knitting on the front lines of life

Month: October, 2011

Truffle Hunting in Alba

We drove to Alba on Sunday in an expedition planned by Alex’s thoughtful friend Alessandro. There were a total of eight of traveling from Torino to Alba, and I was in the car with Alessandro, Alessandro, and Alessandra. Every time someone said, “Ale,” there was a lot of confusion. We went to Alba to eat at a restaurant that none of us had ever been to, but there were great reviews. We also went to see the Truffle Expo.

My nemesis, the $300 gremlin truffle

When I say truffle, I don’t (unfortunately) mean the sweet, dense, chocolate confection. I mean the fungus that pigs and dogs hunt at this time of the year in Europe. Truffle hunters come from all over Italy to sell their freshly-hunted truffles. There are black truffles, white truffles, truffle honey, truffle pasta, truffle oil, basically anything made with truffles or that you would eat with truffles in the Expo. And there’s a street fair. We walked through the street fair, ate roasted chestnuts, and then Alex and I went into the Truffle Expo. I thought we were just going there to look, but it turned out we were going to shop for a gift for Alex’s dad’s birthday. For some reason, that little fact had been withheld. I wasn’t sure why until we walked into the Truffle Expo.

Truffles produce three kinds of odors. I learned about this by watching the original episodes of Iron Chef, but now I know it by experience. There’s the outer truffle odor, the inner truffle odor, and then the taste, which is completely different than the smell would lead you to believe. The outer truffle odor is what we smelled in the Expo. When we walked by a truffle hunter, the hunter would open the case to let the smell reach us so we’d know what a fragrant truffles they had, and you would get this waft of… earthy grossness… in your nose. I was feeling a little gagaliscious by the time we had found the truffle hunter of choice.

Truffles are extremely expensive. Alex bought a truffle of good quality (not great quality, but good) big enough that you couldn’t close your fist around it. I thought I would pass out when the hunter named his price, but Alex calmly reached in his wallet and pulled out more than we would pay for a fine dinner for our family at the nicest restaurant in Springfield. For a tartufo bianco d’Alba (white truffle of Alba).

The restaurant in the vineyard

We packed the truffle carefully, put it in the back of Alessandro’s SUV, and went to eat at the restaurant that sat on the side of a vineyard-packed hill outside Alba. It was difficult to find and had wonderful food. We ate and talked for a couple of hours, and then one of the women in the group got sick, and we ended up staying for quite a while until she felt good enough to get in the car and return home to Torino. It was 11 PM before we attempted to get back in the car, and when we opened the door, we discovered that truffle fumes had been escaping the truffle’s enclosures for the last 3 hours and filling the car with the stink of truffle. Alessandro said, “Truffles smell like gas,” and he didn’t mean gasoline. After experiencing the truffle’s levels of odor, I would amend his description to say the outside of a truffle smells like a mushroom that  just eaten a load of garlic passed gas. It’s like stinky crossed the line into torturous. Alessandro pulled out a bottle of Bulgari cologne and sprayed the car down, and then only 3 of us could manage to climb into the fragrant SUV. We drove back to Torino with the windows down. Eau d’truffle beats eau d’Bulgari (for future reference).


Shaved white truffle on fresh pasta

The truffle has lived on the balcony since the wee hours of Monday morning, sealed in a glass container. Alex tried to put it in the refrigerator, but his mother moved it to the porch. I am slightly in awe/afraid of it. Having a truffle around is kinda like having a pet gremlin. We leave it all alone and don’t bother it, less it release its stinkyness upon us or multiply. We’ve shaved pieces from it twice, on bowls of buttered pasta. Then Alex shaved some on raw ground veal. When he began to eat it, I just had to leave the table and go lay down. The combination of raw meat, veal, and truffle odor was just too much for this Missouri girl.

It was a strange experience, this truffle. Truffle definitely smells better when you’re eating it, but it’s not the strongest-tasting thing in the world. It’s like your mouth tastes buttered pasta, but you’re smelling something completely different (and, good for us, something completely different than the smell in the car).

The truffle almost made Alessandra throw up, made three of us freeze to keep from gagging, and left us all smelling like Bulgari cologne and fungus farts. It did, however, make his dad ecstatically happy on his 74th birthday, and that (plus the good company of friends and a nice meal) made the truffle-hunting worthwhile.


“This is France. You are welcome to go back to Italy.”

