Monday, April 28, 2014

Breakfast with a view at Villa Carlotta in Taormina

Last week while everyone slept in at home, R and I hopped on the big motorcycle and swerved down the hilltop road towards Hotel Villa Carlotta to have breakfast a deux. Have you noticed a pattern? We like to escape by ourselves every so often.

Once we parked outside we went up to the rooftop terrace and settled ourselves in with a breathtaking view. Lady Etna puffing away to the right, with a view down to Siracusa at the southern tip of Sicily. And to the left and directly in front of us, Calabria across the Straits of Messina.

The hotel used to be owned by locals, then was bought by some Swiss, and recently it came back under Sicilian ownership. They combined some of the rooms to make more expansive suites, and it's now truly a boutique hotel with just 23 total.

I'm not sure how or when R had the idea to go there for breakfast, especially since Italians aren't big on that meal (come to think of it, neither am I, unless we're talking about a brunch situation), but I'm so glad he suggested it. We started off with cups and cups of coffee, and then since I hadn't had an egg since Stockholm, I asked for two poached eggs and then filled my plate with some of the hyper-local (as in, from the surrounding areas of Sicily, not the whole island) goodies laid out. First, some braised artichokes, sliced tomatoes, soft sheep's cheese and hard saffron cheese, and a few hefts of salami. For the next round, some thick yogurt, nespole (a.k.a., loquat— something I had never had before), and an indulgent slice of a pistachio hazelnut torte.

While the hotel mostly has American, Canadian and British tourists, I really like that they don't offer an American-style continental breakfast, but rather an American format with Sicilian fare.

After breakfast we toured the grounds, headily perfumed by the zagara (orange blossoms), lemon trees, jasmine, and gardenia everywhere. I wish I could have bottled it up to dab behind my ears every morning.

After sitting in the garden and fantasizing I was at my own house for a bit, we got back on the bike and headed home.

One year ago: Fratelli d'Italia

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Postcard from Tropea

After a few days in Sicily enveloped in R's family and among his friends, we vroomed off for a few days alone in Calabria. A colleague-turned-friend in NYC had invited us to stay in one of his family's guest apartments in Tropea, and although we had both been there before, the thought of a different beach, different cliffs, and the promise of very, very spicy foods sent us over the Straits of Messina on a ferry to the Italian mainland.

A little under three hours after leaving Sicily behind, we pulled up to a courtyard where our friend's sister met us. She ushered us in and to a little table under an arbor speckled with jasmine and orange blossoms where we had a caffè and a chat before she took us down to the lungomare (boardwalk) and then back up through the clifftop centro storico (old town) for a tour to re-familiarize ourselves with the town.

Around 5PM we settled ourselves into one of the piazzas and ordered a round of beer and pizza topped with 'nduja (a Calabrian specialty, essentially a spicy pork paste that you can smear on anything and everything. Sort of like a savory Nutella). We had planned to head out for dinner on our own later, but when we were invited to her family's home for a special meal, we jumped at the offer.

A few hours later we were ushered into a gorgeous dining room painted a deep, Renaissance red with beautifully-framed historical maps and old family photos on the walls and white marble busts and rich wooden sculptures lining the bookcases and shelves. My eyes weren't focused on the decor for too long because set down at my place was something far more intriguing.

The father had heard about my love of all things spicy, so he had me join him in his pre-meal ritual of a plate of fresh, hot peperoncini (red chilies). I ate a few his way: raw, drizzled with verdant olive oil, and then made up my own way: chopped finely and mixed with the fava beans I had shucked a moment before. He was fascinated and deemed my way the new house antipasto.

While we indulged, the mamma was finishing up dinner, which began with a Tropean specialty: spaghetti ai cipolli di Tropea. Tropea is known for its sweet onions (similar to Vidalias, but much more intense). They've found a million and one ways to eat this cleansing and fortifying vegetable, but one of the preferred for cooler weather is to slowly saute and steam the onions in their own liquid with a few swirls of olive oil, grinds of fresh black pepper and a spritz of red wine before tossing it with spaghetti and liberally lashing on the parmigiano.

When the plate was passed to me there was absolutely no way I could deny a serving, even with my dietary preferences, and let me tell you: it was amazing.

(And I had a second helping!).

The pasta was followed by vitello tonnato, roasted artichokes, and sauteed mushrooms before a light dessert of crema pasticcera (similar to a pudding) served with cherries.

Lightness aside, we still took a long walk before going to bed that night.

