Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving: Down and Dirty on Italian Wine

There is a mystical land in the north of Italy that has the power to harness the sun and the earth and create a magical liquid.  Come with me, friends, as I tell you about the Veneto region and the time your friend, Lynne, bravely took on Prosecco Road.

Hyperbole aside, there really is a Prosecco region of Italy.  Here's some further reading to help explain the region, the process and the wine!  Veneto is the region, like Campania is the region where we live, and Venice is the capital.  We flew into Venice and then drove an hour north to the little town of Monfumo where we joined up with some more friends in a villa that we had rented.  It was lovely and rustic and high in the hills.

Here's a quick lesson in Italian wine.  There are many types and classifications, most of which is strictly reviewed by the government.  Of biggest note: there are 3 big distinctions: IGT, DOC, and DOCG. 

IGT: (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) Pretty much means that the wine is very typical of the region from which it is produced.  If you order a bottle of table wine in that town, this is what it should taste like.  It's not super controlled, so a lot of wine makers now are starting to add French grapes to their Italian wine.  While normal table wine is about 3-6 Euro, some IGT's can also be over 40 Euro.  Take aways: it isn't normally crappy wine, it's just not super specific.

DOC: (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) DOC is more precise.  The wine and grapes need to be from a controlled district of Italy to be classified as DOC.  There are rules about the type of cask in which it must ferment, the amount of time it must stay in the cask, and amount of time it must stay in a bottle prior to being sold.  Some DOC wines are still really cheap, but they tend to be a bit more "typical" of a more specific area and thus, normally more expensive than an IGT.

DOCG: (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) DOCG means it's from a very precise area, with very precise grapes, with a very precise fermenting and bottling process AND guaranteed to be all of those things.  Prosecco Superior, what we had in Veneto, is DOCG prosecco.  There is just one small region where you can grow real prosecco superior grapes and land up there is now costing millions of Euros a hectacre.  All of this helps to explain those little stickers that you probably never noticed on the top of an Italian wine bottle, if you've ever bought one.  That sticker is taken VERY seriously in the wine parts of Italy and the cost to get that sticker, the color denoting what level of classification it has been given, are no small matter.

Enter 9 Americans into this lovely little region.  We spent 4 days drinking our way through Veneto, specifically Valdobbiadiene and Conegliano.  If you butchered those names, fear not, you aren't alone!  Pronounced: Valdo - bee - yawd - di - nay and Co - nay - lee - awno.  And they say Italian is phonetic! 

The trip was a dream.  The colors of each vineyard were so bright and bold as the leaves dried under the brisk November sky.  We wandered through vineyards with winemakers learning about the curviture of vines, the proper way to pick the grapes, the amounts of sugar and yeast that are required, aging, carbonation, corking.  I mean, we learned a TON!  It was just funny to hear them say "Prosecco is a friendly wine.  It has a friendly wine making process that is not so difficult."  Because, my goodness did it seem difficult!  There is a huge inferiority complex in the Prosecco area about French champagne - that it's more famous, that it's more well known and respected, that it has a longer life span. 

But what I learned is this: prosecco IS a friendly wine.  It IS easy to drink.  It goes well with cheese or on its own.  The variations are crazy, even among close neighboring vineyards.  But what I also learned is this: Northern Italians are also amazingly friendly people.  Not far from the Austrian border, their food has strong Austrian and German influences and includes a lot of ingredients that we don't have down here, including, my goodness, duck.  We had this duck ragu.  Sweet merciful me.  It was amazing!

Four cases of wine later, we're back at home, back at work, back in Napoli.  I'm excited to open each bottle, hear that magical "POP" of the cork and remember those lazy days up north.  Sigh....

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Those Dam Dutch

I apologize in advance for my use of puns.  Amsterdam just requires it.  It's so 'dam awesome.  See?  I did it again.

Veteran's Day and our anniversary fall in line, by design, each year as the weather starts to change and leaves are notably lovely.  With tickets to Istanbul in my Expedia cart, Tom's office decided that he needed to go to the Hague for work that week instead and just like that, we were headed to the land of our northern breathren!  Hello, Holland! 

I love Amsterdam.  I'm committed to starting a one-woman campaign to convince people that it's a city of more than just hookers and drugs.  I mean, they are there, if that's your thing.  But, it's not really my thing and I still love that city.  It was the perfect time of year to be there, the canals lined with yellow, orange, and red leaved trees, lazily shedding their leaves with each gust of wind.  Strolling the streets, sipping whatever warm beverage we picked up along the way, hand in hand with my hubby, it was one of those wonderful European weekends.

To help promote Amsterdam, I'll give you hooker/drug alternatives.

