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Happy 12/12/12!

This is the last of these cool dates we’ll see in our lifetime, and although the best was clearly last year’s 11/11/11, I think 12/12/12 is pretty cool too. Since there are 12 months in the year, I thought it’d be fun to round up my Top 12 Moments of 2012. It’s been quite an exciting year for me, as you’ll remember if you kept up with my adventures in Sicily during the first 6 months of the year, and then another month traveling in Europe. Then there was the whirlwind of moving back home to NYC, so it was hard to pick just 12.

My Top 12 Moments of 2012

1. January – Seeing the opera Carmen in Catania’s Teatro Bellini opera house

A French opera performed in Sicily with Italian subtitles projected onto a screen above the stage. The costumes were breathtaking, the theater was breathtaking. Pretty classy night for 10 euros.

2. FebruarySledding on Mount Etna

You haven’t lived until you’ve sledded into a snowy volcanic crater while gazing at the Mediterranean coastline in the distance below.

3. MarchStramilano 10K

My first 10K race! In Milan!

Stramilano 10K

4. AprilEaster in Florence

My friend Carly from New York came to visit for Easter, and we traveled to Florence, Siena, Turin, and Rome. We spent Easter in Florence with two other Fulbright friends and watched the “exploding cart” traditional Medieval Tuscan tradition.

5. MayMy 24th Birthday

I celebrated my 24th birthday with my wonderful Sicilian friends at a barbecue party in the countryside. And I made very American cupcakes to share with them all! Before coming to Sicily I never thought it possible that I would have such wonderful friends to have to say goodbye to, and I still miss them.

7. JuneWatching the sunrise from a town on top of Mount Etna

Watching the Sicilian sunrise was on my to-do-before-leaving-Sicily list, and it exceeded my expectations in sheer Mediterranean beauty.

8. JulyCamping in France

I spent two weeks with our family friends in La Rochelle, who took me camping along the Dordogne River and by the Dune du Pylas. This is the town of Bergerac at sunset.

8. August -Ellen’s Run 5K

I ran with my Mom and pushed her pace to win 2nd place in her age group win in a 5K race for breast cancer, and celebrated her 10 year anniversary of finishing breast cancer treatment.

My mom won 2nd place in her age group in a 5K for breast cancer research in August. She also celebrated her 10 year anniversary of finishing breast cancer treatment!

9. SeptemberHamptons Half Marathon

My first half marathon! I ran it with my friend Kelsey and her fiancée Tommy and we were all pretty proud of ourselves. 13.1 miles in 2 hours and 8 minutes!

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10. October – Queens County Farm

Corn maze, pumpkin patch, petting zoo, hay ride, all accessible by public transportation – what more could you ask for? I really enjoyed fall in the Northeast this October, with foliage, apple cider, farmers markets, and all things pumpkin.

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11. November – Saying goodbye to Kai-Tee

Now, this isn’t necessarily a good highlight, but we said goodbye to our cat Kai-Tee after 18 years on November 19th. (I made up her name when I got her at 6 years old, because I went to school in Chinatown and really wanted to be Chinese.) We were very sad about losing her but I was so glad that she stayed alive long enough for me to come home from Sicily and say goodbye to her in person.

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Me and Kai-Tee, circa 2000

12. December – Dessert class at Eataly

It’s hard to say since December is only half over, but here’s a good one. At Eataly, when there are cooking classes that don’t sell out to paying customers, employees are invited to fill the spots free of charge. Huge employee perk. Needless to say, I’ve taken advantage of a few of these opportunities so far, and Saturday’s dessert class was my favorite yet!

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It’s hard to imagine that 2013 could top 2012 in adventures, but you never know what lies ahead. Thanks for reading my blog in 2012 and experiencing Sicily with me from afar!

Happy 12/12/12! 

La Nostalgia

Inevitably, as I go about my daily life in New York City, something comes along and hits me with a wave of nostalgia for Sicily.

This week, the the nostalgia was threefold.

It started with Thanksgiving, ironically enough. Along with carrot cake and pumpkin cranberry white chocolate chip cookies, my mother and I made pistachio almond cannoli to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. They were certainly not the same as the cannoli in Sicily, but they were delicious, and we were proud of having brought one of the hit desserts of the evening. (They were gone in about 10 minutes.)

The taste of the creamy, almondy cannoli cream made me miss Catania and the best pastry shop in the city, across from a park where we would go and eat aforementioned cannoli on special occasions or when friends were visiting from afar.

