Views from Torino

These are a few views from around the city of Torino. The first one is a view of the Basilica di Superga which sits on a hill overlooking the city. The photo was taken from a street in the Vanchiglia neighborhood of Torino.

Here is the Borgo Medievale, an imitation medieval village that was built in the 1800s and is located in the Valentino Park in Torino. It’s very interesting to walk through it and try to imagine how life was in a town like that in the middle ages. You can enter through a drawbridge and it’s free to enter, but the castle museum in the back has an admission fee.

I took this photo in front of Piazza Castello one day when I liked the effect of the sunlight on the buildings. The narrow entrance you can see between the buildings in the distance is the beginning of Via Po, which leads down to the Po River. The tower in the back is the top of the Mole Antonelliana, the famous landmark of Torino and home to the Cinema Museum.

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Peeling Fava Beans and Appreciating Simplicity

I spent part of tonight peeling fava beans sitting in front of the kitchen window. I took a picture of the scene which shows the back of the apartment building across the courtyard. It’s not an elegant building but it’s full of human beings going about the business of life and people watching occurs in both directions.

It was nine o’clock in the evening and the light was starting to fade. The window was open and the summer evening was cool after a few days of storms.

This morning I had put the whole dried fava beans in water to soak and twelve hours had passed and it was time to boil them. When I was rinsing them in the sink I decided to peel them all by hand. I felt peaceful in the small kitchen in the dimming light. It was relaxing and calm and I felt no hurry to do anything quickly.

I kept the light off because screens are not commonly used in Italy so I try not to have the windows open when the lights are on in order to keep any mosquitoes out. But the other reason is that I love to work in the natural light as long as possible until it is too hard to see without it; it is calming.

I set up chairs to work on in the remaining light by the window and peeled all of the beans in about twenty minutes. Then I put them in a pot with water, a minced clove of garlic, half a chopped onion, and a little salt and waited for it to boil. I am making fava bean puree, a Southern Italian recipe I like very much. It is also good with only one ingredient: fava beans, which are boiled then simmered and stirred until after about an hour and fifteen minutes they form a delicious cream.

Reflecting on my life in Italy, one thing I am grateful for is the simple characteristic ingredients that are available and the experiences I have had and the people I have met which have taught me to slow down and make good things by hand and to appreciate the process as much as the final result.

When I take the time to do these things, I remember the happiness that comes with slowing down and mindfully performing simple and time-consuming tasks. It might seem like going backwards when modern conveniences are available, but the calm and satisfaction I feel tells me I’m going forwards.

I haven’t blogged in about three months, there’s been a lot going on and blogging took a back seat. But lately I’ve felt a pull to both do more simple things that make me happy and to take more advantage of living in Italy, both of which are things I started my blog “simply” “italiana” to talk about.

Posted in Food, Photography, Slowing Down | 2 Comments

It’s That Time of Year Again…

The time I think about as “Waiting for Asparagus Prices to go Down”.

Or, “early spring” if you want to be all technical about it 🙂

Spring doesn’t start officially for one more week, but asparagus is already making its appearance. It will be out in full force soon, and I’ll start buying it when the price goes down to something normal.

Then I buy it all the time at the market, seriously, I cannot get enough of asparagus in the spring, since I can only get it at this time of year. I use it in pasta, omelettes, and stir frys, and I roast it (delicious), but often I just steam it and eat it plain. When it’s fresh and in-season that’s all it needs.

The weather here in Torino has been warming up considerably, it seems that spring is finally around the corner. Though I may be speaking too soon. Back in Philadelphia it was really warm for a week and then it snowed and they’re expecting more snow today.

I remember the feeling of being ready for spring after a long winter but having to wait for the snow to melt. The last few winters in Torino on the other hand have been mild, with barely any snow whatsoever.

The other day I was walking downtown and it was so warm I took my coat off and walked around in the sunshine in short sleeves. I noticed I was the only one doing that. A few people had taken their coats off and were walking around in a sweater. But a lot of other people were wearing winter coats and even scarves.

I don’t get that. I was quite hot.

