I don’t actually have much to do on Thursdays. In the morning or early afternoons I have a “tutoring” session with the English speaking professor, Max, who teaches the other students about the history of Parma. I cannot tell you for the life of me what the point of these sessions are. I assume he’s supposed to help us understand that which is going on in the class, but we don’t really go over the class. We went over some textbook which we had to read which explains the methodology of studying history. Are you kidding me? I’m a history major, and a good one at that. I know how to do research and write a paper! I’ve been doing it for years! Apparently the Medieval History course for which we babe to write a paper does not begin until November. I’m not even sure which class I’m attending at the moment, but the lectures sure sound like Medieval History. Thursday nights we have Italian with all of the other students, but none of us go because it’s an absolute joke. I don’t learn anything.
So, after rushing to catch a train to Florence (surprise surprise there), I arrived in Florence around 5 and went to find my hostel, which turned out to be very far from the center of the city. I walked by our hotel from September and missed it a bit. As cramped and annoying as the hotel accommodations were, it was nice living with Matt and Brian and very near the rest of the group. Still, I like My situation in Parma much more.
I settled in the hostel, figured out when I could meet the parents (pretty immediately), and took a bus to the center of the city where I met them at their hotel near the Duomo. That first sight of them was strange, but felt vaguely familiar. My parents do not visit Boston College very often, with which I’m perfectly fine. I go home often enough and they pick me up often enough during the semesters that they have no need to make special trips to have dinner with me. That being said, every time they do actually come to see me at school, whether for a birthday or some other occasion, I get the same sort of exuberance that I felt knocking on their door. My parents, who don’t “belong” to either my Italian world or my scholastic world directly, had come to visit which meant that I would get to show them my world and share some of my experiences with them. Still it’s weird only in the sense that, unlike at home, they are not constantly present in my life at either school or Italy. I guess it’s similar to adulthood when one finally moves out of the home permanently and no longer sees his parents everyday and they no longer hold much direct influence on his life. I’m not there yet so these “visits” are odd compared to the everyday encounters to which I am accustomed. (How did I do explaining that feeling Court?)
We hung out in the room talking for a while, catching up. I told them briefly about my trips, my host mom, my house, what I had done in Florence. They told me about the museums that they had visited and those they had yet to visit. I had envisioned taking them on several tours of museums, showing off my recently acquired art knowledge, but as happens in Florence, Dad and Chris were a bit fatigued with the bustle of downtown and wanted to go to Fiesole (a small town in the hills overlooking the city). They had some walking tour in mind, but there is little to do in Fiesole except eat and look at Florence in the valley, So I convinced them to go to the Bargello in the morning before having lunch in the hills.
Around 7:30 we went to the Strozzi Palace, actually one sight in Florence to which I had not gone, to meet up with Caterina who had been showing Dad and Chris around the city during the week. At the palace there was a cool modern art exhibit displaying the different faces of power in photographs. Besides this exhibit, there was a more permanent exhibit of a cube covered on the inside by mirrors. Inside the cube was another cube, dark on the outside bur supposedly covered by mirrors on the inside. The idea: infinity within infinity because theoretically one is able to see infinite reflections in the mirrors because they continuously reflect off of each other. This is the first infinity and the inner cube represents the second within the first. I enjoyed the cube immensely even though, as Courtney pointed out, does a box full of mirrors without any light reflect anything?
We were unsure of where exactly to meet Caterina so we kind of hung around the entrance of the palace for about a half an hour before deciding to go downstairs and see if Caterina was, in fact, already in the exhibit: she was. Usually I’m not the biggest fan of modern (actually ‘post-modern’) art, but in this case I found the photos and explanations of their meanings deeply intriguing. There were photo series of some of the most powerful people in the world including Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth, and also pictures of soldiers. One exhibit, which I found spectacularly hilarious, was where somebody had played a musical instrument to the rhythm and sound of speeches by George Bush, Tony Blair and Barack Obama. Bush was synced with a clarinet (because he sounds like a joke I presume), Blair with a flute and Obama with a cello (calm and reassuring). The exhibit was fun especially since we had the chance to hang out with Caterina!
The next morning we went to the Bargello fairly early, but since it was a coldish, damp, grey morning there were few people at the museum. My dad, oh that guy, had originally shown reluctance to visit the National Statue Gallery because he appreciates painting more than art, but after we walked through one room he had changed his mind; he loved it, as did Chris!
