Pour on the Gravy Milan!

Explaining Thanksgiving to Italian can be an interesting venture.  It is not that Italians aren’t curious about our heritage holiday, but it is the total concept of the holiday and the meal that is intriguing to the curious Italian.

For starters, lets talk about the history.  Well, there were our Pilgrim Fathers that shared a harvest festival with fellow Indians in a joint proclamation of thanks, peace, and partnership.  The astute Italian could then possibly respond, “Now at what point did you kill them and boot them out West?”  For those not well studied the New World origins, sometimes I skip this small paradoxical detail and explain the modern significance of thanks and family that this holiday inspires in us turkey-stuffing patriots.  This usually provokes a nice reaction.

The second lesson is the importance of the ritualistic meal.  The idea of a traditional meal is by no means a stretch for this culture focused around the dining table; I would dare say that our devotion to the Thanksgiving staples does not even come close to the year-round observation of their sacred and distinctive gastronomic heritage.   However, as the eclectic star spangled banner waves above our Fatherland’s purple mountains, it will suffice to say that at least one day out of the year, Americans are 100% devoted to serving up a truly traditional American-grown meal (in 1621, yes—now, probably our food is coming from Mexico or Brazil).  Besides patriotic ambitions like the hamburger or ketchup, I believe that this holiday is the most well-balanced, non-greasy example that we have representing our unified culinary roots.  So it’s important!

Ingredients of the Meal:  Given that Italians rarely ever eat turkey, this would lead to the greatest misunderstanding of the cooked dishes; they usually assume that it tastes like a dry chicken, and the turkeys tend to be smaller.  “Mirtilli” is a word in Italian that means all kinds of berries that look like blueberries, and therefore, there is a discrepancy as to what actually are cranberries.  Their attempt at cranberry sauce usually uses dubious “mirtilli,” and the fruit used is definitely not cranberries!  Their corn is not as delicious as our summer corn, and for this reason, they are not good judges (The only time this will escape my mouth).  Sweet potatoes can be found here, but I don’t believe many know the brown-sugar glazed goodness of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes.  Glorious stuffing in its traditional conception is misunderstood with Italian variations of “ripieno” or stuffing.  For the corn bread, I have no clue (I usually make it from a box, admittedly).  Last but not least, gravy is unheard of here.  What?

The gravy concept segues into the next difficult conception of the sauce drizzled on the  “whole” heaping plate.  Italians have a lovely way of eating a long meal in many courses, including an appetizer, first course, second course, sides, and desserts, which neatly separate the pastas, meats, veggies, and sweets.  The idea of literally shoving everything on one plate and drizzling steaming gravy on the heaping pile of cornucopia goodness is definitely a new experience.

Gluttony:  Although this term is easily associated with appetites for the Italian cuisine, Italians usually stop at a reasonable level of satisfaction.  This holiday is created specifically for the stuffing of the human to his brimming limits, mimicking Mr. Turkey.   We are giving thanks for the fact that we can be together and gorge on our feast, pour gravy down our throats, unbuckle our belts, and doze off on the couch in an uncomfortable, hard-breathing slumber!

The next satisfying certainty about our holiday is that we will be eating leftovers for a week!  As I was cooking my own Milanese Italian meal, I was reprimanded with the amount of food I was preparing.  This is coming from a culture that is appalled at the idea of a doggy bag, and they usually make or eat enough to avoid leftovers.  I respond, “This is the POINT! My meal, my rules!”

So there you have it.  This year, I went to the macellaio, or the butcher, and I ordered my special Thanksgiving turkey.  Two other fellow American expats also had placed their orders in patriotic duty.  I cooked up my feast for two days, and I whispered sweet nothings to my lovely turkey, Mario, as he was sizzling in the oven.  The courses were topped off with an American cheesecake and “mirtilli,” specifically blueberries.  My Italian friends were great sports: they piled the food on their plate, family style, we ate like pigs, and we all poured on the gravy, American style, in Milan.


Dress Like the Italians Do!

I don’t pretend to be a fashonista chick that is up on all of the latest and seasonal trends in the world of alta moda; however my time spent in Milan has slowly whipped me into vesting shape. An American girl that grew up in a swimming pool, painted her way through college, and preferred on many occasions to wear a comfy pair of paint-spotted sweats had surely a lot of guts to move to Milan, or to Italy for that matter. Although fundamentally I consider myself to be far removed from the “fashion makeover” category, I will admit that I had become rather lax with my look and with the essential understanding of what it means to dress well.

Italia prizes beauty, wellness, and above all, the “bella figura”. The expression “fare una bella figura” means to “make a good impression” or to present oneself with the utmost taste and propriety on every occasion, or in other words, your reputation projected by both physical presentation and comportment. This short phrase succeeds in capturing a wide range of social customs and behaviors, while it primarily explains the Italian’s deep-rooted affinity and dedication to being in vogue.

The sidewalks become runways as they flaunt their passion for personal style and that innate flare for the ensemble. One passaggiata down the main street of any Italian city will give you the perfect definition of what it means to be truly Italian: refined, studied, tailored, and simply classic. Although numerous styles may be scatted along Italy’s streets, the traditional Italian “look” is everlasting and unmistakable like Chanel n5, the Rosso (red) of Valentino, or an aged DOC bottle of Italian wine. The impeccable mixture of occasion, creativity, practicality, trendiness, and personality is paramount in displaying your individuality on a day-to-day basis.

