23 March 2011

un po ' Po

Lorella drove me to visit the small towns that dot the countryside near the Po River. The Po is the longest river in Italy. As a speaker of German, I could not help but think of the meaning of this in German! Languages are fun!
The small towns all had amazing squares - most had beautiful archways that framed the main street of town.
One of the towns we visited was Brescello, the location of a famous film from 1955: Don Camillo e l'on Peppone. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048002/. In the town, still today one see's evidence of how important this film is to this small town. In the mail square, were statues of both Don Camillo and Peppone. I saw several tourists come to take photos WITH them. Plus the names of cafes, restaurants and shops reflected the film and it's characters. Finally one could see posters from the film in town.
Interestingly enough Brescello also had a tank in the center of a smaller square. The tank appeared to be American (good year tires, and other "made in America" marks). Lorella told me that this tank has fascinated her since she was a kid, but she had no idea why it was there or where it came from.

After visiting a few small towns, we drove out to see the Po River and boy were we in for a surprise! Looking at the photos above, one see's that the day was beautiful. The sky was blue and sunny. This was the first day of such weather since I had been in Italy. On the contrary, it was overcast and rainy all week. Well this bout of rainy weather was not just isolated to the week I had been there. Apparently, it had been a rainy river.
As we drove out to the Po, I noticed rows of tree's planted along the road. I found it all so beautiful. So breathtaking indeed that it took me a moment to realize something that made it so unique and so beautiful: I saw the reflections of each and every tree! Yes, the area was flooded and the trees were standing in water, reflecting in the sunshine, the water glinting and sparkling.
Photo taken from moving car.
We then pulled off to an area where we could see better the flooding, plus it gave me an idea of just how wide the Po is. It was quite wide - of course, I do not know how much really represented flood waters. The sun shone and everyone was milling about, looking at the water. We saw a restaurant, whose patio was completely flooded. All of the patio furniture was on a dock that was still above water. Plus we saw men working to clear debris out of the flooded area. It is clear that a lot of work will be necessary before the effects of flooding are erased.

It was lovely to see a bit of the area outside of Reggio Emilia and to experience the force of nature.

21 March 2011

If you want more....

One of our ADL's, Max, kept a blog of our trip that is perhaps a bit more detailed than mine -- I don't know if it will be updated any further or not, but here it is for those who'd like another perspective on it all:

You fill up my senses.....

After visiting the parmisiano factory, we went to a balsalmic vinegrette factory. Wow...another thrill for the senses!

They make vinegrette here in the way that has been traditionally made for thousands of years. In the tradition of Mathilda of Canossa. It ages for up to 25 years. Yes, some of the vinegrette sold is OLDER than all of the students in our group! Amazing. It is aged in wooden casks, the type of wood makes an impact on the flavor. As it ages, it evaporates as well, so the smaller the cask - the older the vinegrette.

Then came the fun part --- sampling! First we tried the youngest product, just barely made. It was more sugar-like than vinegrette. A lot of the students liked it, but to be honest, I did not care for it much.
Then a 5 year aged, 12 years, 20 years and 25 years. Wow amazing -- it gets just better and better......oh but sampling did not end there!
Next a tray of reggiano parmesiano cheese with vinegrette over it was brought out....then breads, then cheese with jellys and sausages and more breads and oh wow the list just went on. It was incredible. Yum yum yum! I couldn't get enough of the cheese & vinegrette combo.

Then it was time to sell us some of the vinegrette.... well lets suffice it to say that it's amazing how expensive this can be! I could not justify spending 45 Euros plus on a small bottle of vinegrette. But then they had a few other options (5 year aged?) that were reasonable. I got 2 small bottles - with different cooking recommendations. The shape of the bottles is also quite appealing - but what is inside is amazing!

19 March 2011

Things are a bit cheesy....

Friday was a day for the senses!
The morning began with a visit to the Reggiano Parmisiano cheese factory. While there we saw the entire process from start to finish. We learned that to be official Reggiano Parmisiano cheese, the following requirements must be met:
The milk must come from cows that are from Reggio Emilia Province
The cheese must be made in RE
The cheese must meet the standards set forth by the board that governs cheese.
Making cheese is not a job for the weak - in muscles or stomach. The men who were stirring the vat of curdling milk must not only have strong muscles, but also be able to withstand dipping their hands / lower arms into vats of milk at a temperature of 120 degrees C.....yes Celcius!