In Fiesole I took them to the same restaurant at which Brian and I had eaten the previous month. Even though the day was nasty, and we couldn’t sit outside, we enjoyed wonderful window seats overlooking the city. Our waiter was pleasant (he remembered me from my previous visit) and the food tremendous. I advised my padre to eat the nettle ravioli with sage butter sauce. Chris went for the home run and got truffle ravioli and I “settled” for gnocchi with saffron cream. As before, these pastas were amazing. The ravioli exploded with flavor and the gnocchi felt like air in the mouth and stomach.
We walked around Fiesole for a while. We went into an old monastery, which was very cool, and I decided to try a raw olive from a tree nearby. I knew that they tasted bad but wanted to actually see for myself: bad idea. Never, ever, ever eat an olive from the tree. Gross. It simply amazes me that humans figured out, or even thought of the processes of, how to turn those horribly sour and bitter fruits into one of the most popular and delicious food commodities on the planet.
After Dad flirted with the idea of buying a real Italian leather suitcase and it started to rain we headed back to their hotel for the remainder of the afternoon because they had seen all that which they wanted to see in the city. I almost ventured off to marvel at David and the Uffizi once more but instead chose to catch up on some blogging (surprise, I was behind!). We had reservations at Perseus (the place for that marvelous steak) at 9:15.
At Perseus we enjoyed one of the best dishes that either my dad or I had ever had the pleasure of consuming. It was not well-done in the sense of being a difficult dish, or even fancy, but it tasted amazingly. It was fresh anchovies mixed with salted and oiled anchovies, with red onion, lots of garlic and a fair amount of hot pepper, all marinated in vinegar. Though no culinary masterpiece this spicy, fishy, acidic wonder satisfied all of cravings for strong flavors. After this we of course enjoyed a fabulous steak, of which I have no need to describe again (see my post Two of the Best Days of My Life: Steak, Art, the David, the Uffizi), but the main enjoyment for me was talking to my parents, to whom I had barely spoken since arriving in Italy.
We left early the next morning for Parma and got to my “hometown” around 2. By the time we dropped their bags off at the hotel it was 2:30 and we were starving. I stopped at home to drop of my things, grabbed Abby, and we went to Pepen, a local panini place which has deliciously fresh 4 euro panini. Yum!
After lunch I took Dad and Chris to the Cathedral (the Duomo) to see one of Parma’s signature sights. It is a beautiful Gothic church and at least this time I was not being led by an awful tour guide! I wanted to show them (and myself) the baptistry, but it was actually being used to baptize a baby, so we could not see the inside. Unfortunately the day was dreary and rainy because there isn’t much to see in Parma except to walk around the city. I went home and my parents went to the hotel until later when we went to dinner around 9.
I sill did not feel as if I had come back to Parma. I sat around my room pretending to do work, but really only talking to Courtney and goofing off. I hadn’t really seen anybody, nor had I done anything of value. It was a bit odd. Then, though, I went out with Nice and her friend and his daughter to Ikea because she needed to buy tables for the kitchen and I wanted to purchase a towel. Going to Ikea with a 9 year old, her father and Nice was an experience. I had to jumpstart my Italian skills because little children fail to recognize my ineptitude at comprehending and understanding the language so they speak at rapid fire. At the same time it is extremely hard for me to follow other people’s conversations in Italian if they are not directly speaking to me. This led to many times where they would speak to me and I would have zero idea that they were in fact speaking to me or what they said. Still, overall I managed to survive and it was a fun trip.
I had made dinner reservations for 9 at one of the restaurants that our director Betta had mentioned as one for special occasions. The website did not list prices, or even a menu, but apparently it was famous for its risotto which sold me immediately. The place was packed on our arrival and some people were turned away from the 30+ seat establishment (and I might be over estimating this number) because they had no reservation. The place was cool, with a little bar and dim lighting. At the table next to us sat a group of about 8 people who might have been my age but were likely younger, which said to me that this restaurant could not be THAT expensive unless these Parmese were THAT rich.
