Sunday, November 28, 2010

Turkey Day Fiasco

Thanksgiving in Italy turns out to be pretty much just like any other day, stores are open, people are at work, and (worst of all) I had to go to classes.  However, I was not going to let this stop me from partaking in the glorious festivities of the holiday, they were just going to have to be delayed by a day. 
The plan was that on Thursday night Kait and Cody (a couple that we’ve met here at the school and become good friends with) were going to come over to our house after classes were finished.  Our apartment is only equipped with one small convection oven, so the timing of the preparation of the meal was critical.  We were going to bake the pies on Thursday night and then put the Turkey in on Friday morning followed by the different casseroles.  The plan seemed like it should work pretty well and we were looking forward to a day full of an eating jubilee.  Of course, if you’ve read any of my other posts you know that nearly nothing over here ever seems to go exactly as planned…

We started Thursday evening right: Christmas music crooning in the background while we slice apples and mix ingredients for the apple and pumpkin pies.  The turkey and all other fixings were ready and waiting in the refrigerator (the smallest turkey Cody could find at the market was 15 lbs, so we were planning on a lot of leftovers…).  The pies are prepped so we pop them in the oven and start the dishwasher so that we have clean utensils for tomorrow’s preparations. 

Soon the apartment is filled with the wonderful aroma of spices.  The apple pie is coming along quite nicely, but the pumpkin is still quite goopy in the center.  All of a sudden, all of our appliances shut off.  The fridge, oven and dishwasher lose power.  Everything else in our apartment seems to be working, so we think that maybe it is a blown fuse on the breaker, but when we check the box, everything is still up.  For good measure, we switch them all on and off a few times, but nothing seems to work. 

I do know that there is a power limit here in Italy, and if you exceed that limit, your power turns off.  Usually you can just flip a switch on your breaker and get it back on, but I was thinking maybe this time was different for some reason.  We decide that maybe if we go to bed and turn out all the lights, the decrease in power will help and (hopefully) they will start working in the morning.  So, we all cozy down for the night with a soupy, half-baked pumpkin pie still in the oven and the scent of apple spice still hanging in the air. 

The next morning I wake up with great anticipation – the fate of our turkey dinner hanging in the balance.  Of course, it couldn’t be that easy.  All of the appliances were still dormant.  So far our Thanksgiving meal would be consisting of a partially baked apple pie, a liquefied pumpkin pie, and a raw turkey in the fridge.  Something had to be done. 

We grab the phonebook and start looking for electricians in our area.  We find the list and Brie starts calling each one.  “buongiorno, parle inglese?”  “NO!” *click.  As we moved down the list, a few would try to help, but no progress seemed to be made as none of them spoke enough English for us to really be able to communicate. 

Next plan of action – talk to someone face-to-face.  So, courageous Brie and Cody cross the street to our faithful Tabacchi to see if they can help us.  They are sent further down the road, leaving Carmel, Kait and I to sit in the house and wonder if our dreams about the perfect turkey will ever flourish into reality. 
An hour later, Cody and Brie come storming through the door.  Their mission had been successful.  Turned out they had to go all the way to our school and talk with the student advisor there.  She knew exactly what our problem was and a lady who works at the school’s husband is an electrician.  She called him and he was going to be over when he finished with a job he was working on. 

Things were turning up and I could almost smell the turkey cooking already.  We brewed some apple cider on the stove (thank goodness that runs on gas) and settle in to watch a Christmas Story while we wait.  At 2:30 PM, after finishing the movie and creating many paper snowflakes to decorate our apartment, the electrician shows up.  He prods around and unscrews our breaker box, removes the entire oven from the wall, but can’t seem to find the problem.  Then he pulls up the baseboard under the over and, with a flip of a switch, the appliances jolt back to life!  Turns out whoever installed the things was super smart and decided to put them all on a surge protector power strip.  The issue wasn’t our electricity at all, it was just that we had all three running at once and had tripped the power strip. 

After many thanks and replacing the various parts of our apartment back to order, the electrician leaves and we’re able to get to cooking.  We’re about six hours behind schedule, but we’re determined to finish this meal even if we have to wait up till 10 PM to eat turkey. 

