Saturday, 3 July 2010

Un pranzo in famiglia

Today I had the most wonderful experience of Italian family life. I spent the morning working in the B&B and Gavina kindly invited me to join them all for lunch. I was ecstatic! I felt so welcomed and so spoiled! They made me a traditional pasta dish with local pecorino cheese; pane fratau, which is a local dish where they soak the flat bread I've talked so much about in boiling water, cover it in tomato sauce and pecorino cheese, and you roll it into what Antonio described as the shape of a joint(!); then a cassole, a form of bruschetta topped with egg, tomatoes, onion and basil; fruit salad, coffee, wine and lastly a taste of Gavina's famous blueberry liqueur.

Among the many stories exchanged, Antonio told me about a group of rowdy Australian tourists who had stayed in the B&B a few years ago. They totally took over the place, left their things everywhere, drank a ton and generally made a huge racket. Antonio's solution was to offer them a taste of Gavina's liqueur. He offered them three (small) glasses of the stuff, in fact. Soon silence descended, as the entire group passed out! I thought this was ingenious! He offered me a second glass with a smile, which I naturally declined!

I also met "nonna", the kind and warm little grandmother who speaks little Italian. She understood me, for the most part, but Francesca had to translate many things into Sardinian for her. She found me fascinating, as I did her(!) and as she left for her afternoon nap, she told me quite fervently, that a beautiful girl like me simply had to come back to Nuoro soon! After that feast, I am certainly tempted!

Friday, 2 July 2010

Yesterday I felt alone here for the first time. I was suddenly hit with a real need for proper conversation and company. And in spite of my wonderful pizza and hilariously funny book, there was nothing about my evening that could cheer me up.

Today could not have been more different. I went into the library quite early so as to get my reading sorted for the weekend and was soon interrupted by the head librarian, who once again came to shake my hand and ask me how my work was going. He asked, with my permission, if I could please follow him because the president of the Istituto Etnografico wanted to introduce himself to me! Baffled, I followed him upstairs and was led into a large conference room. The president asked me a few questions about my work, told me that he was very honoured to have me there and that the city of Nuoro should be told that I am studying Grazia Deledda at Oxford! I am to go for coffee with them on Monday morning, when they will give me a momento of my days spent here in Nuoro.

Totally astonished, I was unable to concentrate on my work any more (ironic as that may be) and so I packed up my things and headed out in search of the bus station to gather timetables. Two things I have learned from this experience: never walk anywhere in Sardinia in the middle of the day, and never gamble when it comes to pizza! My trip to the station and back took over an hour. When I arrived there, naturally they had no printed timetables because they'd just changed them for the summer (thank you Italy!) and so I copied down every possible combination of journeys to be taken over the next few days. I had spotted a pizzeria on my way down where I intended to pick up lunch on my way back and so thought nothing of passing the 15 bars which appeared on my way. Upon arriving at said pizzeria, exhausted and starving, I discovered that they only served it by the slice at night time.. i.e. when people are hungriest and need an entire pizza. Sensible that. I then took about 17 different turnings through various criss-crossings of side streets in desperate search of pizza, only to find success... back at the library. You wouldn't have thought that pizza would be that difficult to find in Italy...

This afternoon I braved the mountain roads leading to the peak of Monte Ortobene. The views are breathtaking. There is no adequate way to describe this beautiful rocky landscape backed by mountainous scenes which stretch on into the distance. Deledda tried in many of her novels, but only today did I really understand. The walk I took there truly filled my soul up again.

The day was completely capped off with the most amazing dinner. On the way down the mountain, as I was the only passenger I got chatting to the bus driver and asked for a recommendation of somewhere to eat. I swear that he took the bus on a different route, which led through narrow streets not designed for a bus that size, just to show me to his favourite restaurant! It turns out, I've been eating lunch here all week! The antipasti of sundried tomatoes, pickled mushrooms and onions, olives, mixed meats and sheep's cheese ricotta were possibly the best I have ever had. Tonight I will dream of Sardinian cheese, in the best possible sense of course.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Lightning doesn't strike twice

I worked very hard today. I mean really hard. Like, I arrived in the library at 9.30, stayed until they kicked me out for lunch at 1, went back an hour earlier than they actually reopen for the afternoon (they let me in early) and left when they kicked me out at 6. And even then I brought the book home with me I was reading because I was damned determined to finish it with just 12 pages to go! I had earned myself a treat, no? Especially since my lunch consisted of a pretty rubbish sandwich, albeit eaten on a pretty little piazza I found near the centre of town.