Back in the USA when I was in college and lived in a busy dorm, I used to look out the window in the morning and watch the people walking around outside in the quad and see how they were dressed in order to figure out what the weather was like, and then I dressed accordingly before I went outside.

I cannot do that in Italy.

But that will be my next post.

For now I wish everyone a Happy Pre-Spring and warm, sunny thoughts.

Posted in Expat Life, Food, Italian Life | 3 Comments

Happy Women’s Day

March 8th is International Women’s Day, an opportunity to spread awareness about important issues regarding women’s rights and a time to express female solidarity.

Pictured are chocolates one of my lovely friends in Torino gave me today, such a nice surprise. Even better was the time the three of us spent talking together this morning. I am grateful to the women I know and for the chance to inspire each other and be a part of each other’s lives.

The first Women’s Day was observed in 1909 in New York and was organized by the Socialist Party of America to commemorate the 1908 strike by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

I hadn’t heard about this holiday until I came to Italy. On the package of chocolates you can see a picture of a yellow mimosa. This plant is the traditional gift that men give to women in Italy on Women’s Day.

In some respects the holiday has become unpleasantly commercialized, with long lines of men queuing to buy obligatory flowers on the way home from work, condescending Women’s Day events in the workplace to “celebrate” women, and Women’s Day sales in stores. Last year, unbelievably, a jury in India was formed to appoint the 50 Most Influential Women in Media, Marketing and Advertising, but none were deemed important enough to be on the jury, which was comprised of nine middle-aged men.

There are other more significant ways to observe this day that are centered around advocacy of women’s issues and campaigning for gender equality in the workplace, with the ultimate goal of gender parity around the world.

The second part of this article provides many great tips. Please check it out.

The 2017 International Women’s Day theme is #BeBoldForChange. For more information visit here.

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Drink From one of Torino’s 700 Toret Fountains

Those who have visited Torino will surely have noticed these green cast iron drinking fountains dispersed throughout the city. As a matter of fact, there are about 700 of them both downtown and scattered around the different neighborhoods of the city.

The fountain is called a toret, which means “little bull” in the Piemontese dialect, with toro being the Italian word for “bull”. These unique fountains, built in the 1930s, couldn’t be more appropriate since the bull is the symbol of Torino.

I sure appreciate their cold water when I get thirsty while walking around the city, especially in the summer when Torino is very hot and humid.

Local legend says that a different kind of water comes out of the various fountains, but the reality is less romantic; it’s the same city-inspected water that comes out of the taps.


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Cavolo Romanesco: the “Math Cabbage”

This curious looking light-green vegetable that is popular in Italy is called a cavolo romanesco, also known as broccolo romanesco (“Roman cabbage/broccoli”), and it is not only tasty but naturally displays a few fascinating mathematical traits.

The humble cruciferous vegetable is a fractal, an object displaying self-similarity on all scales, creating a never-ending pattern.

More than that, the number of “peaks” on the cabbage is a Fibonacci number, and the peaks are arranged according to Fibonacci spirals. Fibonacci numbers are those that make up the Fibonacci sequence, that is, a sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, etc.

On the largest scale, the whole vegetable is made up of peaks lying in spiral patterns starting from the top. The number of spirals is also a Fibonacci number. Each peak looks like a mini cabbage in itself, in turn being made up of smaller peaks displaying the same entire pattern. In theory this would repeat to infinity, in reality the spirals and peaks get smaller and smaller until they reach the limit a physical object must reach.

The following image traces the spirals on one of the peaks. The clockwise spirals are red and the counter-clockwise spirals are black. There are 8 red spirals and 13 black ones, two consecutive numbers from the Fibonacci sequence.


This next image gives a closer look at the repeating pattern.


Simple and mind-boggling at the same time, Fibonacci spirals are often found in nature, from the famous nautilus shell to pine cones, sunflowers, certain animal bodies, hurricanes and entire spiral galaxies.

Just as importantly, the cavolo romanesco is also healthy and very tasty to eat, but “math cabbage” recipes are a post for another day.

