A Curious Day in Montalcino

Every so often, when you’re having a really bad day and you want to tear your eyeballs out and throw them like ping pong balls at the hoardes of Asian tourists clogging up your neighborhood streets, the universe throws you a little sparkly nugget of joy and you get invited to join a wine tour in the countryside of Montalcino, tasting Brunello a.k.a the best friggin wine in the world.

Guys, if you haven’t met Coral, creator of Curious Appetite, do yourselves a favor and head over to her website now. Trust me when I tell you that if you love food, or even just like it a little bit, you really really want to be friends with her.

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Coral the Great in all her polka dotted glory.

Not only does she run a blog with useful tips for eating in Florence with restaurant recommendations, but she also does these gourmet food tours which is kind of like having your best friend take you around the city and show you all the kick-ass places to eat your face off.

My day with Coral went a little something like this:

6:30 am: Wake up at the buttcrack of dawn and seriously consider turning off my alarm clock. Am lured out of bed by the thought of wine for breakfast.

8:00 am:  Trek over to Piazza Tasso to meet Coral and Tommaso, boss man from We Like Tuscany. Find out that We Like Tuscany runs all kinds of tours, from biking to Fiats to Vespas.

8:15 am: Hop into our private minivan for the day and begin the 2 hour journey into the countryside of Montalcino.  Have to pull over on the way for obligitory holy shit! photos of the scenery.

montalcino
A gorgeous day in the Tuscan countryside.

10:30 am: First winery visit to Casato Prime Donne. Am blown away by the fact that the entire place is run exclusively by women, the first all-women winery in Italy. Ask Donatella, founder of the place, if she is looking to adopt any Californians some time soon.

donatella and co
Donatella even makes her own brand of wine, specially marked with red hearts because she can.

12:30 pm: After a few glasses of tasty Brunello and a pit stop to pee, we arrive at the second location, Azienda Agricola Santa Giulia, and are inspected by security before we are allowed to enter:

dog santa giulia
I had to empty my pockets before I was allowed in.

1:00 pm: Sit down to a home made lunch of pici pasta with a wild boar sauce. Discreetly try to lick my plate clean without anyone else noticing.

2:30 pm:  After a delicious meal, we decide to stop for a coffee in the quaint city center of Montalcino.

2:35 pm:  Run back to the car in the midst of a freak hail storm.

3:00 pm:  Visit our final winery, Le Fornace.  Am thoroughly impressed as Fabio, the main man on the farm, explains just how much dedication and effort goes into producing this wine, all done on just 4.5 hectares of land.

6:00 pm: .Return to Florence with a belly full of Brunello and a great plan to open my own farm with dogs and chickens and wine production, all of which will promptly be forgotten after the wine buzz wears off.

If you’re interested in doing a tour with Curious Appetite, you can contact Coral via her website www.curiousappetitetravel.com.  

 

First-Aid Courses in Italy: If you’re going to drop dead, don’t do it here.

A few months ago at work, my boss brought up an opportunity to participate in a primo soccorso or first-aid course here in Florence.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity–apparently I am the only American for miles that has never been CPR certified and actually wants to learn how to mouth breathe on total strangers when they collapse in the middle of the piazza ( I blame my mother and Shonda Rhimes for getting me hooked on Grey’s Anatomy–have you SEEN how smokin’ hot everyone is on that show??).  So after filling out my application form and getting the green light to skip out on work after lunch, I trotted off happily to a nearby language school to attend my first basic life-saving skills course.

Over the next three days, my afternoons melted into a blur of Italian medical vocabulary and complete chaos.  For those of you who have never seen the inside of an Italian classroom, let me give you a little sneak peak at what to expect, also known as Utter Bollocks.*

*This is no way reflects on the teacher of my primo soccorso course, who was unfailingly professional and polite in the face of complete idiocy.

Let’s begin by examining the course itself, shall we? A simple enough concept in which several people come together in the hopes of learning some basic life-saving skills should the need ever arise, taught by a qualified professional such as a doctor or nurse.

Now we had the professoressa, a trained medico who had experience in the field of life-saving as well as in teaching this course.  This was clearly not her first rodeo, since the first thing out of her mouth was the following:

“So the course that you will be completing is registered with the state, and you will receive a certificate upon completing the 12 hours required. I won’t be letting you leave early, either, because you really have to do 12 hours in order to become certified, so don’t even ask.”

