Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Time Is Winding Down

Helloooo to my faithful blog readers! 

So, this post is a little different considering it's in 'real time'. I've worked hard on keeping the blog as updated as I can but the time has absolutely gotten away from me. I thought it best to get a post up sort of re-capping what I can of the end of classes in Colorno and what the third and final phase of school has been like working in an Italian restaurant. I'm currently looking at less than two weeks left of this stage and I absolutely cannot believe it. 

The end of classes at ALMA was very bittersweet for me. Much like in NY, we were so swamped until the very end that it didn't really hit me that we'd never be going back to classes until the very last moment. Our last day of school was intense, too. We cooked a 10 course tasting menu for 35 people and here's the kicker…there were only 7 of us in the kitchen to do it. It was by far the best moment I/we have had because we pulled off something super difficult and nailed it. The group that ate that day actually applauded us and it was a cool feeling, indeed. These exhausted smiles are also very proud smiles:
After we finished, we had a nice champagne toast with school personnel and it felt really good:
The way they structure things in school is that none of us have any idea where we're being assigned for our stage (internship) until a couple of weeks before we leave. We had a meeting with Chef Bruno all together and he announced our locations for everyone to hear. Mine? The town of Lucca, in Tuscany! I was immediately psyched because, on our field trip to Tuscany, I really fell in love with it. I felt super privileged to be assigned a location in this gorgeous place, particularly Lucca because it's so unique and different. The town itself is enclosed by ancient sea walls that circle the city, about three miles around in total. It's very medieval feeling and it's full of tiny twists and turns with narrow alleyways. It's like something out of a book, really. 

Since the end of July, I've been working here at Caffe Delle Mura:
It's a gorgeous restored army bunker that sits atop a hill overlooking the town. My first day there, I took this photo out the kitchen window because I was so happy to be in a place like this:
The restaurant was closed for a number of years before the renovations and has now been re-opened just six months. I've been working for Chef Maurizio Marsili who is absolutely fantastic. He is kind, patient, knowledgeable and dedicated. He also has the most amazing playful side and brings an energy and warmth into the kitchen that really is so hard to find. He's also incredibly handsome which means taking orders from him ain't so shabby. One of my favorite things about him is this childlike nature he has, especially when anything dessert related is in sight. One day, Emanuele (the second chef I'm working with) was making a batch of semifreddo and Chef Maurizio got all kinds of excited. He grabbed our afternoon espressos and put a big plop of semifreddo in each:
He was truly giddy. Which made us giddy. I love those moments!

Life in Lucca has really been a journey for me. The first month was incredibly hard and I felt homesickness and isolation like I've never felt in my life. It's far too difficult to explain through an avenue like this but let's just say I cried a lot. Taking the leap of faith to go to culinary school is, in itself, emotional. What I couldn't have known or realized was just how much a ton of emotions would hit me like a bag of bricks once finally by myself, working in a foreign country. My classmates and I have been together 24/7 as a group since the beginning and then we were just ripped out of that comfort zone and thrown into being isolated. I won't dwell on this, because it's too hard and personal to even explain, but everything wasn't sunshine and roses, that's for sure.

As time started passing, I was doing everything I could to fill it with things that would make this experience more than just homesickness. I took some bike rides and snapped a few photos of the town which I'm excited to share with you here:
I also started to befriend some folks that work at the restaurant and I have been unbelievably blessed by them. I do believe I've met some of the kindest people I could ever know who have taken me under their wing as I spend my days far from home. We're all off on Mondays, as the restaurant is closed, and I've gone on several beach excursions with them which has been spectacular. Not only do I love the beach, but I've gotten to see many towns that aren't touristy and are stunning. Here are a few photos from over the weeks that just make me smile each time I look at them:
God has blessed me with these people, truly. We've also managed to have some fun excursions like a couple of dinners out and even a trip to the Italian mall. That was an experience. Most recently, we had drinks at an Irish pub that serves Brooklyn Brewery beers! I might have been the happiest person on the planet:
I mean seriously, how the hell am I drinking a Brooklyn IPA…in an IRISH pub…in TUSCANY? That was definitely the most radical, Twilight Zone moment, ever. 