Then the cheese is set into molds. First plastic and then metal. The molds have the imprint of Reggiano Parmisiano as well as information to the date. It's very specific. They spend 2 days in the molds. Then they spend 20 days out of the molds in a room drying. Then they spend 2 weeks in a salt bath. Then they spend 2 months in another chamber and finally they are aged 2 years in a room. (rule of 2's the man told us). It's actually a fascinating process. The cheeses are stacked up row upon row. There is a saying about having 'cheese in the bank' which is quite fair because a 100lb wheel of Reggiano Parmesiano has the potential to bring in up to $1000. Before the cheeses can be sold they are tested (first test is a sound test with a hammer and then if needed, samples are taken) and it is graded 1, 2 or 3. Grade 1 is the finest quality. It will sell for about 13€ a kg. Grade 2 is used for shredded parmesiano because it has some structural defects and it can sell for around 8 or 10€ a kg. Grade 3 has structural and other defects, it is still edible...but it no longer is high enough quality to be considered Reggiano Parmesiano. So it has it's outer rind shaved off (to remove the RP label) and is sold as cheese from Italy. This usually sells for around 6€ a kg.

At times the smells were quite intense and some of the group had trouble with it. It was a sour smell, but underneath it all one could still smell the deliciousness that would be. Afterall of this, we went back to where we started and got to taste the cheese before it hardened. Words that the students threw around to describe the taste included: styrofoam, sour, nothing. I thought it was plain but that I could detect a hint of parmisiano.

At the end we got to taste the real thing....we tried Grade 1 cheese that had been aged 1 year and also 2 years. It was a matter of taste and preference. The longer it is aged, the more expensive it is and yes, in my opinion, the better it tastes. Delicioso!

Finally we had the opportunity to buy some of this delicious cheese. We could choose between 1 year or 2 years of aging. Lets suffice it to say that there will be several kg (aka many kg) of Reggiano Parmesiano winging it's way from Italy to Texas tomorrow. I am no exception to this rule. Expect some incredible cheese at my place!

After visiting the Parmisiano Cheese factory, we went to one that produced Balsamic Vinagrette. For now suffice it to say that again my taste buds were enlightened! I will have to post about this at another time, most likely when I return to Texas.

Early departure in the morning....Arreviderci Italia!

While you were sleeping

I don't sleep on planes. I've tried everything, sleep aids, melatonin, alcohol, relaxing music etc etc. It just doesn't work. It can make a flight very long - for example 16 hrs from Houston to Dubai!
This flight I am on right now (DFW to FRA) is relatively

short - only 9.5 hours. Traveling with students, they come up with great ideas to pass the time. This go round was to take photos with the sleeping Ian - my partner in crime on this exchange.
I won't post student photos on my blog, but here is one of me. Ah silliness on a plane. And for added kicks, a few sunrise / cloud photos.

Location:LH 439, somewhere over the Atlantic.

Food revisited

I wanted to add two more thoughts to my post on food:
1. Bread is placed on the table in front of your plate, not on it.
2. Balsamic vinegar is sweet and can be used for just about anything - I keep expecting to find it as a gelato flavor.....

18 March 2011

From Florence to Fair Verona

Wednesday and Thursday we took daytrips.... Florence and Verona. Now I must say that I LOVED the day in Florence. Verona I spent too much time dealing with a group of youth who didn't behave as we'd want them to.
Most everyone liked Verona better, I must reserve judgement for a time that I can visit Verona and appreciate it.

We had tour guides in both places and I wrote down some interesting facts that I learned:
The symbol of Florence is the red iris on a white background.
The nickname for the Neptune Fountain in Florence translates from Italian to English as - big white man.
The statue of a Medici holding Medusa's head (also in Florence) is to show that if you cross them, this is what will  happen to you.
There is a replica of the David outside of the Ufizzi museum in Florence.
To get to the top of the cathedral in Florence, one must climb 463 steps. (sadly one must also pay 8 € for this privilidge and so my group and I chose not to)
The Baptistry of the cathedral in Florence has doors in gold. They are said to be a replica of the gates to paradise.
In Verona outside of the town square is an arch, hanging from this arch is the rib of a whale. The Turkish enemy ships would hang up these ribs as a warning. However when Italians fought them (and won) they would bring one back to their home, to showcase their victory.
In Verona there is a mailbox (no not for letters to Juliet) that looks like a head. The hole is in the mouth. If someone cheated you (ie: cut a measure of cloth too short), then you could report them that way so that they could be punished.

