Category Archives: Living in Turin

Postcard from Valle Varaita

I’ve come down with a rather tedious and inconvenient head cold, so no writing from me this week — I started trying to write this post and got bogged down in Uggggh what even are words. But enjoy some photos from a day spent in Valle Varaita recently with friends from church.

(Not to make you jealous or anything, but it was basically a perfect summer’s day.)

PS: See more postcards from…

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White chocolate cheesecake with strawberry topping

That time a cheesecake made me swear off baking

It’s been a while since I’ve had a good baking disaster post — if you’re a newcomer to this blog you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m actually competent with food. (This is a false impression.) But today I have a story for the Oh My Goodness I Am Never Baking A Cake Ever Again What Was I Thinking files… Continue reading

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The accidental diarist: Blogging and writing and memory

I started this blog as a way to record and share my time living overseas, “a long way from where I grew up”. While my initial idea was something of a travel blog (hence the title), it quickly evolved into a place where I write each week about the small details of my life. Things like the feeling of it being summer but not Christmas, or the times I’m glad my Italian isn’t that good, or a list of nerve-wracking (to me) behaviours I’ve seen from cyclists.

Around the same time I started posting regularly again, I started a journal. First it was a cheap slim notebook with a green cover that I took with me on vacation to Slovenia and Croatia in August 2014, to make notes on where I went and what I saw, and (more imporantly!) to have a place to sketch out maps of hostel locations for when I was without internet.

It was supposed to be a one-off travel diary — before that, I’d sometimes carried a notebook to scribble down shopping and to-do lists, but I was never a diarist. I’d tried as a teenager, but I was always too self-concious to be able to record my thoughts, knowing that I’d find them cringe-worthy even a few weeks later.

But two weeks of near-daily writing was enough to build up some momentum. My entry from August 17th starts, Here’s a crazy idea — why not keep on keeping a journal? Obviously this is crazy talk because now I’m back in my apartment in Torino, and I’d have to comment on things that will continue to exist in my life for more than a handful of days. That’s scary. And somehow that stuck and now I have a pile of notebooks (that none of you will ever read, oh my goodness I am dying of embarrassment at even the idea of it, the teenage cringe-y-ness has not disappeared AT ALL, you guys I am literally wincing slightly as I write this).

All this writing — for an audience and for myself — has some side effects. I noticed early on that whatever I write becomes my “official” version of what had happened.The details I elide slip from my memory. On my best days, this prods me to write honestly; most of the time it makes me accientally-on-purpose leave out my questionable motives and unflattering details. Meanwhile, the events I do write about have beautiful narrative structure in my memory, and events that I don’t write about I struggle to even place in a particular year let alone remember clearly.

(There’s a corollary to this that came up in a conversation with friends the other week: for those of us who have moved around a lot, many of our conversations are with people we can’t see in person and happen via the written word — facebook or whatsapp or email or whatever. Which means that every dumb comment we make is recorded and searchable, to some extent. And if you’re like me you remember written things better than spoken, even without a literal record, and these conversations last longer in our memory than the same conversation face-to-face would. Which surely must change the dynamics of friendships, at least subtly.)

For now, I’ll keep writing, even if I can’t record everything. It’s fun to turn the small details into stories I can share, and it feels like there’s never any shortage of material…

Orecchiette with zucchini and parsley

Every easy pasta recipe I know, for future reference (part 1)

This post is inspired by my experience last Friday of going from, “I’m going out for dinner with friends” to “Ok, change of plans: I’m hosting dinner with friends” to “What the heck, I’ll invite more friends” to “Hang on a second, what am I even going to cook for these people??!” over the space of a few hours.

I mean, pasta, obviously, that’s pretty much the full extent of my cooking skills, but it’s amazing how my mind blanks when it comes to the question of what to put on said pasta.

So here, for future reference, are some dishes I know I can cook at short notice that are still nice enough to serve up to other human beings.

