Tuesday, February 17, 2015

If the Boot Fits, Wear it.

Another perfect day shopping in Florence. Who doesn't love this country?
Italy is my favorite country. There, I've said it. Everyone asks me that question and I have skirted the answer in the same way I avoid naming my favorite child. After all, we've spent time in 28 countries and each one has very special qualities. Besides, who doesn't love Italy? People should get to know Slovenia - she's a sassy little country. Or if you prefer a no-nonsense, tell it like it is country spend some time with Denmark. France? Too easy - she's like your best wine-bar friend. If you like a more mysterious but satisfying encounter, then Morocco is the friend for you. And don't forget those crazy Baltics - they were a good time. But in the end, truly - I am in love with Italy.

Michelangelo's family and the Campbell's attended this same church
In our eighteen months of travel (and going back to previous trips to Europe) I think we've covered most of this fascinating boot shaped country. And every time we visit we look at each other and say "we could live here!" Now that we have this Senior Nomad experience underway, with no permanent home in mind at the finish line, the fantasy inches closer to reality. We could live amongst passionate, eccentric, happy Italian people quite easily.We could even take up smoking, skip breakfast for espresso shots, take long lunches, work - or not. Support the local football team. And shop for food. Eat food. Dream about food. And use passionate hand gestures while doing all of the above.

Italian ingredients are so fabulous you can't create a bad meal - this was my favorite.
On this chilly February morning I am sitting outside on our rooftop deck in Lecce in the heel of the boot. The morning sun is still weak, but I am outside, and it isn't raining - and according to our trusty  app "Weatherbug" there is a full week of warmer weather in our future! I can see church towers in all directions and I can also peer into dozens of neighboring terraces. There is laundry strung on most of them (ours included), lots of potted succulents (which means it must get really warm here eventually), many fat cats stretching and preening as they start their day, and hundreds of TV antennas! Obviously you can't chunk up thousand year old streets to lay cable, so it's all satellite dishes and spindly sticks in the air up here. Here's the link to our wonderful place in Lecce: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1374534

A sunny morning on our deck - a perfect place to blog!
We have enjoyed a leisurely exploration of southern Italy. Most tourists don't get down this far - Naples, maybe, but if you only have a short time in Italy the itinerary is usually focused on Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Venice - for good reasons!

Sometimes we just stay in and enjoy everyday life. Especially when it's raining!
We enjoyed a wet ten days in Naples - and had a couple of great day trips including a visit to Pompeii - a very eerie place. It is hard to fathom the swift destruction of a thriving city by eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Especially when you learn about the sophisticated infrastructure, the social aspects - from brothels to Bacchanals (and the legal system to help you out of scrapes with either), and the incredible architecture. I was particularly fascinated by the intricate mosaics that were salvaged and are on display at the National Archaeological Museum -so much talent!

One of my favorite mosaics discovered in the ruins of Pompeii
A warehouse of goods found in the ruins - and a plaster body cast of a victim.
Michael was able to attend a football match - and his blog post about that memorable night has been posted. It's a good story. I also posted a blog about cooking in our various kitchens, and, although Naples was one of my favorite places to cook, it was also where I finally had a melt down. And I don't mean chocolate. Our apartment in Naples was great: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4469870

Michael being looked after at the Naples football match by new friends Ricki and Antonella
Branching out - snails for dinner, at least for me. Michael played it safe with pasta.
After a week in Naples, we climbed aboard a bus to Bari in Puglia on the Adriatic Sea. We caught a few more days of rain and some of the coldest temperatures locals could recall! Lucky us. But really...lucky us! Because Bari was a very cool town in more than temperature, and it doesn't get it's share of glory. Our apartment was in a very authentic neighborhood and we really felt we were living like locals, especially with our host Enzo's help. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com.mt/rooms/1291786

Michael getting the scoop on Bari from our host Enzo
We found a great tour guide named Giuseppe who was just starting his free walking tour career. He took just the two of us around town as good practice for the upcoming tourist season. He beamed like a proud papa as he showed us his city even in the rain and wind. As we toured the old town, he knocked on the front door of a friend's home to introduce "his Americans"! The extended family was sitting around the table while their Nonna made pasta. I was treated to an impromptu orecchiette making lesson! These "little ears" are the famed local pasta. This woman is renowned for her skill and was happy to share the technique with me. She had a good laugh at my attempts to roll and flip the little darlings with my dinner knife. This was a Top 10 Nomad moment for me.