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Market Haul, Fava Beans, and New Foods

377a6978I’m a happy camper today. I walked to the outdoor market this morning to look for fave secche intere or fave secche con la buccia (whole dried fava beans or dried fava beans with skin), which I need for the next recipe I’m planning to make.

Fava beans are a food I only discovered after coming to Italy. Italians eat them fresh (either opening the pods with their fingers and snacking on the beans or cooking them in recipes), frozen (prepared like fresh beans) or dried.

Dried fava beans come in two forms: fave intere (whole fava beans) which are larger and brown, and fave spezzate (split fava beans) which are yellowish halves with the skin removed.

377a7015Dried fava beans are used to make delicious fava bean purees that are characteristic Southern Italian recipes. Fave e cicorie (fava bean puree and chicory) is a well-known recipe from Puglia, and that was what I ate the first time I tasted fava bean puree.

Fave spezzate are easier to find and less expensive. For the recipe I’d like to make, however, I need the whole dried beans. I only found them in one supermarket near where I live and they cost almost four euros for a small 300 gram (10.5 oz) package. I figured my best bet was to go to Porta Palazzo, the huge outdoor market downtown, but I decided to try the local market near my apartment first.

I discovered a wonderful stall selling all sorts of dried beans, legumes, nuts, dried fruit, spices, and other things like millet, quinoa, chestnut flour, and honey. Everything looked really good and their prices were great (the price for a whole kilogram (2.2 lb) of whole fava beans was €3.50).

When I got home I had to take a picture, because finding and eating these kinds of real foods make me feel so happy.

377a6978-copy-2That’s whole dried fava beans, shelled almonds, millet, and dried figs. All that cost €9.69, which was a good price because these kinds of foods are expensive in the supermarket.

Speaking of markets, I know that when I go to Porta Palazzo I see new kinds of fruits, vegetables, and other foods that I have never tried before. Life is short, I’d like to taste more of these new things.

The other day I bought some Sweet Sapphire grapes. I’m sure they’re not Italian but they were new to me. They cost a little more and are kind of funny-looking but I was happy I got them- they were delicious and even seedless (Italian grapes have seeds). Here are a few shots.

377a6892377a6881377a6898Today I also roasted some purple carrots. They aren’t a new food because I’ve bought them once before (see this post)… but the second time is still pretty new 🙂

377a7009Stay tuned for the fava bean recipe I’m planning to share on my blog soon (hope it goes well!) and photos of new foods I’m curious to try from the markets too. I’m also feeling motivated to experiment with new Italian dishes. Since fall is coming I have a feeling this will involve a lot of squash and dinosaur kale (the kind they grow here).

Happy eating everyone.

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Cipolline in forno – Small Baked Onions

1I’m back with my favorite topic: food!

I bought a big cookbook with recipes from all over Italy; it’s a behemoth with 5,000 regional recipes inside.

I’m in heaven. I spent a few evenings just browsing the pages, highlighting what I want to make, and I’ve barely made a dent in the book.

My favorites are the “poor” dishes with vegetables and legumes.

A lot of the recipes are very simple, but don’t be fooled. When made with quality ingredients, the simplicity allows you to savor pure taste and wonderfulness and life.

Here are a few photos of the book. When I first saw the cover I was afraid it was going to be a cutesy book, but the inside is very straightforward without any frills. Just five-thousand recipes from around the entire country. It contains the classics as well as more obscure dishes, and the recipes range from ‘why-do-I-need-a-recipe-for-this’-simple to very complex.

img_9194 img_9195 img_9200

The first recipe I made from the book comes from the Southern region of Basilicata. It is called Cipolline in forno and is a simple baked mini-onion dish with emphasis on the simple- you barely need a recipe to make this. But the results are so tasty.

Here’s the recipe in Italian if you’d like to see it:

7You’ll need cipolline for this recipe, but if you can’t find them I suppose regular onions or those tiny round pearl onions will do. As far as I was able to find out, cipolline are regular onions that are harvested when they are immature and thus smaller. The ones I bought were about 3.5 centimeters in diameter.


