Friday, December 26, 2008

Tuning into MuchMusic, Florence

So you want a closer sample of Italian life. A real “taste” of Italy, if you will. Your wish is to be granted more easily than you think. Chocolate. Simply take a bar of chocolate (preferably dark), and melt it, chop it, grate it…then add it to just about anything – presto, you have instant Italian fare. The pastries were the most obvious, of course…whether it was dark Italian chocolate nestled in the core of a flakey, buttery croissant (still warm from the baker’s oven), little curls of chocolate spilling out of your morning cornflakes box (yep – you actually buy it that way!), or little shards of dark deliciousness stirred in with the exquisitely creamy vanilla yogourt for your afternoon pick-me-up. Perhaps you may wish to indulge in a small espresso-sized “Italian hot chocolate” at your favourite corner cafe….why such an indulgence? Hot chocolate in Italy is just that – a cup of melted chocolate, perhaps mixed with a few drops of cream (just enough to haughtily insinuate that it is worthy of the liquid serving receptacle as opposed to a knife and fork).

Oh, and let’s not forget the Italians’ version of peanut butter….Nutella. Nutella is a spreadable chocolate that can be used more or less anywhere you would use peanut butter (though I would not recommend it with jam…). For those of you who are not familiar with this indulgent delight, it is the same chocolate that graces the soft centre of a Ferrero Rocher chocolate. Most commonly in Rome and Florence, it could be found smeared in generous amounts over hot Belgian-style waffles being cooked on sizzling buttered irons by street vendors. During the enjoyment of this delicacy, the consumer may be forced to assume a “pike stance” (standing with hips bent at 90 degrees) as the Nutella, made runny by the heat of the fresh waffle, develops an affinity for clean shirt fronts (trust me – I know). Other common Nutella uses include sandwiches, or for the “no frills”/skip-the-middleman approach, a large spoon is a notably effective vessel for the direct tub-to-mouth technique (this particular method is tried and true…).

For the record, I was not able to get through the above paragraph without a trip to the kitchen for a slice of chocolate. Ok, maybe 3.

Perhaps one of my favourite experiences, was something that many of you may take for granted:

On our first, day in Florence, Mum and I were strolling through the streets in the early morning, watching the historic centre of the city wake up. The scooters and the ubiquitous tiny energy efficient smart cars and three wheelers bounced by, their intended straight-line trajectories made choppy by the ancient, uneven cobbles their tires were reluctantly forced to negotiate. It was still fairly early and as we sat there, the shutters on the windows of the old stone buildings yawned into the beams of the sleepily rising sun as they were pushed open by the morning light-seekers. The smell of fresh coffee seeped out of every crevice as early risers sought to nullify their morning lethargy with a shot or two of thick, hot espresso. There was a stone ledge, slightly set back from the sidewalk, and as we strolled by, I impulsively plunked myself down on it, watching the scene unfold in front of me. After 10 mins, I could see that Mum was raring to go again, while I on the other hand, was feeling as though the warmth of the sun had fused me to the spot for the time being. Thus, I sent Mum down the street for 30 mins to burn off some energy, and as I watched her patter off, I realized that this was the first time in 4.5 months that I was aware of being completely inconspicuous and invisible to everything and everyone around me. I sat on my perch in the middle of the steadily increasing hustle and bustle, and no one paid an ounce of attention to me, or glanced at me twice, and there was no one forced to protectively “watch over me” in the background while I pretended I was alone. The only honks were the pre-pubescent, high octave toots of the smart cars as they squeaked their disapproval at the scooters swerving between them. It was bliss. I could have sat there all day, but I think Mum may have exploded if she hadn’t had an outlet on which to expend her (enviable!) seemingly never-ending energy! (Love you Mum!)

One of the things I find the hardest about living in Saudi is the lack of music. English music is considered “haram” (forbidden) in Saudi, and even traditional Arabic music is only found in certain situations. In the rare instance that a live performance is put on, it is only open to viewing for men. There is no music in the malls, or floating out of open car windows. Having been brought up in a very musical family, and having a sister who is an incredibly accomplished and talented musician, I have cultivated a deep love and dependence on music, with a special place in my heart for classical orchestral. One of my hopes while in Italy was to attend at least one performance. Unfortunately, we missed a performance by the Rome Symphony Orchestra by one day as we were traveling to Florence, and a performance by the Florence Orchestra by one day as we were traveling to Rome. Luckily, after a tip from our wonderful B&B host Giovanni, we found out about a choral concert that evening in Florence’s oldest church. The church was tucked away down a narrow alleyway, off of one of the streets in the historical centre. We forgot about the unforgiving rigidness of the old wooden pews we were perched on as the 16-member choir sung a capella, their voices dancing off the curving stone arches supporting the intricately painted cathedral dome ceiling.

The highlight of the night for me, however, was on our walk over to the concert. As we crossed one of the many open “piazzas” we became aware of the smoothly bowed strains of a violin being played. Open eared, we were lured towards the source of the beautiful sound, and soon found ourselves in the then-empty archways of the famed and majestic Ufizzi Gallery, where just that day, we had elbowed our way through the mosh pit of tourists for a chance to see original Devincis, Michelangelos, and Raphaels (well WELL worth it…).