 

The next wave of nostalgia hit me when I came across an article in the New York Times about an actor, Lee Pace (of Pushing Daisies fame), who is playing Vincenzo Bellini in a new play called Golden Age at the Manhattan Theater Club. To research his role as the 19th-century Sicilian opera composer, Pace traveled to Sicily to connect with Bellini’s world. The short article was accompanied by a slideshow of Pace’s photographs in places such as the top of Mount Etna and orange groves outside of Catania.

Cue the nostalgia.

Article: Sicilian Prelude to A Stage Actor’s Work

Photo Slideshow: Blood Oranges and Angels

And last night, while walking through the Union Square Holiday Market, I happened upon an arancini stand.

Arancini, fried rice balls, are traditionally Sicilian, and the cities of Catania and Palermo have a big rivalry over who has the best arancini (along with soccer teams and cannoli, of course.) I hadn’t had an arancino since leaving Catania, and I was just about to pass them by when I saw that they had a Thanksgiving-flavored arancino. Yes, that’s right. With turkey, cornbread stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. Inside a fried rice ball.

Obviously, I had to try it. What a glorious culinary amalgamation of Sicily and America!

It wasn’t Bar Savia, but it was surprisingly good, albeit a bit bizarre with all the flavors of Thanksgiving wrapped up inside one fat little rice ball. I didn’t eat arancini often even in Sicily, but it’s good to know I can still get my Sicilian fried food fix when I need it.

Seems like a little bit of Sicily can be found in the Big Apple after all.

It’s been a full 2 months since I got back to NYC. I took a break from blogging to relax, readjust, and figure out what the next steps would be. Now I’ve started a new job, and I’m moving into a new apartment, so it feels like it’s time for a new blog as well.

I started the new blog last spring, to try it out and see if I actually liked the idea. And I decided that I do. It’s mostly going to be about running and cooking/baking, two of my favorite hobbies in addition to writing, which you already know if you kept up my blog while I was in Sicily. So even if you couldn’t care less about running, I hope you’ll take a look and follow along, because I’ll be posting lots of recipes, and writing about fun things I do and see in NYC that don’t necessarily have to do with running and baking.

Take a look!

Marathons and Macarons

So thank you to everyone who read my blog and commented and emailed while I was in Sicily. I loved writing about my year so that I could remember it, but it was even better knowing that other people were reading it and enjoying it and sharing my experiences with me. I can’t promise that my life in NYC will be as exotic and exciting as a year of jam-packed and life-changing experiences in Sicily, but I can promise that I will write about it with just as much enthusiasm, and that there will probably be equal amounts of pasta involved.

And make sure to check the new blog after September 29th to read about how my first half marathon goes on Saturday morning!!!

It’s been a week since I arrived back in this big, crazy, hectic, beautiful city.

First view of Manhattan driving home from the airport

My parents picked me up from the airport, and this was waiting for me when I got home: a card, an edible arrangements fresh fruit bouquet, and a painting that my dad painted from this photo on my blog of Mount Etna erupting. Isn’t it incredible?

Also, this fluff-ball was waiting for me:

My ancient cat Kai-Tee (I made up her name when I was 6 years old and went to school in Chinatown and really wanted to be Chinese), who will turn 18 in October. That’s 89 in human years! I said goodbye to her last fall, because I didn’t know if she’d still be alive when I came back, but she’s still kickin’. And still begging for food at 6am.

The past week was full of seeing old friends and reacquainting myself with my old stomping grounds. I visited The Frick Collection, where I interned last year in the curatorial department, to see the closing weekend of the exhibit I worked on while I was there, on Renaissance bronze sculptures by Antico. I picnicked on a friend’s rooftop with the skyline as our backdrop. I saw Rebel Without a Cause outside in Bryant Park, and I’m pretty sure there were more people there on a Monday night than the entire population of Catania. Or close to it.

I’ve been watching the Olympics (yeah Gabby! Not only is she adorable and a fantastic gymnast, but I have high hopes that her fame is going to do wonders for the pronunciation of my name. It is not “Gabriel.”) I’ve been running on the West Side Highway and getting over jet lag and going to Trader Joe’s, which I missed, believe it or not. Today I’m meeting a friend for lunch and we’re getting Chinese food, which I haven’t had in 10 months!

Who says you can’t get good dessert outside of Italy? Cashew cream cheesecake with a raisin walnut crust…sure, it’s not cannoli, but don’t knock it til’ you try it.

As for the lost debit card dilemma, it’s almost all sorted out. One formal letter written in Italian to my bank in Catania requesting that they issue a new card and mail it to New York should fix the problem. Fingers crossed. (Or tocca ferro – “touch iron” – in Italian.)

