Making Tables, Meals and Italian Friends

I did not feel the absence of my parents on Monday as much as I had imagined because my time flew a bit hectically. At 8:30 in the morning I had my first independent study meeting with my professor (who happens to teach at Glasgow for the semester, great job BC). my independent study is European Politics and it’s in English. I’m a bit thankful, but also a bit angry at myself for taking the course in English. I want the challenge of learning Italian and part of me feels that I could succeed well enough in an one on one session in Italian, but at the same time it is a relief to not feel stupid at every moment of my life. In English I can at least expand on my opinions and explain myself intelligently. My conversational Italian is good, but my technical and academic vocabulary remains quite limited. In fact, I’d say it’s infant-like.

Beautiful Main Street

After an hour and a half of class I left finally feeling that I had begun to perhaps learn something academic on this vacation. My professor is really smart and explains the political processes of Europe well enough (the readings were terribly boring) that I can become interested in European Politics, a subject about which I know embarrassingly little. I like learning. I really do, and part of me sometimes wonders why I attempted to go on a study abroad program where I would obviously learn nowhere near that which I could be at Boston College, at least academically. Then I remember that I have my entire life to teach myself, or to be taught, lessons of the academic nature, but that in a few years it will be near impossible for me to pick up and leave the real world for four months. This IS a LIFE EXPERIENCE. This trip, though not permanent, certainly influences my life in some educational way. Some part of me, at whatever level, becomes a bit Italian. I come to understand and live a new way of life. It’s a wonderful experience and one that I will most certainly bring back home, which is exactly where I will go.

University Building with the Tower

For all of us one day, whether it’s December 21, May 21 or after the summer this experience will likely end. We will return home because in the end we are Americans. Our homes are there. Our lives. There are a few, though, who are willing to sacrifice all of that to attempt to stay in this experience forever. They love it. They want to stay and only think of sadness when the idea of departure arises in their minds. For me, I see it not as an end. Instead, it’s part of my life, something that will live continuously inside me and never die, never end. By the time I finish in Parma (an experience that is half over), I will have lived four months more of life. It’s not a different life. Yes I am in Italy, but y life is still my life. There is no reason that I cannot return home with this experience, these life lessons, these maturations and changes, safely tucked away in my heart. They do not disperse or evaporate as I cross borders because they are part of my life, a life that can be lived anywhere at anytime but one that always has to go home. Will leaving be easy? Likely not. Will returning to American life and the structured life of BC be easy? Who knows? What I know is that this part of my is happening and it is affecting me. When I return I will still be James Sasso, only with a new facet of life within myself, one to which I will return one day.

After my surprisingly quick (the time flew) European Politics lesson I had to go to Italian at the prison campus of the Università di Parma. I’ll spare you the details of this terrible class, but it is horrifying. I learn absolutely nothing and find myself hating every moment of the hour and a half. Wasting time is my pet peeve and there can be no description other than a complete waste of time for this class. I’m going to try to change it. I need something harder, something that will perhaps improve my anemic technical vocabulary. Afterwards I went to my Medieval history course, where I’m beginning to understand more and more everyday. I can actually get a fairly good idea of what’s happening most of the time!
For dinner at Nice’s we had a guest, Giordano, who knows Nice somehow and seems to like meeting her American children. When I came upstairs at the appropriate time, to my surprise Kim and Jackie (one of our friends who will be on our trip to Istanbul!) were in the process of building a table. Nice had purchased two more (which I carried upstairs) for the kitchen so that we could all have more room for eating and food. There came a point in the building where some strength was required which meant that Giordano and I took over. I’m horrible at building and it’s even harder to try to explain directions in Italian, but Giordano and I, who is older than me, managed it and the completed table was ready in time for dinner. After an always splendid meal with Nice, this time with the added company of Giordano and Jackie, Giordano and I set ourselves to work on the second table, which we put together in approximately 25 minutes. I felt quite proud that I was even capable of completing the feat knowing how little skill I have when it comes to building things.