The young man playing was lost in his music, swaying as his fingers danced and slid over the regal neck of the instrument, which seemed merely an extension of his body as opposed to a foreign object nestled under his chin. The familiar rush of emotion I get when listening to good classical music (for those who don’t know me well, I am a loyal Vancouver Symphony Orchestra groupie) was so intense from 4 month+ repression, that I actually started crying. I pulled the hood of my jacket up over my head, and sank onto a nearby stone ledge, tears streaming down my face, and soaked my body and my soul in the waves of melody swirling around that ancient, empty pillared piazza. I sat there for 10 mins before Mum gently nudged me out of my reverie to say we were going to be late for the choir concert. After dropping a few euros into the young man’s open violin case, I reluctantly followed Mum down the road, the tendrils of the musician’s song growing quieter as they gently curled in the air around us for several blocks.

I have now been back in the Kingdom for 2 weeks, and am very much enjoying a change of pace while working nights. The workload is much more manageable, and I now actually have the time to really get to know my co-workers. Last night, after we had finished our nightly routines, the five of us sat down to a wonderful Christmas dinner we had all contributed to. Our fare was an eclectic mix of Iranian, Sweedish, Canadian hippie, and Philipino influences, and under the circumstances, I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather have spend Christmas than with my “Saudi family” on E-1. Thanks ladies!

Hope all of you in the other hemisphere are all having a wonderful holiday

Miss you, love you


Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Politics of Leather

Buon giorno

I am back in the desert following my little excursion to Italia. I would go back in a heartbeat, though upon my return, I would not be without 2 things; a better command of the language, and my bike. It is no coincidence that there was flooding around Florence and Rome during our stay - I am quite sure that I left oceans of drool on the gorgeous Tuscan hills as I bike-lessly watched them roll by from the bus window. I will be back, and I will leave no turn virgin to the touch of my Bontragers (those are tires for you non-bike obsessed folks).

The language on the other hand will involve the avoidance and prevention of such dire situations as the following: Tall, dark and gorgeous Italian man approaches tall Canadian woman silently appreciating the beauty of the winding and cobbled Tuscan streets. TD&G releases a string of Italian into the electric airspace between them with perfect eyebrows raised in question. CW unfortunately has not even learned to say “I don’t speak Italian” in Italian, and is reduced to an awkward and apologetic “no Italian” as she turned the color of Mama’s arrabiata sauce. TD&G painfully attempted again, with palpable awkwardness, as CW wondered if she could somehow mime out “let’s just drink wine and stare into each others’ eyes”… alas, all CW could muster was a lame shrug and a smile, which, in good sport was mirrored by TD&G as he gave a small wave and walked away, looking back once to smile again. Advice to my female friends: DO NOT go to Italy without at least learning the essential phrases for basic survival such as “I would love to have a glass of wine with you”, “a tour of the city would be grand”, “I prefer red to white”, and “yes, you can pick me up at 8pm”.

It is no coincidence that Italy is shaped like a boot. This is a frank geographical prelude to “you-are-going-to-spend-a-ton-of-cash-on-fine-Italian-goods-if-you-come-here”. I willingly submitted to this stark reality which faced me immediately upon disembarking from the plane, as I was greeted by Prada, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana in the airport lobby.
In Florence, the street vendors peddled their goods in the shadows of the stunning Duomo, and filled every corner of the Piazza Republica with the smell of fine Italian leather. There is something important you need to know if buying a pair of Italian leather gloves (for the record, I am now the proud owner of 2 pairs…): Gloves are a very personal thing, and should not be tried on unless the buyer has unquestionable intent of purchasing. My first experience involved innocently picking up a pair of gloves off the display (just to test out the sizing) to admire how the soft, brown leather hid my knobby knuckles and made my long awkward fingers look rather sophisticated. I was just turning around to show Mum, when the other glove was swiped from my hand, and a tug on the tips of my gloved fingers violently unmasked my gnarly hands to a scathing vendor who was loudly voicing his disgust in Italian (here I was happy I did not know the language!). I was so taken aback as I had no idea what offence I had committed – I made a quick exit from the booth with the man yelling at me in broken, sarcastic English/Italian. Everyone stared as I stumbled down the uneven cobbled walkway, eager to escape the hostile onslaught I had somehow provoked…

Mum and I decided that he was just biased against English speakers, and decided to try our luck with a sweet little old lady at a glove booth at the opposite end of the market. She didn’t speak a word of English, so I politely pointed at the pair of gloves I wished to try on, and she pulled out my size from the overflowing, chipped wooden drawers under the display. They fit perfectly, but unfortunately, she did not have the exact color I was looking for. As I tried to communicate this to her and thank her for her time, the once cute little wisps of white hair at her temples suddenly seemed to curl into hissing snakes as she unexpectedly morphed into Ms Hide (typo fully intended)…she furiously made a “V” with her middle and index finger and stabbed the air uncomfortably close to my eyes, then jabbed her crooked, arthritic thumb at the display. Once again, I was the victim to a verbal assailment of unwarranted intensity which caused heads to turn for half a block in each direction. As I once more slunk off with Mum in tow (Mum wide eyed and laughing as one can only be following such a situation), I mustered up my last bit of pride and meekly approached a short, robust man at a booth tucked back from the others who was patiently tolerant of my ignorant feats (whatever they were), as 5 minutes later, I was walking away admiring my 2 pairs of brand new gloves. Unfortunately, Medusa’s booth was on the way back to our B&B from downtown, and while she may have been old, those years of smoking, pastry eating and wine drinking had in no way chipped away at her hippocampus, as every time we walked by her, she scathingly shot daggers at us from under the loose folds of her eyelids. I made sure my newly gloved hands were always unobstructed from view as we passed by.

Ok, a couple more stories to share, but I will save them for next week…as per usual, I have made an epic novel out of one story.