Thursday, July 29, 2010

Plum Cake

Our single plum tree has been busy producing a bountiful crop of luscious purple plums. So many plums that we really can't eat them all ourselves. Just between you and me? You can only eat so many plums each day. So, we have also been giving away large quantities to family and friends.

Usually when I have this much of a fruit, I'll make jam. I may end up doing that soon. But, last night since we were having friends over, I decided to make a cake.
Baking, one of my passions, got more complicated about a year ago when I discovered that I was intolerant to both gluten and lactose. That means I can't eat anything with even traces of wheat, barley, malt or any kind of dairy products. With patience and practice, however, I have learned how to cook and bake within my dietary constraints.
A nice example is this Plum Cake. I do not remember where I found this recipe, but it is absolutely fantastic. Super easy to prepare (my kitchen philosophy remains "if it ain't easy, I don't cook it!") and delicious.
125g vegetable margarine, softened
120g sugar + 2 tbsp
180g Gluten-free Dry Flour Mix
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
pinch of salt
24 halves pitted damsons (or other dark plums)
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Cream together the margarine and 120g sugar until soft and fluffy. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and beat into the mixture before adding the beaten eggs a little at a time. Mix thoroughly to combine then spoon this batter into an ungreased 22 or 25cm springform cake tin. Cover the top with the plums, placing them skin side down.

Mix the cinnamon with the remaining sugar and use to sprinkle over the top of the cake. Place in an oven pre-heated to 170°C and bake for between 40 to 50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake emerges clean.

I had planned to take a lovely picture of a single slice, served with vanilla ice-cream, but my family's patience with my picture-taking mania ran thin and they devoured the cake before I had time to shoot a single shot.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Socks Socks Everywhere



and not a clean pair to wear!
...and my son wonders why he never has any clean socks in his drawer!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Windy Sunday on the Adriatic Sea

Sunday is the big beach day around here. For many families it's the one day they can spend all together, so they organise a picnic lunch and go for the whole day.

But a very windy day at the seaside is not always as relaxing as you would like. We were all dressed but still undecided whether we should go or not...
A key consideration for me is my hair. Nothing gets me more nervous than my hair whipping about and sticking in my eyes every 30 seconds.
So up it goes, rolled into what they call a "banana" style and held tight with a butterfly hair clip.
Look at those waves. This is very unusual for the Adriatic, there is usually no wave action, just a vast expanse of blue-green water. So unusual that I wasn't the only one taking pictures...
Do you wear jewelry when you go to the beach?
You must not be from my corner of Italy!
All the women here do!
This "Maestrale" wind is a strong wind that blows in from the North-West.
It made it chilly in the shade, but hot in the sun. It's always hot in the sun here in the summer! Some people are hot, others feel cold.
Did you notice the little blue glass pieces these men are using to keep their cards from blowing away?

My beach Crocs. I have a shoe fetish, be patient with me...

No comment.

"When I grow up I'm gonna be a lifeguard!"

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mowing the Lawn, Italian Style

I have lived so long in Italy (18 years now) that it's often hard for me to pinpoint the cultural differences between life here and life in the US. Everything here, which was once so interesting and different and even very strange at times, just seems normal now. Italy has become my normal.

But, every once in a while, there's a special moment that you know you'd probably never see repeated in the US.

That's my husband, mowing the lawn in his bathing suit! Don't tell him I showed you this video...but I couldn't resist!

My parents used to live in a high-rise building where a lot of gay men resided. And that's wonderful, quickly let me say that gay men are wonderful in my book, just like everyone else! But the funny thing was that my parents would have a minor panic attack about Francesco's very European speedo style bathing suits every time we came to visit. They even went as far as to buy him a boxer style bathing suit because they were afraid that their neighbors would make a pass at him in the condo pool! Too funny.

They're not too comfortable with me wearing a bikini either, now that I think about it. But, hey, I'm sorry, you're not going to catch me dead in a skort! No way, no how!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Children's Theater Festival

This is the 15th year that a local theater company, Teatrermitage, has put on a week-long children's film festival in our town. There are 7 nights of shows held in an outdoor amphitheater. A jury of children is selected each year with the important task of evaluating each production and choosing a festival winner. My younger son participated as a juror last year and it was quite an experience for him. He felt very important!

