When it rains, it pours – but it can’t rain all the time.

I have been told that Italians are supposed to be upbeat, optimistic people; artists and dreamers who know how to have a good time while eating a whole lot of pizza and playing the mandolin and gesticulating and so on. You know that American film cliché – the stressed, workaholic New Yorker goes to Italy (well, I say Italy, I really mean Tuscany, Rome or Venice. I’d like to see a character go to Molise for once) She eats copious amounts of food, strolls down the colorful narrow streets, has funny exchanges with the pictoresque locals who always have a moustache and finally learns how to relax and have a good time (I’m looking at you, Eat Pray Love).That’s because Italians are never stressed. They are ridiculously happy at all times. It’s the sun, you know, vitamin D and all that.

What’s funny is that I don’t remember ever being surrounded by optimism. Growing up in Rome in the Naughties was just a lot of people telling me to dream smaller. Every family dinner would end with endless conversations about how our country was beyond saving, how my generation was going to pay the price, how we were never going to find a job and we would be better off just leaving Italy. And then the inevitable: “si stava meglio quando si stava peggio” (things were better when times were harder). Luckily, my mum did her best to prevent me from becoming a bundle of pessimism and depression, with her calm, sound belief that everything happens for a reason, things are the way they are meant to be and everything will work out in the end. She only partially succeeded.

My grandad’s favourite phrase was “be careful and don’t trust anyone”. I was going out with a boy? Be careful and don’t trust anyone. Cinema with friends? Be careful and don’t trust anyone. Holiday? Be careful and don’t trust anyone. Moving abroad? Well that was one long conversation.

My grandad had emigrated to Argentina when he was young and engaged to my grandma. He had liked it there, he often said it had been a lot of fun – but always felt like it wasn’t his decision to leave. He did what he had to do, but never stopped longing for Italy. Of course, Argentina in the 50’s is nothing like Britain right now. He shared a room with seven people and they had to top and tail every night. He worked hard. He missed all the little things – food, films, saying hello to people in his own language – but was filled with wonder when he saw the first shopping centres. He was a tenor for a bit, apparently (his stories about Argentina were often fragmentary and somewhat contradictory. I sometimes think half of them were true, and half figments of his imagination. A Big Fish type of thing, but less Tim Burton-y).

When I told him I was moving abroad he cried a little. He just couldn’t understand that I like it here, that it was my choice to move, that you can buy mozzarella even in Britain. He told me to be safe, to be careful, never to trust anyone. He said the world was dangerous and dark and dismal. He was probably the least optimistic person I know, yet somehow he was always cheerful, and he would bring ice cream every time he came for lunch, even in the winter. He was convinced we loved this one particular kind and we never corrected him, even though it wasn’t exactly our favourite. I remember him as being always angry when I was little, but he slowly turned into the most loving, gentle old man. He would make huge bowls of fruit salad with sugary canned fruit even though my mum didn’t want my sister and I to have all that sugar. She’d ask him “is it fresh fruit this time?”, and he’d nod and then wink at us.

I still really, really love canned fruit, all sugary, colorful and plastic-y. But optimism, well, that doesn’t always come easy.

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My grandad, my grannie and me in the corner, eating as per usual.

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A word about… the phatic function of language

(I know, I know, linguistics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But this is not as nerdy as it looks, I promise…)

So, linguists are hardly rock stars (with the exception of possibly Chomsky), and if I’m asked “what’s the point of linguistics anyway?” one more time I think I might burst into tears. (Interestingly, when I say I study translation, people also ask if I do a specific language combination, or all of them. Well of course. If you want to translate a document from Urdu into Finnish, I’m your guy.)

However, I do think linguistics is, well, relevant. Can you go on and live your life without knowing who Saussure is? Sure. Would I survive without a grasp of Jakobson’s functions of language? Yes, just like I could survive without books or tv or cheese. I just don’t want to.

So, the phatic function of language, I was saying. The Collins Dictionary defines ‘phatic’ as (this is like the worst best man’s speech ever):

(of speech, esp of conversational phrases) used to establish social contact and to express sociability rather than specific meaning

Phatic expressions don’t convey meaning. They are empty. Which got me thinking about how we talk so much without really saying anything. Examples of this are everyday phrases like “you’re welcome” after “thank you”, “yours sincerely” at the end of a letter, or small talk. You meet someone you sort of know on the bus or in a lift, you ask “how are you?” or ” you ok?”, but you couldn’t care less about how they’re actually feeling. You just want to go about your day, and so does the other person.