The most impressive part of Florence was seeing the David. Wowowowowoowowowow! He is nearly 16 feet tall and amazing. According to the description, "Michaelangelo saw a chunk of marble lying around as the cathedral was being finished, so he asked if he could use it to make a sculpture." I love the simplicity of that description! As you walk around the David you can see his sling shot, you can see the stone in his hand. Just incredible. I loved it!

I also loved the squares, the cathedral was beautiful, the bridge (although all the cute little shops turned out to just be jewelry stores) and more. Florence was incredible.
Verona had a very interesting character. The Arena was quite impressive and I really loved how in one area you saw a number of things dating back to various centuries.

Photos to follow...

Veni, Vidi, Visa.....

Give a teenager money and send them to Europe and wow can they spend. I knew this obviously, but nowhere have I seen it more than in Florence! We had one girl who spent 400 Euro alone in that one afternoon. Seriously. They bought leather purses, leather belts, scarves, souveniors etc etc etc.
I hope they got something cultural out of Florence as well. It was an amazing city (more on that in another post)

Now, I am not going to say that I have not bought any souveniors because then I'd be lying.
I've bought:
Reggio Parmasiano cheese
Balsamico Vinagrette from the Reggio region
a magnet and postcard or two
a T-Shirt (ciao Bella!)
Locally produced wine
A few small gifts.

I'd bring home gelato, but although airplanes are often cold, they are not quite THAT cold!

When in Italy....eat like the Romans do!

Italy is the land of food....pasta, pizza, gelato, expresso and oh the list goes on!
I think you may have to wheel me out of here when I leave - it's amazing. But I have made some interesting food related observations:

a. The Italian diet consists of carbs, carbs and ah yes carbs. Breakfast is cookies and coffee, lunch is pasta and bread, dinner involves more bread - maybe pizza or pasta. The question is - how do so many Italians stay soo thin?!? (and for that matter how in the world do they walk in stilletos on cobblestones?????)

2. Napkins are present at the meal (unlike in Germany where they are not often as present). They are on the table. No one puts them on their laps. Americans who are likely to drop pasta do put them in their laps!

c. Wine is normal with dinner. Kids as young as 11 (maybe younger) drink it as well.

d. Americans tend to consider salad as the first course. In Italy it comes second or third.

5. Pizza: Americans pick it up and eat it with their hands. Germans eat it entirely with a knife and fork. Italians cut a small wedge with a knife and fork, then pick it up with their hands.

Now the disclaimer is that when I generalize and say 'Italians', I am really only meaning the few that I've had the pleasure of breaking bread with.

15 March 2011

The Hostess with the Mostest

The greatest thing about exchange travel is staying with a host / host family. I have had so many incredible opportunities around the world being hosted by families in New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Swaziland and now Italy.
My host Lorella and her two kids A. and G. are wonderful! A & G. are so cute and shy in speaking English, but they do quite well with it for their ages and years of study. Lorella is an English teacher so we have very little trouble communicating. Plus sometimes I just use some of my Spanish and that helps fill in any gaps. (Italian and Spanish are related).
She is really bending overbackwards for me. So very nice!
For example....
Yesterday we drove out to the Quatro Castella (4 Castles) region. The area of Mathilda. - As soon as I learn more about Mathilda, I will post here - she took me to the Canossa Castle. Well it was closed (apparently being a Monday, it is always closed on Mondays - but it was also just closed for this week). So we went into a nearby shop where the shopkeeper tried to convince us to buy everything...
My favorite story from the shopkeeper:
A woman was visiting Reggio Emilia from Atlanta, GA. This woman was  here for a convention of knives. Well the woman bought an 80 Euro bottle of a very old vinegrette that is still made in the same fashion that has been being used in the Mathilda region for thousands of years. Then because the woman liked the smell so much, she dabbed the vinegrette on her earlobes and wore it as perfume!
[you can be the judge as to if you buy this story or not!]

