Cannoli Pepperoni

Est. 2013

The New Normal

Posted on December 26, 2013

A funny thing happened when I wasn’t looking.

I don’t know when, exactly, this city started to feel like a place where I actually live. But it does.

photo 1A few weeks ago Peter asked me, “Do you still have those days when you can’t believe we live here?” We were making our way down the hill to Trastevere. I turned a corner and suddenly the city was in full view, lit with the golden late afternoon light that still makes my knees go weak. I thought, of course! Isn’t that what I’m supposed to feel? But then the real answer came to the surface. Actually, I do believe I live here. Feelings of awe still come over me, but I spend more time just enjoying a daily life. It only happened once I stopped over-thinking (like so many good things). Rome is my new normal.

I’m fascinated by this metamorphosis, this slow and silent process I’m barely aware of until it’s over.

It doesn’t matter where I’ve lived–Saint Paul, Spain, Chicago, New York City or Rome–my pattern of adapting has always been the same. The first stage is infatuation. Like the thrill of a freshly minted love affair, I’m enthralled with the very newness of it. I want to be close to my new city, get down to its roots and explore every inch. But the romantic patina eventually wears thin.

The next stage is a slow, but stubborn dawning of the realization that this new place is not like the old place. Not at all. It wouldn’t matter if I were just passing through with a tourist’s rose-colored glasses. When it dawns on me that this is the place where I live, the novelty morphs into a bad joke. The thought, What an adorable grocery store! Look at all these delicious meats and cheeses! becomes Why the hell can’t I find limes? What do Italians have against LIMES?  Basic things like navigating around the city or communicating with its residents are a challenge. And then there’s a supremely stupid rock-bottom moment (I’m trying so hard to remember what that moment was in Rome, but I honestly can’t recall. It must not be a very good story. Or, I’m too embarrassed to admit what it was that broke me, so I promptly forgot.). There’s no telling what it might be, but it’s guaranteed to be trivial. It’s the point where my struggles end in complete exhaustion and defeat. It’s the moment when I consider getting on a plane and going back home.

But then, just as quickly as it came on, the moment passes. Usually within a few days or a really good night’s sleep. I am realizing that I have to see the worst in a place before I can see the best. The struggle to assimilate is just a part of the process. After this it gets increasingly easier. The final stage is the best one. It’s where I realize that Rome is Rome. It will never be anything but Rome. So if I’m going to enjoy it, if I’m going to really experience being here, I need to accept the city on its own terms.

So what is this new normal?

There’s the city of Rome and then there’s the American Academy. The life I lead here is not at all like the life I had before. There are the obvious language and cultural differences. And then there’s a whole bunch of lifestyle changes. I went from living in a little house in a medium-sized city to living in a 15×12 bedroom inside a gated villa. I went from cooking dinner and lunch most days a week to eating meals served to me in a dining room with 50+ other people on a given night. I went from biking down Summit Avenue to my job at the Golden Fig to taking long walks twice a week past ancient Roman ruins en route to my Italian language classes. I went from a private life with a husband and some close friends to a community life of sharing meals, ideas and bottles of wine (plus the occasional grappa) most nights.

The Academy is described by people who live here as “Eden”, “The Golden Birdcage,”  or an “American cruise ship docked in Rome,” depending on who you ask.

It’s a shapeshifting, amorphous place that changes according to the season and the assortment of residents who call it home. Besides the 30 or so Fellows and their “Fellow Travelers” (yes, that’s me), there is a constant flow of visitors. We all have titles– Affiliated Fellows, Visiting Artists, Former Fellows, etc.–and we’re all here for different reasons and for varying lengths of time. One of the challenges (but also one of the thrills) to living here is adapting to each new wave of people that come through. Every night is like a dinner party where you may or may not be seated next to the mystery guest.
photo 2
There are so many lessons yet to learn, but this one I know already– you get what you give. The people who live here, and the people who pass through, are what give the Academy life. This place is a thought experiment. It’s a dream. But it only works if the people invited to stay here open up and share what they’re most passionate about. Painters, scholars, writers, poets, architects, sculptors, designers, historians, preservationists and so many others from different, equally fascinating fields, all gather here. The premise is that something great might happen once their ideas mingle. Some big spark, some life-changing thought, a new way of perceiving one’s work and the world we all live in. This may sound heady, but when it happens it feels nothing but organic. It’s usually over dinner. It’s usually with the help of some wine. But it won’t happen at all unless you’re willing to engage.