Now, you know that moment at the beginning of a relationship when you spend most of your waking hours thinking about the other person, and fantasising about what will happen when you see them again? And maybe you won’t see them for weeks, so you’re texting things like “how was your day?” or “plans for tonight?”. Well, I see that as a phatic expression as well. Because the function of those texts is to let the other person know that you’re still there and you still miss them, but you wish it were socially acceptable to just call them and tell them that they are the most perfect human being on the planet.

I’m not saying phatic expressions are unnecessary – they exist for a reason. We do need to say “hello?” when we pick up the phone, and goodbye at the end of a meeting. Yet it can be frustrating when someone asks you how you are without actually expecting an answer. You smile, you say you’re ok, but you wish you could scream that actually it’s been a bit of a shit day, you don’t know what to do with your life and your boiler has broken.

Thing is, no matter how many empty remarks about the weather you exchange with strangers, everyone needs someone in their lives who will ask them how they are – and expect an honest, meaningful answer.

Breakfast

(If you want to read this in Italian, you can find it here)

Never ask me what my favourite meal is. I don’t know. I just don’t. It’s like asking a child whether they prefer their mum or dad. Can’t I love them both?

So I just love them all. All seven of them (7. Nope, not a typo).

I do especially love breakfasts, though. When a day starts with a lie-in, eggs on toast and a good brew, then I’m sorted. I don’t even care if the weather is miserable (and it’s winter in Wales, so chances are it will be). I love warm, cuddly porridge with plump sultanas and perfectly round banana slices. I can’t resist cold pizza, straight from the fridge, and a warm buttery croissant with slightly sour strawberry jam is hard to beat.

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But toast. Uhm. Toast is my one true love, and I know I’m not the only one (Nigel Slater even wrote a book on it… and it’s brilliant). Toast is simple but comforting, and when smothered in butter and covered in beans, jam, eggs or bacon it’s the perfect way to start the day. Now, I lived without a toaster for about a month and I had never thought one could miss an appliance so much. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, I guess. Or in my case, until you have to use the oven and start burning yourself at least twice a day because you are the clumsiest human being on earth.

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So here are my thoughts on breakfast (and toast):

1)      I CAN believe it’s not butter.  I’m not even going to go into how butter is actually healthier than margarine (which is true), thing is, it just tastes better. If you’ve been using Flora for years, try smearing slightly salted Lurpak on toast. It’s like going from black-and-white to colours.

2)      Marks&Spencer make a salted caramel sauce which is probably the closest thing to utter perfection I’ve ever come across, especially on burnt toast.

3)      Anything goes – as long as it’s not Marmite. I know. I’m sorry.

4)      I truly wish I was a muesli person, but unless I smother mine in maple syrup I feel like I’m eating the carton rather than the actual food.

5)      Is it weird that I like cheese for breakfast? I love goat’s cheese on rye bread on a gray day.

6)      I prefer maple syrup to golden syrup on porridge.

7)      No day should start without a cup of tea (white).

8)      Alas, my favourite cereals are Cheerios.

9)      I’m really trying to think of a 9th and 10th thought, because if you bother making a list you should at least get to a double-digit number, but I can’t.

10)   I love breakfast.

11) Oh no wait, I’ve got one! Breakfast is better shared. There you go. Bit cheesy, I know, but it could be worse – I could have quoted Coelho…

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A word about… living in the middle of nowhere.

(If you want to read this in Italian, you can find it here)

Rhossili beach

Rhossili

I was born and raised in Rome. Rome is big, hectic, chaotic and messy. It’s warm and loud and alive. Its history spans over two and half million years and you can just tell. You can sit in the beautiful Savello Park and take it all in. You feel as if you could almost breathe its history along with the thick smog and the greasy smell of cooking and fried supplì.

Thing is, when you live in a big city, there’s a lot you take for granted. The nearest supermarket will be five minutes away, maybe even closer. Shops will be open on a Sunday. You are surrounded by hundreds of cafés, restaurants and bars. Some will be cheap, some expensive; some will serve fresh, tasty food, while others might specialise in re-heating dodgy frozen stuff. Yet, you have a choice. If you’re in need of a Thai food fix, you know where to go. There’ll even be a place that serves Brazilian-inspired sushi… for real.