Oh, and I should add, that the weather broke, or rather, it fragmented into a million tiny little pieces. I had planned to go to visit the church where Deledda is buried before going back to the library until I heard what I initially believed to be bin men. Oh no, no! That inredible rumbling sound was in fact thunder, rolling all around the hills of Nuoro. To be honest, I found it all quite exciting! Every clap got louder and louder, and this continued throughout the afternoon, climaxing at a point where we lost power in the library, and I'll admit it, I freaked out a little bit at that point! But everything was fine.

So when I hit 7pm this evening and (carefully) tossed the (fragile) library book to one side, I decided to treat myself to another lovely dinner out with a glass of wine and my book. The problem is, I soon discovered that most restaurants here don't appear to open until 8.30... So I wandered around for a while and finally stumbled across a pleasant looking, inexpensive trattoria. Now, thus far I've quite enjoyed the time spent by myself. I haven't felt awkward and actually relished the opporunity to people watch. The problem this evening was, there was noone to watch. I mean not a soul. The man who greeted me was the doorman, waiter and chef!

I walked in to find an enormous spread of food on a large table, which I assumed was for a reservation. He offered this to me as a starter! Thrown, I just asked if I could have a main course. He seemed offended. Once again, I was offered no menu, but was somehow expected to have memorised what was written outside! So I ordered pork, roast potatoes and a glass of red wine. I settled down to my book and waited with great anticipation (my experiences of this combination of food in Italy in the past have been nothing short of amazing!). He brought me a mini jug of wine, an enormous fried pork chop and the saddest looking roast potatoes I have ever seen. Disappointed does not cover it. To give those of you who know me an idea of how terrible this meal was, I ate the raw tomatoes in the plate, with enthusiasm! The only saving grace of the meal was the bread. Traditional Sardinian bread is flat and thing, much like a papadum. Imagine the best parts of a crisp and a very good naan. That's what I ate this evening. That's pretty much all I ate this evening..

I thought it couldn't get any worse, but then a family arrived at the door, greeted me with an awkward "Buonasera" and proceeded to stare at me awkwardly. I have since deduced that they thought me to be a member of staff eating dinner on my break! They were seated and treated with the same coldness as I was by the manager/waiter/cook man, perhaps because they too turned their noses up at the endless array of antipasti. They then continued to sit, in silence. This was very difficult for me because I was trying not to laugh out loud at my book, a challenge rendered more difficult by the fact that I had drunk all of my wine and eaten very little of my food... I finished as quickly as possible and hurried out to the square.

There was only one thing that could fix this... coconut gelato. I'm sorry to all of you who are fans of American ice cream, or French ice cream or whatever other kind of iced goodness is made in this world, but they cannot make this flavour anywhere as well as they make it here (with the exception of mainland Italy, of course). So the day wasn't a total disaster. But tomorrow, I'm ordering pizza!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The call is coming from inside the museum

Every day should start with cake and cappuccino. I was ready for anything the day had to throw at me after a start like that. A fact which would soon be put to the test. I was also hugely encouraged by my ability to speak Italian early in the morning. As I poked my head out from my bedroom door this morning and hear the cackling upstairs at the breakfast table, I had a flashback to days in Bologna where I was terrified to set foot in the canteen for the first month I lived there for fear of having to converse in another language when my brain wasn't powered up yet! Of course in Bologna, this proved to be no problem, because the other students were completely incapable of conversation themselves until they had had their third espresso. This morning, however, I was the last to surface, the last to gain functionality and so was very pleasantly surprised by my ability to introduce myself to three energetic Italian girls on their way out for the day!

Nuoro can only be described as a labyrinth. I have quickly shed any fear of asking directions because without them, I wouldn't have the first clue where I was going. In fact, I still don't know even when I ask, because every response includes a long list of instructions, half of which I have forgotten by the time they have finished. Somehow I managed to make my way to the Museo Deleddiano, a museum dedicated entirely to my author. The museum is built around the house where Deledda was born and grew up, and believe me when I say it hasn't changed a bit. I couldn't even distinguish the building from the houses which surround it, and walked right passed it twice!

I had the place to myself and was happily wandering around when a security guard approached me and asked if I was perchance called 'Rhianedd'. Taken aback, naturally I confirmed this and was then told that I had a phonecall. Imagine my confusion. No one had any idea that I was at this museum, in the middle of nowhere, in Nuoro... It turns out that the head of the library which holds my author's manuscripts had been expecting me this morning (we had exchanged a few emails though had confirmed nothing of the sort) and so had guessed that I might be at the museum! Strangest phone experience of my life to date!

