Monday, August 20, 2007
Under the Tuscan Sun
I will certainly attempt to chronicle my days while I’m out here…truth is, there really is nothing else to do. Badia A Coltibuono is very isolated. If I wanted to go to a grocery store such as the Ipercoop in Montevarchi, I would have to catch the one and only bus to Montevarchi at 7:40 am, a 30 minute ride, walk roughly 15-20 minutes to the Ipercoop then made sure I caught the only bus back at 1:40 pm.
The ticket for the bus one way is 2 Euros. At the current exchange rate that comes out to $2.78 USD…as it happened on the ride back from Montevarchi yesterday, the bus driver “ran out” of 2 Euro tickets and I had to purchase a 3 Euro ($4.17 USD) ticket…yes for the same damn trip that cost me 2 Euros that morning.
The exchange rate is horrific…but it’s looking up. I had exchanged some money at the SF airport at .65 Euro to the dollar…as of yesterday the bank in Montevarchi had the rate at .72 Euro to the dollar…not that this makes a world of difference…I don’t have a whole lot of money to be exchanging anyway. I have yet to have a day off – I should be getting 1.5 days off a week…with possibly 2 days off (as per Chef Andrea’s decree yesterday). It would be ideal to travel to the surrounding areas such as Florence, Sienna and Pisa…but at what I’m averaging – 3 train tickets per trip I’ll be begging for train fare before long.
After my first night in Italy, Irene (Gina’s sister in law) drove me to the Florence train station to catch a 9:00 am train to Montevarchi, I studied how she purchased the ticket and she told me which platform I need to be at to board the train…I did as instructed and was on my way…I was observant each time the train slowed and stopped so as I would not miss my stop. When Montevarchi came up, I started to bring my luggage towards the door (please see photo of said luggage)…unfortunately I did not make it out the door before they closed up again and the train started to move. It was just at that moment the conductor who checked off my ticket appeared but he could do nothing to help. I rode the train to the next stop in Arezzo…and yes; my bags were by the door. I got out, found a ticket machine, and bought a 2,80 Euro ticket to Montevarchi. It would be another hour before that train arrived (and departed). I had already broken one rule when I exited the first train – do not cross the train tracks…I did not know that there was an underground passage – heck I followed that conductor! Carrying my bags first down the stairs (no escalator – there was an elevator but it was marked for the handicapped and I wasn’t about to use it) then back up again left me huffing and puffing…I was happy to relax for a while. About 15 minutes to departure, they started announcing platform changes. I didn’t hear anything for my train but when I looked towards platform 4 (I was on platform 2), I noticed my destination & departure time…panic ensued…it was 11:05 and my train was for 11:07. I practically threw my bags down the stairs, dragged them towards the stairwell for platform 4 then struggled with them back up the stairs. When I got to the top, the signs posted on platform 4 & 5 were for two trains headed in the direction I needed to go. One departing at 11:10, the other 11:07. The 11:10 train sat at the platform and the 11:07 was nowhere in site. Deep down I knew where I had to go but due to the earlier fiasco, I needed some sort of reassurance. I decided to ask someone and the only person there was one of the military guards…I asked if the 11:10 train stopped at Montevarchi but he didn’t speak English and said so. As I was contemplating whether or not to board that same guy comes back with “Ah Florence? Ok.” and urged me to board. I felt relief, but not for long. It had been difficult for me to use the restroom with all my bags so what a surprise to see a W.C. (that’s Water Closet aka restroom for you state siders) right where I parked my bags. It was a quick in and out as I didn’t want to leave my bags unattended for too long. When I emerged, I noticed the 11:07 train at the platform…a sinking feeling started to set in. When the 11:07 train pulled away I knew I was screwed. As the 11:10 train started to move. All I could do was chant to myself…”Please stop at Montevarchi, please stop at Montevarchi, please stop