  • Orecchiette with cime di rapa (turnip greens): This is what I made on Friday. It generally requires a trip to the shops since I don’t usually have fresh orecchiette or turnip greens on hand, but it’s dead easy: Get a big pot of salted water on the burner. In a frying pan on very low heat, do a good amount of olive oil with finely chopped garlic and anchovies and some chili paste, leave it to go all soft and flavoursome. Wash and chop the turnip greens, put in the boiling water, give them a few minutes to soften then add the orecchiette. Once cooked, drain, and then toss together the pasta, greens, and the garlicky-anchovy-y oil. Add salt to taste. (Here’s a recipe with actual quantities and cooking times; in Italian but it has lots of pictures.)
  • Pasta with radicchio and olives: I wrote about this before. It’s my winter comfort food. I don’t think it’s “authentically” anything, besides, you know, delicious, but whatever.
  • Puttanesca: Not going to look for a recipe to link, since the whole spirit of this is to throw together whatever tasty things are lurking in your fridge/cupboard: tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies, chili.
  • Carbonara: I keep those supermarket tubs of pancetta bits in the freezer along with a bag of pre-grated parmesan/similar cheese for carbonara emergency dinners. PRO TIP FOR LIVING IN ITALY: if you’re in conversation with a group of people from Rome and there’s a lull, try asking them how many whole eggs vs egg yolks you need to make carbonara for four people. Assuming you have an hour free for the ensuing discussions, that is.
  • Zucchini “carbonara”: I learned this from a friend in Florence who cooked it for an easy Sunday lunch once. (Ugh, I know, that sounds like something you’d read in a tedious food memoir, but it really happened.) Thin slices of zucchini, cook in olive oil until soft. Meanwhile, cook your pasta. Toss everything together along with eggs and cheese like you would a carbonara, add fresh parsley and black pepper. (Here is a fancier recipe for basically the same thing; in English.)
  • Potato pasta: This isn’t as quick as the others, but I’m reasonably likely to have all the ingredients on hand and it involves double carbs, which endears it to me forever. I do something in between this recipe (in English) and this recipe (in Italian) except I’m lazy about washing up so I do it as a one-pot dish: cook the potatoes until they’re just at the point where you can stick a fork through them, then add the pasta and a bit of hot water/stock to the same pot, stir occasionally and/or add more water as needed until the pasta’s cooked. (It will take longer than the cooking time given on the pasta packet.)

What’s your favourite easy recipe?

 

The River Dora, Turin

Green grass and pots of ragù and day-to-day life.

It’s been one of those weeks where I’ve had lots of ideas for blog posts and nowhere near enough time or energy to turn any of them into reality. So this week will truly be a collection of snippets…


I often feel odd writing about the truly day-to-day stuff of living in Italy, especially since I know many of my friends here read this blog (hi guys!) and I can imagine them rolling their eyes and saying, “yeah, we know how to buy bread, duh.” But of course many of you don’t live here (why ever not??) so one of these days I should write a post about the process of getting a haircut when you don’t really speak Italian very well and the stylist doesn’t really care what you ask for anyway, because it’s fairly hilarious.

Also, a question for those of you who are better at Being an Adult than I am: do you trim your own fringe (bangs)? I do, because it feels silly to pay someone else to do it when I am in possession of a pair of scissors, a bathroom mirror, and only slightly below-average fine motor skills, but does this make me uncouth?


Last week was the Jazz Festival, and like I do every year, I fully intended to go to many concerts and ended up going to one. Or, half of one. I had a couple of house guests and we’d agreed to meet up Friday night at the free concert on Piazza Castello. The music was great, but after about 15 minutes, V. turned to me and said, “You know, this is really the sort of music you should listen to sitting down, with a glass of wine in your hand” — miming holding a stemmed glass — “not standing out here in the cold.”

So 10 minutes later the three of us decided to go back to my place and drink wine, instead.

(This is how many of my attempts at cultural experiences end up.)


My grand — and possibly only — achievement this weekend: I made a big pot of ragù and filled up a collection of freezer tubs so Future Me can eat nutritious food even when she can’t be bothered cooking. (Future Me is always so needy, geez.) I used this recipe (in Italian), because I was intrigued by the inclusion of milk and the use of white wine — I think I like it! And not just because I’ve got enough of the stuff to feed me for weeks…

Actually, the best achievement wasn’t making the ragù, it was realizing that I could roughly chop the carrot/celery/onion, and then throw it in the food processor to get a fine dice. I think this is something people who cook have known about since approximately the invention of food processors, but as a not-very-Adult person who trims her own fringe and doesn’t own a proper kitchen knife, this is a revelation.


If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ve already been subjected to this joke but:

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What, by driving a truck?


Finally, a question for locals — has this Spring been more green than last year, or am I imagining it? Somehow, last year was all about the blue of the sky, but this year I have become very aware of the green of the leaves of the plane trees visible in my bedroom window, and the grass as I walk through Giardini Reali or along the Dora river.

My two guesses at rational explanations are: 1. I really am imagining it; and 2. there was so little rain last year things were actually less green. Any other suggestions?

Hills in Barolo

Wine and pancakes and sandwiches.

So besides winning the War on Pigeons (I am still proud of myself), what have I been up to recently..?

