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A Chinglish gem if ever there was, as seen in the Solitary Beauty Peak Park of Guilin, China. (text typed out below):

Here is my humble transcription:

Chinese Citizen Domestic Travel Civilized Behavior Convention

To construct civilized and harmonious tourist environment, affect every traveler’s benefits, we have obligation to obey this convention.

  1.  Maintain the environmental health.  Don’t spit, litter in public, and no smoking in non-smoking area.
  2. Obey the public order.  No Pandemonium.  Queue in public, don’t walk parallel in the way, and talking loudly in public.
  3. Preserve the ecological environment.  Don’t trample on the green field, pick the flowers&fruits. Don’t chase, hit, and feed the animal at random.
  4. Protecting cultural relics and historic sites.  Don’t scribble and touch historic relics at random.  Photographing by rule.
  5. Take care of public property.  Don’t deface public property, gain petty advantages.  Save the hydroelectric power and don’t waste the food.
  6. Respect the individual’s right.  Don’t force foreigner to take a picture, sneeze to others, and impropriate public property. Respect the religionary custom.
  7. Treat people due respect.  Be modest in dress and behavior.  Ladies first and treat old and weak courtly.  Don’t talk billingsgate.
  8. Advocate engage in recreation.  Resist the superstition.  Refuse pornography, gamble, and drug. (more…)
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One thing I love about living in another country is that all the long weekends and vacation days are a complete surprise.  Even if you kind of know Qing Ming Weekend is coming up, it’s not burned into my brain like Thanksgiving or Christmas, and so it ends up feeling like free time, rather than a day to continue cherished traditions.

Last week, Matt got Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off (woot woot Chinese long weekends!), and we headed to Cambodia to visit our friends Mary and Christoph. (more…)

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The Ruins of St. Paul’s

The geographically-inclined among us can likely pinpoint Macau on a map (just off the south-eastern coast of the Chinese mainland), but most of us would be a trifle fuzzy on the particulars.  Nowadays, Macau is best known for its casino-punctuated skyline (their gambling industry rakes in a bigger annual haul that Las Vegas), cobbled streets, and unique cuisine.  It wasn’t so long ago, though, that Macau was a European colony.

The Grand Lisboa Casino

The Portuguese landed on the island in the 1500s and made it an official colony three-hundred years later.  In 1999, they returned the land to China, effectively snuffing out the dying embers of European colonialism in Asia.

Luckily, they didn’t snuff out the food. (more…)

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Forthwith, you will find the final installment of the Schneider Christmas Trip Extravaganza, and then I promise to return to normal life (and there are so many interesting things to tell you about China!)

I left off last time when Matt and I were about to drive out to the South of France to spend Christmas with our friends.  We were warmly hosted by Marcella and Andy, who got married in May, 2011.  Luckily for all of us, Andy’s dad owns a house in France, but was gallivanting off to South Africa for the holidays.  Leaving the house free…and us free to build fires and cook feasts within it.

Here is Matt relaxing on Christmas Day:  And that might be Andy about to grab Marcella’s butt in the background?  Te he.

(In actuality, Matt is not exactly relaxing.  He spent $0.99 on a special present for himself this Christmas–the Angry Birds iPhone app.)

My Husband Playing Angry Birds

I got a kick out of this purchase because Matt tends toward more serious diversions, like watching financial news, reading the biographies of inspiring leaders, or peering at the tiny Wall Street Journal on his phone.  He just got so excited about these birds though… (He hasn’t stopped playing since then, I should mention… but, he’s not crazy.  AB is a fun game.  They really suck you in–there are like 40,000 levels or something, and you just keep launching scowling fowl at these smug, self-righteous piggies, who hide in increasingly complicated configurations of precariously balanced wood and stone…it’s deeply satisfying, in an Animal Farm sort of way.

But I digress.  Our first morning in France, we all woke up very early (e.g. 9:50am) to make it to a special appointment…with an olive-tree owner.  I am still not quite certain how this happened, but let’s just say that Andy’s dad and long-time girlfriend Rosemarie know how to befriend awesome people.  We pull up to the address we’d been given, in which the “backyard” showcased some 60 olive trees (those shorter, round-foliage trees), in a sweep of breath-taking French countryside.