Immediately several middle-aged women in the front row of the classroom started protesting in what I’m sure they assumed to be their “indoor voices” a.k.a louder than a garbage incinerator. “But I thought that if we went through it quickly..” “Well my friend took this course and she said they got out early…” “I should probably call home to let them know I won’t be there until late..”

Undeterred, our professoressa continued on with her explanation of the course objectives, telling us that we would all be expected to pass a written test of about 30 questions as well as practicing CPR on a mannequin on the final day.  In the front row, predictably, the hands went up.

“Mi scusi…”

And so went my initiation into the Italian classroom, a place where I rapidly learned the foolishness of my desire to actually learn anything at all.  Instead, I took pictures of the Powerpoint presentation to study later in my spare time and sat back to enjoy the spectacle that is twenty middle-aged Italian women forced to sit in a classroom together for hours on end.  The questions ranged from mildly amusing to completely ridiculous, mostly centered on the one scintillating topic–Whose fault was it if someone died? Below is a favorite exchange of mine:

Woman in class: “Ok, so if I finish this course and I get the certificate, what happens if somebody starts dying in front of me and, you know, I just can’t help them?”

Professoressa: “What do you mean, you can’t do it? I’ve just taught you how to administer basic life saving techniques.”

Woman: “Well yeah, but I am a very emotional person and if I see someone collapse in front of me, I just don’t think I could do it. So if I just can’t do it, then what?”

Professoressa: “Can you use a telephone?”

Woman: “Yes, of course!”

Professoressa: “Then you can call 118 (the emergency number in Italy), which is what I’ve basically been teaching you for the past 12 hours.”

My favorite part of the primo soccorso course was our third and final day, in which everyone was required to practice CPR on the dummy unless they were quick enough with the excuse like one woman who claimed her carpal tunnel syndrome refused to allow her to participate. Luckily for her, the professoressa was so sick of us by that point that she just waved her hand in the air and got on with the rest of the class without making the woman get up and go through the act of pretend breathing into rubber Randy’s mouthpiece.  Watching everyone pound away on Randy’s chest while the others simultaneously shouted instructions at them, called them an idiot for doing it wrong and/or cheered them on was better than any medical drama on late night TV.

In short, I’d strongly advise everyone to get a thorough medical exam and maybe brush up on their physical fitness before visiting our bel paese.  You never know when you might need a competent set of fingers to push the buttons on a telephone.

Top 5 Tips on How to Be A Good Tourist in Florence

GUYS, GUYS! THE SUN IS OUT AND FLORENCE’S WEATHER MOOD SWINGS ARE OVER!! Wiggling my toes in my Rainbow flip-flops and walking around the house in my underpants complaining about mosquitoes has never felt so good.

In other awesome news, we have been hosting a pretty special visitor to our fair city these past few weeks in the form of one Mr.Tom Hanks. You might recognize him from such films as Forrest Gump or Philadelphia, but I know him as the guy who is currently causing some of the biggest pedestrian traffic jams in Florence and really pissing me off because the only place I’ve seen him so far is on everybody else’s Instagram feeds. COME ON TOM! Throw a girl a box of chocolates or two, would ya?

In T.Hank’s honor and also because it’s that time of year, the lovely group of loony tunes expats we call COSI decided to put together a video with some tips on how to be a good tourist in Florence. Unfortunately I was super late in showing up to the party as per usual, so I’m here with the 1990’s paperback version instead.

Top Tip #1: Learn how to greet people in Italian, and then actually DO IT.

Repeat after me: “Buon Giorno is for morning, Buona sera is for night. Grazie is for leaving, remember to be polite.”

Listen, these poor Italians have to deal with incredible herds of tourists swarming into their cities day after day. The least you can do is acknowledge their existence upon entering their workplace. And possibly buy something from their shop or go on a date with their 40 year old single son who still lives at home, that one’s totally up to you. It’s amazing to me how many people just blatantly ignore the greetings of shopkeepers and baristas. SAY HELLO AND SMILE! You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes in your experiences with the locals.

Top Tip #2: Embrace the chaos.

I know that a lot of people who arrive in Florence are shocked when they see just how chaotic our city can be–dudes, even though it’s small it’s still a CITY. There is no way to completely avoid the noise, traffic, pollution, or dog poop that you will inevitably encounter. Just roll with it, trust me. You’ll be happier in the end. And bring some earplugs for safety’s sake.

Top Tip #3: Talk to the locals.