We left Torino for the mountains on Monday afternoon with a clearly spoken promise that it would take a mere 45 minutes to reach the condo in the Alps. (45 minutes often turns into 1:30, so I was skeptical). As we reached Cesana Torinese, I looked up and saw the most beautiful scene: the Alps rising in the background, a pasture filled with sheep and a gorgeous Medieval church. And then it started to snow.

We did, indeed reach the condo in LESS than 45 minutes, turned on the heat and water, and then Alex said, “Let’s go to France before the snow gets worse.” I didn’t want to get back in the car, but Alex assured me France was only 10 minutes away. So we drove to France. We got to the sign that said “France,” took a picture, and then got turned around by the French border patrol because we had left our passports in our bags at the condo. Alex could not get over the fact that there were police at the French border. “This is the EU! No passports is kinda the point!” So we turned around and went back down the mountain.

10 minutes to France is actually just a few kilometers from the condo, but France is through part of a mountain and then up the rest of it. So down the mountain we went, Alex muttering under his breath about the French. I have heard the Italians mutter under their breath about the French, but my sole points of contact with French people have been with Exchange Students who were quite polite. I ignored his muttering, watched the snow fall, and enjoyed the view down the steep side of the mountain. And then we slid. And then the car in front of us slid. And then the truck approaching us slid precariously close to the mountain itself (the upside, not the down side). And then the truck in front of the car in front of us slid into the truck that had just escaped smashing into the mountain, and they both smashed into the mountain. And then I began praying. We went very, very, very slowly around the trucks and called the Italian equivalent of the Highway Patrol, who told us they knew there was an accident, and they were sending salt. When we got to the condo, I was shocked when Alex said, “Grab your passport.”

“You have to be kidding.”

“Oh, no. We are GOING to FRANCE,” he said.

Back up the mountain. No sign of salt. Snow falling. Dusk settling. Me praying. We found the scene of the accident, drove over one of the parts of one of the trucks, and went to France where we could find neither a public restroom nor someone who could understand either Italian or English. I’m not someone who travels to another country and expects everyone to speak their language. But just across the border from one country to another, I would expect that someone would understand a few words of the people who live ten minutes away.

We got lost… of course we did! It was dark, snowing, and French! Through the dark, snow-filled night, I spotted a sight I can see from a half mile (or ~ a kilometer) away: YARN SHOP! I yelled until Alex hit the brakes, and we went in to a tiny, warm, French yarn shop. The shop owner had the store floor filled with bags of yarn she was stocking on shelves. She had three brands, and two turned out to be the same stuff with different labels. I pulled out two balls of Bouton d’Or to buy as a souvenir, and Alex insisted that we ask for stitch markers. We named them in English and Italian. Blank look from the owner. We described them in English in Italian. Blank look from the owner. Alex described them in French. Blank look from the owner. “How are we going to explain stitch markers?” Alex asked, but I was all for leaving the elusive knitting accessory behind. We tried looking in a knitting encyclopedia, but it was in French, so we couldn’t find the right section. We tried everything we could think of, and when we had given up, the owner lit up and said, (put on your most obnoxiously fake French accent and repeat the following): “STITCH MAR-KER!” Yeah. What you said. Excited by our ability to communicate with each other, she walked around the store correcting my pronunciation of things… and I mean things that were written and meant to be said in English. The yarn was speaking English. I was speaking English. I don’t know what the owner was doing, but I felt very clearly un-French and it was quite like a repeat of the border patrol turn-around. It was great. Not demeaning or frustrating at all. Ridiculously expensive and awkward.

It's snowing.

Then we went to a French supermarket, the same kind as is down the street from Alex’s house. No one understood us there either. Then we went home. In the snow. Down the mountain we went, agreeing that maybe we should have taken the border guards as a sign. There were no guards on the italian side, and we cheered when we passed into Italy. At least one of us would be understood, and the Italians get a kick out of the fact that I can kinda understand them but not speak to them

We went to a restaurant for dinner and found the first restaurant I’ve seen in Italy in which it is clearly marked that no dogs are allowed. That’s right. Dogs in restaurants. Emily the boxer would be in heaven. Turns out there is a cat that lives in the restaurant. That was an unexpected twist in an unexpected night.

So why was I surprised when I awoke to 9″ of snow in October and everyone in the village yelling out “Merry Christmas!” to each other? That’s what I love about Italy, besides Alex, his family, his friends, the yarn, and olive bread. My time here is as twisty and turvy as the mountain pass to France, but no one ever asks me to turn around and go back where I know what to expect.