First order of business is to finish baking the pies.  They go in the oven while we prep the turkey to go in right after.  Soon, both pies are baked to perfection and the giant turkey is stuffed in.  We’ve estimated the cooking time for the turkey to be about three and a half hours, so we hunker down for another movie while we wait.  We’re also really hungry at this point.  Seeing that we have two pies, we figure it can’t hurt to have a little bit of one before the meal and then the other after.  We proceed to eat the entire apple pie.

As the turkey cooks, we start to prep our other dishes: green bean casserole, cornbread casserole, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, and mashed potatoes.  Soon, the sweet aroma of Thanksgiving is drifting through the air.  Finally, the turkey is finished and we quickly swap it out for the other casseroles.  The mashed potatoes and stuffing are finished and we whip up gravy with the turkey drippings. 

Cody does the honors of carving the turkey and we all sit down to enjoy the meal at 7 PM.  Soon, the casseroles are finished and we plunge into our second course.  The grand finale of pumpkin pie wraps up a practically perfect Thanksgiving meal.  Stuffed to the gills and quickly moving into a state of turkey-nosis, we decide to watch our third movie of the day, Elf. 

Although the day started out with quite a disaster, we were once again able to find a solution and come out the other end with a great story of our first solo Thanksgiving in Italy.

our half-baked pumpkin pie in an oven that doesn't work.

Yey! The oven works now!

Our wonderful Turkey, Tucker. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Key Saga Continues...

After our last key fiasco with involving the storm drain (see previous post), I thought that surely our issues with the door were finished, I mean what else could possibly go wrong?  I suppose we should never assume that we are in the clear, because just when you start to get comfortable, another disaster ensues, just like what happened last night.  The door and key drama continues…

Once again, the evening started off as perfectly normal, with us preparing to leave the apartment and go see the movie Salt at the theater.  Unfortunately, our door had other ideas.  When we went to lock the door, we turned the key once, but then it got stuck, so we tried to turn it back and had to pull really hard to get it out.  Then, when it did come out, we couldn’t get it back in.  Now, I don’t know if you remember, but this is the door that doesn’t open unless you can get the key in (I’m prepared to have a few words with whoever came up with that idea), so once again we find ourselves locked out of our apartment with all three sets of keys.

After a few minutes of trying to coax the lock into submission, it became clear that we were either going to have to get some help from someone, or be spending the night on the stairwell outside the apartment. 

Brie went down to the lock place down the street (we all became very familiar with this place) to try and get some help.  Turns out, the place only makes copies of keys, they aren’t actually locksmiths.  But, through some hand motions and using the little Italian she knows, Brie was able to explain the problem and they called the locksmith for us.

Fifteen minutes later, a guy shows up with a toolbox and walks up to inspect our door.  Of course, he doesn’t speak any English.  He takes a look at the lock, tries the key a few times (come on, guy, don’t you think we would have tried that already) and then proceeds to bring out the heavy artillery: lock picks.  After a lot of poking around and some muttering of Italian under his breath, he basically explains to us, in what little we can understand, that our lock is broken and he can’t really fix it quickly. 

He then wants to know about our school so that he can know who is going to be able to pay for the extensive work that evidently has to be done on our door.  When we call our advisor, she is able to translate for us and says that he will have to cut the whole lock off with a saw and replace it, at a cost of 200 Euros.  We don’t really have any choice at this point, so we just tell him to go ahead and do it. 

Of course fate would have it that even when he tries to go about using a saw on the door, he can’t do that because there are absolutely no plugs in the hall for him to use.  Also, every single neighbor in the apartment is conveniently out, so we can’t use one of theirs either.  Now we’re thinking that we’re really stuck – we can’t even saw our way into our apartment.

But, this guy wasn’t going to give up that easily, he was determined to get us into the apartment.  We started eyeing the different windows around the apartment to see if we could break in through any of them.  We’re on the second floor, and knew that we had locked all of our outside windows (of course), but then I thought of a small window that is just above the door going into the hallway that enters into the loft of the apartment.  The latch on that window is loose, so it shouldn’t be hard to open if we could get up to it, all we need is a ladder.  The locksmith goes searching up and down the street for anyone who might have one, but comes back unsuccessful, so he resorts to plan B.  He drives back to his workshop and get his ladder to bring back to us. 