Once our table work was done we got ready to go to the other guys (Brian and Matt’s) apartment for what we like to call “Villa Mondays.” It’s a wonderful time to reconnect with the other people in our group and enjoy a couple of drinks over friendly jabber. I invited Giordano along because I figured he would have fun and I honestly want to speak Italian, be around Italians and meet Italians as much as possible in my remaining time in Parma. To this point I had yet to make any Italian friends, so it felt good to finally meet one.
We had a great time at the Villa. Giordano had a blast learning our stupid American games (which I did my best to explain in Italian) and we had a great time entertaining him. Giordano told me that Mondays are a normally calm night in Parma, which meant that bars were probably generally closed. He promised, though, to take us to the best places in Parma. Thank God! We needed a guide!
The next afternoon I had History class again where my comprehension continued to increase and an Italian class at night which I chose to skip in lieu of making dinner for my house. I chose to make porcini mushroom risotto, roasted eggplant and arugula salad with my lemon dressing. Katy came to dinner as did the mother of a girl from the hospital (either a patient or a doctor, I couldn’t pick it up, but I’m pretty sure it’s unfortunately the former).

Porcini Mushroom Risotto

I love cooking and this was my first opportunity to do so in Italy. The food went over really well, I think, even though it was certainly not the best risotto which I have ever made. Dinners at Nice’s are the best. The food is always marvelous, even when I cook, but the company is better. Our old house grandmother, Annetta, who is 93, generally visits for desert and we have fun trying to communicate with her. She speaks zero English and is a bit deaf, but we get the point across. And I’ll never be able to say enough about Nice who is vibrantly full of life, always. She is a tremendously strong woman, who has a beautiful attitude concerning life. She lives as one should; as happily as possible and with touching the lives of as many people as possible. She makes an immediate impact on all of those who meet her. She improves our lives simply through her jubilance in the face of hardship. I have an unending well of respect for her.

Wednesday the entire group of 17 woke up a bit too early for my liking, 6:45, but for a magnificent reason. For our history of Parma class that day we were learning the history of Parmesan cheese which meant a field trip to watch the magnificent formaggio come to form. Before entering the cheese production “plant” (I fail to find a better word for where the cheese is made, but ignore the negative connotations of a plant. This place was very hands-on), we had to dress ourselves in a plastic frock coat, paper mask and hat and blue plastic shoe covers. We looked ridiculous but hilarious.

How great do we look?

Parmesan cheese, well more precisely Parmigiano Reggiano, is produced in vats that each make 2 wheels of cheese. The plant itself is a co-op owned by several small farmers who have their milk turned to cheese by the master cheese workers. From the beginning we learned one of the first causes of Parmigiano Reggiano’s (which is a cheese that can only be produced in the small Parmigiano Reggiano region of Emilia Romagna) superiority; the milk. The small farmers who provide the milk feed their cows only fodder from a specific type of alfalfa grass which grows readily in the region. These cows are all natural and are milked once at night and once in the morning. Everything from the fertilizer of the fodder, to the fodder, to the type of cow, to the quality of milk is strictly controlled by the farmers because the best quality milk makes the best quality cheese, which increases profits.
The milk is heated to a specific temperature, with a bit of some natural chemical added to separate the curds from the whey, while being simultaneously stirred and broken which helps the whey and curd separate. Once they have fully separated the curds clump together at the bottom of the vats. The curds are then put in a cheese cloth and hung so that more liquid can be strained from the curds. The giant clumps of soon-to-be cheese are cut into two and then pressed into wooden ringforms.
From there they move to a temperature controlled room for a day or two where they receive the official imprint of Parmigiano Reggiano, the date of production, the plant of production and the vat from which it was received. Everything is strictly controlled by an efficient bureaucracy which ensures that if a cheese of low quality or a bad cheese were to emerge the producers could trace its origins all the way to the farmer who provided the bad milk (as happens from time to time). This kind of regulation is non-existent in America where it can take months to figure out which farmer’s spinach spread E.coli. If a similar even were to occur with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese it would likely take less than a day to trace the source of the problem.

Awed by the Marvelous Cheese

After the shapes of the cheeses are set they move for some time to a salt water bath. The only preservative of Parmigiano is salt and it is in this bath that the cheese’s hard exterior develops as water evaporates from within the cheese. Once the soaking period has finished the wheels are taken to the aging, or seasoning, room where they age for at least 24 months. Even at this stage the cheeses are quality controlled. Parmigiano experts come every couple of months to grade the quality of the cheese using only a special hammer and wooden stool to listen for the sounds of the cheese. They look for uniformity in their tapping and grade the cheese as such. It’s quite an amazing feat!
The best part, though, had yet to come. We got to try their wonderful creation and then buy some at great prices! Don’ worry parents…cheese is coming home! The stuff is amazing.
On our way home we stopped at a beautiful old palazzo with a wonderful garden. Duchesses and dukes used to live in this spectacular building, which now houses one of the most famous culinary schools in Europe! We walked around the grounds and enjoyed the pleasantly cold, yet sunny, weather. It was a quite strenuous day of class!