Then we drove on towards a small medeival village. Village is really not the right word. The word in Italian is Burgo. Think 'Burg' in German. To be honest there is no true English equivalent. Well we were walking through the narrow roads of the couple of houses, and the kids were being silent as the signs requested, no small feat for an 11 and 13 year old and all of a sudden we began to hear it: huyuh huyuh. It's breathing was laboured and the bark was faint. I felt so bad for this dog, feeling the need to bark at us. He sounded like he was taking his last breaths. I was reminded of how I sounded when I had my pulmonary embolism! I hoped he would stop soon without dying on us. Then he was joined by a robust bark bark. But he still continued. Poor dog felt the need to guard his yard and let us know he was there. I just wanted to tell him not to worry.

On the way back, it was time for my first Gelato. We stopped at 3 different places until we found one that was open. Oh delicioso! I had nutella and hazelnut flavors. Wonderful!

Lorella had told me that she was not much of a cook, but she wanted to ensure that I had good food here. Monday night she organized that we would have dinner with her sister and Tuesday night that we would have dinner with her brother.
Monday night's dinner with her sister and her brother in law was lovely. They cooked a very nice fish and salad. Plus the cup of coffee they made afterwards may be the best cup of expresso I have ever had in my LIFE. It was an enjoyable evening and was full of (as the German's say) gemutlichkeit. Plus desert... more gelato (I think they may have heard that I like it!)
Tuesday night we were with her brother's family. The food was amazing! Lorella's sister in law is not only an incredible cook, but also does amazing things with plants. I saw some of the cacti she is growing in their apartment - wowowowow! They were taller than I! There was so much food..... first a pasta course with two types of filled pasta - one with spinach and the other with pumpkin (Zucca). Both were good, but the Zucca was simply heavenly! Sweet and just wonderful! Then she brought out salad and cheese (plus some meats for the others). Five different types of cheeses: Parmesan (it is not real unless it comes from this region of Italy - and wow is it amazing!), Brie, Mozerella and two others that I do not recall the names of. The bread that we had to go along with it (same bread we had last night as well) has a name that translates to 'normal' or 'common' bread. It is anything but common for an American. Very light and fluffy. It has a nice crispy shell but a soft center. It is handmade and the shapes are quite unique - some look like roses, others like braids, and still others like a branch of a tree. For desert was once again fruit salad and gelato. Incredible! As I said, her sister in law (who spoke almost no English) was an amazing cook. I'd like to take her home with me!

Being hosted is simply wonderful!

14 March 2011

Reggio Emilia

This morning we had a guided tour of Reggio Emilia. We saw the main parts of town and visited 3 churches. Reggio is beautiful! The weather was cold and threatened to rain the entire time, but it was beautiful!
The thing I love about tour guides are the funny comments they say, sometimes without meaning to be funny. My favorite quote from our tour guide today was: "This church is dedicated to St. Mary, she did nothing but being the mother of God."
But I learned some very interesting facts and made some unique observations:
- Some versions of the Italian flag (Tricolore: green, white, red) add blue to signify royalty.
- The first Montessori school (in the world) is in Reggio Emilia.
- The Church of St. Mary (La Madonna della Ghiara) is very unique because the ceiling was painted all at one time and so it is all of the same style and tones and artists. Most churches did not have the money to do that.
- The letters SPQR, which one sees everywhere, stand for democracy, a symbol of the Roman Empire. Irony? The Roman Empire was not a democracy!
- The Church of St. Mary has a painting of a horse in the domed roof. No matter what direction you look at it from, it appears to be staring at you. I tried it - it's true!
- Two of the three churches had offering candles that were tapers. Upon closer inspection they were not candles at all.You simply flicked a switch and they lit up!
- A statue or fountain of a man pouring water represents rivers.
- In the church of St. Maria Ascunta there are daisies all over the walls to represent stars.

After the tour, we met the Deputy Mayor in charge of Education and we had some nice speeches. That was then the end of our official day with SCI. The rest of my day was spent with my host. That is another post at another time.
Dancing Fountain in front of Theater 
Friendly tour guide!
One is old, one is young, one looks forward and one looks back. What does it represent? Time
It is traditional that kids sit on these lions outside of the church of St. Maria Ascunta.