My impromptu orecchietti lesson in Bari. This Nonna is a renowned master!
Our guide Giuseppe admiring a good night's work of handmade pasta
We took two day trips out of Bari. Our favorite was a short run by train to Alberobello to see the famous Trulli houses. Most of the town is taken up by hillsides covered in small conical shaped homes with distinctive dome roofs. Apparently these were constructed to be easily dismantled as marauding invaders (including tax collectors) swooped down on the villages. Two days later we headed to Matera where most of the city is made up of ancient cave dwellings turned into housing ... a long story, and an interesting day out.

The unique rooftops of the Trulli houses
Michael among the Trullis
The rambling hillsides full of cave houses in Matera
Lecce, where we are now, is often referred to as the "Florence" of southern Italy. And I can see some similarities. But really, this city is a Diva on her own merits. We are in the old town - a first choice when choosing our airbnb apartments, and although that often means a lot of narrow, ancient and  uneven stairs (inside and out), it's been worth it every time.

Lecce's famous Basilica di Santa Croce has literally left no stone  unadorned
The terrace of our Lecce apartment. The stairs were worth the climb.
Ruined umbrellas stuffed in bins are definitely keeping the 'brolly' street vendors of Italy in business.
Our attempts to stay warm in southern Europe and Morocco didn't really pan out. We have plans to move towards Eastern Europe, but as I mentioned in an earlier blog, countries ending in 'ia' (you know Albania, Romania, Bulgaria ... ) are better in summer when gray skies are banished like the oppression. 
Travel planning Breakfast of Champions! Cookies and Diet Coke.
Heading into our tiny "door in the wall" in Lecce. No real need to let carriages in these days.
In the meantime, we leave blustery, rainy, but much loved Italy behind this weekend. Coming up we've got exciting plans that include stops in Malta, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and then on to the Holy Land! But I am sure we will be back to Italy because this boot fits really, really well.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
Senior Nomads in Europe

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Football in Naples - A Night I'll Never Forget

Over the last 18 months I have attended 15 football matches all across Europe. Often times, just figuring out how to buy a ticket, where the stadium is and getting to and from the matches has been a story in itself. This was especially true in Naples where we spent ten days in early February seeking the sun and warmth in Southern Italy. We didn't find either of those - but, for me as least I did find a football match. SSC Napoli, the first division club in Naples was having a great season in 3rd place behind Juventus and Roma. But the match that fit our schedule was a mid-week Coppa Italia quarter-final match against Inter-Milan with an 8:45 pm kick-off. Debbie wasn't too disappointed since she could cook her favorite dinner of garlic and clams while I was out (neither being a favorite of mine).

Stadio San Paolo seats 60,000

Fans will never forget Maradona who played in Naples 1984-91
Napoli won the Coppa Italia last year. Going into the match with Inter, they were on a four game winning streak while Inter was struggling in 13th place in Serie A.

Getting a ticket to the Wednesday night match was pretty straight forward. I learned there was a Box Office for events of all types just a few minutes walk from our apartment. When I arrived I found out that all the top priced tickets were sold-out which was not a problem for me since I always buy the cheapest ticket I can find.

Only tickets left were in my budget - $12 in Curva B
I typed the address of the stadium into Google Maps on my phone and determined that the best way to get to the match was by bus. I arrived at the bus stop in plenty of time and then waited, and waited for the #151. I should haves known ... not only am I in Italy, I am in Southern Italy. These things take time.