Olive Trees

Oh, and this gentleman and his wife lived in a renovated medieval farm house.

Here is our friend Flavia posing in the centuries-old entrance to the basement:

Our new friend was a painfully posh Brit, mid-50s maybe, with round sun-glasses, a leather jacket, and a balding head that worked for him (in a trim, Bruce-Willis sort of way).  When we asked if he lived at the farm all year, he joked “are you with the tax authorities?”  And then explained that no, in fact he and his wife spend just over 6 months in Barbados, and the rest in Cotignac…(so if you were feeling jealous of our holiday trip, now is the time to consider switching your allegiances…)

He gave us a quick tour of the property, and then produced what we had come for:  glistening, 10 gallon jugs of olive oil, pressed from his very own olives.  Most of it was for Andy’s dad and Rosemarie, but apparently, by some miracle, the rest was for us!

Flavia considers the oil from below

Flavia and I, health-food-fact enthusiasts, could barely contain our glee.  The olive oil man then went on to explain just how awesome this green-gold oil really was.  First, he doesn’t spray their olives with any pesticides, or with anything at all, really.  Consequently, he loses about 1/3 of the crop every year, to bugs and critters, but with 60 trees and only 2 owners, this isn’t a real sacrifice for organic oil.  When the olives are ready, he and his wife invite a bunch of friends over for a picking party.  Then (and this is where things got crazy), he hauls the olives to the medieval olive press in town.  Which HE WAS TAKING US TO.  It was like olive-Christmas.

He explained that the EU tried to shut this press down because the process isn’t up to modern-day regulations.  (duh…it’s like 600 years old!)  The town wanted to keep their time-tested ways, though, and so the governor cleverly declared the press a museum.  So, it doesn’t have to be up to code, people are allowed to go and look at it…and of course, it needs some olives for visitors to look at…and so it remains basically uninterrupted.  🙂  (Those clever French politicians…)

The operates on hydropower, captured from a little river outside, which moves a wheel, which in turn moves various levers and bars to move a big stone wheel, which crushes the olives.  Isn’t that cool?

Our olive guru explained that very few modern olive-oil production processes can actually avoid heat altogether.  “Even oils that claim to be cold-pressed usually have a heat-related pasteurization or steaming process,” he said.  “So, nothing on the market is truly cold-pressed.  This process is the only way I know of to truly cold-press your oil.”  Flavia stammered in shock, “But, I’ve been buying cold-press oil for years!  And paying extra!  Where can I get this kind of oil, do you think?”  He shrugged.  “Probably only right here,” he helpfully offered, hitching up his sunglasses.

Here is a little French lad, poised to make a go up this ladder as soon as his mother turns away…it led to a log on a string that traveled up and then dropped about 10 feet in one of the press-lever-processes.

Go, Petit Garcon, Go!

The following is a true sequence of events:

Our Husbands Agreed to Buy the Olive Press

Marcella Expressed Her Extreme Excitement

But Then Matt Yelled A Lot Upon Hearing the Cost

But I Applied My Feminine Wiles....

And Marcella Applied Logic and Verbal Reasoning

To Show That As Long As We Bought a Place to Put It...

Then Flavia Agreed Everything Would Be Fine

And So It Was Settled

Okay…so that didn’t exactly happen.  But, we did all go home with a hefty jar of what now felt like precious olive oil indeed!

Our Christmas gang spent a few days holed up in the cozy house, building fires, and making piles of exciting Christmas food.  I had been on the road for 2 weeks at that point (eating in fabulous Italian restaurants, so I’m not complaining!), but I was itching to get back in a kitchen and chop something.  Matt joined in the culinary fun, making a really good lasagna from scratch, and cooking the Christmas Eve feast and the Christmas Champagne Brunch with me.  The Schneider Cooking Duo churned out some tasty victuals, and it was really fun to cook together for friends–something we haven’t got to try very often.