I was so thrilled also to have my dear friends, Abbey and Ben, come visit from New York! They took their summer vacation to Italy and worked their plans around seeing me here, much like Rachel and Grace (and soon to be Allison, wahoo!) did which was fantastic. When I met up with them after they arrived, it was just the greatest moment in the world. Faces from home here with me after I've been so sad in moments:
You can't put any kind of pricetag on how special that was for me. We had a lovely visit together, eating and drinking vino, and they even got to come have dinner at Caffe Delle Mura. The chef let me bring out a couple of their dishes and it was SO FUN to do it! I mean, honestly. How lucky am I to have had sweet, dear friends from home come and see me here in Italy?! These are the kind of reminders that put me back in my place and shine perspective brightly on the moments of sadness. 

Over time, I have settled in much more and I finally feel at ease. Of course I would with less than two weeks to go… At this point, I have nothing but excitement ahead as I await Allison's arrival. She leaves in six days and will do some traveling on her own here before meeting me in Lucca to see what life has been like for me. She, too, will come eat at the restaurant and then she'll head to Colorno as well for when I go back for exams/graduation. Come October 3rd, this culinary journey will end and I can't explain how grateful and thrilled I am to have Allison there to see me finish. We have a graduation ceremony and then a gala dinner to follow which I already know will be incredible. After all is said and done, Allison and I will travel together for a few days and I officially return to New York on October 9th. 

You know, when I really think about it, even I cannot believe that I've done this. I've gotten the most solid, awesome support in the world from every single person in my life and the underlying theme has been one thing…you are so brave, Valerie. I don't know that in the past I would or could ever call myself brave. I know now that I can. Without the mere iota of arrogance, I can say that I have done something a lot of people in the world would never do and I am damn proud of myself. I am also a different woman for it. I have been stretched and grown in ways I couldn't imagine and I am a stronger, better individual for my time here. That, and I'm a pretty good cook now, too. ;)

As I look toward the end of this, I really, truly smile. I have seen things, met people and been places that are remarkable. I have tasted mind-blowing food, seen sunsets that would make your heart skip, breathed in the beauty of this magical place in every way possible… Most of all, I have learned that anything - anything - is possible if you want it badly enough. It's never too late to chase down dreams and to go after what's truly in your heart. I'm living proof and every ounce of fear I ever had was worth what I've gained in who I am now. Live. Dream. Grow. Breathe. I can promise you, your life will never be the same once you do. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Meet Me In Pair-eee

If you read my blog regularly, I think you can tell that I've been overjoyed to have some of the experiences that I have. I've really been blessed to continuously have my mind blown by areas I've seen and people I've met. Obviously, I can't even start talking about the food I've had too or else we'd be here all day. Along with these fabulous experiences, I also can't get used to the fact that we're so close to so many incredible countries that are a quick train or plane ride away. It's just so different in Europe. I mean, the entire country of Italy is just slightly bigger than California and that's one state in the US. The way they do things over here simply caters to one's experiences in life vs. their job or financial status or title. That said, when presented with the idea of going to France for a weekend last minute, I jumped on the opportunity…even if it meant missing two days of school. See, you can do that when you're an adult paying for it yourself instead of mom and dad, tee hee. 

Trisha and I have become good friends since being in school and I really feel lucky to have met her. We couldn't be more different as people yet we have formed a bond that is really special. I think we've both learned things from one another based on how different our past is and how we grew up; things of that nature. It's been a pleasure getting to know her and I know that we'll be friends for a long time. We'd talked about doing something awesome on our last weekend before heading off to stage but we couldn't decide on what! That's when her husband, Tim, called her and said he was able to get away from work for a few days and he wanted her to meet him in Paris! Um, hello romantic. She was beside herself with excitement yet torn as well because he wanted to meet that very weekend we talked about going away. She didn't want to lose a last weekend with me yet was dying to see her husband, of course. Well, being the amazing guy that he is, Tim decided to have me come along for the trip and I almost fell over when Trisha told me. In a matter of a week, our plans were set to fly out to good ol' Pair-eee from Thursday through Sunday. 

We were delayed for quite some time in the Milan airport that Thursday, which killed a fun, girly afternoon we had planned with each other, but it didn't matter. We were going to PARIS:
When we finally arrived, we navigated our way on the trains into the city and, when we came out of the station, we looked up and saw the Eiffel Tower first thing:
It was so awesome. Our hotel was close to the station and my heart just about stopped when I saw the place. It was absolutely gorgeous:
This place was SO nice and it was directly in the center of everything! I definitely had my 'Pretty Woman' moment, although I didn't jump on the bed like I should have:
Heehee! The place we really wanted to try for dinner, Ferdi, was booked for the night so we went to a spot near the hotel which turned out to be so douchey, we couldn't even stay. The people were so rude to us that we had one drink and left! We ended up finding a cute little brasserie that was much more fitting for us. We had a good meal and nice wine, just what we were looking for.

