A newly-married couple from Los Angeles quit their jobs to work on farms and wineries across Europe. Read it from the beginning...

I Made a Square Pie

Posted: September 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Calabria, Italy, Unexpected Adventure | 5 Comments »

Mark this one up to “cultural differences.” In Italy they don’t really have “pie” in the sense that American’s typically understand it. That is, the round, large pastry with a butter-based crust and filled with fruit or other filling. So, when it came out that I knew how to make apple pie, and they asked me to make one, and I agreed, we hit an early snag: they had no pie tins. A search revealed no container of any material that could be described as “pie shaped,” and this is a place with a professional restaurant kitchen. So, we improvised, and I made a square pie.

With all those apples, sugar, and nearly two pounds of butter in there, I think the shape probably doesn’t matter too much. What is most important is it received the Halbe Thumbs Up Seal of Approvalâ„¢.

Helluva Weekend in Italy

Posted: September 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Calabria, Italy, Meals, Unexpected Adventure, Work | 4 Comments »

Saturday morning we were up early-ish to feed the chickens the slops leftover from dinner last night in the restaurant. We haul two five-gallon buckets up the hill to them, then dump this old food into the center of their pen. The chickens flock to this stinky pile, pecking at it, walking over it, having a grand time. They seem to prefer rotten tomatoes and old bread, but dislike eggplant. In return, we collect from them five eggs.

It was raining, so Halbe and I wore our waterproof jackets. We discovered a more appropriate name would be “waterproof for two hours” jackets. From the expansive garden we harvested tomatoes, carrots, and chard. All were used in the dinner that evening for the 40 or so guests and workers eating.

Our work done, we retreated indoors. We wrote a few entries for the site, read. I finished a silly mystery novel, and Halbe practiced piano. We read a few Roald Dahl kids poems to each other. We had lunch with Grasiella and Sylvia, two of the women who work in the restaurant. Grasiella is Italian and speaks zero English. We learn a lot in attempting to speak with her. Sylvia is from Argentina, so she and Halbe talk in Spanish, while Grasiella and I watch, then Sylvia translates into Italian for Grasiella, and Halbe into English for me.

We head out to the field again — I harvested the wrong kind of tomatoes in the morning. I’m pointed to the correct row, and begin the second tomato harvest for the day. They need a particular kind to prepare their tomato sauce (salsa pomodoro).

Dinner was pasta with a thick pesto sauce. Secondi (second course) was fuori di zucchini (fried zucchini flowers) and a green patty of some sort with cheese in it.

Desert was hands down the best gelato I’ve had — Italy or anywhere. It was nocciola (hazelnut) with a touch of chocolate. Smooth as taffy, creamy, not over-sweet, packed with flavor but not overpowering.

The gelato maker is an industrial machine that would look at home in a wood shop classroom. Like in ice cream preparation, the ingredients are cooled while being turned, forming the pliable, frozen material. With gelato, there is the additional step of continually stirring and crushing the material, creating that exceptionally smooth texture. Here I am, eyes half-shut in ecstasy, as I sample the gelato straight from the solid brass and steel blade/beater used to do this crushing and mixing. I’m thinking of getting one for the home. Seriously.

After eating our meal, we help clean up the kitchen, then head for bed.

Sunday began in the same way: chickens, light chores, weed pulling. It’s Sunday, the traditional day off. We hadn’t received any direction from the hosts, who were out of town, so we took it easy. Halbe packed a bag for the beach, and our host’s brother drove us down to the beach in Zambrone called Marinella (little marina?). Gorgeous beach, and just a handful of people. We swam in the Mediterranean and continued the futile efforts to tan our pasty torsos and thighs.

The return trip to the house was difficult. Probably due to some communication breakdown, we understood the instructions from our host as “take the first left to get home.” So we took the first left. We began the long hike up from the sea to the hilltop. Forty-five minutes and several kilometers pass. We don’t recognize anything. We’re dripping with sweat, hungry, and only a packet of Saltines between us. It’s clear we’re lost. So what do we do? We keep going. Who knows, right? Maybe it’ll work out.

