Photo credit: https://www.lifeinitaly.com/tourism/veneto/asolo

In the kitchen with Saverio

Jill Kimball

The recipe seems straightforward: dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella, whatever else one desires. Stretch out the dough, pile it all on, stick it in the oven. Simple, right?

Not according to Gemmato Saverio, the owner of Pizzeria Cornaro in upscale Asolo. And he’s the ultimate authority: he’s from Southern Italy, the home of the pizza. Creating a decked-out flatbread that deserves the name “pizza” is an art form, like professional Riverdance or singing a Rossini aria. Making a real pizza, Saverio-style, requires an up-to-date weather forecast, a brick oven and toned wrist muscles.

I had only one of these things at my disposal—the brick oven—for my brief foray into the pizza-making world on this warm night in mid-October in Saverio’s cramped downstairs kitchen, but the chef didn’t seem to mind. He had the weather forecast at the ready, and he’d already made a dozen little mounds of dough that corresponded perfectly with the temperature outside. Our travel writing class, the professors and their families all awaited the opportunity to impress Saverio with our cooking skills.

“The main ingredients are the dough and the water, because the amounts change depending on the weather,” Marta translated to us Americans as Saverio spoke lightning-fast Italian. “If it’s cold, use more dough and hot water; if it’s hot, use less dough and cold water.”So it’s not just an art, I thought; it’s also a science. And as I held the little 200-gram ball of grain-flecked white dough in my hand, I understood why. Because Saverio had combined just the right amount of water with flour and yeast and salt, it was soft to the touch, yet so elastic that only an Exacto Knife could break through. Yikes. I wondered how long it would take to digest when it came out of the oven and into my mouth.

I was slightly intimidated when I saw Saverio flatten the pizza dough against the marble kitchen countertop. His hands moved at top speed, so fast that you could actually hear them swooshing in the air in time with the gentle swish-swish of the dough turning clockwise against the marble. Flattening “takes only 10 to 12 seconds per pizza,” he told us.

But it took me at least five minutes, what with all the giggling and the preventing the dough from sliding to the floor and the clumsy flattening of the uneven sections. Saverio shouted out one-word Italian phrases at random, apparently assuming we would understand and improve our technique if we listened. “Aspetta…più veloce…bravissima!” I frowned, but said “grazie (thank you)” and hoped it was the correct reply.In several metal compartments above the counter are all the pizza toppings a girl could want: marinara, mozzarella, tomato, onion, mushroom, artichoke and zucchini. I threw them all on, taking care to skimp on the mozzarella after Saverio tells us that “the pizza doesn’t cook right if there’s too much cheese.” But then he sees how little I’ve spread on the pizza and asks, “Un po’ più? (A little more?)” I nod, and he scoops up twice the cheese pieces I’d put on the pizza in the first place. In Italy, “a little” means “a lot”.

Saverio shoos us away from his kitchen when it’s time to shovel the pizzas into the oven, and he brandishes a terrifying six-foot-long metal wand to carefully deposit the pies deep within the bowels of the brick oven, where there’s a large, ash-laden fire waiting to warm them.

When I sit down at an upstairs table to enjoy the result of my hard work exactly seven minutes later, I marvel not at the art and science of pizza making, but with the unusually close contact an Italian chef has with the food when creating the perfect pizza. Usually there are knives, rolling pins or electric mixers between a cook and his food; with pizza, there is no barrier. The whole process, then, is less mechanical and more personal. But when Saverio smooshes his hands into the dough, when he pulls at it on the countertop, when he digs into all his bowls and metal compartments for the toppings, describing the science of proportion and the art of combinations, he neglects to mention the most important ingredient in his pizzas: love.

A taste of home in Padova

It had been quite a confusing day, first with the difficulty of orienting ourselves in Trieste long enough to catch some of the sights before afternoon, when we stumbled through the town in search of the train station, where we’d catch a regional train to Padova. Our confusion was only temporarily abated on the short hour-and-a-half train ride between the two cities; at the Padova station, it all started again. We were to catch bus number 19. I couldn’t remember how to say “nineteen” in Italian. Lynn and Mark couldn’t find the bus stop. If we ever got on the bus, we realized we wouldn’t be able to find the “big blue bridge”, our cue to request a stop, in the dark of the night.