“Welcome to Germany…

would you mind taking a survey on your experience so far in Germany?” Seriously.

Let me state from the get-go that my ancestors were German. Please remember that as you read this. There were also Swedish, English, and Scottish ancestors in the mix, but most of my ancestors were from Germany. Yet Germany was the country that exposed my deepest concealed and previously unexposed-to-self prejudices.

Right off the bat, I heard a voice making an announcement over the loudspeaker and froze in terror. For some reason, the man on the loudspeaker sounded to me like recordings we listened to in high school of Hitler speaking to his troops. Maybe the announcer was from Berlin. Who knows? Probably I have only heard one man’s voice yelling in German over a loudspeaker and all men yelling in German now = Hitler yelling in German. Shame on me, but I dropped my bag.

At the Frankfurt airport, I discovered with delight the administrative efficiency for which Germans are known in Europe. Going through German immigration, customs, and security was positively breezy. People were smiling… people that worked at the airport. But when they opened this huge metal cargo elevator as an alternative to the stairs, I had a second freak-out. Something in my reptile brain screamed “don’t get in a huge metal room operated by the German government!” and I took the stairs. Shame on me, but my brain would not let my legs go on that elevator.

Inside the Frankfurt Airport

Perhaps my time living in Chicago in a predominantly Jewish retirement hotel has led me to identify with American Jewish people to the development of my particular prejudices. It’s not at all that they taught me the prejudice or even had it themselves; it is clearly that I developed these particular issues completely on my own in respect to our sharing of stories. Some of our residents were Holocaust survivors with the stamps of the concentration camps still tattooed on their arms. I helped one resident search online for the art stolen from his childhood home. One of my professors was a rabbi who had escaped Germany just as the threat began in Munich. Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, and Germans – these are the only people I’ve known who tell me stories with German words sprinkled in with Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. Something about knowing and loving these Jewish survivors has lodged so deeply in me that I had visceral fight-or-flight reactions that were nonsensical in modern Germany where the people were friendly, open, and offering Kosher refreshments, reactions these survivors were definitely not trying to instill in me.

While I tried to get over my gut reactions, I treated myself to a $5 Starbucks coffee and tried unsuccessfully to get on the airport Wifi. Then it was off to security, where they pulled me aside because I had my ipad in my carry-on that they wanted to test for explosives residue. The man running the test started a friendly dialogue with me in German and then realized I had no idea what he was saying. “YOU don’t speak German?!?!” and my ancestry kicked in. Oh, yeah! I look German. I AM German, in a way. I said with glee, “I don’t speak German, but my ancestors were German.”

He smiled. “Your parents are born in Germany?”

Yeah, I’m not THAT German. “No, my grandparents.” Okay, honestly, my grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents, but how (and why) would I say that? He shrugged and told me my ipad was cleared. It all took less than a minute.

I found my gate and was approached by a young German man who was taking surveys of airport travelers from different countries. He asked me if I spoke English and then proceeded to ask me very politely to take a survey about my experiences in Germany.

“How many times have you been to Germany?” This is my first time.

“How long have you stayed here?” Half an hour.

“Oh! Welcome to Germany! May I ask how you like it so far?” Seriously? Seriously.

“Where are you going?” Italy.

“How many times have you flown to Italy in the last 12 months?” Twice.

“How long do you stay in Italy this time?” Two weeks.

“Why don’t you stay in Germany?” Because Alex… because I’m going to ITALY!

“Why have you felt any irrational fear or unqualified prejudices while you have been in Germany this half hour?” No, he didn’t ask that, but that  was the question I was dealing with in my mind and gut. I tried to reconcile myself to accept my own prejudices. I even prayed for forgiveness. Then we were off on a bus to our flight. We passed airplanes from all over the world. We saw Asian airplanes, North American airplanes, European airplanes. And then I saw it: two planes that said, “Iran Air.” My jaw dropped as I scanned the bus for another American with a dropped jaw. I found few eyes as surprised as mine. IRAN Air???

Germany was good for my soul, exposing the kinds of prejudices I undoubtedly stand against when I preach about the openness and inclusivity of God’s kingdom. It took Germany to bring them out. Germany and about 200 smiling, happy airport employees.