View of Tree and Feast

View of Marcella, Tree, and Feast

The house in Cotignac was in the countryside, or so it seemed, but it was a mere six-minute walk from there to the quaint and wonderful town center.  The “town” was no more than a tangle of five or six winding roads, full of restaurants and boulangeries (bread shops), as well as miel (honey), vin (wine), and other local delights.  Mmm!!

Matt, Marcella, and I stumbled upon a little adventure one afternoon.  In our pan au raisson and croissant-driven wanderings earlier that morning, Matt and I had found a little shop, called the Wine Cave.  And rightly so–because we had to descend into the proprietor’s homey stone basement to find the bottles.

The Wine Cave

I wish we had taken a picture of him–he was a jolly, large french man, with a mop of white curls perched dangerously close to his twinkly blue eyes.  He looked like a freshly minted Santa, and as it turned out, he sort of was.  His shop was one of the only ones open on Christmas Eve, and he told us he’d be doing a wine tasting.  As it was only 10am, though, we told him we’d come back later, and bring friends.

That afternoon, we convinced Marcella to trek back with us.  The shop-keeper was happy to see us, and invited us to take a look around.

He told us he had 3 wines for tasting, a Burgandy and a Chablis for 4 euro each ($6), and a special Meursault white that was 12 euro ($15).  We asked him what this special, spendy white wine was, and he said “It is very special.  So special, that I don’t actually sell it; if I do a tasting, I bring the bottle home and finish it for myself! ”  (I thought this a clever approach)

What the heck, it was Christmas–we ordered one of each glass.  Matt, Marcella, and I then had fun blind-testing each other, trying both whites to see if we could discern a difference.  And oh…sometimes price is just hype, but in this case, there was an amazing difference.  The fancier wine was just heavenly–it slid down the throat without any bitterness, and had a wonderful taste.

Melissa in Wine Cave with Inexplicably Large Red Bow

“How much would this bottle cost, if you were selling it?”  Matt asked.  The shop-keeper scratched his head of curls.  “About 200 euros, I believe.”

What?!?  He had let us taste a $250 bottle of wine?  He smiled, and said,

“Since it is Christmas, I thought, maybe today is a day to open another bottle.”  It was indeed.

The rest of our French holiday passed in blissful relaxation–sleeping in, enjoying food and good company, and even some Monopoly.

Matt and I said goodbye to our friends on the 26th and turned Willis (our compact Fiat) south.  We had a flight from Rome to China on the 28th, but we wanted to spend at least one day enjoying the city.  We had both been to Rome before, and had loved it, so one day was just enough time to revisit the short list of amazing places we remembered from last time.

St. Peter's Square, Basilica View

Inside the Awesome Basilica

And The Lord Said...

This Guy Is the One! (For Me...Not Like a Returned Diety...)

Why Do We Have Mundane Plaster Ceilings at Home, Again?

The Trevi Fountain!

Me Making Another Weird Face at the Trevi Fountain

Kind of Normal Sauce

Mmmmmm Gelato!!

Ancient Roman Ruins

Matt Ponders the Fleeting Nature of Human Power...Or Maybe Just Forgot His Sunglasses

And Finally, The Colosseum...No Introduction Needed

3 Layers Thick!

Sigh.  Who could have planned a more wonderful Christmas trip? We are very thankful for all of the memories and experiences.

Over and Out!

P.S.  For our families, and other Schneiderphiles, check out my friend Marcella’s post about our Christmas visit for more pictures and laughs!

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I am laboring under a strange inability to take up normal life prior to completing the final blog post about our Christmas travels.  I haven’t touched my relationship blog in a few weeks, and have barely made it to yoga or the gym since we got back from Europe…is this pure laziness?  Existential Occidental angst?  (I hear that’s contagious)  Or simply the fact that I churned out, like, 75 hand-written wedding gift thank-you cards this week?  Unclear…but this last hurdle between me and normal life will be vanquished tonight!  (While I also make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with Matt’s mom’s recipe…and eat 1/3-1/2 of the batter in the process…mmmm.).

I believe I left off last time with Matt and I poised to leave Munich, with a quick stop-over in Verona.

The Snowy Alps!

 

Neither of us had seen the Alps before, but they peeked through the inlets of several mountain passes.  So gorgeous!  Plus, I was glad we saw snow, as Christmas in France was lovely, but not white.

