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:

20160415_084245 (640x640)

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:

pigeons_1

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:

pigeons_2

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.

20121101_104734

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:

Continue reading

The Alps from a plane window

Sometimes travel days are their own stories.

Hello from Baltimore!

I’ve been here since Saturday night, for a work junket conference, and I will write something about the place, I promise! But for now, I have enough to say just about the trip over here…

Let’s start with a moment of triumph that will make sense to everyone who’s ever had to get by in a language they’re less-than-fluent in. Normally, when I check in for a flight in Italy, what happens is I say “Buongiorno”, hand over my non-Italian passport, and the person working at the desk replies, “And what is your final destination today ma’am?” But on Saturday, something different happened, for the first time ever: the check-in guy asked if it were ok to speak Italian, I said, “ok”, and off we went.

That sounds like the dumbest moment of triumph when I write it down (and there’s no shortage of Italian people who have done business transactions in English while in Australia!) But considering how often I’ve encountered Italian customer service people who switch to English because of my Australian accent, I’m going to assume I said buongiorno really really well that day.

After that minor ego-boost of a start to the day, the flight looked like it might be a disaster. It was a day time transatlantic flight, I was surrounded by a group of early-20s guys going on a trip to Miami, and American Airlines seemed to think it was ok to put us all on a plane without any personal entertainment systems to keep these early-20s guys occupied. (90’s time warp!) The main screen was showing The Good Dinosaur, to which they said various things that helped me expand my vocabulary of Italian swear words.

But American Airlines had one secret weapon: a 60-ish Italian guy working in the cabin crew, who managed to charm every single Italian person on the flight. He had the kids giving him hi-5s, the adults chuckling at his commentary on the American food on board, and the guys around me absolutely entranced — by doing card tricks and cup-and-ball tricks and making napkins appear from their ears. I wish I had thought to get a photo of these guys, wide-eyed and leaning out of their seats to see which card would appear. It was brilliant.

Landing in Miami, passport control was barely-contained madness. The US now has automatic passport reading machines. Like the rest of the world! Except, unlike the rest of the world, everyone — US citizens, too — has to go through the machine and then line up to talk to a person like they’ve always had to. No-one I spoke to had an explanation of how this was going to make Immigration run faster.

Also slightly inexplicable: when I finally did get to an Immigration officer, he and I ended up having a great old chat about a documentary he’d watched about the physics of light and general relativity — never mind the hundreds of people waiting in line behind me. What was confusing though is that I’ve never ever encountered a friendly Immigration officer anywhere in the world, especially not in the US, which made me suspicious the whole thing was an attempt to poke holes in my claim I was going to a physics conference. Never in my life have I so nervously said, “Yeah, general relativity is really fascinating, isn’t it?”

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?

20160223_165003 (480x640)

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.

20160305_095503 (480x640)

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.

20160305_102553 (640x359)

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

Brain MRI

That time I got hit by a car: injury, uncertainty and stories

Here’s a dramatic opening line for you: A year ago this weekend, I was hit by a car while crossing the street.

This is the story per the police report and my hospital notes: I was hit by a green Fiat at 3:15 pm; I arrived in hospital fully conscious; I had fractured my skull in two places and suffered some bruising and minor bleeding on my brain; no surgery was required; CT scans and ultrasounds confirmed I had no other injuries; I spent 9 days in hospital for observation; a subsequent MRI 6 weeks later indicated satisfactory progress towards recovery and no need for further intervention.

That story sits comfortably in a folder of forms and papers with official letterheads, but it feels rather incomplete.

Continue reading

Write now, despair later

Notes from my extremely glamorous life: Write now, eat radicchio later.

Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve been quite good about keeping a journal… except that I always write the most when nothing very interesting is happening. All the times that I would like to be able to look back at with a record of what I did and what I thought about it are blank. And then I come to write entries for this blog and I sit there and flick through my journal and think, “What have I even done this week?!”

Part of the problem is that I am a very lazy/reluctant writer, hence my need for a post-it note, WRITE NOW, DESPAIR LATER. (Full credit to my sister for that piece of motivation.) It works remarkably well, probaby because it doesn’t pretend that the feeling of “urgggh I don’t wanna write” will ever go away.