1. Shopping:  Oh my goodness, I love shopping in Amsterdam.  It's amazing.  In Italy, I am a 2X.  Seriously.  It's depressing.  And that's in a normal sweater.  In Amsterdam, I'm a M.  My ego was padded with the knowledge that I am among my tall, heftier people.  Felt good!  Tom's luggage was mysteriously missing for the first two days of our journey and he was freezing in a windbreaker and short sleeved polo.  It must also be noted that Tom doesn't buy or pick out any of his own clothes anymore.  "You dress like a frat boy from 1992.  Just let me be your stylist."  Somehow, Lord only knows how, I convinced Tom to get a burgundy "old man" cardigan (his words, obviously).  Oh my goodness, he looks like the snuggliest, most adorable professor ever.  Wearing that while sitting by the fire place at our hotel, sipping cognac.  Adorable. 

2. Museums: If you are uncultured and unlearned, not unlike myself, you may not remember that the Dutch were once badasses and dominated like pretty much everything.  Also, if you are unlearned and easily confused, not unlike myself, you are often confused by the fact that the Netherlands and Holland are the same thing and that they are all Dutch.  I know, it took me an embarassingly long time to get that all under my belt.  Don't worry, you aren't alone.  But back to the Dutch: they were a pretty big deal and consequently collected a bunch of cool stuff way back in the day that is now housed in a ton of awesome museums.  We got to Rembrandt's (which was his first name, by the by!  See?  Bizarro kids names aren't just big now.  It was a thing even back in the 1700's!  Take that Apple Paltrow!) Night Watch and that group of Dutch guys that I only know is a famous painting because it's on a cigar box.

3. Yet another Zoo:  Tom was all museumed-out by the end of day 2 and so, as a special treat to him, we went to the zoo.  Tom immediately turns into a 7 year old kid the minute we enter any animal themed institution.  He was practically running from exhibit to exhibit, shouting when birds would hop around and checking off each enclosure on our park map to make sure that we hit all of the highlights.  We decided that it would be fun to see a show in the Planetarium and so stopped into 'Space Trip.'  Well it was entirely in Dutch.  So, we sat there, listening to what I am convinced is a fake language for 35 minutes. 
T: Lynne, what did they say?
L: Tom, I don't know.  It's in Dutch.
T: I thought your family is Dutch.
L: My ancestors.  From like the 1700's.  I mean, your family is Irish, how come you didn't know any Gaelic when we were in Ireland.
T: Shhh, I'm learning about space right now.

4. Spend time with your sweetie: For me, a chance to walk around, have meals just the two of us and just spend time with my hubby was the best.  Tom is one of the best men that I know, in my own, humble opinion.  He is the calm to my storm, the logic to my crazy, and the optimism in my sea of fear.  At some point, I'll figure out what exactly it is that he gets out of being married to me...  But I am insanely glad that he's stuck around with me, getting to share these little adventures throughout Europe, hand in hand.  Whatever is in our future, I know that I'll weather the storm with him by my side.  I love you, my darling.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Friends in Translation

Last week, my co-worker, Maurizio, asked me if I'd practice English with his friend, Assia.  I told him that I'd do it happily (and for free) if she would help me to learn Italian.  I've had this idea in my head for pretty much the entire time here, that I would find an Italian who wanted to learn English and with our powers combined, we'd become this bond of Babel and teach each other the intricacies of our languages.  Well looky here!  It worked!

Last week Maurizio facilitated our discussion and said "In Englese!" to Assia and "In Italiano" to me over and over and over again as we struggled to put our jobs, significant others and interests into child-like sentences in another language.  This week, Assia's boyfriend, Massimo, did the same thing, except that his English is really good and made the whole process VERY easy for me!  We keep finding a third party who speaks both languages well enough to make the whole process easier on both of us.

Assia, Massimo, and I sat around for an hour on Friday night, sipping caffes (read: espresso.  Read also: I didn't sleep that night) and chatting about our travels, lives and their very dedicated system for learning English.  They've been taking lessons with an Irish girl, an Australian girl, and a guy from Texas and have decided that my middle-America accent is the easiest version of English to understand. 

It was very comforting to have our mutual struggles to work through.  Both Assia and I pretty much only know present tense of English/Italian (respectively) and have been helpful in learning the details and pronunciation of some of the more complicated words.  (For her, as well as many of my co-workers, the difference between Tuesday and Thursday is ALWAYS difficult.  For me, "prossima volta" (which means "next time") is the phrase I could not remember at all!)  It's funny that we both feel like we have a mouth full of marbles when speaking a new language.  For the whole year here, I have felt like my mouth is just too confused to form words correctly.  Or that the words that I thought I was always saying correctly get a very common "huh??" from my co-workers/waiters/grocery store attendants. 

I'm hoping that the weekly chats with my new friend will help open my eyes (and my ears) to the intricacies of living here and help me to understand the culture on a deeper level.  I'm finding that Italy is more than just pasta and wine, old buildings and crazy lines.  The more time I spend here, the more mothers and children that I see interacting, the more times I hear church bells and see a family of 40 having Sunday dinner together, the more that it warms my heart.  Life abroad is now cake walk.  It's often frustrating and confusing and leaves me exhausted and homesick but then, there are the times that you can share an hour with a new friend and just talk and just learn about how life is different from their point of view.  It just takes little longer when you have to Google Translate every 5 minutes.  Let's be honest, every 2 minutes.

Buona giornata! (Have a good day!)