You’ll also need extra virgin olive oil, white wine, broth, and salt and pepper.

Peeling the onions took a while and involved lots of crying. The author (like most Italian recipe writers) doesn’t specify exact quantites and doesn’t mention an oven temperature. Italians seem to fly by the seat of their pants when cooking. The ingredients in this recipe don’t need to be very precise for it to turn out well though.

I made a half-recipe and used three tablespoons of oil, which I think turned out to be a little too much, but when I think about the sheer quantity of oil I’ve seen Southern Italians using in the kitchen, it probably was okay. Besides, the recipe calls for “abundant oil” to translate literally. Just use whatever suits your taste. As for the wine, if you need an amount, half a glass is around 125 ml. Out of curiosity I filled my ladle with water and measured it and it was around 150 ml. I used vegetable broth.

Cipolline in forno

1 kg (2.2 lb) small onions
Extra virgin olive oil
Half a glass of white wine
A ladle-full of good broth, hot
Freshly ground salt and pepper

-Peel the onions and place them on the bottom of a baking pan. Pour a generous amount of oil on top of them. Add salt and pepper and put it in the oven.

-Let it cook for twenty minutes, then pour the wine on top and put it back in the oven to continue cooking.

-Moisten the dish every so often with small quantities of hot broth.

-Turn the onions every so often (that’s not in the recipe but it helped).

-Serve hot, covered with the liquid from the bottom of the pan.

It took about an hour for me to cook the onions, but my oven is ridiculously imprecise. I was aiming for about 350°F / 176°C, but who knows. Just watch them. They will be done when soft and you can easily pierce them with a fork and get the fork out again.

I think the onions are ten times better when you let them sit for a few hours to cool and eat them at room temperature. Magic happens with the flavor when you let them sit. They were amazing the next day too, I just let them sit out all night.

I know, that freaks the heck out of my family, but I relaxed my refrigeration standards for prepared dishes after watching Italians leave their food out overnight. I just didn’t want to refrigerate the leftovers and make the onions and liquid cold and hard and then possibly reheat it after they were cooked perfectly.

Here are a few photos of the process:


 With oil, salt and pepper and about to go in the oven


Twenty minutes later I added the wine and turned them.


All done

6Buon appetito!

Posted in Food, Recipes | 6 Comments

Is Italian Easy to Learn?

Once I met a group of friends for a beer and an Armenian girl and an Italian guy were talking about the possibility of the girl learning Italian. The Italian turned to me and asked me if I thought Italian was hard to learn.

I gave an enthusiastic “No!” and half the table looked at me in disbelief. I clarified my reaction by saying that while it’s difficult to speak like a native, I thought Italian was one of the easiest languages for a native English speaker to learn.

It’s true that it takes time and immersion to develop natural speaking patterns and to not sound awkward and foreign. Near-native skills in understanding, speaking, reading, writing, and cultural understanding take years and years to achieve, if ever.

But in terms of general proficiency, Italian is a good choice for native English speakers for learning a foreign language with a relative level of ease.

Even in the very beginning, before getting anywhere near “general proficiency”, it’s possible to speak and understand people in Italian. When I took a vacation in Italy for the first time fifteen years ago, I had only two university Italian classes behind me and I only knew two verb tenses. My language skills were very basic and my grammar was absolutely horrendous but I was communicating with Italian people and that was so exciting.

What makes a language easy to learn?

In objective terms, no one language is easier or harder to learn than any other. After all, young children in every country can easily learn their own native language.

The game changes when learning a foreign language. In general, the closer a foreign language is to a person’s native tongue or another language they know, the easier it is to learn. While Arabic is considered a more difficult language than English, it would be easier for a Persian student to learn it because it is more similar to their native tongue.

For an English speaker, the easiest languages to learn include the Romance languages, Italian included. While English is a Germanic language, for historical reasons it is closely linked to the Romance languages, and in fact, over 50% of English words come from Latin or French.