Another 15 minutes go by (we’ve been locked out for an hour and a half at this point) and our favorite locksmith comes back, ladder in hand, ready to break into our apartment. 

He sets the ladder up and climbs to the window.  After a few pushes, the window opens and he disconnects the hinges to make room for a person.  We thought that maybe he was going to have one of us go through since we are a bit smaller and could maybe manage better, but before we knew it he was through the window, head first, with just his feet sticking through. 

There were a couple minutes of waiting where I wondered, this is a little weird, a man is in our apartment and we are locked out – he could be doing anything in there.  But then we heard something on the other side of the door and the door swings open with him grinning on the other side.

After a quick adjustment with a jackhammer (not a delicate matter that actually made me glad that there wasn’t anyone else in the building) he closed the door and it opened and shut perfectly.  Turns out that this whole time the issue was that the lock was out of alignment and after a few swings of the hammer, it was fixed and now works perfectly smoothly.  He even greased it with some of our olive oil (the WD40 of Italy) and now it’s as smooth as butter.

We were still left with a 120 Euro bill for his time, but really seems to be a small price to pay to have a working door now.  I actually enjoy opening and closing the lock now, no more struggling to turn the key and shaking the door to get it to open.  Let’s hope that this is the solution we have been waiting for, I don’t really want to have to deal with any more key problems.  

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Andiamo, Stella!

This past weekend, Brie and I went on a wonderful and relaxing weekend to Sicily.  It was so nice to once again be by the ocean and everything there was absolutely beautiful.  Although the scenery and sightseeing was incredible, one of the highlights of the trip was the food – there was an abundant amount and it was delicious.

The first night we were there, we went to a typical Sicilian restaurant and were presented with plate after plate of antipasti, premi pasti and so on – each one as good if not better than the others.  From egg plant to bruschetta and ouvo de pesce, then the best meatball (sorry mom) possibly that I have ever had in my life smothered in a marinara that made me want to pick up the plate and slurp the remainder down. 
One of the specialties in Sicily is canolli, so to top off a wonderful meal, we went to a local bakery where they squeeze the creamy ricotta cheese filling into each shell individually then press the ends in chocolate chips…ahhh…it doesn’t get much better than that!

The next morning, after sleeping off a slight food coma, we decided we could use to burn some calories, so went for a walk around.  We were staying in a place called Siracusa on the island center of the city called Ortigia.  The island is rather small, so we did a quick loop around the whole thing.

The clear blue water was breath-taking and the people were just as interesting.  I got the feeling that they don’t get quite as many tourists in Ortigia as in Florence.  Being two blond Americanas, we stood our quite a bit, eliciting many stares and the random, “Ciao, bella.”  There was one point where we walked under two old ladies conversing across the street from their balconies.  One called down to us and yelled, “bella!” and blew a kiss, followed by a toothless smile.

After our tour of the island, we had a guided market tour.  There were so many exotic fruits, vegetables and fish that we learned about.  One fish seller was chopping through fillets with one of the biggest cleavers I have ever seen.  He was going so fast, I was surprised he still possessed all ten digits.  As we were watching, he proceeded to effortlessly behead a giant swordfish and mount the giant head and sword on the table for us all to see – well, I’m ready for lunch now.

The next activity was a ride out to the country to visit a ranch for lunch.  The traditional three-course, two hour meal ensued.  It was not quite as good as the dinner the night before, but still very impressive.
We had the afternoon at the ranch and when they asked if anyone wanted to ride horses, I was the first to raise my hand.  We went to the stables and met our guide, who didn’t speak a word of English.  He said something about how to sit, hold the reigns and stop – things that would probably be useful if we knew what he was saying, oh well.

Now, I am by no means and experienced rider, so I thought this would be nice and easy down a path, but we ended up going up the side of a mountain; literally off-roading with horses.  There were trees snapping in my face and my horse kept slipping on rocks and I had no idea what I was doing. 
Every once in a while my horse (her name was Stella) would see a tasty bush and decide she needed a snack.  I had no idea how to get her going again – it’s not like she knows English.  The only Italian I know is “Andiamo!” which means, “Let’s go!”  I continually was saying “Andiamo, Stella!” in the sternest voice I could followed by a slight kick in the side.  I didn’t want to kick too hard, because let’s remember that I am at the mercy of this horse – I didn’t want to upset it. 