The festival is called Ti Fiabo e Ti Racconto. I have included a link to their website, but the information is all in Italian.

Last night we saw a lively and acrobatic version of Peter Pan.
Here Wendy is dancing with Peter's invisible shadow...


During Pinocchio, the actors came down off the stage and ran through the crowd handing out paper donkey ears to all of the spectators.

The Laughing Streets

For three days before the shows competing for Best of Festival begin, various theatrical events are held in the streets and piazzas of the city. This part of the festival is called "Le Strade che Ridono" which means "The Laughing Streets."

One of these performances was a Greek couple with marvelous marionettes.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer Style

Have you seen the new sandal boots that everyone is wearing this year? Well, I think they are rather strange and probably would never have bought myself a pair but for a happy set of circumstances.

I went out for a coffee with a friend at the local mall. After a shot of caffeine and a chat we took a walk around the mall and ended up looking at shoes. I spotted this pair by Dive & Co. for only €42 and was so curious about them that my friend talked me into trying them on. Once they were on my feet, I was sold. They are the most comfortable shoes I have ever had. I don't know how, but they don't rub on any part of my feet, they are fantastic.

Of course, my sons thought it was a riot that I bought shoes when out with my friend Anna Scarpa (scarpa means "shoe" in Italian)...

The next problem was trying to figure out how to wear them. They are kind of tricky because visually they cut off the line of your legs and make them look shorter. One way to go is with skinny jeans, but it is too hot these days to even think about jeans.
What do you think, does the look above work?

Or are they better with a shorter skirt? My husband took this picture and missed the whole idea that the focus of the photo was supposed to be on the shoes...

There you go, now you can see the shoes!

No shoes here, but I wanted to show off another one of my bargain purchases. I found this cute summer dress at H&M for only €10. That was full price, not sale price! If I look a little exhausted in this photo, that's because I was. And hot, too.

My photographer of choice is my 10-year-old son. Not because he has talent or the desire to take pictures of his wacky mamma, but because he is a good kid and will actually do it when I beg him to.

This last photo shows my true nature. Gabri was not into the picture-taking and here I'm saying, "well, are you gonna take the picture or what?!" Bad Mamma!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lean, Mean and Green

Installing the Raid Fly and Ant Death Machine has done wonders for reducing the clouds of annoyance (read flies) that were buzzing through my house, but it has made me wonder about all that Raid being infused into my livingroom every 7 minutes. Just as I was mulling the whole thing over I came across EcoMom Alliance's EcoMom Challenge on the blog Going Green with Noah.

I thought that now, in the midst of my pesticide doubts, would be a good time to see how I'm doing overall on the green front. Why not take the test with me?

1. Flex Your Buying Power.
Make change with your dollars by supporting healthy and sustainable products and
* hmm, I usually just shop at the supermarket. We do not have a natural foods shop in my town. We used to, but it closed. Does it count that I buy gluten and dairy free products?

2. Eat locally Grown Food.
Supporting local farmers is healthier for you, your family, and the local economy. Buying locally produced food reduces or eliminates waste generated by packaging, storage and transportation. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.
* we don't have CSAs here, so that's out. I could buy local food more often. Many people here sell their farm products on the road, or in their homes. It's just a matter of inconvenience for me. The supermarket is closer. Aren't I driving more efficiently this way, though?

3. Drive More Efficiently - or Just Less.
Car pool, don’t idle during drop off/pick up, drive a hybrid, drive less. Driving just 10 miles less per week saves 20 billion pounds of CO2. Less time in the car means more time for something more enjoyable.
* While it's true that I live in the countryside outside of town, I really don't drive that much. I take the train to the city to work and drive no more than an average of 10 kilometers per day around town. Okay, feeling pretty good about this one!

4. Use Non-toxic Products
Protect yourself, your family, and our environment from hazardous chemicals found in common household cleaning and personal care products. The average home contains over150 toxic chemicals that have been linked to increased asthma, allergies, cancers, endocrine and behavioral disorders.
* well, that's a pretty scary list of nasties brought on by chemicals! I have to admit that I use commercial cleansers around the house, but I hardly ever clean...doesn't that count for something? I think the Raid Fly and Ant Death Machine completely puts me out of the acceptable range for this point, however.

5. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (compost).
Cutting down on garbage just 10% can save 1200 pounds of CO2 and save money in waste management fees. Consider the packaging when making a food purchase. Buying in bulk whenever possible will save you money and help reduce waste.
* there are no stores that sell in bulk here, so that's out, but I am the Queen of Recycle and Compost. Look, look, here's the proof:

From left to right: glass, plastic and paper.
Could someone please explain to me, for once and for all, where the Tetrapaks go?

The compost bin, nestled into the shade of an ancient olive tree.

6. Make your home more Energy Efficient.
Maximize energy efficiency with weather stripping, thermostat management and turning lights off.
* check, check and check...I got this list down pat! And, I can top it. We have 26 solar panels installed on the roof of our house to provide for all of our electricity needs. Now, if that's not green, I don't know what is...

7. Re-think your Laundry Plan.
Washing less, using cold water, and line-drying saves you time and energy and saves over 500 pounds of CO2 and over $600 per year.
* washing less?! Maybe once the kids get older...but I do wash in cold usually and I only line dry.

8. Be Water Wise.
Fill your garden with native plants and water mornings or evenings. Fix any leaky faucets. Don’t leave water running when brushing teeth, washing hands or doing dishes.
* only native plants here, check! No leaky faucets, check! The water running issue is a bit tricky, though. We repeat, repeat, repeat this to the kids, but I guess it's a longterm learning process.

9. Plant something.
A tree, a flower, or a garden, all of which absorb CO2 and remind us of the generosity of nature.
* we have planted various bushes around the yard, but not much else.

10. Spend time in nature.
Being outside is good for mental and physical health, and reminds us to protect and
preserve our natural surroundings.
* does going to the beach count?

How do you think I'm doing green-wise? What score would you give me on a scale of 1 to 10? What score would you give yourself?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My New Knick-knack

Isn't it lovely? Isn't it statuesque? It's quite majestic, in my humble opinion. Reminiscent of a totem or a monolith, or one of those Easter Island moai statues.

Doesn't it seem to blend right in with its surroundings? If it weren't for that telltale spritz every 7 minutes and that unusually strong'd never know it was not an objet d'art, but our new Raid Fly and Ant Death Machine.

I know that this is really going to cut into my cred as 007 Mamma, but I'm telling you the flies were getting the upper hand on me. It had got to the point where I was spending over half an hour a day swatting at them. There were literally hundreds!

Gabri even got in on the act one day and swatted a few. Unfortunately, he noticed that after he squished them with the swatter...they actually died. Bad news! He was not ready to handle that reality. I suddenly went from Fly Swatting Superstar to Bad Mamma before you could say "fly me!"

We try to be as green as possible in this household. We recycle everything, we have a compost pile and we even have 26 solar panels on our roof. We do our best to save the world in our own little way. Pesticides were not my first choice. However, I have to admit we are all loving our newly reclaimed fly-free home.

The best part is, I don't know how, but the spray doesn't leave little winged corpses lying around. Thank goodness, I don't think I could take another exclamation of, "they are living creatures too, you know!" or another Gabri-orchestrated fly funeral!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Every Child is Special

This Saturday night there was a primetime, major network broadcast of the Indian film Every Child Is Special (translated as Stelle sulla terra in Italian). It was a very emotional event for our family because it talked about an issue that hits quite close to home: dyslexia.

About three years ago, I realised that my younger son was having serious problems reading and writing. His teachers had always complained about his lack of organization, distracting chattiness, terrible handwriting and what they referred to as laziness. I could tell that Gabri was not very enthusiastic about school, but I didn't really understand what was going on. He seemed to be doing okay, not great, but getting by.

Twice when his teachers had wanted to talk to us about his "behaviour," I asked if they thought it would be a good idea to take him to a specialist. Both times (once when he was in kindergarten and once in the second grade) the reaction of the teachers was of surprise. "No, no, no," they told me, "he just needs to mature." They even said, "Lots of kids are worse off than him." Huh?

One day during the summer between 2nd and 3rd grades I sat down to read with Gabri. I asked him to read to me, too. He could barely read at all. He had to sound words out, and often got them wrong anyway. He confused "la" with "al" and "da" with "ad." Letters like q, p, b, d all looked the same to him. And that's when I was hit by a lightening bolt of realization.