No, she’s not angry, she’s just wondering why I’m waving an iPhone in front of her face instead of feeding her.

The game plan for August? Lie on the beach, apply for jobs, try to hold on to the laid-back Sicilian mentality and not stress out too much, and hope something comes through soon! I’m thinking about starting a new blog, since I really enjoyed writing on this one but I can’t really keep writing on “Gabrielle in Sicily” since, well, I’m no longer in Sicily. So I guess I’ll extend this question to you: Would you be interested in reading a new blog, filled not with Sicilian adventures, but New York ones instead? I’d love to keep writing about them.

And as we all know, there is no lack of adventure in New York City.

The time has come, my friends…

To go back to New York.

And you know what?

I. Cannot. Wait.

I know, I know, all throughout May and June I sounded like a broken record: How am I ever going to leave Sicily; Everyone thinks I’m crazy to not want to go back to New York; I saw To Rome, With Love and I cried because I wanted to stay in Italy forever and ever…

It’s true that I didn’t miss New York much at all this year. The times that I felt like throwing in the towel and going home were not spurred by homesickness, but almost always by bureaucratic bullsh*t I had to deal with, and then I’d have an espresso with a friend and laugh about it in Italian and it’d all be okay again. I feel truly lucky to not have missed New York that much, and I definitely lived this year to the fullest. But now it’s come to an end…and I’m okay with that.

I left Sicily a month ago, so it already feels distant, and although I had an absolutely fantastic time traveling through France in July and spending some more time in Rome, I am so ready to hang my clothes in a closet again and put my toothbrush anywhere that’s not my blue L.L.Bean toiletry case.  I’m ready to start the next chapter (whatever that may be…don’t ever bother asking, when I find out, I’ll let you know, pinky promise!)

And although I feel guilty admitting it, I cannot wait to converse in English on a daily basis again. I love speaking in Italian, I really do. I love that I can discuss almost any subject in Italian, deal with bureaucratic bullsh*t in Italian, think in Italian sentence constructions rather than English ones…but it gets exhausting. I’m sure as soon as I get back to New York I’ll be pining to speak in Italian again, but for now, I’m really looking forward to the lack of language barrier in daily interactions.
But I will miss the Vespas…
On Monday afternoon I flew to Rome to spend two more days with my friend Francesca before my flight home. I spent Tuesday at the Vatican museums, which I had been to 5 years ago before I’d ever studied art history, so I wanted to return.
On Wednesday I went to the Galleria Borghese, a small but breathtaking collection. I had forgotten how astonishingly lifelike Bernini’s statues are and I was so glad I got to see them in person.
As relaxing and lovely as that all was, little did I know that in the next 24 hours I would visit both the police station and the bank – if you’ve been following at all this year you’ll know that those are two of my favorite places in Italy. Don’t worry, I didn’t get arrested or rob a bank or anything…just lost my Italian debit card less than 24 hours before my flight was to take off.
Panic set in as I realized that the debit card, which contained the remainder of my money when I closed my bank account in Catania, was nowhere to be found. I later found out that although a huge pain in the ass, this wasn’t a complete disaster, since a prepaid card in Italy functions like a credit card (in that you cancel it and the bank still has the money) unlike in America, where I’m pretty sure that a lost declining balance card is a balance you’ll never see again.
Nevertheless, I hyperventilated in the middle of the street, frantically called Francesca several times in tears, accepted that the card really was nowhere to be found, and cancelled it. That evening Francesca and I shared some pizza…
 
…Then we went to the police station to submit an official declaration that I had been a “victim of card loss.”
Went home, packed, crossed fingers,and went to the bank early this morning. After explaining the urgent situation (my flight was leaving in 3 hours) we found out that Catania refused to release my money to the branch in Rome. They insisted that I go to Catania in person to get a new debit card. Even the bank director in Rome was shocked. Quite obviously, that is not an option.
So where am I going to spend my first morning home in the US of A after 10 months?
At the Manhattan branch of my Italian bank, trying to sort this whole mess out and get my f*ing money without going back to Sicily.
Because making a clean break would just have been too easy.
But, no one’s sick, no one died, and my money is still out there somewhere. (Hey Mom, hey Dad! Sorry you found out about this on my blog, but I didn’t want you to worry while I was hyperventilating and didn’t know if the money was gone…wanna come to the bank tomorrow?)
And now, after 10 months, I will be in NYC in a mere 10 hours. Time to board the flight. An update on the bank situation from the other side of the ocean.
Ciao Italia! I’ll miss your sun and your sea, your pizza and pasta and gelato, and I’ll miss all of my Sicilian friends…but get me the f*ck home.
(Sorry for all the profanity today. Rationality kind of slips to the wayside after too many encounters with Italian police stations and banks in a 24-hour period.)