I  had lots of small change ready to buy my ticket when I boarded the bus. But after waiting quite awhile, I asked a woman, who was also waiting for the bus, about how much tickets cost. That's when I learned you had to buy bus tickets ahead of time from a newsagent or tobacconist. Really? Not on the bus?

I started running up the street looking for a place to buy a bus ticket but everything was closed. Then I spotted a Metro station. In some cities like Paris, a Metro ticket also works on the bus so I headed for the Metro station. That's when I saw the #151 stopped at a light so I just took a chance and jumped on. My plan was to show the driver my football ticket and a handful of change along with my best human relation skills with the hope that he would take pity on me and let me on.

In fact, the driver didn't even blink when I got on a very packed bus. I turned around and found dozens of people wearing SSC Napoli scarfs, obviously headed to the match! My fellow bus mates spoke no English and my Italian vocabulary is less that 10 words but we became instant friends and in particular I found a great "mate" in Ricki.

 Over the next 45 minutes I used my Google Translate app to engage my new found friends asking all sorts of football questions about Napoli and the match. That's when I found out that some of the fans were also sitting in Curva B just like me and through various hand signals I got the impression that I could follow them to find the right gate. Whew!

Once off the bus my new best friend Ricki and his girlfriend Antonella took me under their wing and guided me through tens of thousands of fans making their way into the stadium. On the way to our gate I noticed that Ricki was opening a quart-size bottle of Peroni beer which he planned on sharing with me. My read of the social situation indicated I had no choice but to accept his hospitality. So we passed the bottle back and forth and swigged as we dodged people, cars and Vespas. Ricki insisting that I take my full allotment.

By the time we got to our gate we were one of thousands of  fans trying to squeeze through tight metal turnstiles to get through security. I showed my ID, got frisked and together we ran up three long flights of stairs to our seats near the top of the stadium. "Seating" in the Curvas is actually a place where fans stand (even though there are seats). We  literally found the last few spots in one of the upper rows where we could "stand" as the match got underway.

View from our "seats"
My Guardian Angels - Ricki and Antonella

The first half was pretty even. A handful of yellow cards. Lots of back and forth with few real shots on goals and no score after 45 minutes.

At halftime, since Ricki and Antonella did not speak English, I struck up a conversation with some college students who were standing next to us. During the break we covered both Italian and American football as well as Italian and American politics. I also got a lesson in Coppa Italia and Serie A (Italian 1st Division) football and a reminder that Maradona played his Serie A football in Naples.

Obligatory Selfie
In the 2nd half Inter dominated with more possession time and shots on goal but alas when the clock reached the 90 minute mark the score was 0-0. Many stadiums show how much extra time is added for injuries, or make a PA announcement but not in Naples so there was no way to know how much time remained in the match.

50,000 + near sell-out for the Wednesday night match.
A minute later the Inter defense broke down right in front of the net. That's when the Napoli forward from Argentina, Gonzolo Hiquain, spotted daylight to the left of the goalie and boom, he poked in the winning goal!

The stadium went crazy, and I mean really crazy. With the win Napoli moved on to the semi-finals of this year's Coppa Italia and a chance of repeating in 2014-15.

After 10 minutes of all-out pandemonium, Ricki motioned that it was time to go! We scurried back to where the bus dropped us off - but it quickly became apparent that with all the traffic and thousands of fans leaving the match, finding a municipal bus wasn't going to happen any time soon. Maybe tomorrow morning, but not tonight.  It was just plain crazy with people, cars, and motorcycles  jostling to leave without a single traffic cop or any other visible exit plans in sight.

Ricki did, however, seem to have a lot of friends who, like us, where scheming to get home. Together (along with scores of others) they chased down taxis, but never seemed to score one. I couldn't tell if they were negotiating with the driver for time, distance the number of passengers - or "just get me home - I don't care what it costs!"