A few hours later, we pulled into the unraveling, cobble-stoned charm of Verona.  I think this ended up being my  favorite city of the whole trip.  I knew nothing about the city before we got there, only to find that my ignorance, rather than its merits, was at fault.  Verona was chock-full of awesome medieval and Roman antiquities–straight-up UNESCO style, yo.  Here’s a super-cool castle and en-suite bride at sunset:

Romeo and Juliet played patron to local several hotels and houses (and you get to see my 3-euro earmuffs, bonus!):

The town’s prime first-century ruin was called the Arena, and looks a lot like Rome’s Colosseum.  It was probably also used for killing Christians, prisoners, and the like.  The early Romans make these modern-day bull-fighters look tame!

Arena di Verona

Verona Houses

Matt and I wandered through Verona’s town square, and sat ourselves down on plastic stools to eat some wonderful pizza.  We found a shop that sells it by the kilo!  That’s right–the heavier your slice, the more it costs.  Matt got one practically over-flowing with delicious meats, artichokes, and olives, while I went kind of basic with cheese and onion and tomato.  Yum!

I can’t say enough about Verona.  A cornucopia of stunning antiquities line the slice of river that runs through town, including several cathedrals and a Roman Theatre from the first century (that we got to literally 1 minute after they stopped letting people in, 45 minutes before close!  Since when are Italians sticklers for the time anyway?).  Matt and I barely scratched the surface–get yourself to Verona, my friends!  And take us…

Next stop–Genoa.  Home to hard salami, and a port city, which means it has that stacked-into-the cliffs quality of all Mediterranean sea-side villages.  Despite a veneer of grunge, and a propensity for small groups of men to whisper suspiciously in shadowy corners, Genoa boasted some great architecture:

Piazza Ferari, Genoa

Shh...

And...She's In

The Alleged House of Christopher Columbus

Cattedrale di San Lorenzo

Even Statues Stretch their Triceps Now and Again

Genoa claims the largest “medieval quarter” (section of town) in all of Europe, not bad eh?  In addition to architecture appreciation, Matt and I availed ourselves of other local enjoyments:

Cookies, Candies, and Cakes, Oh My!

Hanging with the...er, Locals

Christmas Tree-Spotting by the Palazzo Rossa

Genoa is particularly known for its focaccia and it’s pesto.  We stopped for a lovely lunch of soup, pesto tagliatelle, and salad.  Mmm…

The next morning, it was off to the South of France…but first stop, Monte Carlo, Monaco!  Matt and i were spending Christmas with our friends Marcella, Andy, Flavia, and Flavia’s cousin Janoi.  We were all gearing up for a caravan trip out to Cotignac, France.  Without much time to spare, Marcella took us on a whirl-wind tour of the city before we made dinner:

A Ledge with a View

Me and My Honey!

And…I didn’t quite make it through all of our travels.  But I am so close!  Next time, I’ll regale you with Christmas tales, including exciting wine caves and olive oil presses!

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My goodness, I am quite behind in my updates on our trip!  Matt and I just arrived home yesterday, and after blearily unpacking a bit, throwing on a load of laundry, cleaning out our fridge (which had devolved into a frightening state during our absence), and eating piles of Indian food (conspicuously missing in Italy!), we slept for 12 hours.  Hopefully we’ll be un-jetlagged in a few days…

But, back to Europe.  I believe I last left you with a story about one of our dinners in Bologna.  Since then, if you can believe it, Matt and I have been to Munich, Verona, Genoa, Monaco’s Monte Carlo, Cotignac (a quaint, tiny village in the South of France), and Rome.  (I know, we can’t believe it either).

Munich:

Marienplatz Glockenspiel

This is the main tower in the “New” Town Hall (built in the 1860s).  It houses the famous glockenspiel, a set of characters on tracks, connected somehow to the inner workings of the clock, such that they act out famous historical scenes on the hour, a few times each day.  I sadly observed that the ten-minute, clunky mechanical performance could hardly hold anyone’s attention nowadays.  Within a few minutes, people wandered away, consulted cell phones, or resumed shopping.  I’m sure in its heyday, the glockenspiel could hold audiences spellbound.