A half hour later, we stumbled down a quiet alleyway a mile outside the city center, with very little streetlamp light to guide the way, to our bed and breakfast. An Italian couple greeted us at the door in broken English, and I greeted them back in the best Italian I could muster in my exhausted state. Ten confusing and not entirely grammatically correct minutes later, we had our room keys and directions to two of the nearest restaurants: a traditional pizzeria and Le Chevalier, an Irish pub that also served Italian food and cheeseburgers.

Somehow the idea of a French restaurant with an Irish theme serving Italian and American food didn’t seem appetizing, so we opted for the more predictable option. Though it was 9 p.m., a fairly typical time for Italians to eat dinner, the pizzeria was almost deserted; as we ate our pizzas and sipped on our two-euro water, we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk above a whisper for fear of disturbing the two other couples quietly eating near us. I glanced wildly around for something that might inspire a conversation topic, but only one sentence came to mind: “This is good pizza.” Lynn and Mark nodded. That was the end of the conversation.

The next day was a whirlwind of churches, outdoor shopping, public transportation and frescoes; it was a day in which we explored all that was unfamiliar to us. We returned to the bed and breakfast with the collective desire for a louder, less strained dinner than last night. We were wary to try the pub in all its cross-cultural oddities, but we were so hungry that we went anyway.

We were greeted warmly by a twentysomething Italian woman in Chanel glasses who was pouring beer from the tap into four two-liter containers. It was fairly early for Italians to be eating dinner, but at least half the wooden tables and benches were filled to capacity with young people. We took seats at a table and gazed at the menu: Cheeseburgers! French fries! Fried mozzarella! Chicken Caesar salad! Fruit bowls! On television: American pop stars! Was this home?

No, but it was a taste of home. I realized that this weekend, and this entire semester, I thought I’d completely immerse myself into the unfamiliarity of Italian culture as entirely as possible. I wanted something new, something un-American—and I got it. But even though I was willing to throw myself completely to the mercy of foreign people, places, and things, I needed that little bit of familiarity to get myself through the day.

“Meet me at the bell tower!”

This weekend was blissfully uneventful. I made my way through an entire P.D. James novel, borrowed from the tiny CIMBA library, in two days. I also picked up Paul Theroux’s “Chicago Loop” and an Elizabeth George mystery, though I doubt I’ll have any more time to read for pleasure again before the travel week, when I’ll have time to fill on plane trips and train rides.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

The only breaks I had from solitary, transfixed reading were during meals in the cafeteria–in which there were only six of us, because the vast majority of people had headed to Cinque Terre and Oktoberfest or were participating in a leadership program on campus–and last night, when we hired Fabio, a local cab driver, to take all of us to Bassano del Grappa.

We were surprised at the size of Bassano. It was a legitimate city, the same population as the city of Santa Cruz packed into a smaller geographical area. And it was Saturday night, so everyone was out on the town.

We went to Bassano specifically to meet up with Jake, a resident intern and fellow student who’d spent a day in Venice. When the cab dropped us off at what seemed to be the main traffic artery, we called Jake and he told us to “meet me at the bell tower.” We rolled our eyes. Between Paderno and Crespano del Grappa, which had a combined population of 6,000, there were four bell towers. Imagine how many there were in this comparative metropolis.

(Source)

But somehow we found our way into the city center, where there was a strange and noisy car show going on and where hundreds of Italians had converged. We stayed there for a while, but wandered back to the main artery and at the end of the night found ourselves at a hip new-agey bar that served drinks in all the colors of the rainbow and was decorated with neon signs that read edgy phrases like “a new way of thinking”–in English.

The bathroom was the only distinctively European feature of the place. The plumbing was complicated and quirky enough that I had to step on a pedal on the ground to wash my hands at the sink.

But I can’t forget the funniest part of the night: the city’s tiny amusement park, right down a few flights of steps from the historic center. All the familiar rides were there: the Pirate Ship, the chairs suspended from chains that swung out when they spun in a circle, the contraption in which people stand inside a circle, strap themselves in, and spin around and around. But the rides all seemed to lack the safety features we Americans have come to expect at our amusement parks. The Pirate Ship, at each end, had cages in which Italian teenagers could stand instead of sitting in the benches–except there was no safety equipment that strapped them in; they simply had to cling onto the bars of the cage for dear life. The spinning ride had no safety features at all–just benches where the kids sat (and fell) as they spun–and, even more alarming, two teenage girls stood in the very middle of the circle as it spun, stumbling to keep their balance.