Around 11:30 pm as the crowds were dwindling, Ricki signaled to me and Antonella to come over to a big white van and he made it clear we should pile in. I followed his lead - not knowing where we where headed. At this point  any mode of transport that got me close enough to walk home worked for me. I would say the van had seats for 16 but within five minutes there was over 30 people jammed inside  Because of the win it was a happy bunch of fans-in-a-van. I don't think it would have been so congenial otherwise. 

The escape vehicle
 I got the brilliant idea of opening Google Maps so I could follow our "progress" and it appeared we were headed toward the center of Naples which I figured was good.

After almost an hour of stop-and-go traffic, I started to recognize where we were and I wasn't far from home!  Ricki grabbed my shoulder, and using his best Italian hand gestures indicated that I should get out at the next stop light. The other sardines made room for me to squeeze out the door and before I knew it I was standing on the curb yelling "grazie mille!

I checked my watch and it was midnight. No one asked me to pay anything for the ride. I plugged our address into  Google Maps and it said I was less than a mile from home. Off I went and twenty minutes later I was in our airbnb apartment and crawled into bed safe and sound.

In a perfect world I would return Ricki and Anatellos incredible hospitality in Seattle and escort them to a Sounders match but unfortunately I don't know how I'd ever find them again. Unfortunately,  we never exchanged contact information but maybe they will find this blog post somehow surfing the web for S.C.C. Napoli.

What a great night. True story!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Can She Cook in this Kitchen?

Passed on these boys while shopping for dinner - maybe because they were laughing at me!
Last night I found myself standing in the middle of our kitchen in Naples, Italy with tears in my eyes. Why? I couldn't find a vegetable peeler. Who doesn't have a vegetable peeler? (I can tell you now 50% of kitchens), but I swear I saw one. But maybe that was two, or maybe three kitchens ago - and now it's dark and throwing down rain and I have beautiful vegetables to peel for minestrone.

A good start to the soup, but the finish line was far in the distance. 
In order to make the Senior Nomads budget work we eat most meals at home and often pack a picnic for lunch. And I love that - because I love food. I truly enjoy the meal planning, the trips to the markets and the grocery store, the preparation and sitting down to the table together. In Italy food practically throws itself at you and it is one of my favorite places to shop and cook.

A "Go To" Nomads dinner. I often roast a chicken on the first night.
Sounds like something out of Under the Tuscan Sun, doesn't it? Well, set that fairy tale on the back burner. Since we left Seattle in July of 2013 I have cooked in 56 different kitchens and each one tells a story - most have happy endings, but some leave you tossing the book aside.

Obviously the lack of a vegetable peeler wasn't a life-threatening situation - no worse that a badly stubbed toe, really, but I guess I was just over it. Over taking inventory of each new kitchen, and, more often than not coming up "a sharp knife short of a load". Or a vegetable peeler, or a decent saute pan. Or any decent pans for that matter.

One of our smallest, and least equipped kitchens was in Marrakesh. This was about all there was to work with. 
There are always plenty of wine openers and pizza cutters, but rarely a whisk. Mixing bowls and casseroles are scarce. The occasional cheese grater is a nice find. And once I had a salad spinner! Most of the time I find this scavenger hunt fun - and even fantasize about starring in a reality show called "Can She Cook in This Kitchen?" But not tonight. In fairness to our Naples hosts, it was a very nice kitchen and had most everything you could ask for. I guess I was just having "a moment" and the lack of a few key tools pushed me over the edge.

Husband to the rescue! He put on his coat, grabbed the umbrella and said "Just tell me what you need - I am on it". Sweet man.

The list. And the results! I married a fine man who came through in a pinch.
However, our airbnb was in the Spanish Quarter which is a warren of cramped, winding streets with multiple small specialty shops. Unless you know the area, it can be tough to shop for a specific need. The list included at the very least a vegetable peeler. If possible a paring knife, and a cheese grater (No cheese grater? WHERE am I?) I drew a quick sketch of each item I hoped he might find and off he went.  He was back in half an hour with the goods. They may not have come from Sur La Table but they did the trick and restored my good humor, (who wouldn't laugh at these cuties) And the soup was delicious.