Resist the temptation to just stop at the first overpriced restaurant with outdoor seating that you see and ask around for some recommendations on where to go for the best food in your area of town. It might be a local farmer’s market where you can make your own picnic lunch with freshly picked olives and sliced salami or it might be a Mom and Pop shop around the corner from your hotel that bakes its bread fresh each morning, but you won’t know until you ask, will you?

Top tip #4: Spend your money.

I know, I know. This one’s a toughie–it’s in our nature to always look for ways to save and stretch our coin. But if you’re on the fence about it, my philosophy is just go for it. You can always make more money but you might never make it back to Italy, and that butter-soft leather bag you’ve been eyeing for 3 days will definitely double as a pillow for when you can’t afford to pay your rent and wind up sleeping on your parents couch.

Top tip #5: Channel your inner Aretha.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: There’s nothing more obnoxious than a visitor without it. While Florence can often feel like a Renaissance version of Disneyland, just remember there are some people who actually have to live here and we have no problem dumping buckets of water on your heads at 3AM out our bedroom windows if you’re being too loud. You’ve  been warned.

For more tips on how not to get your ass kicked while traveling in Italy, check out COSI’s Facebook page or any of my awesome blogging partners’ websites under the COSI tab on the homepage of this blog.

What It’s Like to Fall in Love With Italy

This post is brought to you by your favorite neighborhood blogging mafia C.O.S.I. 

So you want to know what love looks like in Italy? Well, my story might not be the most romantic, but if you’re interested in how a 22 year old California girl who’d never left home before studying abroad and eventually wound up living in Florence and dating a half-English, half-Italian bar manager….well, I already wrote about that here.

The love story I want to talk about today is my long-standing love affair with my city.  Firenze is the place I’ve called home for the past 6 years, and while there have been plenty of ups and downs along the way, there is just something about this goddamn city that I can’t stay away from, no matter how much I hate it sometimes.  Take this morning, for example.  I’ve been packing frantically like a rat high on cocaine for the past two days since I got the unexpected notice that I had to be moved out of my apartment by Feb.20th, not the end of the month like I’d originally planned. I’ve had little sleep and a jam-packed work schedule on top of this, all the while trying to ALSO pack for my vacation back to California on Thursday for one of my best friend’s weddings.

So needless to say, it’s been a stressful time in my household (Zola has taken to hiding in her corner of the couch, blissfully unaffected by the chaos around her) and this morning was no different. After being woken up at 2am to Francesco moving boxes out of the apartment, I had to be up and out the door for work at 7:30am. As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes during my walk across the Ponte Santa Trinita, I realized that in the morning light I was literally the only person around. Taking cold sips of air in through my nose, I breathed out a sigh of relief and looked around me.

sunrise ponte vecchio
Sunrise warming up the Ponte Vecchio
empty streets by the ponte vecchio
Empty streets for miles…

 

Moments like this are rare with my city, but when it happens it’s enough to stop you dead in your tracks for a brief minute.  Without the noise, the traffic, the bodies and daily chaos of the tourists clogging up the streets, this morning was a stunning reminder of why I fell in love with Italy in the first place. There’s just something there that tugs at just the right place in my heart, kind of like when you eat a lot of really spicy food…oh wait, that’s not right. Well, the obsession with one’s indigestion thing (and also the need to publicly discuss bodily functions) is probably also why I love living here too.

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though sometimes Florence can be a real bitch, I also am really going to miss her while I’m away for the next two weeks.

NOT! I’ll be sitting by the pool in San Diego with a beer in my hand laughing at all my friends who are freezing their asses off.  Sorry I’m not sorry, guys. I really need this vacation.

A presto!

Xoxo,

Gina

 

Only Masochists Live in Italy: An Observation on Possible Homelessness

Now before you go getting all uppity and self-righteous about me using the word “homeless” in the title (yes, I am aware that there are actual homeless people living in Italy, and I’m not one of them) I’d just like you to imagine for a minute what life would be like if you were on the imminent edge of, let’s say, losing your home/apartment/cave dwelling/baby momma’s grandma’s house and becoming, as they say in Italy, senza casa.