There was also a crude soccer game set up in which, if you kicked the ball into the right net, you could win a variety of prizes: a jersey from your favorite team, a team scarf, a $10 phone card and, perhaps most disconcerting, a bottle of Spumante wine. (I should mention that all the boys playing this game looked somehwere between the ages of 12 and 15.) Jake hit the ball right into the center and the man gave him his prize: the Spumante. We all laughed.

Guys’ night out

Source

Fabio drives his taxi-van like a high-powered Silicon Valley software executive might drive his Ferrari. Even when navigating around the sharpest of hairpin turns, the speedometer doesn’t dip below 110 kilometers an hour. All the while his favorite Italian radio station blasts its ballads and American pop tunes, and over the din it’s hardly possible to hold an ordinary conversation.

But we try. “THIS IS WHERE I ATE DINNER WITH MY ADVISORY GROUP,” I shouted to crazy-eyes Mike as we drove through the outskirts of Bassano del Grappa and passed El Rancho, a lively and brightly-colored Mexican-Italian restaurant. “WHAT?” Mike said. I shook my head as if to say, “It’s no use,” and he once again fixed his eyes on the road nervously.

The group of us—five boys, one girl—was glad to be out of the van when we arrived at the traffic-laden center of Bassano, not only because we’d feared for our lives the whole ride but also because we’d clearly left the provinciality of Paderno del Grappa, population 2,002, far behind in just a 15-minute car drive. Just seeing the hordes of glamorous Italian sidewalk wanderers and the handfuls of Smart ForTwo cars hurtling at top speed through roundabouts and thoroughfares was alone worth the five euro price.

Source

Our first stop was Bassano’s historic center, just a few narrow and crooked blocks off the modern artery from which we had come. Right at the base of the huge, centuries-old white cathedral was a car show of souped-up Honda Civics revving their engines and backfiring with a loud CRACK every few yards. The main attraction, though, seemed to be a bar on the square where at least a hundred Italians in pressed Lacoste polo shirts and mile-high suede boots gathered at outdoor tables. The bar itself was smaller than my prison-cell college dorm, and once I was in the door, someone smashed me into the bar and within two feet of the bartender’s face. “Tre spritz!” I managed to yell before I was swallowed in a sea of leather jackets.

We took our time enjoying the drinks—we’d earned them—but noticed something peculiar almost right away. “Has anyone else wondered why there are so many men here?” Mark asked. Indeed, at least three-quarters of the crowd gathered around the closet-sized bar was made up of sweater-vested men in black frame glasses and carefully gelled dark hair. Within seconds of Jake’s murmur of the words “gay bar,” the historic center’s heterosexual American contingent was gone and never to be seen at that bar again.

Photo by Jill Kimball

…But I’m not a business major!

Our second week at the Istituto Filippin has been as crammed with business-related leadership seminars as it was last week. On Tuesday we had to sit through a “basic beliefs” seminar in which we determined what was most important to us–learning, love, spirituality, what have you–and how that tied into the decisions we’ve made in our lives. It encouraged us to use our core values to solve tough problems. One question the lecturer fired at us: would you rather be a hangman, someone who electrocutes convicts on death row, or a member of a firing squad? My answer: no.

The most painful seminar, though, was Wednesday’s lecture on strengths. We were told we’d be more successful in business if, instead of focusing our energy on improving weaknesses, we put most of our efforts into honing our strengths. It was all going well until the lecturer split us into groups, gave us a tricky business scenario, and asked us to figure out how we would handle it based on our greatest strengths. When one of the groups went to the front of the class and gave their presentation, the lecturer paused and said, in the most condescending way possible, “Sorry, my bullsh** detector’s going off.” We all looked at each other, horrified.

Luckily the day got better from there. The entire American population turned up for the CIMBA vs. Istituto (us vs. the Italian high schoolers) soccer game on what we call the Jesus field. Needless to say, we got stomped; the ending score was something like 9-0. The fans in the stands, however, stayed enthusiastic to the end.

Photo by Jill Kimball

The “Jesus field.”

That night, I also experienced my first Italian language-barrier problem since arriving. We were at a cafe, and I thought I’d order a “sorbetto”, a lemon drink I remembered one of my teachers recommending to the class. I went up to the woman at the bar and asked, in my best accent, for the drink. She threw her head back and laughed, and I was confused. She explained to me, first in Italian and then in English when I began to look confused, that “sorbetto” wasn’t considered a cocktail drink; it was a palette cleanser that Italians drank between meals. Oops!