Here's how the Minestrone came together:  I carved a handful of lardons from my chunk of panecetta, got those sizzling, then added a sliced red onion, diced garlic and celery to the pan. I opened a big can of Moretti crushed tomatoes and a jar of their tomato puree, drained a jar of cannelloni beans, chopped the parsley, celery greens, and added a big handful of already chopped kale, chard, leeks and cabbage (it's a minestrone mix you buy loose at the green grocer). Once I had my  new tools I peeled and diced a couple of carrots, and a large potato. In they went along with everything else, plus two cups of beef broth and a good pinch of red pepper flakes, black pepper and salt. I cooked a pot of small penne pasta to stir into individual servings at the end along with a handful of incredible Parmesan cheese. The bread here is so good - and the rich, spicy olive oil so affordable that you can serve lashings of it along side this soup.

We eat fresher and better as Nomads than we ever did in America.
A typical Nomad dinner - this one in Helsinki, back when Brian Williams was in good stead.
Notes on ingredients: most of our kitchens have salt, pepper, sugar and the makings for tea and coffee on hand. Sometimes there is a welcoming bottle of wine and fresh fruit. After that it becomes more interesting. Cupboard contents are a real clue to your host's lifestyle. I've opened the majority of cupboards and found lovely herbs, spices, pastas and good oil and vinegar - and condiments that indicate whether they cook at all, or their preference for Thai or Vegan or "instant". Rarely, you just close the cupboards and hope the bugs are sleeping, and sometimes the cupboards are bare - like an IKEA showroom.
The smallest kitchen was in Marrakesh. A one person operation.
One of my favorite kitchens was in Bilbao, Spain. Fresh OJ every morning!
The one ingredient that often shows up, and sort of sums up the airbnb experience, is pasta. There are almost always two or three half packages of pasta because any Kitchen Nomad can whip up a pasta dinner (provided you have a pot and a colander). And who doesn't feel bad about wasting the rest of the box? So, like little stones on a path, we leave a little penne for the next traveler. More than once I have sadly left a heavy bottle of extra virgin olive oil, an artisan jar of Dijon mustard, a crock of farmer's market jam or sea salt behind because they wouldn't make the weight limit on Easy Jet, but it seems to be a sort of airbnb good Karma.

Sadly, you leave some favorite ingredients behind when traveling on

After cooking in so many different apartments, I have come to appreciate our Seattle kitchen and everything in it. It is the only room in our house that I would lift up and move to our next permanent home - wherever that might be. It wasn't big. There was no island in the middle (or in the way) but it did have stools at the counter, was open to the living area and had lots of counter space. I now place a very high value on counter space.

Our kitchen at the Queen Anne townhouse.
I've also given a lot of thought to the 20 items I would take to my "Desert Island" kitchen - the must haves, not the fantasy list. If every airbnb had these basic cooking tools I think anyone could make a decent meal without crying:

A good quality 8" chef's knife
A paring knife
A good cutting board (not glass!)
A wooden spoon
A spatula
A Large serving spoon
A cheese grater
A vegetable peeler
A mixing bowl 
A whisk
A colander
A Salad spinner
A casserole dish
A cookie sheet or roasting pan
A stock Pot (big enough for a pasta dinner)
A saucepan with a lid
A good quality 12" saute pan
A good quality 8" non stick saute pan
A toaster oven
A kettle
A pair of tongs
A wine / bottle opener
Bonus: unlimited paper towels. 

I could make a list of serving dishes I would also schlep to the island, but if I get my kitchen list, I am happy to spear anything and serve it on palm fronds and scallop shells.

The final and best meal in Naples.
I brought the kitchy grater and peeler to our current home in Bari on the bus since there are no weight limits or security checks, but I doubt they will be traveling to our next stop in Malta since we are flying there. I am sure they will be appreciated by the next Nomads and hopefully, no one gets hurt.

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads in Europe