Characters up Close

Unlike other modern folk, Matt and I watched the performance and munched on a bagel-shaped pretzel that had been sliced in half and buttered.  It was delicious!

Next stop–the Residenz, Munich’s resplendent palace from the time of the Bavarian Court   But, on the way, we happened across this little shop and had to take a picture–three cheers for the German branch of Schneiders!  Perhaps if we’d gone in with our IDs we could get free wine?  Sadly, I only just hatched this brilliant plan…

Translation: Schneider WineHouse

The Sculpture Room

I’ve seen palaces in China and S. Korea in the past two months, and I’m here to tell you, Asia was missing out.  This amazing 400-room palace served the Bavarian court from 1500-something to 1900-something, and overflowed with room after room of frescoed ceilings, tapestries, paintings, fireplaces, silk and gold furniture, and sweeping marble hallways.

This was the room Matt wanted:

After the Residence, it was time to try what we’d really come for:  German Beer.  If you’re much of a beer connoisseur, you know that Munich is the birthplace of Oktoberfest, and the town is dotted with top-quality beer halls.  We headed to Haufbrauhaus, which is admittedly a bit touristy, but we wanted to join 2,000 people sitting at long, wooden tables, drinking beer and eating fried pork knuckle, with a traditional German band making a rowdy ruckus in the background, and this was the place to do it.

Matt in front of Haufbrauhaus

First Glass--Bottom's Up!

Next stop, the famous Viktualien Markt of Marienplatz.  (Yep, that’s right, a victuals market…One thing we loved about Europe was being back among languages where you can usually guess what they’re saying.)  We wandered through stall after stall of German specialties, sampling honey (and warm honey wine!), mustard, and cheese, and nibbling on sausages and pretzels.  We also saw an old friend from Austria–mulled wine.  They call it gluhwein in German, and it’s a really comforting drink for a cold afternoon: red wine is slowly mulled with orange peel, cloves, cinnamon, and who knows what else.  It tastes a bit like cider, and we both really enjoyed it.  (I secretly bought Matt a bag of gluhwein spices, which he found under the tree on Christmas.)

Matt Orders a Gluhwein

Now, you might be thinking, “surely, by now, they had eaten and drunk enough,” but no!  We still had one very important place to go.

The day before, I had wandered the city a bit while my lovely husband was in a meeting (I know, I didn’t say it was fair…).  While enjoying a nice weisbier (white beer), I mistakenly told a German couple that we were planning to visit Haufbrauhaus the next day.  They tried to dissuade me, and bemoaning its touristy fate, they begged me to try another place.  “If your husband likes beer,” began the man, fixing me with a pale blue German eye, the kind that requires obedience, “then, you must go to the Augustiner Gaststätten.”  They had drawn a little map on a napkin for me and everything.  I felt compelled.

And it was great!  We settled ourselves at a nice wooden barrel of a table, and ordered a few beers we hadn’t tried yet.  We even gave in and ate a fried pork knuckle and potato dumpling:

Knuckle n' Dumplins

Prepare to be Devoured...

I wouldn’t exactly recommend it though–it’s mostly fried and knuckle, and not so much pork.  Matt did, however, have a small epiphany while we were eating it:  Germans had clearly invented bar food.  French fries, fried meats, salty breads, why, we’d even eaten a dish with radish and spreadable cheese that was faintly nacho-flavored…

I’m sure Germans don’t eat this way every day, though.  After a weekend in Munich, Matt and I both felt like we’d had enough salt and pork and beer to last for months.  Overall, though, Matt later said that Munich was the most surprising place he had visited on our trip.  Amazing architecture, a fun vibe, lots of art and history.  We hadn’t known what to expect, and it had certainly delivered.  A good first dip into German culture, and hopefully we’ll be back!