Do you know what is breathtaking about France in July?

It’s far enough north that it doesn’t get fully dark until after 10:30pm. This astounded me in Paris, and continued to do so in La Rochelle, where it was still light – I mean, DAYLIGHT – at 10pm.

From Paris, I took a train to La Rochelle, a town on the west coast of France about two hours north of Bordeaux. We have family friends in La Rochelle whom I visited with my parents at Christmas, and because we often go years without seeing each other, I wanted to make sure to see them again one more time before I leave Europe. It was quite a challenge to try to speak French again after 9 months in Italy, and my brain felt like scrambled eggs most of the time. When I’m really at a loss, they’ll translate a word or two into English, but most of the time we speak in French, and they repeat everything a few times, and I just feel stupid when I speak at the speed of a two-and-a-half year old. When we were here in December, speaking French didn’t feel quite as painfully difficult, probably because I hadn’t fully switched over to Italian yet. But I spent the first week in La Rochelle trying to compartmentalize my Italian and dig up French from the depths of my mind, and trying not to use the past participle “compris” (understood) when I really meant to say “acheté” (to buy), because it’s very close to the Italian “comprare” (to buy).

Still following? No? Then you understand a little better how my brain hurt for the last week and a half.

Luckily, after a few days, I found my comprehension drastically improving, and although the speaking part lagged behind a little, I can definitely still communicate in (basic) French, which, as a language nerd, made me happy. Nevertheless, despite having studied second-language acquisition and bilingualism pretty extensively, and being near-fluent in a second language acquired post-adolescence (which is after the critical period, the optimum age range for learning a language), the fact that people can become fluent in more than one second language just blows my mind. Luckily I’m pretty good at laughing at myself when I make stupid language errors, and luckily our friends in La Rochelle are very patient with me, but really – c’est impossible.

Me with Robin and Lucas, the two sons of the family in La Rochelle

La Rochelle is a charming seaside town with a stretch of beach, and while I was there they were having a weeklong festival with outdoor concerts and vendors selling artisan crafts and all kinds of street food. While I was there, I made some Italian dishes I learned in Sicily for everyone, including lasagna, artichokes alla diavola, and spaghetti alla carbonara. Lucas, the younger son, who’s 15 and likes to cook, was my sous-chef. He also taught me how to make Tarte au Thon, tuna pie (recipe at bottom of post.)

Tartes au thon

I also took advantage of the cooler weather to get back on track with my training schedule for the Hamptons Half Marathon. On the morning of Bastille Day, I completed my first-ever 9 mile run. Two days before, I had gone with both Robin (the older son, who’s almost 17) and Lucas on a 4-mile run, and being teenage boys who are competitive swimmers and about a foot taller than me, their pace was way faster than mine, so I basically couldn’t breathe for most of those 4 miles. When I had to do 9 miles, we decided that it would be best if Robin went with me on his bike, so that I wouldn’t get lost in La Rochelle and so that I could keep my own pace. (And, of course, because the thought of running 9 miles appealed to precisely zero people besides me.) I was worried it would rain or I’d collapse mid-run or something equally disastrous, but it was actually spectacular. Robin took me along a path that runs along the sea, and the weather was perfect: it was sunny with a few clouds, and there was just the perfect amount of sea breeze to keep us cool.

That night we went back to the beach, along with the rest of the town, to watch the Bastille Day fireworks over the water. We also got ice cream in town, and I got what I thought were two very French flavors that I’d never seen in Italian gelato form: salted caramel (which this region of France is famous for because of its salt production) and violet.


Two days later, we left on a short camping trip. Although I’ve been to Paris and La Rochelle many times, I hadn’t seen any other part of France, so Stéphane and Yannick wanted to show me some other scenic places. First we went to La Dune du Pyla, a massive sand dune that runs along the south-western coast of France. Climbing the dune felt way harder than running 9 miles, but the views were truly spectacular.

The next day we went to the beach nearby and sun-tanned, then drove southeast to the town of Bergerac, a quaint Medieval town in the Bordeaux wine region along the Dordogne River. Our campsite was across the river from the town, and as we walked into town for dinner, this was what we saw:

The Acquitane region of France is also famous for duck products, so for dinner Yannick and I both ordered a salad with duck foie gras, duck magret, and duck gésier, complimented with a local Bordeaux red wine.

