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.