On Friday, Tim's flight wasn't getting in until around 1pm so Trisha and I walked all over to see as much as we could in a short time. We started with a simple breakfast at a cute placed called Bread and Roses near the hotel:
I really wish I could have that exact scone every morning for the rest of my life.

We continued on from there to try and catch whatever sights we could within walking distance:

Allison, I spotted something very special just for you and something very special just for me:
We even found a little bit of Canada (where Trisha is from) in Paris:
As it edged closer to Tim's arrival, we made our way back toward the hotel and stopped for a glass of wine at a super eclectic, cute cafe where the server was friendly and animated:
We both couldn't believe we were sitting in Paris! We had an awesome talk while enjoying the peaceful little side street and it felt like such a French afternoon, really. We headed back to the hotel so Tim and Trisha could meet up and we went our separate ways before coming back together for dinner that evening. I was so happy for the chance to get to know Tim more. I'd briefly met him before so it was really nice having the opportunity to spend time with him. We had a lovely glass of wine before going to dinner and I just enjoyed myself so much. At dinner, the server oddly put the menu board on the seat next to me when we sat down so we figured she was trying to make me feel more included with a date of my own. Awwww…:
The food was terrific and, of all things, they had the most delectable and perfectly done rice pudding I've ever had. We hadn't ordered it but the server brought it along with the desserts we did choose because she said we simply had to try it. She was right. I've been thinking about it since, no joke.

After dinner, Tim brought us to a spot he'd heard about where you can have drinks while looking out at the Eiffel Tower. Though it's mildly cheesy, every hour the Tower lights up all sparkly for a few minutes so I took a photo trying to capture what I could:
We had such an awesome time over the course of the night. I really, really enjoyed myself and was so happy to share that time with Trisha and Tim! They're amazing people, through and through.

On Saturday, the three of us had brunch together before Tim and Trisha went off to enjoy their "date day/night" together. We ate in an area (the name escapes me) that felt much more "real" in terms of being in France. There were no tourists roaming around and it felt like we were right in the middle of normal Saturday activities for Parisians. There was one street that was basically a big market full of everything you could want. The smells alone were fantastic! Lots of delicious croissants and pastries being baked, chocolate, fruits and vegetables… I could've gotten myself in trouble if we stuck around there much longer. After brunch when we branched off, I decided to just wander around aimlessly and get myself kind of lost. I like to do that kind of thing vs. have an agenda or itinerary because I think you often see so much more of a city outside of the normal tourist spots that way. I've also been to Paris a couple of times so I felt like I wasn't missing out on the "must see" sights or anything. 

When I found my way back near the hotel, I was SO excited to walk down the Champs d'Elysees and see all of the Tour de France finish being set up! I couldn't believe I was in Paris on the very weekend the Tour was coming through to finish. It killed me though because we had to be at the airport far before the teams would come cycling through so I was very, very sad to miss it. It was the coolest thing ever though to see things being put together for it:
That, in itself, was a really neat experience for me to have, especially on my own. I spent the entire day out and about so I decided to head back to the hotel, shower and take myself out to dinner. Ferdi, the restaurant we wanted to try before, had an opening so I took it. I'm so glad I did, too. It was totally delicious! It's Spanish food, something I've been craving like crazy since being in Italy, so I was excited. I ordered a mojito and it ended up being one of the better ones I've had, go figure! I asked the server if it was tapas style and if I should order a few things and he said "yes, definitely!" so I ordered two things to start before a "bigger" main dish. Um, the portions were huge, people. I'm a big eater but this was a lot, even for me! I started with the manchego cheese with peppadew peppers and these marinated tomatoes in vanilla infused olive oil with black toast:
I absolutely couldn't stop eating those tomatoes. You'd think the vanilla would be so odd, a reason I ordered it actually, but it was completely addictive. It's so different than anything I've tried before and I wanted to keep eating it forever. I got the pork skewers for my main dish with mac and cheese, both of which were divine. I cracked up when they hit the table though because the mac and cheese was like a casserole dish that could feed three people: 
I did some damage to it, I won't even lie. 

I walked around a little after dinner and caught another lovely view of the Eiffel Tower before heading back to the hotel:
I enjoyed my date with myself, I must say!

The weekend went by much too quick, as they usually do when you're having such fun. I can't believe Tim offered to have me along and his generosity was overwhelming. I feel so lucky, I really do. The best part? I was hopping a plane headed back to Italy. Now, that's cool.