Next stop, Verona, Italy!  But, I have to go get changed and bike to my hot-hour yoga class.  After 3 weeks of little exercise and lots of food, it’s time…  For now, then, I’ll just leave you with the opening sonnet to Romeo and Juliet to get you excited:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents̓ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents̓ rage,
Which but their children̓s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two-hours̓ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

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The Leaning Towers of Bologna

Last night, Matt and I had dinner with one of his colleagues–Franco–from the division here in Bologna.  Somehow, to my delight,  an “osteria” (family restaurant) with live jazz was on tap–what could be better than fresh, delicious Italian food with live jazz?  (There isn’t much jazz in China, so it’s becoming a real treat for me)

We had a wonderful, very Italian-y, time.  Franco made dinner reservations for 8pm.  He apologized for it begin a little early, but he explained that he and his wife Rita were bringing their 18-mo old, Alberto.  I laughed to hear that 8pm was a little early for dinner, that would explain why restaurants were always so accommodating when Matt and I arrive around 7:30.  🙂

Anyway, Franco and Rita ran a bit late to pick us up.  Alberto, the presumable cause, appraised us with wide-eyed wonderment from his stroller.  He could do little else, he was stuffed, like an adorable trussed turkey, into a puffy down jacket, hat, hood, and sleeping bag-style cover.  He dangled a bunch of convincing-looking keys from his right hand.  Rita looked at her husband and asked if he had the “real” keys–and we all laughed.  Certainly Alberto’s keys might not make it to the restaurant!

We settled in at Cantina Bentivoglio around 8:15.  Franco explained that the restaurant was “not special,” it just had “simple food,” but a nice ambiance and live music.  He and Rita set up a booster seat that they had brought themselves from home–how curious!  We asked if restaurants don’t provide baby chairs in Italy, and they said some do, but not this place.   Rita produced a bib the size of a poncho–it even had sleeves!  She folded and pulled Alberto into it, and he grinned at us, apparently prepared for a deep-sea fishing excursion with his food.  It made me kind of want one too.

We gave Franco a wide berth to order whatever he thought would be good, and a few minutes later, the server (a trim Italian girl with a pixie haircut and just one dangly earring…?) opened a bottle of Sangiovese Reserve for us, set down fresh pane, and took the antipasto order.  Alberto happily banged his “forketta” on the table, attempted to sever the menu pages from their backing, and made eyes with Matt around the wine bottle.  (Matt is very good at engaging children of this age; he has a solid repertoire of funny faces and ear-pulling gags, and they always seem to love him for it.)

At that moment, Rita pulled a little plastic bag from her purse, and with many smiles and apologies, gave the server some instructions.  Franco explained that Alberto often refuses to eat anything at restaurants, so they have taken to bringing the pasta he eats at home along with them.  I thought this a rather clever solution.

A few minutes later the antipasto arrived–4 plates of it!  Matt and I could easily have shared 1 plate, and probably the whole table could have shared 2.  Abundance had arrived, though, and we each tucked into something like 18 black olives, 5 slices of salami, a generous hunk of Parmesan, tufts of arugula, and several cubes of mortadella (a delicious deli meat of sorts).  It was heavenly.  I could already feel my belt digging in for the evening.

Alberto’s pasta arrived next.  Rita poured some olive oil over it, and gave him a large spoon.  I was greatly impressed to see that he could eat pasta all by himself with the spoon.  Who knew?  As I watched his technique, I thought he looked just exactly like a cherub from an Italian fresco.  His matted brown and copper curls framing his big blue eyes and while his chubby pink cheeks worked to demolish spoonfuls of pasta.  Of course, Italian master painters would primarily have had Italian babies for cherubim inspiration, but it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment.

As we talked of their travels and ours, business and art, and Italian politics and history, the server came by again, and Franco ordered 3 pasta dishes!  (In Italy, pasta is the first course (primi piatti), usually followed by a second course of meat or other main dishes (secondi piatti).  At this pace, I was worried about our stomach stamina!)

Franco had spent some time in the US, and after ordering the pastas, he told us about a time his American colleagues had taken him out for “Italian” food.  “They wanted me to eat something called spaghetti and meatballs–but there is no such thing in Italy!  And, it was horrible, of course.”  He laughed good-naturedly at the silly Americans and their pasta misconceptions.  I put my fork down in near-shock.  What did he mean that spaghetti and meatballs didn’t exist in Italy?  Come to think of it, we hadn’t seen any on the menus.  How funny!