I got another chance at Italian on an impromptu afternoon walk to nearby Crespano del Grappa. After we saw some of the sights in the tiny town, we stopped by a gelateria to finally get some Italian gelato–and I totally blanked on all the Italian words I knew that related to ice cream. After I ashamedly ordered two scoops of Nutella and Wafer-flavored goodness in English, I realized all the vocabulary I needed was written down on a menu two feet from the counter. D’oh!

Photo by Jill Kimball Photo by Jill Kimball
Everyone’s looking forward to the weekend, when we can escape tiny Paderno and finally start to see the world beyond. Almost the entire student body is heading to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. We had initially thought of going there, but we didn’t want to get to the Trieste train station and find out the train ticket would cost us upwards of $100 each–and now we’re glad we didn’t go, because all the trains are full and the entire hostel will be flooded with crazy Americans! We’ll hold onto our B&B reservations in Padova, thanks very much!

Read next: Adventures in Padova, Trieste and Venice

Photo by Jill Kimball

The Foreignness of Home

“I think about four or five.”

Never had one sentence, especially one said so off-handedly, made me want to scream in agony and burst out laughing simultaneously.

I thought this whole day—which included a weepy goodbye to my parents, two international flights totaling 13 hours, and luggage-hauling at the Venice airport and train station in 80-degree weather—had toyed with my emotions enough. I thought once we got on the train bound for our ultimate destination, I might feel some relief. I was wrong.

Waiting for a train at Bassano del Grappa Italy

According to Mandy, the resident intern who guided our group of eight to our train in Venice and filled us in on the specifics of our study abroad program, “about four or five” was the number of journalism students enrolled; business majors outnumbered us at least 20 to one. Was this statistic frustrating? Disappointing? Humorously endearing? My mind wasn’t sure; it was 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time and I hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep for 24 hours.

On the one hand, I thought, the notion of spending three months with close to a hundred people whose class titles I did not understand sounded horrendous. On the other, suggested the glass-half-full voice in the back of my mind, being in the minority would give me a chance to learn more about the kind of students I never befriended back in the United States.

Almost all of my travel companions, who I’d met on the flight from Frankfurt to Venice, were from the Midwest. They studied finance, accounting and strategic communication, three subjects I couldn’t define. Their conversations seemed to revolve around chain steakhouses I’d never heard of, closets full of shoes I couldn’t afford, and social and political commentary I didn’t agree with. What was I, a vegetarian left-winger who didn’t even own a decent pair of pumps, to do?

I sat in silence for most of the hour-long trip to Bassano del Grappa. I didn’t have much to say about steak. Instead, I thought about the Italians I’d encountered so far. I overheard a young woman riding the bus to the train station talking to a friend on her cell phone. “I’m on the way to the train station, but I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s have dinner. OK. Ciao Ciao.” The man at the train station’s ticket counter asked me how I was, and when I said, “Bene, fa bel tempo (I’m doing well; the weather is nice),” he smiled and nodded. And when the old man with the cane spotted an old friend in the same train car, he slapped his pal jovially on the back the same way any American man would.

They spoke a different language and a few of the illustrations on their road signs confused me, but I felt very few barriers between these foreigners and myself. Their conversation topics were familiar; their mannerisms were surprisingly similar to my own.

As I sat pondering my odd familiarity with foreigners, I could not have felt further away from the Americans in the seats across from me. I suddenly understood just how much studying abroad demands exploration outside one’s comfort zone. Before, I considered the U.S. to be my official comfort zone. But on my first day in Italy, I learned more about my homeland than I did about the Veneto.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Talk of travels and rain

Each day here is a new adventure, even if we’re on campus and in classes all day. Granted, we’ve only been here for five days–but I get the feeling that the real reason we haven’t yet established a sense of routine is our crazy orientation schedule, which has us clambering over 15-foot walls one day and solving the case of the “red sweat” the next.

Photo by Jill Kimball
CIMBA’s orientation process stresses leadership above all else, which is appropriate for a school mostly made up of business students. Many of the activities we do don’t apply to my chosen profession–whenever we practice problem-solving techniques in small groups, the activity leaders ask us how we’ll put it to better use “in the business world”–but I try to look at the activities as a good way to practice leadership and problem-solving skills even I will use in the workplace at some point.