So, after a lunch of sardine pasta (yes, I had sardines in Sardinia!) I spent the afternoon getting lost some more and leafing through manuscripts in the library. Let me tell you, turning through the 350 pages of a novel with latex gloves for an hour, only to find nothing is useful is one of the most boring and frustrating afternoons you can spend. At least the other one was useful!

I finished the day off with my very first steak bleu and a glass of red wine, sitting on a piazza reading some more of my book and chatting to the comical waiter about why on earth I'd chosen to go to Nuoro by myself for 10 days. Personally, I think an evening like this provides a perfectly good reason!

Day 2 (28.6.2010.) - Touring Cagliari and travelling to Nuoro

I slept beautifully last night, and woke up minutes before my alarm. I love it when that happens. It feels like I cheated the world somehow and did things on my terms! I had an early start because I wanted to absorb as much of Cagliari as I physically could before catching the bus the Nuoro in the afternoon, but since I was by myself I leisurely devoured (can you devour something leisurely?) my breakfast and had my first cappuccino of this trip (bliss!) before setting out.
I ambled through what felt like the back streets of the city, which formed a maze leading up a hill from the coast to the historic centre of the city, Castello. Despite carrying my trusty guidebook, I stopped to ask directions, a feat which was so successful and, actually, pleasing given the response, that I couldn’t be stopped from repeating this all day! Maybe I just wanted an excuse to open my mouth though, because most of the time, I was pretty sure of where I was going!

I climbed the majestic steps of the Bastione San Remy which provides the most picturesque entrance to the Castello quarter. The panoramic views from the top were well worth the steep climb up in the heat. I asked a nice Northern Irish couple to take my picture and then continued to wander up another steep climb which led me passed most of the important features of this area, including the cathedral and the palazzo viceregio. Having left said palazzo, I was stopped by a gentleman who was looking for a pharmacy. I apologised and explained that I wasn’t a local, and my initial excitement at his surprise soon died as he began to spout at me about his online poetry which focuses on the necessity of woman in all existence. Even mother earth is female you know. I edged slowly away...
I reached the top of the Castello quarter, climbed down around the Roman Amphitheatre and sat for a while in the shade of the Botanical wood which had a beautiful collection of trees and cacti. I was thrilled to find a typical place selling slices of pizza, and practically skipped my way to the Torre dell’Elifante, the tallest tower which still remains from the original Pisan construction built to defend Cagliari in the 15thC? I have always climbed every tower and cathedral that it has been possible to climb in Italy, and despite the temperature, this would be no exception. I slowly clambered up the stairs which were much sturdier than many I have climbed, and took in the beautiful vistas at the top, also managing to get some photos with the help of a generous young father in exchange for my own photographic skills.
I rounded things off with a stroll along the coast before making my way to the bus station, newly armed with my monster of a suitcase. All was going well. My only hiccough was my first incident with accent difficulty in the station, when a cleaner kindly unlocked the toilets for me, mumbled some totally incomprehensible phrase at me, which I only later realised was referring to a lack of toilet paper. Typical!
The bus journey was unexpectedly comfortable: air-conditioned and smooth enough for me to fall asleep! As I descended in Nuoro, I wrongly addressed a random woman as Gavina and then saw my actual hostess of sorts running towards me enthusiastically. She and her husband, Antonio, bought me a juice at the bar and then brought me home to the gorgeous bed and breakfast where I will be staying. They overwhelmed me with facilities, features and kindnesses. Gavina had even contacted the library to ensure I would have access to Deledda’s work!

Having everything I could possibly need at my fingertips, I felt too lazy from my long day to face any more wandering. Instead, I faced an ancient fear from my year abroad: ordering a pizza over the phone! I have never, ever managed to order a pizza, even though we ate pizza every single Sunday. I hate talking on the phone at the best of times, let alone in another language! I took the plunge, made the call, and was feeling ever so pleased with my success.... until the guy asked if I was foreign. I confirmed, disheartened, then realised he was just checking since my phone number was British! He clearly wasn’t prepared to deliver that far afield!

Day 1 (27.6.2010) – Arrival in Cagliari

And so my adventures of solo travelling begin. I have arrived in Cagliari, where I will have less than 24 hours to act like a tourist on speed and see all of the important and beautiful things this city has to offer. Luckily, most of them are a stone throw from my hotel so I should manage to get a fair amount done tomorrow.