When the menus arrived we were more than pleasantly surprised; we were floored. The risottos ranged in price from 6.50 to 8.50 euro with a couple of outliers (truffle risotto and seafood risotto cost more)! For risotto these prices are unheard of, which likely meant that the portions were smaller (they are technically starters after all). First we ordered two of the appetizers of the day which were plates of vegetables prepared in different manners with some cheese. Then Chris ordered the pumpkin risotto and a chicken dish as her second while dad and I planned on splitting the risotto alla Giuseppe Verdi (a special of the restaurant made with porcini mushrooms, shrimp, asparagus and prosciutto) and my veal osso-buco served over a bed of saffron risotto. When we ordered the waitress looked at us strangely as if to say “that’s it?”, which made us realize that we had probably not ordered enough food. Dad the ordered veal braised in Barola wine.
Our plates of vegetables had grilled and fried eggplant, grilled and baked zucchini, radicchio in what tasted like maple syrup or honey, grilled tomato and a small variety of cheeses. Each bite was fresh and fabulous. I could not have enough of them. Then our risottos arrived and I took the first bite of my delicious meal. The rice was perfectly cooked al dente, but still had absorbed all of the flavors of saffron in the cooking process. My osso-buco felt apart at the touch of my fork and its fatty sauce, deliciously rich and winey, balanced perfectly with the crisp, delicate risotto. Chris’ and Dad’s were equally as amazing. For the second course each had a small plate of meat served with sauce. Chris’ chicken had a creamy, lemony, mustardy French style sauce while Dad’s was more complex. The sauce, not to mention the buttery veal, almost tasted like Christmas. I tried to place the flavor. There was nutmeg, or allspice, or cinnamon or some combination of all three! The Barola wine came out nicely, but the depth of spice stole the show. It was one of the most intriguing bites of food I have ever had.
After dinner I met up with Abby and Lacey at one of the local bars near my house. I ordered a drink and low and behold the first thing I notice is that the bartender is giving me the ‘eye’. Then the waiter did. This kind of thing seems to happen to me quite often. I don’t mind, honestly. It doesn’t creep me out and I don’t do much to prevent it, but this time it went a bit far. I was asking the bartender for good night clubs at the end of the night. He told me there weren’t really any in Parma, but he gave me a list of three. He then mentioned one more, but he said it was for people like his friends as he gestured to a group of guys next to me at the bar. He called them some Italian name I didn’t understand and he couldn’t translate so when of his friends said it meant ‘losers.’ Before my mind had processed the real meaning of the word (which any intelligent person would have picked up with context clues) I told him that wasn’t important to me. He got excited and slipped me a piece of paper with a name of some club. I began to realize what I had done. His friends left and on the way out screamed “Free blowjobs!” in my general direction. God damn it…
The next day I didn’t see my parents, or hear from them, until night time. The weather, again, was sour and my parents felt that they should leave me alone and do their own thing. It happened to be Nice’s birthday, (something she didn’t tell any of us until the night before!) so Abby and I, along with Jilly, went to find her a present on a Sunday. Almost nothin is open on Sundays in Italy except for this kind of shopping mall. Nice loves movies so we bought her a couple, It’s Complicated and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Then we waited for dinner.
My parents came over for dinner and Nice’s and even though it was her birthday she still cooked us a wonderful meal. Everyone had a wonderful time and it was extremely interesting to have my parents and my surrogate parent in the same place. We had a great time with lots of laughter and stories. Nice is the warmest person in the world, something which my parents could tell immediately. It being a ‘festa’ the six of us drank six bottles of wine! God! That only added to the laughter and fun as I enjoyed the comfort of home in the form of my parents in the comfort of my Italian home. After dinner I said goodbye to Dad and Chris who left the next morning.
It was a bit strange when they left. The visit had happened so quickly, had been so surreal. They were there with me for about 3 days but we did not spend every minute together. It didn’t exactly feel like they had come half way across the world to see me. Instead it almost seemed as if they had taken a weekend away from home to come move me into school, even though they’ve never even spent a night in Boston while I’ve been there. It’s a feeling also comparable to when I went away for parts of the summer to sleep-away camp and they would swing by for a brief afternoon. It was always wonderful to see them, but something always seemed a bit strange and out of place. Nothing bad, just out of place. It never changed the happiness that fills me when they visit, it’s simply interesting. When they did leave, though, my comfort level dropped significantly. It felt, obviously, more like home with them around, and that’s still a feeling I’m struggling to maintain, or actually obtain, in Parma. Maybe next month when I don’t disappear every weekend.