  • Went wine tasting a couple of weeks ago with some friends on a gorgeous Spring afternoon. Rolling hills, rows of vines, magic light as the sun got lower. I hadn’t realized how much I’d needed to get out of the city until I squatted, absentmindedly patting a friendly farm dog, my eyes drinking in the open space in front of me. Turin is a beautiful city, but sometimes you need a distant horizon.
  • (You’ll notice that’s a description of wine tasting that doesn’t say anything about wine. That’s because the current status of my sense of smell is that a lot of red wines are very pleasant to me, and I could even tell the ones we tried were better than my usual “what’s on special at Da Marco?” bottles, but the only note I can positively identify is the smell of olives. Which I smell in every red wine. Pretty sure a basic requirement for sommeliers is being able to distinguish the scent of wine from olive oil.)
  • My friend C. and I tried to go out for brunch one Saturday, but brunch isn’t really a familiar concept here. “How about we host our own pancake brunch on the Monday public holiday?” I said. So we sent out a group message and got a handful of people saying they’d come.

    “But you’d think the idea would be more popular!” she said… so we went on a bit of an invitation spree at church and suddenly we were spending the Sunday afternoon thinking about what we’d do if the number of people coming greatly outnumbered the number of chairs in my apartment.

    In the end, we made pancakes for 15 people (only 3 in excess of the number of seats!), using 5 batches of this recipe which is the best (I know 3.5 tsp of baking powder sounds ridiculous, but it works! and you can’t taste it). We had a lovely brunch/afternoon of sitting around chatting with old friends and new. I even busted out my emergency Tim Tams later in the day, which is a sure sign of a good party.

    After everyone left, we spied the dregs of a bottle of sparkling wine, and toasted our brunch-hosting success. (Moral of the story: always host parties with C!)

  • Was at dinner on Saturday night with another friend A., and partway through a couple sat down at a table near us. The woman was so! familiar! I spent the rest of the meal wracking my brains, How do I know that woman? Should I go over and say hi? On the bus ride home, Does she live in my building? Or maybe she’s a friend of a friend? I’m sure I know her, I hope she didn’t see me and think I was blanking her. Finally, as I was lying in bed… Oh that’s it! She works in one of the lunch places near my work. So probably a good thing I didn’t go and say hi, since the full extent of our prior contact is “Prendo un panino” and “3 euro 50”.
NO PIGEONS

We have always been at war with the pigeons

Sometimes I think I understand my life…

…And then I find myself sitting on a tram at 10:30 at night trying to keep a ladder from falling onto the lady sitting next to me.

(Funnily enough, this isn’t even the oddest thing I’ve transported by public transport this week. That honour would go to a bunch of five helium balloons. “Don’t you have a car with you?” asked the lady in the balloon shop, a very proper older lady who couldn’t believe we’d ordered multiple colours of balloons for a graduation party when clearly the correct colour was red.

She’d also insisted that the friend who had ordered the balloons had asked for orange as one of the colours, so she was going to turn the entire crowded storeroom of the shop upside down to find one, even as I tried to convince her that he could cope perfectly well with a second green balloon in the bunch. I tried not to check the time on my phone too pointedly. She found an orange balloon at the bottom of a dusty box. While she was inflating it, she asked me how long I’d been in Italy. “4 years? Why don’t you speak Italian better?”

What I’m saying is, those balloons were awkward.)

Back to the ladder.

If you’re friends with me on facebook, you’ll know I’ve had a pigeon problem this year:

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My post got me some… interesting suggestions: “Smoke em out”; “Put a rubber snake near their entrance”; “How good are you at meowing?” as well as the comment that I was lucky I’d get the chance to see baby pigeons up close.

I have no idea if baby pigeons are cute (probably not) but in the meantime every noise made by these pigeons was amplified perfectly by the acoustics of my bathroom ceiling, and I didn’t fancy being woken up every morning by pigeon coos. They had to go.

That evening, I rummaged through the cupboard of random things left by previous tenants in the apartment, and found some netting. Stretching as high as I could while standing on a kitchen chair on my balcony, I tied it as well as I could over the ventilation hole. “Sucks to be you, birds,” I smirked as I admired my work.

You can imagine how this goes, right? 2 days later:

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I started googling how to get rid of pigeons. Do you know they breed up to 6 times per year? Do you know a quality ultrasonic pigeon deterrent costs hundreds of dollars? Do you know they rapidly learn to not fear scarecrows/rubber snakes/etc?

By this point, my friends were asking me for updates on the pigeon situation every time they saw me. “How are your room mates?” “Any babies yet?” “Have you considered a gun?”