The three pastas arrived in a huge, elongated bowl, like a dinner canoe of gluten heaven.  One was heaped in thinly sliced yellow noodles, tossed with ham strips, fresh herbs, and, Rita explained, lemon.  Lemon on pasta?  It did indeed have a robust lemon flavor–I’d never had anything like it, and it was very tasty.  The second dish was more familiar–fat flat noodles covered in ground meet and herbs.  The funny thing is, Bologna is famous for their meat sauce, and I thought before we arrived that it would be the American meat sauce–red tomato sauce with ground beef.  But, we have been learning that it’s basically just meat, with oil and herbs and whatnot.  While there might be a few tomatoes in the sauce, there is no classic red sauce component like you might picture.  In fact, we haven’t seen a single pasta dish with the red sauce we associate with Italy back home–it might be a South Italy thing.

The last dish was a jumble of delicious, wonderful, fresh raviolis.  They were my favorite–simple pasta squares cinched around a cache of ricotta, with a touch of nutmeg and pepper, served in a butter and fresh herb sauce.  (On my last trip to Italy, I learned that this is the classic preparation–ravioli would “never” come with a tomato sauce.  How funny Americans are about this tomato sauce business!)

Alberto had finished his pasta and was starting to fuss and squirm.  It was after 9pm, after all.  Rita freed him from his poncho-bib and he snuggled happily into her lap.  The musicians–a three piece band with accordion, drums, and saxophone–clambered on stage and struck up a tune.  Alberto seemed to calm down a bit, and I made my signature fish-faces at him while Matt rolled his plastic orange car around.  (His=Alberto’s, though Matt might also enjoy an orange plastic car…)

I was increasingly nervous about the secondi piatti.  What would we do if four meat dishes descended upon us?  Luckily, we were saved.  Franco opened the menus again, but more hesitantly.  He asked us if we’d like anything more.  Matt looked it over, but said, “I’m not really very hungry any more–are you guys?”  Everyone seemed mutually relieved to hear that everyone was also stuffed.  The secondi piatti would have to wait for another day.

But…there’s always room for dessert!  We poured a second round of the red wine, and ordered marscapone cream with cocoa powder and chocolate flakes, and vanilla gelato with balsalmic vinegar drizzled on top.  Franco explained that marscapone is “very, very Italian,” and that gelato with balsalmic was not as typical, but was delicious.  (It’s not the normal, runny vinegar you’re picturing, but a wonderfully thick, viscous, slightly sweet balsalmic from Modena, Italy.  Just that day, in fact, I had bought a jar of it, and the shopkeeper had told me to try it on ice cream, or strawberries!).

The desserts were heavenly.  Franco told us the accordion player was jazzing up a very old Italian song, from the 1940s.  Romance and old-world charm seem to seep accidentally in all settings in Italy.  I couldn’t have been happier.  By the time we had licked the last spoonful clean, Alberto had a distinctly glassy-eyed look, a bit like a miniature stuffed owl, and Franco and Rita said they would need to head home.  They urged us to stay and enjoy the music, which would continue for some hours.  Matt and I shook hands all around and waved goodbye to Alberto, as his parents packed up the chair, eating suit, car, bottle, and various bags that seem to travel in the magnetic wake of small children.

Sigh.  What a life!  We finished our glasses of wine, enjoyed the next handful of jazz numbers, and walked home in the snappy air.

I had bought a small sack of salumeria (butcher shop) goodness yesterday–salami picante, vinegars, a pear balsamic jam, and a hefty chunk of Parmesan, all vacuum-packed for maximum customs evasion.  We’re crossing our fingers for this little sliver of Italy to make it back to China with us.  Maybe we can revive the memory, if we cue up just a little accordion music, and we eat slivers of Parmesan and aceto di balsamico…?

Today, we travel to Munich, Germany, where Matt has a few meetings tomorrow, and then we’ll wile away the weekend eating pretzels, drinking from frothy beer steins, and exploring the city.  Neither of us have been to Germany before–and Matt is at least several quarters German–so we are looking forward to it.

Ciao for now!

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