at Montevarchi.” The train started to pick up speed and it seemed to be further left on the tracks. After passing more tunnels then I remembered, I conceded that I was headed back to Florence on the express train. After arriving back in Florence’s Santa Maria Novena station, I quickly bought another ticket, total thus far, 10,8 Euros ($16.62 USD at the exchange rate from the SFO airport). The ticket machine said the next departure time was 12:09, but I did not see “Roma Termini” on the departure board. What I did see was the departure time posted on the platform. I headed straight for the conductor and asked if that train stopped at Montevarchi. He assured me that it did and I boarded making sure I
was just steps away from the train door. While onboard I elicited the assistance of a girl to help me load minutes onto the mobile phone Gina lent me. When Montevarchi came up, I tried to exit but the doors would not immediately open. The other woman getting off at Montevarchi took her one rolling bag thru the car and out the other door. This was not possible for me - a repeat of my first train ride to Montevarchi flashed before my eyes. I started to claw at the handles for the door when it finally opened on it’s own…apparently there was a delay. I shoved the first bag out making sure I had one limb in the door’s path. The second large bag (which was heavier than the first) I dragged out falling over the first bag but I got back up in a split second to collect my last bag. As it turns out, the train wasn’t going anywhere anyway; the conductor was outside watching me with a scowl. I don’t know exactly what he said but it was along the lines of “What the hell? Slow the fuck down!” But I didn’t care! I was in Montevarchi. Sure I started a 30-minute trip at 9 am, sure it was 1:00 but I was in Montevarchi! All I needed to do now was to catch a taxi to Badia A Coltibuono. Forty-five minutes later, the taxi shows up and I am on my way! 30 minutes and 36 Euros ($55.38 USD) later I arrived on the steps of Badia A Coltibuono, Genesis waiting to greet me.
Back to update…on the morning of day two I had still yet to don the uniform (but I would for dinner service). Genesis, who spent the previous day waiting for my arrival, also had the morning off and we decide to go to Montevarchi (I saw so little the day before) to run some errands and visit the Ipercoop. When we arrived by bus, most shops had yet to open. There is a mini Ipercoop close to the train station, which I totally missed the day before. We browsed a little without buying anything, settling to wait to make purchases at the big Ipercoop. I’m hungry and we pass by a bakery. We each buy pizza. Mine is sun-dried tomatoes on foccacia and Gen’s is hand formed dough with a lot of cheese and sauce. As we are walking, we stop to photograph a church. As I framed the photo, there is a man who is smiling in our direction and seemed to want to be in the photo. Gen then tells me to shout “Kumar!” I refuse thinking ala “Harold and Kumar”…you must realize I have only met her the day before and don’t really know her well. So Gen shouts out “Kumar!” and the man turns around! Turns out, he is Kumar…one of our stewards (dishwashers). They exchange greetings and she introduces me. Kumar is with his amico (male friend) Roger (?) and they invite us to have coffee with them. Roger speaks a little English but there is only conversation between Kumar and Genesis. I admire her ability to communicate and listen carefully to pick up bits and pieces.
Kumar lives in Montevarchi and roger lives in the flat below him. Kumar is headed to Arezzo by train (been there!) at 9:45 to go to the police station to have documents drawn up for his wife. After coffee, Kumar invites us to visit his home which he assures us is only 5 minutes away. On the walk over we see shops with “saldi” (sale) signs. We stop by a couple to browse. Turns out Kumar lives in the building where the bus dropped us off. In Kumar’s home we meet his wife, daughter, sister in law and nephew. After about 30-40 minutes we must leave if we are to complete the tasks we had planned. We heard to the bank, 3 banks actually, to exchange Gen’s traveler’s checks into Euros. The first two said they didn’t do it even though the second bank did it for Gen previously. Now it is off the Ipercoop.