The next morning we found "our" cafè for the trip in a side piazza and sat down for a cappuccino for me, and one for R as well, plus his usual cornetto alla marmelata (croissant filled with apricot jam), followed by an espresso. Since the weather was still quite cool (about 50F, such a strange April in Italy!), and it was very gray and cloudy out, we lingered with a second round of coffee and chatting until the sun finally burned through around 11AM. Then we took a drive out to Capo Vaticano before returning to Tropea for a walk on the beach.

By then the salty air had done its trick and we were famished. We came across Mare Grande right on the water, so we settled in and asked them to please bring us a grilled platter of whatever was caught that morning, with a bowl of local tomatoes, Tropea onions, and peperoncini, plus a carafe of mineral-y wine from the region.

All you see in the picture below, plus two espresso after, cost €30—about half of what a tourist would pay in R's well known and well-trafficked hometown. Knowing that made the meal all the better, of course.

By the time we'd finished the sun was high in the sky and we meandered our way right onto the beach for a nap just up from where the waves were breaking. At that point, sitting right in the sunlight, the temperature had gotten up to about 75F—perfect dozing weather.

When we yawned ourselves awake we headed back up to the main town to finally indulge in something I had seen noted on a chalkboard outside a gelateria the day before: cipolla di Tropea gelato and 'nduja gelato.

Being the one who always orders the most insane-sounding thing off the menu, I had to have it. The onion was a little intense on its own, but when paired with the 'nduja, it was seriously delicious.

That evening we headed out for cocktails in the piazza before dinner at Da Cecè. Then a deep sleep before waking up the next day to another coffee in the piazza and the drive towards home—which involved stopping at a roadside stand to stock up on 'nduja, cipolla di Tropea and strands of dried peperoncini.

We were back in Sicily by 4PM, just in time for a little rest on the terrace and a freshening up before going out to enjoy an aperitivo at Metropole, an 18th century noble-residence-turned-hotel in the 19th century, but under renovation ever since my first trip to Taormina almost a decade ago. So nice to finally enjoy the atmosphere (and the view!).

One year ago: Supposedly sweet Hudson Valley high

Thursday, April 24, 2014

An island unto myself

Five days ago, while sending photos from the Easter wine tasting up in the foothills of Mt. Etna that we had just left, my phone died in my hand.

It didn't sputter and slowly peter out. At 27% battery left, it just went black.

That night when we arrived home I plugged it in and repeated "please don't die" about a hundred times before closing my eyes and attempting to turn it back on. Nothing.

Next morning? Still nothing.

Almost a week later in an entirely different region of Italy? Yep. Still nothing.

Which is exactly what you want when you're in between three countries and have just arrived in a new city (Milan, to visit my brother). I cradled my little phone and took it to a Samsung Service Center this morning and was told (none too nicely) that my phone is American and they only fix Italian ones (what?!). Then R, having done some major Googling, told me there was a guy in Chinatown who's apparently a miracle worker. I took my phone to him this afternon, but he was fresh out of miracles.

I wouldn't care too much about my phone, except, (1) I don't like traveling about without a way to get in touch/find my way around; (2) while my photos/videos are automatically backed up to the cloud, we were sans signal on the hillside so I lost almost all of the great images I had just taken. Luckily I had just shared a few on Whatsapp right before my phone went down, so I do have some visuals from the day when my brother and his wife and their baby, myself and R, and R's brother and his girlfriend all spent the holiday together—I don't know when we'll all be in the same place again, since we'll soon span three countries, so at least there's that.

Five days into my mandated disconnect, I'm oddly calm—even knowing that I won't get a new phone until next weekend (when we're back in Stockholm and get Swedish numbers, which come with a nicely discounted new phone).

Besides the phone situation, I've been quiet recently because I wasn't able to get online from my laptop (welcome to mountainous southern Italy). I had so much to tell you about our trip to Calabria, the last few weeks in Sicily, Easter...but now it's almost too much to catch up on, so perhaps I'll just gloss over it.

Besides access to Whatsapp and Google Maps/Keep, what I actually really miss is Instagram. I loved taking snapshots and sharing glimpses, as well as following along as my friends did the same, but at the same time, I just spent the day running around Milan trying to get myself sorted out with handwritten directions and a list of important numbers tucked into my passport and there was something vaguely poetic about it all.

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed that I'd been hashtagging recent pics "#siciliandetox", but maybe a deeper, digital one was really needed and that's why this all happened. Who knows.

Whatever the reason, I can't really do anything about it, so I'll just settle in to my little pre-1998 self.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Back in Sicily

Taormina + Mt. Etna  | Back in Sicily on afeathery*nest  |  http://afeatherynest.blogspot.com
We've been back in the town of R's birth and childhood for just about 10 days now and each day has been packed with grand lunches at the homes of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, long strolls down the Corso (made even longer by everyone stopping us to catch up on the last almost-3-years—and, I can't tell you how hilarious it is to see the older residents exclaim that they've been following R's life on Facebook), motorcycle rides on the windy hilltop roads and down to the beach, a few work and administrative things (there's the family business to tend to and drivers licenses to renew) and we even made time for a quick two-day trip just us two over to the mainland (more on that later).