The first flight was from DFW to Madrid. American Airlines. I walked onto the plane and was first struck by the layout of the 767....it seemed smaller! 2 seats, 3 seats, 2 seats. Cramped seats at that. I did not notice it at first, but then it was pointed out - no inseat TV screens. Yes, I admit it - I am spoiled when it comes to international flights these days. And heck the last time I flew international, it was in business class. Plus the controls were very old turn wheels that were part of the seat arm. Yes, we were scoffing at it! But honestly, as long as the plane flies safely that is all that matters. We departed late. I looked into the American Way magazine to find out what films would be shown and as I told the boy next to me, the man infront of me told me I was wrong and that I needed to look at the ones for Spain. (well duh!) so I showed him that I did look at the ones for Spain, but it turned out that my magazine was the one from Feb 2011. Infact almost everyone had Feb 2011. (Heck it was only March 12th!) Finally we found someone with the March version and we saw the film titles: Morning Glory and The Last Airbender. Well that led to a section wide discussion between strangers on a plane about how bad the film was. I love how travel quickly bonds strangers in the weirdest places. I saw the first half or so of Morning Glory. It was good, but then I ended up talking with Laura Z. one of the Asst. Delegation Leaders on the trip. The second film came on and Laura and I simply made fun of it for a bit. Laura fell asleep in the middle of our conversation (guess it wasn't that good eh?!?) At one point during the flight, we hit an unexpected bump of turbulence - it was strong enough to wake most of the sleeping folks. I reacted by throwing my pillow into the aisle. Laura told me: don't worry, it is only a hiccup. She claims she does not remember this as she went right back to sleep. I thought it was reassuringly funny. Towards the end of the flight I went back to the galley to chat with a friendly flight attendant. Mario was his name I believe. He wore a green St. Patty's tie and had been friendly the whole flight. He told me he was going to teach me how to serve the breakfast. His instructions were:
a. Throw the croissant on the tray. Put tray in front of passenger.
b. Smile a genuine smile (no fake smiles allowed!)
c. Ignore the flight attendant behind you.

I told him I'd serve breakfast if he'd teach my classes next week....he didn't bite on that one.

Landing in Madrid a bit late, we knew time was tight til our flight to Milan. So we followed signs to "Passport control no visa". Well our interpretation was that this was for people who had no visas (as in needed none) turned out it was for people who needed visas and had none! Oye! Long story short we were in slow lines but then we rushed. The airport in Madrid is HUGE! But we made it to our flight about 5 mins before boarding began.

Flight to Milan...Iberia 3636. Again I think the plane was older than I. Oh and it showed! After the comfort of the AA flight it was quite uncomfortable. Iberia has changed from a full service airline (I flew them in 2005 from Madrid to London and was served a small meal on that less than an hour flight) to a "if you want a glass of water it will cost you an arm and leg" airline. But we were all too tired to care.

Air travel is less and less of a joy each day.

At the end of the day (actually days) we had 2 flights and a long bus ride but we were warmly welcomed in Reggio Emilia and in the end that was what mattered!

12 March 2011

I'm leaving on a jetplane.....

So I wanted to do a whole post on packing - I took photos and all, but time just simply ran out on me. I am now sitting on the floor at the airport with a group of students ready to board a flight to Madrid. The flight is overbooked and they were offering $800 vouchers to take a flight tomorrow. Do you know how much I wish I could do that?!? But responsibility calls.

Okay so traveling with students is fun and tiring at the same time. We have a great group - in our group are students who have NEVER traveled on an airplane before and students who are old pros and everything in between. I am so excited for the girl that this is the first plane flight -- DFW to Madrid, what a way to first travel!

Okay so packing .... I think I did pretty well. Considering that I had a lot of gifts, my suitcase was only 34.5 pounds. I did pack at 7am so heaven only knows what I forgot.

What do I look for in a suitcase - well it needs to be lightweight to begin with. All the "bells and whistles" (aka pockets, extra zippers etc) add weight to a suitcase. Guess what - you only have 50 pounds when you travel international and you don't want to use it all on the case. Actually you don't want to carry 50 pounts at all! Secondly I look for a case with a few interior features - a small zipper pocket on the lid is nice. A good set of zippers is essential!
I have to cut this short...boarding.
This pocket is great for keeping things flat.
very versatile inside!