I realize that for my Italian counterparts, even the mere thought of being without a place to call home is ludicrous, because even the most orphaned of Italians surely have some sort of long-lost uncle that’s got a friend whom they can stay with for awhile, if not an entire undiscovered part of the family who is waiting breathlessly to welcome them into the family fold, chaining those well-worn catholic guilt-stained handcuffs to their blissfully ignorant wrists as the women offer to iron their underpants or at least cook them dinner. But imagine, if you will, being a foreigner or immigrant in a country where the majority of the population was born into a family home and simply never left it. Over the years (and economic cycles), the villas became houses, and the houses became apartments, and some Italians even (gasp!) left their homes and bought new ones further away in the more affordable areas of town, leaving behind the smaller, used apartments in the city center to sit empty and meaningless until the tourist boom hit Italy and suddenly, everyone wanted to live here and the rental market blew through the roof.

I bring your attention to a little-known yet often discussed problem in Florence—the housing crisis. In a city where half of the population seems to be American students who shell out thousands of dollars to universities who cater to their every whim, or foreigners looking to establish a new “home away from home”, finding an apartment in the city center can be as enjoyable as plucking your eyelashes out with red-hot tweezers. I should know—I’ve been frantically looking for a new apartment ever since the clock started ticking on my lease, and I’ve come up completely empty-handed.

You see, part of the problem is me. I know it, and the Italian landlords know it. Being American and a woman, I have a higher standard of acceptable living than most people. For starters, I expect that an apartment on the rental market will have a few basic components to it that enable someone to, in fact, call it an apartment and not a glorified hole. For example, when an Italian landlord describes their apartment as “charming”, we both know that what he really means is “shit-small but in a good area of town”. Or if someone says that their apartment is “unfurnished”, it means that you’re literally going to have to put in all the appliances, oven, stove, toilets, and all the other furniture and junk that goes with living in a habitable environment. These are things that I understand and expect from renting an apartment in Italy.

However, when someone says that an apartment has a full-functioning bathroom, I do not expect to take a shower while sitting on my toilet and brushing my teeth. Nor do I wish to pay two-thirds of my paycheck in order to do so.

Introducing...the scary shower/toilet/sink combo, all in one!
Introducing…the scary shower/toilet/sink combo, all in one!

Also, guys, let’s be honest—the entire selling point of an apartment is in the photos, right? I mean, you wouldn’t think that someone would put up a shitty looking picture of their apartment if they wanted it to get rented…right?

blurry bathroom pic scary apartment 1

These are actual apartments in Florence, everyone. And these landlords are laughing their asses off all the way to the bank with your security deposit, because no self-respecting Italian would put up with this shit in a million years, and everyone knows it but you.

So while I’ve contemplated which cardboard box I’ll be using to set up camp underneath the Ponte Vecchio once I get kicked out of this place I’m at now, I’m content with the fact that I won’t give up on my pursuit of the perfect apartment.  If I have to rompere a few palle on my way towards the top, so be it. Maybe one day I’ll start a legacy of apartment rentals so kick-ass, I’ll be like the Damon Pope of Florence.

New Year’s Eve in Florence, Or As I Like To Call It, The Italian Hunger Games

Capodanno, or New Year’s Eve for all us foreigners, is a celebration so rowdy and raucous that only the most seasoned of veterans can survive. This shitshow usually involves some sort of dinner with friends, in which copious amounts of prosecco are involved, and a giro walking around the city, possibly stopping off at a bar or pub where the cover charge isn’t too expensive to take shots of whiskey to ward off the chill December night. The night culminates in people throwing bottles into the street and chucking firecrackers at each other in the piazzas, drunk and in love with life and laughter filling the air.

Needless to say, New Year’s Eve in Florence kicks ass.

Now I realize that not everybody is prepared to conquer such a night themselves, which is why I’ve compiled this trusty list to get you through the evening in one piece. Here goes:

Rule #1: To Survive the Italian Hunger Games, You Must Adequately Fuel Yourself.

Now everybody knows that in order to sustain a night of heavy drinking, you must consume enough food to get you through to your 4am kebab. My suggestions in order to keep the night from burning too big of a hole in your wallet is to avoid the €75 fixed menus peppering the town and stick to the tried and true aperitivo. This way, you get to start off the night by both drinking and eating, a surefire way to kick start a buzzed night.

Rule #2: Arm yourselves with some trusty weapons.

No, seriously. Do it. Go to a tabacchi in Sant’Ambrogio the day before and load up on sparklers, firecrackers and rocket bombs. You’re gonna want these later when all hell breaks loose in Piazza Signoria , trust me.

Rule #3: Keep your friends close, and your enemies far far away.