The following weekend, we went to La Faute-sur-Mer, a beach town north of La Rochelle where Yannick’s family has a summer house. My most distinct memory of La Faute is from the first time I visited when I was 12 years old: there is a candy and ice cream shop on the main street of the town, and every night during the summer they make fresh lollipops. Two times per night they take the piping hot mass of candy taffy out of a pot and roll it out to make lollipops, and ring a gigantic cowbell to let everyone know it’s ready. At 12 years old, eating a hot lollipop that stretches like taffy until it hardens into whatever strange shape you stretched it into, in France, on a beach vacation – well, that’s not something you easily forget. So high on my list of priorities this time around was to get a hot lollipop at La Faute. I passed on the weird blue “tutti fruitti” flavor at 9:30pm, but was ready and waiting when 10:30pm rolled around for hazelnut.

Sunset at La Faute-sur-Mer

The next day, extended family joined us for lunch, and we had a huge feast of melon, oysters, mussels, fresh-made french fries, baguettes, red wine, cheese, and a plum tart, made with plums from the garden. Also fresh from the garden were figs, and the best apricots I have ever tasted.

The perfect end to the perfect French summer vacances.

Click on individual images to enlarge them, or click on the first photo and scroll through using the arrows, to view all the images as a slideshow.

Tarte au Thon (Tuna Pie)

  • Phyllo dough
  • Canned tomato sauce (190g or almost 7oz)
  • Canned tuna, 400g or 14oz
  • Crème fraîche, 20cl or almost 7oz
  • Emmental cheese

Preheat oven to 180˚C (350˚F). Line a pie pan with parchment paper, and place sheet of phyllo dough on top of it. (If dough is not round, cut the edges so that it fits to the pan.) With a fork, poke holes in the dough all around, making sure not to forget the sides. Pour tomato sauce and spread evenly with a spoon. Drain tuna very well, then crumble in the pie pan on top of the sauce. Pour crème fraîche evenly on top. Sprinkle emmental cheese all over; do it by sight, enough so that the entire top is covered. Place in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until the cheese on top is crispy and golden.

Bon appetit!

After Rome, I flew to Paris to spend a few days with two of my best friends from college: Maria Laura, who is finishing up her masters degree in Art History at the Louvre’s University, and Emily, who did the Fulbright ETA in Catania last year and is now living in Brooklyn. We decided to all meet in Paris for a few days, because like Audrey Hepburn said, Paris is always a good idea.

I had a rough travel day getting into Paris – there was a transit strike in Rome so I got to the airport very early to avoid chaos and missing my flight, then after 5 hours of waiting in the airport my plane sat on the runway for another hour and a half because of “airport problems.” When I finally got to Paris, there had been a freak thunderstorm hours before and all cell phone service was down (which I only found out later) so after about a half hour of fruistlessly trying to call Maria Laura and even enlisting the help of some French women who took pity on me, I gave up. I knew the way to her apartment, though, and by some miracle, on the way there I ran into her walking towards me. Things looked up from that point on, and the three of us caught up that night over a lovely Parisian dinner.

You can take the girls out of New York…

Maria Laura had to work on her thesis while we were visiting, so Emily and I set out to play tourist during the days and met up with Maria Laura at night. We had both been to Paris before, so we went to some museums we hadn’t been to before – the Centre Pompidou, Paris’s modern art museum, and the Rodin museum – and took a day trip to Chartres to see its famous Medieval cathedral. One night Emily and I went to see Woody Allen’s new film, “To Rome With Love,” and we both cried – Emily because she wanted to go back to Italy, and me because I didn’t want to leave Italy for New York. We also got haircuts, did some vintage shopping and end-of-summer sale shopping, went for runs along the Seine and in the Jardins du Luxembourg, and visited Paris’s elevated park, which served as an inspiration for NYC’s Highline. And of course, our days involved plenty of macarons, crepes, and wine, including a bold Moroccan red wine at a Moroccan restaurant that Maria Laura took us to one night.

The weather was definitely a change from Italy; it didn’t rain much but it was overcast most days with highs in the upper 60s and low 70s, but the sun shone through now and then, and it was perfect sightseeing weather. On our last afternoon we had a picnic along a small river outside of the touristy city center, before Emily headed to catch a plane back to NYC and I caught a train to La Rochelle to visit our family friends for the next week and a half.

Click on individual images to enlarge them, or click on the first photo and scroll through using the arrows, to view all the images as a slideshow.