Landing in Italy, I grabbed my suitcase and headed out of the airport, expecting the usual Italian disinterest in processing me through customs or having anything to do with me. To my surprise, I was stopped by a customs official. The man in the fancy uniform stopped me to look at my luggage tag. I thought he was checking my information, but no. He was looking at my luggage tag. I had purchased it in the airport in Springfield, and it had a holographic picture of cardinals on it. He moved it, checked out the picture, shrugged as if it was minimally cool, and let me go. Ahh… now THAT’s an Italian for you.

Knitting it old school

Alex and I had a free day yesterday. There were no appointments and no errands to run for his parents. The only thing on the calendar was a late dinner planned with friends. We told his parents not to plan on seeing us until late tonight and took off into the city with only three relaxed goals: 1) have fun, 2) don’t go home unless we had to, and 3) find copies of two knitting magazines that we have discovered have either patterns in both Italian and English or are Italian versions of British knitting magazines (see, Elena, I remembered!).

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We wandered around the center city, casually stopping into any bookstore or magazine stand we found and scoring one each of the magazines that we were seeking. We crossed the Po River to have sushi, and then returned to the center of the center city. We walked and walked until we found ourselves in the neighborhood of a really odd yarn shop we’d visited on my last visit. I remembered that a yarn producer had their office across from the shop and hoped it would be open this time. At three, the yarn shop owner opened the door for waiting customers, and as we made our way inside, the door to the yarn producer’s office was raised. We made a dash out of the yarn shop into the producer’s office. We spent the next two hours having our minds blown.

It wasn’t the yarn that blew our minds. Their yarns were nice and really affordable, but they really didn’t have anything we’d never seen before. Rather it was their business that blew our minds. We call things “old school” in the US, but this business redefines the concept. They moved into their location on what is now a major pedestrian-only shopping district in the heart if the center city right after WWII, and I don’t think they’ve made a single capital improvement to the property since. That’s not a complaint or a criticism; it’s a fact.

OSHA inspectors would have a field day in their warehouse. The property has three stories above the main level and two stories below the main level, connected with spiral staircases that were held together in sections with packing tape. 5 story spiral staircases, patched with packing tape. Seriously. To get to the offices, we went up to the top floor and then took a ladder. A ladder. Yeah, I said a ladder. When the owner showed us the ladder to the offices, I assumed no one used the offices, so he took us up the ladder to introduce us to his sons who were working up there. The ceiling in the office was the original hand-built wooden ceiling from the 1600s. Ladder.

That was just part of the warehouse facility. The rest was across the street above and below the yarn shop run by his sister. Three stories up (and probably another level accessible by ladder) and two below. It wasn’t the original walls on the lower levels that were part of the ancient Torino tunnel system that got me. What got me was the fact that this company was storing 30,000 kilos (66,000 lbs) of stock yarn in warehouses that would be worth millions of euros as retail and residential property. I mean, in a country in which space is an expensive commodity and in a space that is now in one of the hottest locations in town… we were shopping for yarn for Alex’s business.

So it was really no surprise that the yarns in which they pride themselves are classic and very old school. There wasn’t any tightly spun modern Italian yarn there. The only novelty yarns were referred to by the owner rather derisively. Most of it looked and felt like the yarn my mother and grandmother grew up knitting, and while that’s not the most popular stuff today, at least the sweaters they knitted with it still exist and look new. I was reminded that some traditions are tradition because they worked. This guy’s business may not have a modern business card or the mist innovative fiber creations, but he speaks yarn better than anyone I’ve met in Italy (and most of the people I’ve met are yarn producers).

At the end of the visit, after we had escaped the clutches of the labyrinthian warehouse, Alex worked out the business side of things, and I pulled a small project out of my pocket and began to knit. The producer continued to talk to Alex, but his eyes were on my needles. He visibly relaxed while I knitted, and I realized that I was more relaxed than I had been at any yarn producer’s office. Alex had barely had to translate because this guy spoke my language, even in Italian.

Today, I get to put together an order for old school Italian wool. I am looking forward to knitting yarns with an incredible wealth of tradition, experience, and wisdom spun into every twist, and I’m already thinking of a design featuring spiral staircases and ladders.

The produce whisperer, or: Alex is a fun-gi.

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Today we went to the open market, one of my favorite activities in Italy. You get up early, walk for about half a mile, and come upon an open air market filled with all kinds of produce, meat, cheese, bread, and random crap like fabric, pens, and really ugly socks that say things in English that don’t make a ton of sense. I LOVE THE OPEN MARKET!