As we unpeel our New York'ness, we've had to readjust (me more than R, of course) to life on this side of the world, where if we want to buy a medley of seafood for a birthday lunch at home, we have to go during the week and before 1PM, otherwise everything is closed. And, you can't speed walk down the street to get to your morning coffee, instead, you must stroll slowly and stop every time you vaguely recognize someone to have a conversation peppered with the same questions you'll hear a few more feet down the road ('how are you?', 'how long are you staying?', 'it's better here than NYC, right?', etc).

My inability to gracefully handle small talk aside, my favorite part of being here is seeing R "at home". When we're on the motorcycle and stopped along with others to let traffic pass, suddenly an elderly man reaches over and pulls up his helmet visor to talk to R and I get to hear his speech change from Italian sprinkled with Sicilian (which I can mostly follow) to full-on dialect with an Arabic-esque melody and rolled double consonants (which I most definitely cannot follow at all). Then there's coming across his old teachers or pediatricians or neighbors who exclaim when they see him all grown up and married (even though they saw us a few years ago!). Or sitting out on a terrace and looking at Mt. Etna while R reminisces teenage mischief with his best friends and I get to listen in to their myriad escapades.

Also a highlight: finding an old agenda of R's from the late 90s and seeing what he got up to then (including old girlfriend's birthdays, trips between Sicily and Stockholm, and bad days when he jotted down a few choice curses).

Corso Umberto in Taormina | Back in Sicily on afeathery*nest  |  http://afeatherynest.blogspot.com
Isola Bella in Taormina | Back in Sicily on afeathery*nest  |  http://afeatherynest.blogspot.com
Weatherwise, we're somewhere between winter and spring—if you're directly in the sun and there's no wind blowing you can comfortably sit in short sleeves, but other than that, I'm still wearing jackets, scarves and boots in the morning and at night. So while we can take a nap on the beach after lunch, in the evening it's back into our wraps we go. Hopefully the weather will warm up a little more this week so we can properly recoup after this past winter in NYC.

Of course, given this view, the meal we had, and the perfume of orange and lemon trees, I don't mind a few extra layers at all.

Terrace lunch in Taormina | Back in Sicily on afeathery*nest  |  http://afeatherynest.blogspot.com
One year ago:  Waking from a deep sleep & Mamela & Fresh and springy knit napkins

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Stockholm: Day 1

Typical saffron Swedish building in Vasastan  |  Stockholm: Day 1 on afeathery*nest  |  http://afeatherynest.blogspot.com
This is where I live now. 72 hours in, I still can't believe it. After an understandably forlorn NYC exit and Stockholm entry, we woke up to a glorious morning on Wednesday—our first full day living here. The sun shone all day long, glimmering off the subtly-spiced buildings in hues of paprika, saffron, sage, and curry, and interspersed with creamy vanilla, butter, and lemon curd-colored ones.

Walking around in the 50F (oops, 10C!) weather, on almost every single block I stage-whispered to R, "we LIVE here now. I live in Europe!". If he grew weary of my childlike wonder, he mercifully didn't let me know.

We started the day with coffee, my milk (!), and a hard-boiled egg in the most charming of holders, with a profusion of tulips the color of the morning's sunrise nodding benevolently at us. (Note: why don't we do this in the U.S? My first attempt at opening my egg resulted in a shell-filled mess since I had no previous experience). Then, we headed off to take care of all the usual administrative things, accompanied by trusty Google and R's mother's partner leading the way.

First stop was Migrationsverket (the Immigration Office), where I showed the letter giving me permission to live in Sweden permanently, had my fingerprints scanned and my photograph and electronic signature taken to put the process of receiving a residency card in motion—which took all of 3 minutes, amazing! Then to Skatteverket (the Swedish IRS) to re-register R as a returning citizen. The tax office in Sweden handles the citizen registry, and besides re-registering R for general purposes, we also needed to do so so we could prove to the Italian consulate here that R/we live here now. As an Italian citizen, he has to inform the local consulate every time he switches countries (which of course for him happens quite often), and as the wife of an Italian citizen that has asked for citizenship and is patiently awaiting a response, I need him registered because when my paperwork comes through, they'll find me via him and unless we inform the consulate here, they'll be looking for us in NYC. Knowing the Italians, if they don't find me after their first attempt, they might just toss my paperwork aside.

