Empty streets in Rome, lots of parking spaces, and shuttered businesses. Ferragosto, started by Emperor Augustus in 31 BCE (2050 years ago!), is a holiday now celebrated on August 15. The name, Ferragosto, is a combination of the Latin for “feasts + Augustus” so not only did the emperor name the month after himself, he also named the celebrations after himself. Supposedly, it was started as a way to celebrate the end of all the hard labor done during the summer harvest. Things ripen earlier than I’m used to in Italy so harvesting can be done in the summer. For example, I always think of pears as a fall/autumn fruit. Not here. They are optimal in July and August.
I know this because I was thoroughly enjoying my fresh zero kilometer peaches and pears a few weeks ago. Then August started. My zero kilometer farmers’ market and many other businesses close for the whole month of August! I wonder what happens to all that ripe fruit?
Then one day, I was having a wine consultation with a wine expert and she gave me a great insiders’ tip — some of the zero kilometer farmers sell from their own farm at the back of Trionfale Market. While the stalls are not as pretty and they are back by the fishmongers, at least I was able to buy produce grown from within 68 miles of Rome. To identify these stalls, the price signs will have “prod. prop.” or something like that written on them. It translates to “our own produce” or “we grow it.”
Also, did I mention that it’s melon season? I’ve only seen cantaloupe, net, and watermelon. I was hoping for honeydew but have yet to see it. Previously I preferred the melon without the proscuitto but with the summer heatwave, I completely understand the salty sweet wet combination that is a very Italian way to refill your electrolytes.
Today is Boxing Day which is St. Stephen’s Day here in Italy. As we are on day three of red zone lockdown, I have time to reflect.
Moving to a new country has both its delights and irritations. Then, there are the things that I just hadn’t contemplated or expected.
Eating cookies for breakfast: that takes getting used to. They also eat croissants (un cornetto is a croissant) and pizza for breakfast. The breakfast pizza is a sandwich made with pizza bread which is like focaccia (the pizza can be many things here and is in many ways simply “bread”). Another thing is that mayonnaise for your sandwich for breakfast is okay, but most sandwiches are quite sparsely filled and have very little “lettuce, tomato,…” but instead the extremely popular bologna, mortadella, provides enough fat (there is a required amount of fat squares that must be visible) to butter the sandwich. Another thing is that you can get meatballs, ham with fresh mozzarella, sautéed broccoli greens, and almost anything in a sandwich. It just won’t be very tall.
Trash on the street: the trash dumpsters are communal and this means that there are trash dumpsters on every street. It’s all out there for everyone to see. Not hidden away in the bowels of the buildings or back alley.
Tupperware/food containers: I had not expected this to be so hard to find. I suppose it’s because Italians eat fresh food every day. Or at least they don’t cook up a storm on a Sunday and then neatly stack containers of food in the freezer. It’s not that Italians don’t have left overs. They do. They are extremely frugal. But, they just store it in some other way. I’m not sure what. On the other hand, I can easily find a pasta making board at the kitchen store.
Ham (proscuitto cotto): It’s so good here. And I’m not even talking about proscuitto and porchetta, and all those other lovely pork products. I just mean simple pink ham to go on my bread.
The freshness: fresh fruit is sold ripe here so it also goes bad a bit faster than in the U.S. Fruit is not stored in the fridge so it dries out or begins to molder. The clementines are lovely this time of year in Rome but I didn’t expect them to start going mushy on day five. One day I ate eight clementines to eat them all before they went bad. I could freeze the pulp but fresh juice is not as common here as in Peru. In Peru, one always new it was morning because of the sound of blenders whizzing all over Lima. In Peru, the method is to blitz the fruit and then sieve it. Here in Italy, the fruit, usually oranges, are pressed. The greens are really green and Italians love greens.
Preserved Fish: jarred tuna is in almost anything here — and on pizza. Anchovy: yes, on everything. Not gelato. But, the anchovy is good. Since Italian food is not that spicy, anchovy is the strong flavor. And it’s not that strong.
Prices: pizza is affordable ($4 for a personal pizza, no tipping so reasonable for lunch). Eating out/taking out is affordable (my pasta and a drink on Piazza Navona was 13 Euro). Christmas cards and stationery are pricey (4.5 Euro for a card). Taxis are not cheap as they run the meter from when they choose to take your ride, not when you get in the car. This makes it about 5 Euro per kilometer. But so worth it on these hard and ankle-mangling cobblestones. While the price of items in stores is higher than in the U.S., it is possible to shop at the many Chinese-run stores and buy the “made in China” straight from China. I went to one such store, loaded up my arms, and was shocked that it cost a total of 13 Euro. In contrast, my hot water kettle (it is fancy) cost 48 Euro.