My son was dyslexic.

My first reaction was to be gripped by a sort of panic and despair. In all honesty, I didn't want my precious son to have a "problem." My beautiful, sweet, perfect son! How could he have a "flaw"? And particularly regarding reading? I live to read. It didn't seem fair. But, of course, it's not fair, is it? Nothing is fair when it comes to difficulties of any kind touching our babies.

But in the large scheme of things, there are lots of more difficult crosses to bear. So, my second reaction was to research dyslexia on-line and contact those people locally who could help me figure out what to do next.

Our path through the confused halls of the world of dyslexia in Italy has been difficult and an uphill battle so far. Perhaps I'll write more about specifics in a future post, but let me just say that when they say that Italy lags behind the States in many things they are often right. It takes even longer for certain ideas to work their way into mainstream acceptance in southern Italy. What may be taken for granted in Milan could be alien to Bari.

And dyslexia is one of those areas. Very few teachers and doctors know what it is or how to recognize it. Laws guaranteeing dyslexic students' rights in schools, and even the recognition of their existence, are just starting to make it onto the books. Finding a therapist who actually knows what they are doing is, let's just say, a challenge.

But, the TV show Saturday night was a big step in the right direction. It was the program that got the most share that evening, with over 2 million viewers. I truly hope that it was able to at least start to explain what dyslexia means to a country that has very little familiarity with this learning disability.

And for us, it was an absolutely heart-warming experience to watch the 9-year-old boy in the film go through the same difficulties as Gabri (who is now 10) and come out on top in the end.

If you are interested in more information on dyslexia you can visit the British Dyslexia Association or Dyslexia USA. You can also get more information on Every Child is Special and you can even download a copy of the film.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Think Cool Thoughts

It's been so hot and humid over the past few days, it's really just unbearable. Add that to the fact that I have been been "unwell" for the past two days and stuck in bed...and the mind starts wandering.

First of all, I shouldn't complain about the heat. I love summer. I love the warm sun. I'm what they call in Italian "freddolosa" which means that when everyone else says, "oh what a lovely day" I am piling on the sweaters and complaining about the cold.

But, this excessive heat has got me dreaming about cool autumn days. I think I have chosen my new look for Fall/Winter 2010.


What do you think? Can I pull that off in the classroom at the university this fall?

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Cucumber by Any Other Name...

Another summertime pleasure of mine is the "Scopatizzo Barese" cucumber, native to the area of southern Italy I live in. It's kind of like a cucumber and kind of like a melon. In fact, its scientific name is Cucumis Melo, or cucumber melon. Imagine a cucumber, but slightly sweeter, more compact and crunchier.

It has a furry skin that you can peel off, but many people just wash it to minimize the fuzz and then eat the whole thing. I don't mind eating the skin, but I draw the line at the seeds. There are more of them and they are larger than your average cucumber seed.

Prepare it the same way you would a cucumber. It is so cool and refreshing that I think cooking it would be a pity. My favorite recipe is to simply eliminate the seeds, peel and chop it and serve either alone or with fresh, chopped tomatoes, dressed with a pinch of salt and some extra-virgin olive oil.
The taste of summer!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

High and Dry

Life without a clothes dryer took some getting used to. I hang out 2 or 3 loads of wet laundry on the roof of my house most days. It's an activity I had only heard my mother reminisce about when remembering her childhood in the American countryside of the 1940s.

It can be a hassle in the winter when it's damp and things don't dry for days and days. Or they never dry and eventually start smelling moldy and you have to throw the whole load back into the washing machine and hope for the best.

Or sometimes, I fumble and an article of clothing lands on the inaccessible roof of our garage. The only remedy then is to wait for a strong wind to blow it down to the ground and to pray that I will find it before my adorable dog, Piedina, who just loves to chew on anything and everything.

But in the summer, line drying is wonderful. In about half an hour everything is soft and dry and smells like sunshine and fresh air. It's a scent you can't get from any fabric softener.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

We Aim to Please. You Aim Too, Please

Boys. Aren't they wonderful? I really do think they are. But there are some things you have to remember during your daily life with them.