Most of the ride went smoothly aside from the occasional stop, until the very end when we got back onto the paved road.  Something about seeing that pavement (probably knowing that it was almost done and could get me off its back) made Stella really excited and she started galloping.  I had never experienced this, but it is a lot rougher than it looks in the movies.  I was holding on for dear life.  Finally, I yanked back on the reigns and she slowed back down to a trot.  It was then that I turned around and realized that the horse behind me was empty – riderless.  The girl had been thrown off in the commotion and was running to catch up.  It was an eventful end to an afternoon at the ranch.

That night there was another meal where I ate entirely too much – yet still managed to have room for one more canolli before leaving Sicily the next day.  It was a great trip to the Italian island and wonderful to experience some other parts of Italy.  Next time I go horseback riding, maybe I’ll make sure the guide speaks English so I know what to do.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Keys and Storm Drains....

Since being in Italy I have learned a lot of things, but probably some of the most important lessons have come with the helpless situation of being locked out of my apartment.  It would seem unlikely, but this has actually happened to us three times already in the one month of living here, not because we ever forgot our key inside, but because of somewhat extenuating circumstances that made our re-entry impossible. 

The first of these cases is something that I hinted at in the last post and occurred before we had even stepped foot in our apartment.  We received our keys from the real estate agency, got our landlords phone number and walked to our apartment on the second day of being in Florence.  Unfortunately, when we walked up the stairs and came to the door, we found ourselves incapable of opening it.  The key would turn, but something seemed to be stuck and was unwilling to budge, no matter how much cajoling, shaking, and whispered prayers for mercy were muttered. 

We finally resorted to calling our Landlord; maybe there was a second lock that we didn’t know about.  However, this too was a dead end, as the number that we had gotten from the agency seemed to be disconnected.  OK, we’re still not at the end of our options, we can try the rental agency – closed for lunch, which here in Italy lasts from around 2 to 4 PM.  It was 2:15.  We proceeded to stake out on the steps of our apartment building until the rental agency finally opened two hours later. 

When we were finally able to get a hold of them, they said that the key should work fine, we just didn’t know how to open the door.  We should see if there is anyone else in the building that could help us.  After ringing all the other doorbells, either no one was home, or no one was willing to come out and see what the crazy Americans in the hallway were up to (probably more the latter).  Thankfully, after another half hour, we caught someone coming home and related in broken Italian with a lot of hand motions that we were somehow locked out.  He proceeded to walk up to the door, turn the key, give it a couple shakes and, voila, it opened right up.  After many thanks, we were finally able to enter our apartment for the first time. 

First lesson learned:  It may take some shaking, but the door will open eventually.

Incident #2:

What started out as a pleasant dinner and a quick trip to get some gelato, turned out to be one of our more memorable stories of being here in Florence.  First, this story requires some preface:  When we first got a key to the apartment from the agency, they said that there was only one copy, but we could have more made so that we all would have one.  On the way to the apartment, we ended up having two more copies of the key made so that we all had one, only to find out that there were, in face, two more waiting for us once we got into the apartment.  So, now we have five sets of keys. 

On with the story: we had a nice dinner and decided that we were going to go out quickly to get some gelato to finish off the night.  As we were deciding what to bring, we decided we probably just needed some cash and one set of keys to get back in.  Instead of grabbing one of the originals we had, we just took one of the copies that was sitting on the entrance table.  As we leave and close the door behind us, we try to lock the door with the key and realize that it doesn’t turn.  In the standard U.S. door, this wouldn’t be a problem because the door isn’t locked, so you could just open it up again with the handle.  The only problem is that the doors here are not like standard U.S. doors.  Ours requires that you use the key just to get it open even if it is unlocked, so if your key doesn’t work, you’re locked out of your apartment no matter what.             