At class that afternoon I realized that I had left my notebook with Brian meaning that I would be unable to take notes. No worry, I told myself, it’s not like I understand that much anyway. I sat down and focused my attention on the professor. He began to lecture and it was almost entirely comprehendible. I didn’t take any notes but I learned more from that lesson than I had in any of the others because I focused all of my attention on the professor. The lesson flew by because I was learning about the small developing city-states of the medieval world. I was jubilant, ecstatic and proud of myself. My Italian was undoubtedly progressing and it could only improve! What a marvelous feeling to actually understand! It’s nothing I had felt before because in my prior courses I understood everything because they were either taught in English or in Italian geared towards non-native speakers. To understand, fully a lesson in Italian meant for academic Italians was quite the feat, one that I hope continues.
Immediately after class I received a phone call from my “tandem partner”, a person assigned to be my Italian friend with whom I must go out at least once a week to improve my Italian and further immerse myself in the culture. I had yet to meet Andrea because neither of us were available the previous weekend, but we agreed to meet at 7 in Piazza Garibaldi. I went home, told Nice I would not be there for dinner and got ready to go out (I made myself look as Italian as possible in the new jeans and shirt which Dad purchased for me at H&M last week).
I made it to the plaza on time (a sign of how excited I mist have been) and waited until Andrea arrived. He looked surprised to see that I was me, so I asked (in Italian of course) if I didn’t seem American. He laughed and told me he I thought I was some other guy. Success! We talked briefly before he asked if I would like to join him for his friend’s birthday party that evening, which I of course accepted. He was with 2 friends who came with us to have an aperitivo on Via Ferrini (an old street full of aperitivo places, restaurants and shops). We talked for a while about the differences between American and Italian universities and life in Parma over a glass of white wine, the typical aperitivo drink in Italy. All three were surprised at how well I spoke Italian. Andrea even said that I speak Italian perfectly (meaning pronunciation I think, but I took it to mean in all aspects)! What a compliment! I felt great. Finally, finally, finally, I was living the Italian life. I was out having an aperitivo and a discussion with Italians my own age who spoke to me in Italian. This is for what I came to Italy; to live like an Italian!
Once Andrea’s two friends left, we walked across the street to a different wine bar where we met up with about 15 of Andrea’s other friends who had gathered to celebrate their Friend’s birthday. Andrea introduced me as his American tandem partner and the girls said something to the effect of “do I have to speak English to him,” to which I responded, “No I speak Italian well enough,” in Italian. They were impressed and relieved. It was hilarious. We got some more wine, paid for by one of his friends, which was delicious. It was a white from Rhone in Germany.

Andrea and Me

We went outside where I struck up conversations with Andrea’s friends, a couple of whom wanted to practice their English so they would speak to me in English while I helped them and responded in Italian. I felt perfectly comfortable, even when Andrea would carry on a conversation with friends that didn’t involve me. All of the people were extraordinarily welcome of my intrusion and even seemed to enjoy it as I did. After a couple more glasses of wine we moved on to a restaurant, Il Corriere, for dinner.

The place was packed with people and we were seated at the back on a very long table to accommodate our large group. I ended up sitting nearly dead center in the long table next to Andrea and precisely at the inner break of the group of friends meaning I was the sort of island between the two. Still, I managed to hold conversations well as Andrea and I got some man talk under our belts (Dad, you would be proud. He taught me how to say burp and fart!). He’s a really nice guy, a medical student and seems well balanced all around. I really enjoyed his company. My directors paired me well. The most difficult part of the night was trying to listen to other conversations and pick up on that which the others said. Without people speaking face to face with me I find it hard understand which often makes me lost, but I took it all in and loved every minute of it.
We ate for nearly 3 hours, if not more, until 12:30. The food was fabulous. We started with torte fritte (little fried doughs of foccacia) and the typical cured meats of Parma, with which one can never go wrong. After this course I was stress but of course there came more food. We had two different types of pasta; linguini with pancetta and little herb ravioli. Amazing. By the end of the night I was exhausted. M brain had shut off after the strenuous hours of conversation. I went home and went to bed finally feeling like I had begun to be an Italian.

In the slideshow there is the cheese making process…it’s kind of cool!

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One Response to Making Tables, Meals and Italian Friends

  1. Andrew Cohen says:

    Great post. I want to be a cheese tapper when I grow up. In all seriousness, I don’t know if you can bring cheese back to the US, though.

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