The Foreign Service Institute classified nine of the easiest foreign languages for English speakers to learn, and Italian is one of them. Listed in order of how many native speakers each language has, they are:

Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, Dutch, Swedish, Afrikaans, and Norwegian

These languages are considered “closely related to English” and the Institute estimates that it would take 575-600 class hours to achieve language proficiency in one of them. (600 class hours means going to class for two hours and forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, for ten months.)

Although English is a Germanic language, German, with its complex grammar, three genders, four cases, difficult plurals, long compound words, and fewer cognates, is classified in the next category as a “language similar to English.” It would take 750 hours to achieve the same level of proficiency.

The Institute describes the level of proficiency in question as “General Professional Proficiency,” or level three in both speaking and reading. Click here and here for a detailed description.

The most difficult languages for a native English speaker are Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean, taking 2200 class hours to reach the same level.

That said, everybody is different, and individual results vary as the time it takes to learn a language is influenced by factors such as how complex the language is, how much time a student devotes to learning, the resources available, and the individual’s motivation.

Is Italian Really So “Easy?”

Italian is written as it sounds. Each consonant (and phoneme, such as ghi or ci) corresponds to a specific sound, making it fairly straightforward to learn to read, spell, and pronounce. (In fact, spelling bees are unheard of in Italy and looked upon with curiosity because hearing a word generally tells you how it’s spelled.)

Realistically for a language learner, it’s not that simple. Every word puts the stress on a specific syllable, and the general rule of stressing the next-to-last syllable has a large number of holes! It takes time listening to people speak to learn where to put the stress.

Some sounds are more difficult for native English speakers because they don’t appear in our language. Gli and the Italian rolled r can be troublesome, but this (usually) doesn’t hinder our ability to be understood.

There is more variation with Italian vowels, as e and o can be open or closed, but again, messing up here isn’t a big deal since even native vowel pronunciation varies from region to region.

That said, Italian pronunciation is still simpler than English. Consider our seemingly arbitrary pronunciation in the eight different ways to pronounce the letter combination ough in the following words: through, though, thought, tough, plough, thorough, hiccough, and lough [pronounced loch].*

In terms of grammar, Italian has a typical Romantic structure for word order and grammatical gender of nouns. Knowing some French or Spanish, for example, will help greatly in learning Italian. It also has no cases and its vocabulary is derived from Latin, resulting in cognates and easily recognizable words, not to mention all the English words that have been adopted by Italians (but sometimes they don’t always have the same meaning).

While English speakers have a leg up on learning Italian, it’s still difficult to speak well and master things such as prepositions and the subjunctive. It’s even harder to leave clumsy foreign constructions and just plain guesswork behind. That’s okay. “General proficiency” means speaking with enough accuracy to participate in conversations and convey meaning while allowing for errors and limitations in understanding.

Living in a country where the language is spoken will be immeasurably helpful. I can say from personal experience that I took classes and studied a lot in the US, but as soon as I came to Italy my language skills really took off. Textbooks and classroom environments can teach you a lot, but I didn’t really get to know how the language is used in many different real-life situations until I came here. It’s one thing to learn an expression in a book and another to actually see how it’s used. If immersion isn’t possible, I think language exchange with native speakers who live in the area is a great idea.

Enthusiasm Rules

It takes work to learn a foreign language. We’d all be polyglots if we could place a textbook over our heads, go to sleep, and wake up fluent.

We’re more willing to work when we’re enthusiastic about the subject, so perhaps the easiest language to learn is the one you feel most motivated about and enjoy speaking! With enough passion, any language can seem easy or at least enjoyable to learn.

I know that when I studied Italian in college I wasn’t as motivated as I was after I had goals for coming to Italy years later. I didn’t do all my homework because it was tiring to look up long lists of words for texts that I barely understood. With plans for coming to Italy in mind, suddenly studying Italian was all I wanted to do.

So, to answer my friend’s question, I think Italian is easy to learn, even if I use the word easy loosely. When it comes to Italian, I’m not lacking in enthusiasm so it doesn’t matter that I don’t speak like a native. I’m having a blast.

To me, that makes it easy.

*From The Mother Tongue English and How it Got That Way by Bill Bryson

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