Yesterday’s activities were slightly less physically demanding than those on Wednesday. We sat through a seminar that ran all morning and most of the afternoon, learning how to weigh options first in a general context (deciding where to go during the travel week) and then in a business context (take into consideration cost, others’ preferences and who will be affected to make the best decision for the corporation). I was a little frustrated that I had to spend a whole day learning things I’d never need to know as a reporter. The best thing I took from the day was a packet about cool destinations in Ljubljana, Cinque Terre and Florence, which we had used for the first workshop.

Today was slightly more illuminating and useful. The problem-solving seminar continued until roughly lunch, then in the afternoon we had a travel seminar that gave us some useful tips on safety, tickets and airlines and an interesting lecture on cultural differences between countries. Italy apparently boasts the highest car-per-capita and cell phone-per-capita numbers in the world, and predictably enough, the highest wine and pasta intake as well. I was surprised to learn, though, that a cup of American coffee is five times as charged with caffeine as one Italian espresso. No wonder I’ve been so tired!

Some of the classes and seminars are really interesting so far, but as of now, I’ve had the most fun meeting new people. There are so many different people from different places that it’s interesting to hear their perspectives–and their funny accents! I’ve never met so many people who say “y’all” in normal conversation.


Since this weekend was half-dashed by Saturday classes, I haven’t planned any sort of grand trip. I know a lot of people had planned to hike on Mt. Grappa tomorrow morning, and I wanted to go with someone on a day trip to Venice just to get a feel for the city, but I think neither of those things will be possible due to the rain and thunderstorms that so suddenly started yesterday afternoon. Three of us may make a short trip to Asolo, which is a short way down the road from here and is supposed to be a beautiful little town.

Next Friday many of us are going on a CIMBA-organized trip to Trieste, the Austro-Italian city right on the border next to Slovenia, and a lot of people are planning to make the most out of it by catching a train to Ljubljana and staying there over the weekend. My fellow travelers and I were wary to do the same, though, because train ticket prices are not posted online and are supposedly very expensive. Instead, we booked rooms in a bed-and-breakfast a few minutes outside the city center of Padova, where we plan to stay for the night and the entirety of Saturday before we head north again for a day trip in Venice. It’ll be a good warm-up for what I’m sure will be a hectic first travel week. Right now, it’s looking like I may go to Spain and possibly Paris.

READ NEXT: Watching soccer and exploring the Veneto

Photo by Jill Kimball

First post!

My overseas flight was four days ago, but I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that I’m in Italy. The evidence is all around me–beautiful landscapes, little yellow-, orange- and whitewashed houses, scary drivers and crucifixes everywhere–but I’m still catching up on sleep, so half the time I forget where I am because I’m so focused on just staying awake.

Photo by Jill Kimball
The Istituto Filippin, an Italian boarding school where all of us American students are also staying and taking classes, is beautiful and a nice change of pace from the expansive University of Oregon campus. It used to take me 20 or more minutes to walk all the way across campus; now it hardly takes me five. Our dorms are expansive, with tall cielings, huge old-fashioned windows with thick wooden shutters, and a private bathroom with a bidet (?!). Once a week, maids come to change the towels and linens. There’s also a dining hall that serves all three meals every day, but so far it isn’t very popular with students–most meals consist of pasta, some sort of pork dish and a cup of pudding or yogurt. We may never eat pasta again once we leave here.

Photo by Jill Kimball
The campus is divided in two: one half is for dorms and classrooms, and the other is for athletics. Today I spent most of my day in the latter half for the Da Vinci Challenge, a leadership and team-building series of exercises that demanded cooperation, trust and all the strength I could muster. With my team of ten, I climbed over a 15-foot wall and made my way through a tangled web of ropes. I even fell from a high tower to demonstrate that I trusted the eight boys below to catch me.

Going through the day, which included other difficult strength exercises that tired us all out pretty quickly, was difficult, but I felt proud at the end. All those trust and group exercises proved to me that I’m no longer that shaking sixth-grade girl who can’t muster the courage to complete the ropes course at science camp.

The rest of the week, including Saturday, will be taken up by seminars and leadership workshops. Two friends and I hope to take a day trip to Venice on Sunday, but it may rain, so we may stay in the area and go somewhere closer instead.

READ NEXT: TALK OF TRAVELS AND RAIN