English: I knew that most people would speak some English. They do. If not, they will probably find someone. But, it is possible to live in Rome without speaking Italian. Not as much fun, but possible.
Friendliness: I didn’t expect people to be so friendly. I never thought of Italians as friendly. Maybe it’s just in Rome? Maybe it’s because the shop owners and restaurant owners are so happy to see a customer after almost a year of COVID? Maybe it’s that unicorn called “customer service?” Maybe because I try to speak Italian? Or because I say “buongiorno” to everyone, even random people on the street… Whatever the reason, most people I interact with are friendly.
As an expat, it can take a while to venture out and find all the “bare necessities” like bacon. My go-to place for meat is a butcher shop called “Koller” and it’s located near the corner of Carrera 15 and Calle 95 (not sure what the exact address is but it’s easier to remember 15 and 95). The building’s facade is blue so it’s easy to find once you know where it is. Also, usually there’s a avocado cart outside, but this doesn’t distinguish it from other street corners.
When you go inside, it’s so sort of like shopping in Ye Olde Europe. Shopping is a three stage process. There are chairs in the center of the shop for those who are not actively shopping. Right inside the door is a red number dispenser (just like in Europe) and once your number is called or is visible on the flashing sign, you go round the butcher shop’s meat counters from right to left. First is the counter with cuts of beef. Then, as you move to your left, with the butcher lady mirroring your move on the other side of the counter, you reach the pork, deli meats, sausages, hotdogs, bacon, pates, and so on. All the meats are prepared by Koller and other grocery stores and restaurants advertise that they carry Koller brand hotdogs or ham. The butcher lady puts all your meat in a plastic basin. When you move to the sandwich stand and checkout, another person will ring you up. Then you take the chit from that person over to the cashier which completes the circle around the room. Once you’ve paid (you can pay by credit card), you go back to the checkout and get your (now) bagged meat. The security guard offered to help carry my bag to my car.
I find the prices at Koller to be slightly less than in the U.S. as I’ve bought three pound filet for about $30. The shop is very clean and the only part that is a big strange is that you can’t buy just a part of the tenderloin. All or nothing. They do have pre-cut pieces so I guess one could buy those. I just buy the whole thing and cut them myself. The bacon is almost without fat so it cooks up really fast. It’s more like Danish bacon or pancetta.
While I can’t understand some of the road signs and the altitude is exhausting, the most shocking thing about moving to Bogota is how tongue-tied I feel. In order not to seem rude, every person has to be addressed in Spanish. While there are places in the U.S. where I only hear Spanish spoken, the big difference is that I’m not expected to respond in Spanish. So far, here in Bogota, the people I’ve talked to have been incredibly nice about my stunted Spanish. But then again, the phrases have been extremely simple:
“Buenas” = “goods” for good morning, good afternoon, good evening.
“Muchisimas gracias” = a million thanks (rough translation)
“Muy amable” – you are so kind/so nice of you
“Que tenga buen dia” = “Have a nice day.”
The other night, I realized that after months and months of Spanish classes, I didn’t know how to say to the waiter, “yes, you may take my plate.”
I won’t go into all the mistakes that I’m making when I manage to actual get a few words out. So far, the funniest part of speaking Spanish was when I was ordering a sandwich and I thought I’d stick to something simple like a ham and cheese… then the sandwich lady asked me, “jamon de pavo o jamon de cerdo?” Turkey ham? Or pork ham? I wasn’t aware that “ham” was generic for “lunch meat.”
The other shocking thing is figuring out the currency. At the current exchange rate, it’s about 1,881 Colombian pesos to one U.S. dollar. So far, I’ve been knocking off three zeros, dividing by half and adding a little on top. Is it my new math?
As I’ve mentioned before, Washington, DC, is filled with food adventures. Newly gentrified H Street in northeast DC is the newest “hot” area of international food eclecticism. It has quirky pubs, rice dives, and even the chain pizza restaurant has fancy pants “jamon iberico” on the menu. Plus, this being DC, you can even get pizza with sweet potato. And, of course, they bake the pizza in a wood burning oven.
At the Lebanese restaurant, they sell “ayran,” a salty yogurt drink, “mamoul,” a Fig Newton-like treat, plus the usual middle eastern treats like baklava. An extra experience we had was getting good tips on Iraqi music from the guy behind the counter (there’s an app for that!).