But anyway, not having any useful notes of what I did this week, I’m stuck writing about what I remember off the top of my head. Which I’m sure will give you a full indication of how extremely glamorous my expat life here is…

I went to the markets the other day, where I remembered I needed some olives. There are lots of stalls with olives at Porta Palazzo, but I decided to go to the one with the free samples and showmanship. This was a terrible decision from the point of view of efficiency — the stand is busy (because: free samples), even as you’re being served, the guy keeps turning aside to top up the sample plates and yell at passers-by that they should come and buy some olives, and then you end up buying more than you’d planned (again because: free samples). But I think I ate enough in the way of samples to make it worthwhile.

Part of the reason I needed olives was because I’d just bought a bag of radicchio and I wanted to be able to make my radicchio pasta, which is loosely based on a dish you sometimes get in restaurants here, but adjusted to my tastes (salty & bitter):

  • Put your pasta water on to boil and cook the pasta in the background while you make the radicchio “sauce”.
  • Chop the radicchio into small-ish pieces, a few centimetres squared, rinse and drain.
  • Heat oil in a pan, throw in the radicchio, add some of that stock that comes in jelly-like form in little plastic containers — as in, put a spoonful of that stuff in without adding any water.
  • Stir as needed, and once it’s starting to cook add chopped up olives (I like olives with chili).
  • Throw in some milk, let the liquid reduce a bit and/or add more liquid as needed. If you don’t have milk, use the pasta water.
  • Once the pasta’s cooked, drain it and stir it through.

Bam! You have dinner. I had this for dinner tonight; I probably eat it at least once a week in winter.

Teapot and watercolour postcard

I bought a teapot and I am unreasonably excited by it.

I arrived in Italy nearly four years ago with a 60L backpack and a 30L daypack and a rather large handbag, all packed as full as I could manage.

At the time — especially with it on my back! — it seemed like a lot. I have minimalist tendencies, and I’d been thinning out my worldly possessions for a couple of years at that point. (It is not lost on me that I was in my mid-20s at the time and had barely accumulated any worldly possessions to start with.) What I was carrying was a decent fraction of everything I owned, the rest of it being in boxes tucked neatly under my parent’s spare single bed.

I’d thought about getting those boxes shipped. In the end, I didn’t, for much the same reason I’d been decluttering in the first place: my life involved a lot of moving around — from one sharehouse to another in Perth, then to Glasgow (and two apartments in one year there) and then to Italy — and moving stuff with me just seemed like hassle.

It was much simpler to approach every new place as a short-term venture, making do with what I could carry. I did a lot of laundry, since I only had a week’s worth of tshirts. I stuck to cooking foods that used the same few spices, so I wouldn’t have to throw away nearly-full packets of spices the next time I moved. I rented furnished places and sweet-talked my way into getting bed linen and kitchenware included so I wouldn’t have to buy any.

I’ll never be one of those minimalist lifestyle bloggers, but I have to say, there are advantages to living like that. If you do move frequently, you have a lot more flexibility. You save money, since your default answer to “should I buy that?” is “no”, and the cash stays in your pocket. You get creative at problem solving, and after a while it becomes second nature to realize things like the fact that you can use a roasting tray as a lid for a saucepan.

But… let’s go back to the start of this post. I arrived in Italy nearly four years ago. In that time, I’ve moved house once, but that’s still the two longest leases I’ve had since I left my parent’s house. I don’t need to live out of a backpack.

I only really grasped this a couple of months ago, and I’ve been on a mad acquisition spree since. Well, mad by my standards. I bought a rolling pin in December. I bought a teapot on the weekend (isn’t it pretty?) I made a New Year’s resolution to buy a second set of bedlinen so I could stop having to wash them first thing in the morning to get them dry by the evening. (That’s not even my lamest new year’s resolution.)

Ironically, I’m doing all this “recluttering” when I have a year left on my work contract and no idea what I’ll do or where I’ll go after that. But for the next 12 months, having some stuff is a great way to feel like I’ve got stability.