Eventually we get to a vista where we spot, in the distance and on a different hill, a radio tower that we think may be same radio tower we vaguely remember from the night drive when we first arrived here, a week ago. We ask directions but, unfortunately, everyone is speaking Italian. The Saltines are gone now. We decide to walk back down the hill to the beach and try to find a road that can take us up the radio tower hill. We find the road (fourth left, for the record), and it’s steeper than the last. The sun pounds down. The refreshing beach and sea are a distant memory (did I mention we’re still in our swimsuits?). We slog up this hill over the next hour. And, eventually, we make it back, take cold showers, and collapse into our beds.

But the day wasn’t over.

A gorgeous crescent moon poked over the horizon, and a bright planet floated nearby. It was dinner time, and the staff were taking the day off (Sunday). It was just Johnny, the host, to cook for the 10 guests, and Halbe and myself to help him. I loved it. I’m living my dream of working in a restaurant. Johnny is a cheerful guy with decent English. We practiced our limited Italian and shared stories as we plated and served the meal (faije pasta with creamy pomodoro, salad with sesame dressing, thin-sliced veal with an incredible brown sauce, pastries for desert). We drank Birra Moretti (Italian beer) as we worked, and the laughs were plentiful. Johnny particularly liked our story of the six men trying to help us read a bus schedule in Tuscany.

Around 10, as the last guest drowsily pushed away from the dinner table, we finished cleaning and bid “buono notte” to the kitchen. Bodies exhausted, minds baked, and skin humming red with sun kisses, we tumbled into bed. We were asleep in minutes.

Driving on the Edge of the Earth

Posted: September 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Amalfi Coast, Italy, Unexpected Adventure | 1 Comment »

Amalfi coast – you think of breath-taking views, houses perched on the hills and beautiful teal blue water. What you don’t think of is the ride out there – a bus that practically takes up the entire road. Each bus is  filled with dozens of tourists with dropped jaws and conflicting emotions toggling between amazement and acute fear.

The Amalfi coast has one road connecting all the small towns which was not built with mass tourism in mind. Looking out the window, the 3-foot tall wall separating us from a deadly fall, disappears. All you see is a sheer cliff ending in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s as close as you’ll come to flying.

The driver of each bus takes their job very seriously and is talented. As they slowly, and I mean slowly, pass one another on a curve, they have secret hand signals indicating who’s going where and how they’ll make it past one another. Going around each twist and turn they honk 5-7 times alerting all other drivers they’re taking over the road. They squeeze through spaces so small I could practically touch my nose to the side view mirror of the passing trucks.

What I kept thinking? L.A. and New York bus drivers have no idea how easy they have it.

Under The Cortona Sun

Posted: August 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Unexpected Adventure | 6 Comments »

Cortona is what I feel many of the cities we’ve visited wish they were. Small, but not too small. Personal, charming, and warm. Old secrets rest in the shaded, narrow canyons of cobbled roads, criss-crossing the town like crooked fingers. True, there are tourists (we’re there, right?) but this is not Venice, or Saint Malo. People still live here and it shows. Laundry hangs from lines overhead like flags for a tiny festival. City squares hold tight circles of laughing old men. Children run solo around corners and into darkened doorways.

Halbe and I are staying in Umbria, so we drove a windy road through a mountain pass to approach the city from behind, at its summit. We walked through an arched entry in the high, defensive stone wall then continued along its ridge. Cortona is built on the side of a hill and this wall surrounds and holds up the city. It emphasizes the height Cortona holds over the long valley and low hills below. Tiny, angular farms fill out this valley like shattered chunks of glass swept into colorful piles. This is Tuscany. It continues until atmosphere sucks away the color, then shape, and the blue silhouette of a distant mountain cuts a gentle line along the bottom of the sky.

We cut into the city, not following any particular route. Tourist families passed in three’s and fours’s, huffing up the hills at a chain-gang’s plodding pace. Couples like us wandered, heads titled up to the crack of sky above.

We found gelato for one euro forty. A steal at twice the price. We sat on the stairs in Piazza della Republica and watched the flow of people from the streets terminating here. A traffic cop with supermodel legs and Gucci sunglasses talked with a cab driver blocking an entrance. She squeezed her hand into a purse and waved it in the cabbie’s face, like they were negotiating a price. A massive clock hung behind us, ticking off the time. At the hour, we heard the clanging bells of Cortona’s cathedral, and the airy bells of the church in the valley far below.

The late-day golden light slipped from the building tops and we knew the sun had set. We ate at a small pizzeria (our second in Italy — the first is a coming post). Hungry tourists in line for the place peered in the street level window to watch us eat.