By 1PM we finished everything and spent the afternoon surprising R's former boss and his oldest friend, both at the businesses they own (luckily we timed our visits during a lull so the reunions could be nice and long). At his old boss' shop we walked in and he pretended to be asking a question, to which the older Sicilian woman gestured wildly, with many exclamations of joy.

Then we went a few streets away to an espresso bar owned by R's friend who knew we were moving over, but not the exact day of our arrival. So when we walked in and he saw R approach him, he stood up slowly, his mouth dropped open and his eyes began to water. Which of course made me begin to tear up—seeing two grown men embrace and fight back tears murmuring in Sicilian (of course his oldest best friend from Stockholm is Sicilian) was something sweet indeed.

After a few hours there we wandered home on foot and I started to get a feel for which way was which—surprising myself, given all the islands and long-winded words (the Swedes, like the Germans, have an affinity for smushing words together to create new, longer ones). I couldn't have asked for a nicer first full day. I felt so "at home", despite not really understanding anything that was happening around me.

And now, before I get too comfortable, we're off to Sicily tonight!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Leaving NYC

So—we've landed.

With two suitcases, one carry-on, and a wee personal item each, and armfuls of flowers for me. The first one from my own mother when I left my country and the second from R's when I arrived in hers. We were also accompanied by very little sleep, heavy-lidded eyes, and hearts that simultaneously felt heavy with the magnitude of our departure and light with the anticipation of our next adventure together.

I can't even begin to tell you what my last 72 hours of living in the country of my birth was like. I've always thought of myself as a bit worldly, but closing the door on the apartment that I'd lived in for 7 years, getting into a car towards JFK knowing that I wouldn't be returning anytime soon, seeing the city skyline glistening under the early evening sun and fading into the distance, and of course, saying goodbye to my parents, was all much harder than I thought it would be.

Even though R did the same 4.5 years ago, I never realized exactly what he went through. I suppose I thought he was an old pro since he left Italy to spend his twenties in Sweden before coming to the U.S. in his thirties. Of course it wasn't easy for him either, it just seemed that way because I hadn't given up anything for us to be together the way he had.

Our friends and family made our last weekend in town special, which of course made it harder to turn around and walk the other way, too. There were extended coffee breaks and strolls in Tribeca, farewell brunches that turned into afternoon desserts that turned into evening shopping sprees, pastries followed by manicure/pedicures, handwritten notes on peacock-designed paper from India and a beautiful framed set of portraits that my friend took of us and our other friends during our "I am here" day in Red Hook.

Still—the final weekend ended. We spent our last night in NYC on the floor of our bedroom (having sold our mattress that evening). Neither of us really slept though, so it didn't matter that we were uncomfortable. Once we were up on our departure day we cleaned the last traces of ourselves from the apartment, FedExed our modem back to our internet provider and saw my parents before turning over our keys, hauling our luggage downstairs and climbing into the back of a black sedan.

I usually don't like to drink or eat before a flight, but a toast had to be had so to a martini bar at the awfully depressing Terminal 1 at JFK we went once we'd huffed our way through security. Then, onto a plane that can only be described as "vintage" for the (admittedly) smooth ride across the ocean. After what seemed like days we finally broke through the clouds to a cold, gray Swedish day.

I was a bit cheered up though when we walked into the pristine airport with beautiful espresso wood floors and chic little immigration booths. Although, back into the grumbles I went when the agent at the border flicked my hard-earned letter permitting me residency away and casually stamped my passport without even a nice "Welcome to Sweden" (the immigration agents at JFK said "Welcome to America" to R when he arrived on his Fiance Visa and they almost always say "Welcome back home" when I return after a trip abroad!).

And so we stepped out of the customs hall and into the embraces of R's mom and her partner before being whisked to their home for hot showers and a salmon (naturally) dinner. Before tucking into bed, though, I put my American Lily into a vase on our bedside table—it and I had both survived the journey over.

Stargazer lillies  |  Leaving NYC on afeathery*nest  |  http://afeatherynest.blogspot.com

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

NYC > STO

NYC Harbor + Statue of Liberty  |  NYC > STO on afeathery*nest  |  http://afeatherynest.blogspot.com

Tonight we fly from JFK with one-way tickets in hand.

In a few hours from now, I'll no longer be a resident of NYC—
but I'll always be a New Yorker.

Just one that's seeking her luck elsewhere for now:
“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail.

The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

― E.B. White, Here Is New York

Nether a Mona Lisa nor a Mad Hatter anymore, but like Elton John said, I "thank the Lord for the people I have found" here.

See you from Stockholm!

NYC Harbor + Statue of Liberty  |  NYC > STO on afeathery*nest  |  http://afeatherynest.blogspot.com
One year ago: A taste of spring