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


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