With the help of my beloved Sardinian guidebook, and my clearly infallible organisation (speaking too soon, methinks so!) I got from A (the airport) to B (my basic hotel – see what I did there?) with next to no hassle. I found a bus that dropped me at the central bus station, right on the coast and right next to my bed for the night. I quickly went to purchase my ticket for Nuoro tomorrow and attempted to consult a timetable for said journey (there was none!) and so opted instead to chat with a pleasant looking bus driver (as pleasant as bus drivers can look, anyway!). He seemed somewhat puzzled that a twenty-something girl of clearly non-Italian origin was quizzing him, in Italian, about bus timetables. I obviously don’t stick out at all!

Having dumped my obnoxiously heavy bags (I am never travelling with my laptop again! Or yes, I will invest in a MAC. There, I said it!), I wandered along the nearest street which boasted some of the most popular restaurants in the city. I was tempted by the guidebook’s recommendation of a place where “booking is essential” and wondered if I could prove myself to be the exception to the rule. I did, but with a certain amount of confusion. The buzz of young, Italian waiters who initially seemed to keen to seat me, were suddenly overwhelmed with the mathematical problem of fitting one little Celtic girl into a room of matrimonial-length tables which had all been reserved. It turns out the guidebook was right: this place was popular! They finally squeezed me into a corner tucked behind a fridge (!), though this required moving a family mid-meal who thankfully didn’t seem to mind. At this point I was happy to be hidden from the room, feeling self-conscious enough about eating by myself given the attention that had just been drawn to me.

What followed was the most quintessentially Italian experience of eating. They brought me no menu. Instead, I was asked what I would like to drink, twice, since two different waiters appeared one after the other. Only slightly thrown, I suddenly had a wave of inspiration as I remembered that they make my favourite kind of wine in Saridinia: Vermentino. Frankly, a glass of that was all I needed. I could have eaten the tablecloth as an accompaniment and been happy. Cute Waiter Number One then suggested that I begin with the “antipasti misti del mare”. Again, I was not expecting to be told what to eat, but since I had vowed to try traditional things here (except the maggot cheese of course!) I just mentioned my nut allergy and gladly awaited my first taste of Sardinian seafood.

I was brought six plates of food. That’s right: six. And bread. At first glance this was the strangest mishmash of things they could have cobbled together, but I soon realised that EVERY table in my vicinity had the same combination of platters before them. So I thought, it must be good. There were two kinds of squid, one simply marinated in oil and another cooked in wine of sorts (I asked Cute Waiter Number two and he had no idea what was in it. So helpful.), chicken, (I don’t know anything else about what was in that chicken), a salad of tuna, onion and tomatoes which I wanted to toss when I first saw it and then voraciously devoured in its entirety once savoured, deep fried “little fish”, (again, I have no idea what kind of fish), and lastly, the best mussels I have ever, ever had.

I slowly relished as much of this seabed feast as I could manage, all the while sipping on my beautiful Vermentino and delving into the first pages of Eat, Pray, Love. I adore the book, thank Amelia whole-heartedly for the recommendation, and realised that I was laughing out-loud at it in the restaurant. At that same moment I looked around and noticed that I was surrounded by couples. I had a quick pang of “I wish I had someone else here with me” but then realised that they were all sitting in silence, and that I in fact kept receiving envious glances from the girls who seemed rather frustrated with their company. It seems that my novel would have been a happy substitute for any of their partners this evening.

The antipasti proved to be so sumptuous that I couldn’t face another course, which made me quite sad since I had fancied pasta, but too satisfied to voice any such complaint. The icing on the cake came as they’d forgotten to charge me for my wine, a fact which I corrected and Cute Waiter Number One dismissed out of hand with a casual “Non fa niente” and the usually charming Italian wink. I couldn’t have imagined a better start to dining solo in Italy!

The adventure begins..

Ciao tutti!

In spite of living in three different foreign countries (Italy, France, Belgium) I have never actually travelled abroad by myself, in the real sense. So when the opportunity to go to Sardinia to research my author (Grazia Deledda), me being me, I ducked and hid until the idea blew over. The thing is, it didn't. And after much enthusiastic encouragement (read: bullying) I gave in, and here I am!

I started writing about my adventures before deciding to start blogging them, so you'll have a few posts in quick succession and then fairly regular updates on my solitary stay on the island.