At this point I really had no idea what we should do.  None of us had cell phones, we collectively probably had about 20 Euros, a key that doesn’t work along with Carmel’s camera, which we may be able to pawn off for a night in a hostel, but probably not.  Well, we decided we should just go ask the people at the Tabacchi (a kind of convenience store) across the street.  Thankfully the guy there spoke some English and said that we needed to go down the street to a locksmith shop a few blocks down.  There is hope!

Then the small amount of hope is suddenly crushed when we get to the shop and see that it is closed for the night.  What now?  Carmel has the brilliant idea of going to one of the nearby hotels, because people there probably speak English and they may be able to tell us what we need to do.  We go to the nearest hotel and relay our story to a very sympathetic receptionist there.  She knows exactly what we are going through as she just locked herself out not too long ago.  She said that what we need to do is call the fire department (I guess they act as the locksmiths over here) so that they can let us in.  The only catch is that they have to have papers verifying that we are the ones that actually live there.  We do, in side the apartment.  So, she calls and says they should be there soon.  Thank goodness!

We head back to the apartment and wait.  After about fifteen minutes, a fire truck with about seven firemen pulls up.  They all crowd up our narrow stairway and proceed to open our door simply with a sheet of floppy plastic (it killed me to know that it was so easy).  We showed them our documents and passports, thanked them, and the world was right again, back in our apartment.  After that we definitely earned our gelato, so went out for a second attempt, this time making sure to bring a working key and a cell phone.

Second lesson learned: make sure that your key works before you shut the door.

Incident #3:

This actually just happened about half an hour ago and is what prompted me to write this extensive blog about my different adventures with keys and locked doors. Once again it centered around us going out for a quick study break treat of chocolate across the street (maybe God is trying to tell me something about my eating habits).  We were literally going across the street, so we just brought some cash and one set of keys, but we knew that these ones worked (we did learn something from the last time). 

We got our chocolate bars and all seemed to be going smoothly until we were just steps from our door.  Brie found this to be an opportune time to comment on how ironic it would be if we end up being locked out of our apartment another time.  Just as the words were exiting her mouth I had reached into my jeans pocket to retrieve the keys while I was also stepping up the curb.  As I pulled the keys out of my pocket, they slipped from my fingers and fell to the sidewalk.  The only problem was that it happened to be at the same spot where there was a storm drain in the curb.  It was a direct hit, not even a bump on the side, right down the drain. 

I looked up at Brie, dumbfounded, and she doesn’t even believe me at first.  It wasn’t until I was bent over the drain that she realized it was actually true.  Option #1: find something that could help us fish the keys out.  Option #2: try and get help from someone who probably doesn’t speak any English.  Option #3: wait for Carmel to get home from class with her key (two hours later) and get something from the apartment to fish it out.  As Brie had a class in an hour and a half and there wasn’t anything in the near vicinity to stick down the drain, we resorted to option #2.  

Brie walked across the street to the mechanic shop to try and find a flashlight as I tried to jam my arm down the muddy abyss of drain.  After swiping my fingers through a few cobwebs I finally grazed the bottom, but couldn’t quite get past my elbow to go any further.  By this time, Brie had managed to motion her way to getting the mechanic to come over with a flashlight and pliers.

He was able to get the top to the drain open and simply reach in and grab the keys, saved again by a friendly Italian citizen.  Aside from some mud up to my elbow and a couple scratches, we were once again back in the apartment, safe and sound. 

Third lesson learned:  Even if you have one working key, make sure that you have a spare on the off chance that you drop one down a storm drain.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I've month later