As we left, I felt for a moment like I was on a film set. It’s the Disneyland effect. I grew up with close to home, traditional, suburban experiences, so the jungles of Costa Rica reminds me of Disneyland’s Jungle Ride, and not the other way around.

I took a photo. That could be a recently lit backlot at Paramount. I had to remind myself I’m in Cortona, in Tuscany, in Italy, on the other side of the world. Halbe and I walked hand in hand down these streets, then drove the windy road home.

Flaky farm, change of destination

Posted: July 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: France, Unexpected Adventure | 6 Comments »

Halbe and I were in a rented car on Saturday, finishing a three-day road trip through the Loir Valley. The plan was to drive to Caen, spend the night, return the car, then on Sunday be picked up to begin a three week stay in a beautiful cider farm in Normandy.

We’re a few hours outside Caen when we receive a mysterious text message from our host at the cider farm, something about “sorry it didn’t work out” and could he help find “someplace more hospitable.” We get our host on the phone, who tells us there was a “miscommunication” and that he did not believe we were actually confirmed. In addition, his father had recently passed away and this was not a good time to come. The whole thing didn’t sit quite right with us, as we had confirmed our stay with him via email a month or so previous. But, what can you do? The man said no.

The cost of a hotel/hostel in France for three weeks would cripple us financially. We took him up on his offer to help find another place. More calls are exchanged, us drawing closer to Caen by the moment. The now non-host connects us to his neighbor who needed help with their curtains. As in, making and hanging curtains, possibly for three weeks. We weren’t sure.

And then we received a call from a cheerful woman named Dorothea. She had been expecting a helper for her B&B but fell through, and was “keen” to find a replacement. It’s a little further down the road, she said, but she could pick us up. She said the main house was full, but we could stay in the farmhouse, and she could take us all three weeks. She gave us her web site to check once we arrived in Caen. We said we’d let her know.

We get to Caen, get a hotel, and load up her site. Here’s the place:

Wow. Alright, looks great. But what about that farmhouse?

We were sold. We called her back and set up a time to meet later today (Sunday). So, goodbye cider farm, hello magical island in Normandy.  We really hope it works out.

And to everyone in the States, happy Fourth of July!

Stay-cation here we come

Posted: April 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Los Angeles, Preparations, Unexpected Adventure | 2 Comments »

Since Devon and I are in L.A. for a few more days due to the volcanic ash powdering the entire continent of Europe, we’re making the most of it. We’re doing a stay-cation! So, in that vein, any must-do’s in Los Angeles before we leave? We’re open to suggestions. Some items on my list are:

1. Visit all the L.A. food trucks
2. Bike ride from Venice to Malibu and have breakfast on the beach (it’s been years since I’ve done this)

And…that’s where the list ends. My parents are in town through Tuesday and they’re from L.A. so new and exciting activities are always fun. Let the ideas and suggestions flow!

Flight Canceled Due to Volcano

Posted: April 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Preparations, Unexpected Adventure | 1 Comment »

It’s official: our Monday flight to London has been canceled due to a massive cloud of volcanic ash sauntering over Europe. We just received word from the airline, and now Halbe and I are looking into our options.

For those who haven’t heard, a volcano in Iceland has been erupting since last week. Its plume of jet-engine-killing ash has enveloped the majority of the continent, leading to what the Wall Street Journal has reported as “the largest air traffic grounding since World War II.” We’re standing (well, lying on an air-mattress) in our empty apartment, working out our next steps. We’ll update when we know more.

UPDATE 1:30 PM: We have re-booked our flights. We will be staying with family friends in LA for the week, then fly to New York on Friday evening. After the influx of travelers from canceled flights that preceded ours, the first flight to London we could book departs Sunday, April 25.

So, we’ll enjoy a relaxing stay-cation here in the City of Angels. This feels a bit like a blessing in disguise. It has been very “go go go” with the 19th as the finish line. Now an Icelandic volcano just threw that ticking clock right out the window. Halbe and I have never been without jobs at the same time in LA, and we’d like to take advantage of that. It’s ironic that it took a trip to Europe for us to spend some quality time exploring our own city.

Also, a shout out to the Droid. We have no internet at the apartment (again, squatters in our own home), so from the initial text message alert to re-booking the flights, to writing this blog entry, I did it all on my Droid. It’s a great, little device.

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