Today, we took a bunch of pictures so I could share the experience. The producer sellers were more than happy to let us take pictures and hear me exclaim over their wares. Alex is usually the more excitable of us. In Italy, I’m considered downright calm. At the open market, though, it’s me that makes the scene as I pull Alex into an about-face so he can tell me what some odd-looking vegetable or fruit is. FUN!

We bought a bunch of stuff today. As in, the half mile walk home was kinda painful with all the bags. We bought fresh figs, fresh olives, moscato grapes, fresh currants, and some kind of fruit that is (I’m serious here) a cross between a persimmon and an apple. WHAT? Who thought of that?! We bought what I call “that sci-fi vegetable” that has a name, but it’s not anything we have in the US and I really just can’t be bothered to know the name of something I can’t eat year round. It is absolutely delicious with olive oil and anchovy paste. Really. It’s great.

My Italian still absolutely stinks. I say things to his mom like “Where is Ale gotten back?” Brilliant. But… I am starting to understand a lot more. I have developed the special talent to remember the names of things I will refuse to eat. For example, anything “crudo” is not going into my mouth unless it’s a vegetable. Prosciutto crudo? Pass. Prosciutto cotto (cooked)? Pass… the plate. So when the cheese Alex bought at the market involved the words “crudo” (raw) and “capra” (goat), I declared at the open market that I would not be partaking of the cheese eating. Alex bought some bland fresh cheese from cow’s milk just for me.

Then we had to double back because it is the end of the wild mushroom season, and we saw some prize-winners. As the stall owners quoted the price, I was too busy running calculations in my head to gag over the price. Everything at the open market is fairly affordable. The mushrooms were 45 euro per kilo. For folks like Carol and my mom who refuse to deal with my kilogram usage… that’s $30.00 a pound. We took home two. Two pounds, that is.

These are not your garden variety mushrooms. They’re not morels, and they’re not grown in gardens. These are the mushrooms we saw in Alice in Wonderland, the kind the Smurfs (oddly enough, known as Puffis here) lived under before they decided to have handy Smurf (handy Puffi) paint them. Funky fungi. Turns out they are also delicious fungi. Alex’s mom cut them into huge chunks (okay, small chunks of huge mushrooms) and fried them. I ate a big salad, a few mushrooms, a few olive bread sticks, and thanked the Lord for my fungi-finding guy who brought me to Italy.

The power of shower

The Diabolical Control Panel of the Shower of Power

The first thing Alex did on my first morning in Italy was point me to the shower. The three plane rides in 24 hours had left me a little stale, but I was hoping to avoid the shower today. The Shower of Power is the most intimidating appliance I have ever had to use. I stood outside it and repeated, “it’s just a shower… It’s just a shower,” but I was lying to myself. It has more options than my Mazda.

I could say that this shower is smart enough to balance my checkbook, but this shower is so smart, it would probably tell me that I should check my balance online, and it is snarky (and Italian enough) to sniff as it would say it. It would probably also mutter disdainfully that Italians haven’t used checks in years. Showers simply shouldn’t have the power to say such things, even in my imagination.

You have to turn three knobs to get the right temperature water to come out of the shower head. Turn the wrong knob, and you can be greeted with ice cold water shooting straight at your rear. I say that from experience. I was trying to wash my face. That was particularly humiliating. I have not since tried to move that knob, but I count 10 separate water dispensing heads.

Then there is the display panel. That’s right. Display panel. If you push the wrong button, talk radio can come on, all the lights in the room can suddenly go out, an alarm can go off, hot sauna air can come sputtering out, or the neighbors can start banging on the walls. To be fair to the shower, the neighbors banged on the walls when I screamed when one of the things mentioned above happened. I must be careful to be fair to the shower. I think it goes online.

The really pathetic thing about the situation with the shower is the buttons on the display are in English. I don’t even have to translate the buttons that have caused my torture. I just keep failing to understand them in the context of a shower. The digital options that show on the digital display, however, are in Italian. That’s right. The digital display. In a shower. So I end up not knowing which option to choose when I push a button, and that has led to further torture and discomfort.

Today, I showered in the Shower of Power. I turned the wrong knob and pushed the wrong button to shut it off and managed to turn off all the lights in the room while being sprayed with icy water… Again. Tomorrow, I will try again without pushing any buttons. I will not even look at the display, but I suspect it will be watching me for good stories to put on its blog about the silly, dirty American who doesn’t know how to use a proper Italian shower.