Grab as many close acquaintances as possible to start your evening out with. Chances are that half of them won’t make it to midnight, and you’ll want to be with at least one person that you know and trust enough to get your ass out of a jam if people start getting too crazy.

As for your enemies, know them and keep them at a distance. Get sloppy when drinking tequila? Avoid it. Tend to rage a little too hard when hitting the vodka bottle with your girls? Stick to prosecco and pass on the clear stuff. Nothing’s worse than waking up on New Year’s Day with a pounding headache, 10 angry voicemails on your phone and a notification informing you that you’ve just been de-friended on Facebook by your mother.

Rule #4: Map out your plan of attack for the evening’s festivities.

If you and your friends can create a loose idea of which bars you want to visit and what area of town you want to stick to, you’re more likely to be able to find each other again at the end of the night when you’re drunk and get separated because you decided you just had to take a picture with you holding a sparkler sitting on the back of the bronze porcellino wild boar statue in Piazza di Mercato Nuovo.

Rule #5: When the clock strikes Midnight, run like hell.

And kiss the nearest person straight on the mouth cause IT’S NEW YEARS, BITCHES.

Have fun, you filthy animals. I hope you all have a fantastic and phenomenal new year, and thanks as always for reading all the nonsense that I write.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

“Nobody Leaves The Table Until They’ve Eaten So Much That They Hate Themselves”–Observations on Eating in Italy

“Nobody leaves the table until they’ve eaten so much that they hate themselves.”  Even after years of eating some of the best food Italy has to offer, this is the one quote (said by a good friend after a painfully long and indulgent meal) that has stuck with me the most.  Trying to describe what it’s like to eat the regional food in Florence would take years, and to be honest I wouldn’t even know where to begin.  How do you explain the feeling of biting into a ripe tomato so juicy that it explodes in your mouth the second it hits your tongue?  What words can one use to describe the dazzling array of colors in the vegetables spread out so lovingly across the stalls of Sant’Ambrogio?  I’ll tell you what you do–you stop thinking and start eating.  A lot.

Have you ever seen something so RED in your whole life?!
Have you ever seen something so RED in your whole life?!

The thing is, not that many Italians are fat.  In fact, pretty much none of them are.  They’re all just regular people who happen to have kick-ass metabolisms groomed after centuries of poverty and disaster.  After spending years picking up the pieces that Mussolini and WW2  left behind, it’s no surprise that they would want to celebrate.  And what better way to celebrate than with food?

Tuscans are particularly good at this skill of turning pretty much nothing into something amazing.  Take a handful of stale bread, some leftover beans, the wilting bits of cavolo nero from the pitiful garden harvest and BAM! You’ve got yourself a stew called Ribollita, baby.  No need for fancy spices or hours on end.  You make use of everything you’ve got, because you never know when that stock will run out.  And when you make food, you make A LOT of it.  You know, cause you’ve got to feed the neighbors and stuff, too.

antipasti
That’s just the appetizer plate…

 

Every region in Italy has its own particular “brand” of food–from the steaming mussel soups of the Ligurian coastline to the thick doughy pizzas of Campagna.  The Tuscan brand is farming, from the groves of olive trees swollen with green fruit to the creamy white cows grazing along the hillsides that end up as prime cuts of bistecca in Florence’s most upscale restaurants.  Wine, vegetables, meat–if you can grow it out in the countryside, it’s probably coming from Tuscany.  If not, it probably tastes like shit.

The problem is that now my whole perception of food has been ruined.  I used to love munching away on a piece of string cheese (ask my mom, she used to buy like 5 packets a week) or a microwaved Hot-Pocket, but now I can actually tell the difference between processed foods and fresh ones so it kind of sucks for me because I’m way pickier when it comes to eating.  That being said, I also eat a lot more weird stuff, like cow’s stomach and fat spread onto a piece of bread and wild boar, because if you live in Florence for any length of time you’ll inevitably come across a Florentine who will shove it down your throat because “YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS AT LEAST ONCE, TRUST ME.  I’M FROM FLORENCE.”

So if you’re planning on coming to Tuscany at any point in your life, you’ve been warned–pack your stretchy pants and say goodbye to your waistline.  From the salty schiacciata flatbread to that first crisp sip of Chianti Classico, you’ll understand one day when I say that every bite is an adventure.

This post is part of a series on different food regions in Italy from your friendly neighborhood bloggers C.O.S.I.  For more stories like this, click here.