Like, don't just sit down on the toilet seat in a carefree, light-hearted way. The way you always have done...before having sons. And...keep in mind that being barefoot in the house takes on a whole new risk factor. Particularly in the bathroom.

I get it. I mean, aiming is an issue that we females have never really had to deal with. But, how long does it take to learn how to aim? Apparently, from my firsthand experience as a mother to two sons, it can take years!

So, let's run through the complicated procedure just one more time:

1. raise the toilet seat
2. grab ahold of your equipment and aim for the center of the water
3. do whatever it takes not to drip
4. put the toilet seat back down

If any one of these steps is skipped, performed out of order, or altered in any way, disaster will ensue. Along comes Mamma who immediately either sits on or walks through your puddles. And then Mamma is not happy.

And let me just say . . . it's better for everyone involved if Mamma is happy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Garden Fresh Tomatoes

I have mentioned that I am not a gardener. My mother is a gardener. She can make anything grow. I can make anything wilt.

My husband is not a gardener either, although his mother was another gardener who could make anything grow. She could snap off a small branch of any plant, take it home, stick it into a pot of dirt and it would grow into a beautiful, healthy plant. I think there's magic involved in there somewhere. If I stick a twig into some dirt it just dries up and dies...

So, in short, the green thumb gene seems to have skipped a generation. Only time will tell if our sons have inherited the magic touch.

Nonetheless, every summer we plant a vegetable garden. Not only do we boldly undertake this enterprise knowing full well that we have no talent for it. We also lack a viable water supply at our house.

We live outside of town, amid the olive trees (see blog title) and city water does not reach us. Nor does the sewage system, but perhaps that is best left for another blog post... Anyway, we have a cistern and every so often the big water truck has to come and fill it up with what they call "undrinkable" water, or water "not fit for drinking." Meaning, full of microbes and bacteria and all kinds of who-knows-what nasty stuff. So it's only good for washing the dishes and taking a shower with your mouth tightly closed. We have to buy our drinking water in bottles.

Last year my husband decided that we would drill for a well in the front yard. He hoped to hit an underground vein of fresh water. We found salty water. Each time they drill a hole it costs about €800. So, he decided to drill another hole. Not my idea of a good investment of our meager funds, but by the time I caught wind of hole number 2, it was already happening. Of course, this time we got saltier water. Hmmm...

If you're interested in seeing what an €800 hole in the ground looks like, check out my story about how my son got his foot stuck in it.

The cistern water is limited and expensive so we don't use it for the garden. But we have €1600 of "free" salty water out in the front yard, so that's what we use to irrigate the garden.

This year, who knows why, we only planted tomatoes. They sure are pretty, aren't they? I wonder how much they cost each if you divide €1600 by the number of tomatoes produced per day...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

007 Mamma

It's that time of year again...Fly Season. Every summer it happens. The insect level is manageable, a few flies, a few mosquitos, but nothing worth complaining about.

And then, they arrive. The flies. All together. I don't know how or why it happens, but one morning we go down to breakfast and find that the house has been invaded.

Today was that day. Literally dozens of flies were buzzing around the kitchen and living-room. It's really annoying. I mean, besides the fact that they are dirty, irritating little creatures in general, they vomit every time they land. Yeah, even when they land on the edge of your coffee cup, or alight atop your cornetto. They puke. Not a pretty thought.

I am the official fly exterminator in the family. I don't go for any smelly sprays or sticky traps. I use my trusty fly-swatter to kill 'em one by one. It's like a personal vendetta of mine. I don't like those flies and I'm going to see to it personally that they don't bother me or anyone in my house.

I'm also very accurate with the swatter. It's rare that I miss once I've chosen my prey. There's an art to it. The fly has to be on something, you'll never get it while it's flying through the air. It's best if it's perched on a flat, hard, light-colored surface. You must approach the victim with your swatter already raised and ready...any movement will alert the fly to your presence and it will buzz off somewhere else. Your swatting technique must be fast and decisive. The slightest hesitation on your part will give the little pest time to figure out what's about to hit him, and fly away.

These are just a few of the flies I axed this morning.

My sons are in awe of my fly-killing skills. They call me "007 Mamma" - you know, licensed to kill. Hey, we all have special talents...