So I am happy to report that with the aid of a ladder I managed to re-tie the netting without any gaps and I haven’t heard any pigeons for a couple of days now. Sorry birds, but my use of tools is superior to yours.

I fully expect to be divebombed every time I hang out washing, though.


Cover image derived from a photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia- Own work, GFDL 1.2

Spring in Baltimore

Notes from my extremely glamorous life: Spring!

It’s grey and rainy here in Turin — must be spring! Though to be honest, after a year of nearly non-stop dry weather, the rain is a welcome change.

We’ll see if I’m still saying that after it rains all week like it’s forecast to.

Actually, the rain is making me a bit nostalgic. I arrived in Turin 4 years ago this month, during an April where it rained every day except one. (I kept track.) I had been in Turin for weeks before I realized the Alps were close enough to be visible, because they were covered with clouds the entire time. I wondered what on earth I’d gotten myself in for. I said things like, “Well if this is what the weather’s going to be like, why don’t I just move back to Scotland where at least the beer is good?”

In the end, things worked out, and I made friends and I’ve come to love this city, even if the weather here is frequently terrible.

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How could you not love this?

(By the way: If we’re counting milestones, it’s not just 4 years since I moved to Turin, it’s 5 years(!) since I accidentally moved abroad. Woah.)

Even with the rain, it does feel like spring here. It’s noticeably warmer, and the trees are blossoming and budding leaves. Of course I haven’t gotten around to getting a photo of this in Turin yet, so the picture for this post is from Baltimore the other week.

Fortunately, I don’t get hayfever, with one exception. On International Women’s Day in early March, the tradition in Italy is to give women wattle flowers. There’s a whole separate blog post that could be written about “getting flowers” vs “getting equality”, but I have a more immediate complaint about the practice: I am allergic to the flowers. Sitting on the tram in the evening of March 8, with every woman on board carrying a sprig of wattle bloom, was a rather eye-watering, itchy-nosed experience.

(Also eye-watering was the terrible pun thread that resulted when I posted about this on facebook, starting with, “Wattle you do, Zoe?” and going downhill from there to a horrifying low from my own mother of, “Aunty Hesta means to provide her some relief soon”. Muuuuum!)

In other nose-related news, though: I was at my friends’ annual Easter Monday barbeque last week, and I could smell the meat cooking. This was quite exciting, because a) it was delicious, and b) last year, I wondered why everyone was so politely talking up how good the food smelt when there was clearly no odour coming off the barbeque — this was just before I realised I’d lost my sense of smell. So… Progress!

Freshly cooked hot cross buns

Making hot cross buns in Italy

Now it feels like Good Friday,” said my Irish friend A. as she helped me butter hot cross buns still warm from the oven last night.

For as long as I’ve lived in Turin, every Easter I’ve thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hot cross bun right now?” But hot cross buns are not an Italian Easter tradition, and I’ve never found a decent substitute. (Yes, colomba has dried fruit, but the texture is totally different and there’s no spices.)

This year, I finally decided to make my own. Here’s how I did it:

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Snow in Giardino Aiuola Balbo, Turin

Notes from my extremely glamorous life: Let it snow

It has been an extremely, ridiculously mild winter here this year, with blue skies and daytime temperatures often getting into the teens. (Celcius, I mean. That’s how mild it is.) The other day, I got gelato on my way home from work and ate it standing in the sun, thinking, Is this really February?

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I also sent this picture to various friends, saying, “I’m eating gelato, what did you achieve today?” because I am a terrible person.

So I was as taken aback as everyone else in Turin when I woke up on Saturday morning and saw white fluffy flakes falling, the first snow in the city this winter.

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I’m not normally much of a fan of snow. It’s cold, it’s wet, and if you think Perth drivers are useless in the rain you should see how people drive in the snow. But I needed to go to the pharmacy anyway, so I pulled on a woolly hat and my warm coat and took a walk through the city centre.

When it’s a late winter Saturday one-off, it’s harder to be cynical about snow. The buildings and statues look statelier. The dusting of white brings out the form of the bare trees. The snow on the ground makes everything look brighter even when it’s overcast. And on a Saturday morning, I wasn’t the only one enjoying the snow — the parks had plenty of delighted dogs running around wondering what had happened to make the ground so much fun all of a sudden.

As I walked, the clouds lowered and the snow fell harder and I brushed the snow off my arms as I went. By the time I got to the river Po almost the whole scene was grey and white.

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And then by lunch time it had turned to rain, and by evening you wouldn’t know that it had snowed at all.