And then I lived in York for a bit. York was smaller, pretty, tidy, but it would still come alive in the afternoon, with hundreds of people strolling along the market stalls. If you wanted to, you could have Chinese food in a Tudor building*, or shop for vintage clothes. Again, you had a choice.

York

York

And then Berlin. Now, Berlin is different. It took me a few weeks to fall in love with it, but once it had happened there was no going back. Berlin isn’t pretty, it’s cold and grey and square, but boy is it charming. You know when you meet someone who doesn’t look like anything special, but then you get to know them better and they are amazing, interesting, and different, and you just want to hang out with them as much as possible? That’s Berlin in a nutshell.

Berlin is a place where everything, and I mean everything (including a bunker – true story), could become an art gallery or a club (or both). I loved getting lost on a cold, crisp day and finding the cutest little café or ramen place while drinking overpriced fresh ginger tea. Yes, there were a few downsides (like the complete lack of lifts and blinds), but I felt like everything was possible.

Berlin

The Spree

Which brings me to now. Wales. I remember telling people that I was moving to Swansea to do an MA, and the puzzled looks on their faces. “But, why? Why Swansea?”, they would say, “What’s in Swansea anyway?”.

Well, the University, for starters. The beach. A 24-hour Tesco. Shops, maybe not the poshest ones (you won’t find a COS or The White Company here) but everything you need. Boots. Takeaways (people seem to love their fried chicken). Curry houses.

Except I don’t even live in Swansea. I live, as the title of this post says, in the middle of nowhere. To go to said Tesco I have to get on a bus and sit uncomfortably on a sometimes sticky, purple plastic seat for forty five minutes. The only café within walking distance shuts at 3 pm (yes, pm).

Adjusting wasn’t easy. In fact, I don’t even think I’ve adjusted yet. I long for somewhere bigger, louder, perhaps stranger. But then there are beautiful, clear days, when you can go to a deserted beach and read a book in absolute silence and feel like you can finally think clearly and relax. Sure, there isn’t a lot to do here, but you learn to appreciate little things, like long walks on beaches that look like lunar landscapes and coming home with muddy boots. You learn to appreciate trains, and weekend trips, and squirrels jumping around. A warming cup of tea when it rains outside. Snuggling down with a book and a blanket, on a cold night. And strangers being nice to you.

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Rhossili, Wales

Swansea Bay

Swansea Bay

* yes it does exist, and it’s called Happy Valley.

Lazy winter tart

A savoury muffin? Life is full of enough disappointments, Gary.”

(Miranda)

So yes, this is a savoury tart. Well, sweet and savoury. In fact, it’s the perfect winter tart. It’s easy, festive (yes you are allowed to have Brie and cranberries after Christmas- I promise!) and delicious. And look at those plump cranberries – one of your five a day, surely. So it also counts as detox, doesn’t it? A detox tart (not really – there is enough butter and cheese here to give someone a heart attack. But onions are good for you!)

Now, I’m not going to lie – caramelising the onions was not as easy as I thought it would be. The first time they looked more charred than caramelised – and it took me three attemps, three different methods (and a whole lot of onions) to get the right, rusty colour. The first recipe involved olive oil, butter, a fair bit of sugar and no stirring whatsoever. A recipe for disaster. The second one, with olive oil and no sugar, didn’t turn out as horrible – but the onions were still way too dark and almost bitter.

Can I blame it on the pan?

Cranberry, brie and caramelised onion tart

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Ingredients:

1 sheet puff pastry
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, cut into slices
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
1 cup fresh cranberries
herbs, salt and pepper to taste
2 ounces Brie, diced
1 egg white
2 teaspoons brown sugar

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet melt the butter over low heat. When it foams add onions, brown sugar, a little salt and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine sugar and 1/3 cup water. Stir until the sugar completely dissolves, then add cranberries and cook for 3 minutes, before draining them and setting them aside.
Preheat your oven to 180°C. Place the puff pastry on a baking sheet, and with a small pairing knife, score a 1/4 inch boarder along the inside of each rectangle. Scatter the caramelized onions evenly on the puff pastry, then sprinkle your herbs of choice. Nestle the cheese among the onions, then scatter the cranberries. Brush the edges with the egg white and bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown.

You can find the original recipe, to which I have made a few changes, here.  Also, check out Miranda’s reaction to a savoury muffin