            I’ve been in Italy for a month now, and realize that I haven’t been posting any new blogs about how things have been going here or how I’m settling in.  Not that I’m presuming that anyone has even been wondering, but just in case someone has, I figure I better put something up so that one person doesn’t feel left out in the cold. 
            I’ll have to start by recapping our quite interesting tale of the journey getting here.  We knew it was going to be a long trip with lots of connections and places for things to go wrong, so we were all praying that it all went as planned.  It was one of those times where you hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.  I don’t want to say that the worst happened, but it was probably pretty darn close. 
            We flew from Seattle to NY with no problem, met up with Brie in the JFK airport and then made our connection to the international flight; so far, so good.  We flew Swiss air from JFK to Zurich, Switzerland and then had another connection to take us to Florence.  The plane landed in Switzerland and when we boarded the plane to Florence I was in a window seat, so I could see them loading the bags.  I immediately looked for mine, as that was one of the things I was most worried about.  To my surprise, it was right there, on the last cart.  I recognized my bright blue tag on the handle.  I couldn’t believe our great luck at having everything work out so smoothly…probably the wrong thing to be thinking about. 
            Just then, they stopped loading the bags and started driving away with the baggage trolley.  The only problem was that my bag was still on that cart.  I could see it driving away from me and there was nothing I could do about it.  There was a moment of panic, but then I realized that it’s not really that bad, at least I know that my bags made it to Switzerland.  How hard could it be to get them to Florence?  There would probably be another flight that same night…ha, right. 
            So, the plane takes off and I forget about the anxiety of losing my bag as I realize that we are about to land in the place where I am going to be spending the next four months of my life.  I have to say that the decent of the plane was one of the roughest that I have ever experienced.  Even being in some wind storms in Alaska aren’t as shaking as the landing coming into Florence.  Then, just as we were about to touch down, the pilot make a drastic pull up and we’re back to circling around the city.  What could go wrong now? 
            The captain comes on the intercom and says that there’s just too much of a tail wind in Florence right now and the plane is too heavy, we’re going to have to go to our alternative landing point: Bologna.  First thought:  Where the heck is Bologna?  I thought that was a lunchmeat?  Second thought:  If they already had an alternative landing spot, does that mean that this kind of thing happens often? 
            Either way, we make our descent and land.  I get off the plane and take my first steps in Italy to the Bologna airport.  Funny thing is that no one who was working at the airport seemed to know anything about who we were or what our situation was in trying to get to Florence.  They unload the baggage, but of course, my isn’t there.  I go to the baggage claim counter; thank goodness they speak English and begin to explain what’s going on.  After a few minutes they say that I need to make my claim in Florence, because that is where my final destination was originally.  OK, great, but right now I’m in Bologna, so how do I go about getting to Florence? 
            Just then a lady comes over and says that the airline is providing busses to Florence, we just have to go meet them in the parking lot.  We go to the parking lot, load on the bus and ride to Florence.  We’re all extremely jet-legged, culture shocked, and really have no idea where we are. 
            Two and a half hours later we are dropped off at the Florence airport.  First stop is to the baggage claim.  I wait in line for a good half hour, then am finally able to make my claim.  An hour later, I have my receipt and they say that the bag should be delivered to the school in the next day, maybe, could be a couple of days, no one really knows for sure.  At this point, I don’t really care, I just want to make sure I get it eventually. 
            Now, we have to deal with the problem of where we are going to sleep.  Due to the delay and redirecting of out flights, we had missed our appointment to sign in for our apartment and also had no way of contacting the agency that we went through.  In fact, we didn’t even know how to go about getting into the city of Florence.  Thank God for information desks.  We go to the desk and they tell us that we just have to take the bus to the city and gave us a name of a hotel that had an open room. 
            We board the bus, get to the hotel (which turns out to be more of a bed and breakfast type thing) and then set out in search of food.  We saw a McDonald’s on the way, and as sacrilegious as it sounds, we were so tired that something familiar sounded really good.  After a McChicken burger, we found an Internet cafĂ© to tell our parents that we were still alive and went to bed. 
            Luckily, the next day wasn’t quite as bad, but wasn’t great either.  We spent most the day walking around the city trying to get in touch with the school and check into our apartment.  Thankfully, my bag showed up.  Unfortunately, this also meant that I had to drag it all through the city the rest of the day. 
            However, we eventually got our apartment keys and got moved in.  Of course, this is after we were stuck outside the door of our apartment for five hours thinking that our key didn’t work when really it was just that we didn’t know how to open it, but that is another whole story in itself. 
            So, that was the adventure of arrival.  Since then there have been many more stories, some of which I may find the time to write about later.  As of now, we are four weeks into classes and I’m beginning to settle into the Italian life.  Although there was a rocky start, this is turning out to be a rather interesting adventure and it all just adds to the story.