Eli enjoys a kobe beef pintxo

Our visit to Spain was wonderful. Our friends Inge-Marie and Jim and their kids Lucia and Eleanor, who are spending a month in San Sebastian before landing at their year-long sabbatical spot in France, ably led us around the city. The sexy pintxos in San Sebastian were an amusing novelty– many of them quite tasty and pretty. They are like tapas—fancily constructed finger foods, usually atop slices of bread. The restaurants are small boisterous places, where you eat dinner standing among crowds and crawling from one restaurant to the next for each sampling. This style of dining was a stark contrast to the dining in Rome, where meals are so leisurely that a table in a restaurant in yours for the evening once you sit down.

Jim serving himself some special Basque cider.

There were a few meals in Spain that I loved. We went to Bilbao to see our old friend Itziar Laka, whom I had not seen for about 15 years. She found two lovely restaurants that suited all of our desires- including paella (one with black squid ink and another with asparagus and octopus. . .both phenomenal). Back in San Sebastian, we also dined in a casual cider house and were served a simple, exquisite meal by an absolutely charming hostess. The Basque region around San Sebastián has a specialty drink of its own – a tart, vinegary alcoholic cider that is still rather than carbonated. The cider is served right from the barrel’s spout. A glass or pitcher is held at knee level as tap from the barrel is opened a few feet away. The “long pour” allows the liquid to aerate, which releases its aroma and enhances the flavor. Jenny’s favorite was txakoli (pronounced chac-o-lee), a slightly sparkling wine from the Basque country that is aerated by pouring the bottle from high over the server’s head into the waiting glass on the table below.

Nell's version of Motherwell's Iberia.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was an extremely worthwhile venture. The building itself is extraordinary. We also did something that none of us had tried before and hired one of the museum’s guides for a private tour. I asked them to cater the tour to the four children in our group and the guide selected and timed the visit perfectly for them. (On our flight back to Rome, Iberia Airlines was running an art contest for children. Nell drafted a few possible entries, one of which was a reproduction of Robert Motherwell’s “Iberia”—a painting that we had seen at the Guggenheim.)

Walking to camp

Returning to Rome after our Spanish holiday has been fantastic, mostly because we have been enjoying a taste of ordinarily life here—which is quite extraordinary. Our apartment and the sound of Italian feel familiar and comfortable. Eli and Nell are attending a camp at Rome’s Children’s Museum this week. They have been enjoying the activities and, through many gestures and rudimentary Italian, made a few buddies. (We were impressed by how well they handled the novel environment). The kids were impressed that at lunchtime the campers are taken to what Nell described as “a surprisingly nice restaurant with white table clothes and everything” where they are served multi-course lunches. Eli insisted that he could navigate the city well enough to walk to camp alone. So we agreed that he and Nell could venture through the Piazza del Pompolo (and through the traffic heavy Piazale Flaminio!) to camp “on their own” while Jenny and I stayed at least a block behind them. They did a great job and gave each other a hug and high five when they were able to make it to the other side of the busy street intact.

Nell hanging out with a new friend at camp.

Our daily activities this week have been ordinary, but also exciting because they are making us feel like we really live here. And it has been fun to have to be so aware of each step—even running a simple errand requires me to stop and think through how to get somewhere, how to ask for what I want, and how to go about getting things done. Finding a tailor to hem a new pair of trousers was not easy, but the actual transaction was. Finding a hardware store was easy, but it took us a few minutes to realize that light bulbs here are kept behind the counter and need to be requested from the proprietor. We had a new bed for our guest room delivered early in the week, but the delivery guy insisted that he would only bring it in the front door of the building, not up to the top floor, where we live. He was speaking rapidly and kept gesturing in every direction with his hands. So I tried wildly gesticulating a lot, too. The bed certainly wouldn’t fit in our elevator, which is about the size of a phone booth. I lost that battle, but it was fun to let myself go enough to let my hands fly up and down the way Italians do when you are trying to get anything done.

Our meals this week have been phenomenal. We’ve begun to visit the local markets, which are colorful and lively. It is amazing what a rich, varied, and ultra-fresh selection of ingredients the home cook here has access to. Different vendors sell variety of home-made pastas, big bins of every conceivable type of flour and herb, fresh local produce, amazing seafood. . . .The oranges from Sicily are so intensely flavorful that we’ve committed to buying a few each day and having fresh squeezed juice for breakfast each morning. We’ve also found two bakeries that we love—including one in the Campo dei Fiori that is in every guide book, but still filled with locals and well worth waiting on line to get the pizza bianca (also called focaccia) as it comes out of the oven. With our fresh breads and pastas and vegetables and plates of olives and local white wines, we have been enjoying dinner outside on our terrace every night. Helping us along the way has been a local food blogger named Katie Parla, who has become our family’s official patron saint. Her blog can be found here:

www.parlafood.com/

While the kids were at camp, Jenny and I headed out to a very understated part of the city to sample what promised to be a special slice of pizza at Pizzarium. I was a bit dubious that it would be worth the schlep. And I couldn’t tell whether or not the address was auspicious or not. The place is located at the Cipro metro stop. The name can’t help but bring back bad memories of the GI distress that Jenny and I got years ago while visiting Morocco. I ended my misery quickly by taking the antibiotic, cipro (Ciprofloxacin), but Jenny didn’t want to take it because she was pregnant with Eli at the time and suffered through months of digestive woes. The pizza shop is on the Via della Meloria. This could be a good sign—Jenny and I met in a university building called Meliora Hall that housed the psychology department. But the name also brings back bad memories of graduate school that cipro can’t cure. Via Meliora proved to be lucky— the pizza at Pizzarium was so amazingly spectacular that it should be in a wholly different category from all other pizzas. The joint is a tiny storefront with no room for diners inside. Rome’s fast food is pizza al taglio (literally “by the cut” or slice), a variety of pizza baked in large rectangular trays, and sold in rectangular slices by weight. Once we selected our pizza, it was warmed and placed on plate-sized wooden slabs that we carried out to the street. The proprietor has kept alive an ancient dough starter that produces the most unusual crust I have ever tasted. And all of the pizzas looked so phenomenal that Jenny and I ordered enough lunch to feed 8 people, just so that we could sample as much as possible. Ordinarily, I’d feel self-conscious sitting on a park bench and moaning as we tried each delectable bite. . .but everyone else holding their pizza was doing the same thing, so we fit right in.

-Seth

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