I love my suitcase - this is the "big" one.
All packed

11 March 2011

to Japan, with Ai

(To note, Ai means love in Japanese)

As I watch the news and read all of the articles about the earthquake in Japan I am thinking of the incredible experience I had there this past summer. The people I met were amazing, they treated us like royalty - really so. The food was a pescaterian's dream. I got to try so many new things from Kendo to Calligraphy to Flower Arranging to Dancing in a Parade.
Now I wish to post a few photos to showcase the beauty of this land that is suffering from such a tragedy.  After seeing them, I hope you will take the time to donate to the Red Cross or other relief organizations. 

Those of you who are T-Mobile customers, this is from their Facebook feed:  To donate $10 to the American Red Cross, text "REDCROSS" to "90999". T-Mobile does not charge for this text.

Shrine in Nagaoka
My family, the Sakurai Family.
Calligraphy practice

Fireworks in Nagaoka. Each one more beautiful than the last

My close friends Noriko and Saori making my absolute favorite food: Takoyaki.

Parade in Nagaoka.

10 March 2011

There's an app for that!

I love my iPod touch....and when I get one I know I will love my iPad. Heck if T-Mobile offered it, I'd have an iPhone. I also love my Macbook. Yes, I am a mac girl and the apps are wonderful!

In regards to travel, there are a ton of travel apps out there. Here are just a few of my faves...I think they were all free. These are in no particular order.

TripCase - just put in your confirmation number and last name and it does the rest of the work for you. It finds your reservation and enters all sorts of information such as flight dates, times, gates, seats etc. Plus it will send you reminder emails and texts as the trip gets closer. Then if anything changes it alerts you as well. I've actually been alerted by TripCase about a gate change BEFORE the gate agent announced it. You can also set up TripCase to send alerts to others who may want/need this info about your travel. Another plus - it will also show you alternative flight times, weather and maps at your destination.

My TSA - anything and everything you want to know about the TSA and it's regulations. One really cool feature -- you can find out the status of the security check point (ie: no wait, 20 min wait, 6 year wait etc)

Gate Guru - Enter the name of the airport and then you can search by terminal to find out information about what there is to eat, services and shops. Often has information regarding security checkpoints and even some tips from other travelers.

AroundMe - (Mary Helen showed me this one!) is a lifesaver! When you are in an unfamiliar city you may still need a pharmacy, supermarket, bank etc. This one will show you exactly where these things (and many other places) are. PLUS it will link with google maps to show you how to get there. It can also provide you with info such as phone number and address.

uPackingListFree - Is an app that allows you to create and utilize a packing list when packing your suitcase. It has common items organized by type (clothes, toiletries etc) but also allows you to add your own custom items. Plus you can "check" things off your list as you pack them. Very handy!

I also should mention that the airlines all have their own apps, as do many airports and cities. I have downloaded great apps such as Ride DC which has the metro map and allows you to plan trips. Anytime I am going to a new city, I search for apps related to that city.

Lastly, a travel related game that a packing nerd such as myself really likes..... Packing Panic Lite. It's all about packing items into the suitcase just right....

Don't forget that there are a number of free apps for language when traveling to other parts of the world! Apps really make a difference in travel these days!

09 March 2011

The first one.

My friend Stephanie believes that if I wrote a travel blog, it would be interesting to read. So here it goes - lets see how long it lasts.
I guess since this is the first post, I'll start with the first plane ride I took alone. Or at least the first plane ride I recall taking alone.

I was visiting my grandparents down in Harligen, TX. As I recall, my parents drove with me down to Harligen, but then they went back home after a weekend and I spent the week there. I was 5 years old and it was my first spring break. It was then time to come home. My grandparents put me on a Southwest Airlines plane for the 30 minute flight to San Antonio. I don't remember much about the flight, but I do recall that the flight attendant let me help pass out something. In my memory I was passing out wings, but most likely she gave me wings and I passed out peanuts. So much for my memory of 5 years old.
It wasn't much of a flight, quick up and then down, but not only is it the first flight I took alone, but it's also the first flight I remember being on.