Gen had been saying the Ipercoop was akin to a Costco. They had not only meats and produce but also clothes and other items, which made the term “supermarket” incorrect. When I think of Costco, I think of buying in bulk. When I actually saw what the Ipercoop contained I would say it was akin to a Wal-Mart but again, not exactly. In addition to the isles of products, they had a large produce section, butcher’s counter, fish counter, bakery counter, hardware items, DVD’s, etc. I really didn’t browse through the entire store as we had not planned on the visit to Kumar’s home and was a little pressed for time…also we seemed to come at a peak hour. We initially browsed the shops in the entranceway, purchasing phone cards and having a key made then we entered the Ipercoop. The items on our list include: a flashlight, lemons, tortilla chips, liquid hand soap, hair conditioner, cereal, UHT milk and cat food. While waiting in the queue we noticed a display of Uncle Ben’s products. I didn’t know Uncle Ben’s made flour tortillas, tortilla chips and salsa…did you? After checking out, we get something to eat and are out the door. We head to our last destination, and Indian store where Gen was told she could find some corriandolo (cilantro). Turned out, while they did normally carry it, they didn’t have any that day due to the heat…but I did find many familiar Asian spices and products…including fennel in a colourful candy shell which my classmate and friend Chingy (a nickname…his real name is Gupteshwar) introduced me to. As I was explaining what they were to Gen, one of the shopkeepers speaks to us in English and convinces me to buy some mangoes but I refuse his suggestion to buy ready-made gulab jamun. While exiting, Gen notices a man eating a burrito. He tells her he got it at a shop in front of the bus station…she is exited. After six weeks in Italy, she’s craving Mexican food – ergo the lemons and tortilla chips and the intended purchase of corriandolo, she was going to make salsa. Walking back I noticed a small shop named “Sara”. It was closed – the shop owner was most likely on holiday…but I noticed a large display of Anchor embroidery floss…CHA CHING! Now I know where to go to get thread for my stitching. We arrive at the bus station and while we do not go to the burrito shop, we do purchase some ice cream confections at another shop in the same building. Our bus back to Gaiole/Chianti arrives and we are off.
Genesis strikes up a conversation with the bus driver as I listen in. While she does not speak Italian fluently, she does speak Spanish and her conversations are peppered with Spanish filling in for words she does not know in Italian. There is some difficulty speaking with the driver but the basics are communicated: where are we from, what are we doing in Italy, etc. Unlike the morning ride, we actually pick up an additional passenger but she did not pay and did not seem to present a pass of any kind…what’s up with that? Thirty minutes later, we are let off and walk towards the road back to BAC. We make a stop at the l’osteria (our wine shop) at the bottom of the drive where we talk to some tourists from Florida and purchase una bottilia Moscato di Asti. On the way back we search for the bull in the pasture that Gen assures me is there although I have yet to see it. After dropping off our purchases we go to the kitchen to get some cold water – this is all that we are given to drink (anything else we much purchase ourselves) and we sit and relax in the area just outside. We chat with Corrado who accepts his new moniker, “Uncle Junior”. Patrick finishes up and we head back to the apartment. More relaxing as Gen makes salsa. I jump in the shower and at about 6pm, we prepare to go to the kitchen. This is my first working shift and I watch carefully. I observe Patrick making pasta for family meal while Gen prepares fennel for service. Dinner consisted of a very simple pasta (more on this later) and boneless chicken (I don’t know exactly what part – somehow doubt it is just the breast) stuffed and tied with rosemary on roasted potatoes. After dinner I am to work alongside Danielle at the antipasto station. He shows me how to prep the amuse (they call it the pre-appetizer here) and from then on, I prep an amuse for each guest. The wait staff announces how many new guests are seated and I prep one order of amuse for each of them. He also has me prepping zucchini, the mis en place for a veloute we will make tomorrow, sliced eggplant, which is floured, dipped in egg then breaded. I am shown how to plate the octopus dish called Palpo as well as the tomato & mozzarella terrine. Towards the end of service, I help Patrick prep the dried tomatoes and watch how the kitchen is cleaned at closing. After service I get a chance to get online then head home. We watch one of the DVDs I brought and I eat an orange sprinkled with salt – Genesis taught me this – it is good. I start to fade and head off to bed
the train system there sounds just like the one we have here in Sydney