Dress to the nines. I first realized that I was losing touch with my old ways when I dressed in a sundress to attend a baseball game in America. I don’t think my sisters laughed so hard all summer because my outfit was absolutely absurd for the occasion. One notable difference between America and Italy is that our general definitions of casual and formal tend to contrast greatly. For instance, I normally wear what we consider dressy-casual attire on a day-to-day basis in Milan, always making sure to throw a pair of sunglasses and a scarf in my purse for good measure. When in America, I don’t hesitate to put on my college T-shirt to shop and run errands. An Italian has an outfit for every occasion, whether that is for a light aperitivo, a dinner invitation, a night at the discothèque (discoteca), a shopping spree, or simply a meandering stroll to center-city. To dress correctly, we must always be aware of our company and destinations.

Quality above quantity: Especially when compared to my own culture of fast convenience and discount stores, Italians have a deep-seeded reverence and acknowledgement of quality materials and products. Extending in all sectors of consumerism, this conviction is especially pertinent when considering Italy’s renowned fashion houses of luxury items of design. Strong traditions of artisan workmanship, textile manufacturing, and sartorial expertise hailing from all regions of the boot, solidify Italy’s appreciation of know-how or “saper fare” and time-tested processes that ensure quality and endurance. For example Italy’s famous leather markets make items such as boots, jackets, and purses a sure bet even if you don’t understand the particularities of leather treatments or workmanship. By purchasing the goods of higher intrinsic quality, one should always be sure to hold his or her side of the bargain by taking good care of the product.

Although the prices of companies such Forever 21, H&M, or even some items from Express or the Gap are appealing to a young teacher-artist expatriate, I have also noticed that these clothes have a short closet-life, quick deterioration, and I end up not receiving the value for my investment. The Italian way has slowly seeped into my brain, and through experience, I have found that it is more profitable to buy two sweaters from Benetton, NaraCamicie, Max & Co than six from a store like H&M. Obviously a Prada or Gucci is out of the question, but looking never hurts! Cough, rich boyfriend, anyone? Despite what brand you choose, on a tight budget such as my own, the most important aspect is to find clothing and accessories that seem well-made, fit in your wardrobe, and look nice on your body. The old adage rings true, “less is more” when considering quality.

Dress like an onion: Dressing in layers, like an onion, is a saying that many Milanese use to describe the nature of their dress, especially considering the extreme humid conditions of the area throughout the year. Coming from the dry cold temperatures of Northeastern USA and spoiled by the luxury of hopping in my heated car made me lose touch with the idea of dressing for the season. After a few harsh sicknesses last year, I soon learned that vesting in many peelable layers was the key to success and a new personal style.

Shopping tips: Shopping is an area of catastrophic weakness for me, and I usually have to pay for accompaniment. I enter a store like a deer in headlights, and it is usual that I descend into a dark personal crisis when I am confronted with a space full of things! In the past, this was complicated by the fact that I was never fully aware of where to start or what I needed to build upon. Moreover, my natural artistic tendency towards pretty things and their textures took me on a distracted and prolonged voyage of a fruitless and frustrating bad decisions and non-ventures. I was attracted by unique shirts and outfits that were lovely in my eyes but essentially too individual without matching anything in my “collection”. What have I learned? Although I can’t help my nature, I have found inspiration from the Italian way that is worth sharing:

1. Composition is a key word, and Italian style has taught me to appreciate the many different pieces that can come together in order create an overall “design.” Never undermine pieces that might be simple or seemingly inane. For instance, I have always been prejudice towards socks and stockings because I always considered them as an inferior element in my dress. On the contrare, my friend, the stockings and “calzini” in Italy function in a primary role of unifying or accenting a “composition.” Don’t hate on socks!

2. Rediscovering your possessions is key, and I recommend a personal fashion show to imagine the items in new and different contexts.

3. The cohesive closet of well-maintained outfits will make it easier for you to be a more intelligent shopper, and don’t be afraid of simple additions that can tie all of your random purchases together! Not everything can accent!

4. Buy at least one pair of awesome boots that you can match well with many outfits. Once you got the boots folks, there is no turning back!

5. Scarves can become addicting, as I testify from experience, but try to choose these babies based on your general clothing colors and jackets.

6. Every woman needs a hat—its cute, fun, and it serves the amazing function of maintaining your body temperature. I tend to love throw-backs that recall classic romantic movies.

7. Given the fact that sales are barely offered here and returns are impossible, I have become a more decisive shopper, which was a hard lesson for someone who likes to “buy all five and decide at home!” However, it is good training!

In the end, it is not only what we wear that counts, but in this country, it is how you wear it. Without much expense, name brands or not, rock out what you like and show off your personality! Whether or not you claim to be a fashion disaster like myself, dress as the Italians do and you’ll begin to rediscover new possibilities!

La Thuile, Val D’Aosta: Response

Stuck in the clouds
with all the little
bird house chimneys
springing up like mushrooms
in the midst of mist
Evergreen Forests intertwine
with milky glacial springs.
rubbing its eyes slow and sleepy
autumn season’s burnt colors
mix with the vibrant, dewed
lush vermillion pines.
Skilled rich woodwork testify
to the careful hand
Silently shaping the indoors.
Tucked away in high valleys
amidst mountainous peaks,
waterfalls that trickle and rush.
Peace. A silence that speaks…
of magic, fairytales, and vapor
Stuck in the clouds