desert. Luckily, however, I realized when I was in Mitchell that we could stop in Madison, Wisconsin, to stay with a friend of mine. Madison is known as the 'Berkeley of the midwest'. We arrived too late to discover much of it, but we saw a huge crowd of young kids leaving a football game, and visited some of the downtown at night with my friend.

We left her in the morning, and drove through Illinois and Chicago. We decided it wasn't worth stopping there, since both of us had seen this city already. However, here is a shot of the skyscrapers.

We stopped for a bike ride at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, an interesting park with tall sand dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan, crowded with families having a good time.

The day's highligh, however, was a stop in the small town of South Bend, Indiana. The part we drove through was full of Mexican businesses. We entered a restaurant and had the best restaurant food of the trip: authentic beef soup, tacos, refried beans.

Nothing too interesting happened for the rest of the drive. We saw Cleveland by night, which seemed like a nice city, and found a hotel quite late at night right after that.

The day after was really only driving, with almost no stops. We switched from I-90 to I-86 in order to avoid some tolls, and later followed I-88 and I-87. We stayed for the night in upstate New York, approximately 50 miles before the border with Canada.

In the morning, we decided to take it easy and drive on the smaller highway 9 instead of I-87 for a while. The Giant Mountain Park we went through was really beautiful, with quaint little towns, and roads surrounded by green and lakes.

Once in Plattsburgh, our travel through the USA was almost over. There was one more thing we needed to do before leaving the country: find a place to store our collection of alcohol! Matt had found some storage places in Champlain, a few miles from the border. We entered one of them, and rented a mail box so we could keep a US address. With the mail box, we got free storage for all of our wine and liquor: The border mail owner didn't seem surprised at all by our request--we probably weren't the first ones asking for it... We took with us four bottles, which we knew we were allowed to carry without paying duties, and hoped we would be able to get back to the border and bring the rest to Montreal a little at a time.

We crossed the border in the early afternoon and went through immigration and customs rather easily. What a relief compared to having to get a visa to enter the USA! No lines or appointment at the Embassy. Everything was done quite efficiently at the border.

We drove almost all the way to Montreal, but hit rush hour traffic going into the city; so we decided to stop at an Asian mall that Matt spotted, and had a delicious Korean dinner. We also realized right away that thanks to this huge Asian grocery store we wouldn't be missing our share of Chinese greens, one of our favorite foods back in the Bay Area. This discovery made us quite happy--it almost felt like a small welcome from Canada.

I will describe this mall in more details in a future post, because for now.. this is the end of the story! We entered Montreal with a beautiful sunset, ten days after we left California.
We found our hotel rather easily, and fell asleep in what was going to be 'our' city for a while.

I really enjoyed this trip. Even though driving through some parts of the US wasn't exciting, especially without a radio in the car, it was an optimal way for me to experience the extent and diversity of the country that hosted me for more than four years. Visiting friends on the way was wonderful, enough by itself to justify the trip. Bringing our bikes with us and going around every once in a while was a wonderful idea that allowed us to stretch our legs and do some exercise almost every day. It was also a good experience for me and Matt: we were in the same cramped space all day for 10 days, and we managed to arrive on (better than!) speaking terms.

Act I: An Italian in the US: Exuent stage north.
Act II: An Italian in Canada: [manuscript in progress]