So, the new normal is this: Living with a bunch of people. Eschewing my introverted ways. Being okay with not having a plan. Being okay with spending a year learning things for no reason except my own enjoyment. And savoring this year like it’s my last. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Before I know it, I’ll be back in Saint Paul, trying to figure out what “normal” means all over again.

Natale is Near

Posted on December 7, 2013

Earlier today Peter and I were walking along Via del Corso at dusk. We had stayed out just a bit too long. The street was swollen with people walking in that over-shopped, dazed way that only seems to happen around Christmas. I was feeling tired and ready to be home. As if walking down the crowded street wasn’t difficult enough, a man in uniform darted in front of us and knelt down. He blocked our path, looking skyward with a pained expression on his face. He flipped a switch and we looked up. Suddenly the string of lights that span the entire street were all lit up.



The Bass Garden

Posted on December 2, 2013

In many ways, the American Academy is too improbable to take in on first sight. When my taxi pulled up to the front gate on the day I arrived, I thought I was having a fantastic jet lagged dream. And that’s the way I felt for days! I’m now approaching month three and the place still astounds me, but it’s starting to feel like home. Since the Academy is as important to my day-to-day life as the city of Rome, I think it’s time you were introduced.

Why don’t we start here? My backyard in Rome has a name.

In Saint Paul I never thought to call the 30×20′ plot behind our house anything special, although I love it all the same. The little vegetable garden, the patch of pink peonies and the hearty stalks of rhubarb that miraculously poke through the cold earth every spring are special to me. You can know a garden like this by heart. A name would be beside the point. But of course here everything is different.

The Bass Garden is an expanse of little hills behind the Academy enclosed on all sides by stone walls and a gate. It’s a place for sitting alone with your coffee and your thoughts, as much as it’s a place for meeting a friend (“Meet me at the back gate” is a common refrain.) There are olive and orange trees and a pebbled path lined with fragrant wild rosemary. There’s a bocce ball court and a wood-fired grill. And there’s a beautiful vegetable garden with raised brick beds that produces much of the salad greens (among other vegetables) that we eat.

I’ve loved seeing what the change of seasons brings to this glorious space. This is what the garden looked like on December 2nd. Can you imagine what’s to come this spring?

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The Boxer At Rest

Posted on November 25, 2013

Last Sunday Peter and I ventured off the Academy hill to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. We’ve been slowly building a list of museums and sights to see in Rome and just as slowly checking things off the list. The beauty of being here for almost a year is there’s no pressure–at least right now–to sightsee. We can drink in Rome’s history like a rich digestif, slowly sipping so that it settles nicely. I’ve never been so aware of stretching out an experience, but that’s what this year is like. It feels like the more gradually I take everything in, the longer the memories will last.

Palazzo Massimo is a gorgeous museum with a large collection of ancient mosaics, one of the most vividly-colored intact frescoes I’ve ever seen, and the haunting 4th century B.C. bronze sculpture, “Boxer at Rest.” Can you imagine what it would have been like to be the archeologist who discovered this wondrous object in 1885? You can see the scars etched on the boxer’s face. You can get so close that he almost looks real (until you set the sensors off, like I did, and are jarred out of your reverie). We wandered through the galleries, blissfully alone in most of them, until we’d had enough. How do you follow up an afternoon of beautiful art? With pastries of course. So we stopped at L’arte del Pane for a sweet nibble and then we got on the bus to go back home.

Il Stormo di Storni

Posted on November 20, 2013

We are in the midst of Starling Season in Rome. We are just a stop along the way to Africa for the thousands of birds making their migration, but at the moment it feels like they’ve decided to stay.

Il Stormo di Storni- A flock or cloud of starlings.

Il Stormo di Storni- A flock or cloud of starlings.

I noticed them first outside my bedroom window at the Academy. Typical bird chatter would suddenly grow deafening around 4 o’clock, when they’d all come to roost in the Umbrella Pines across the street. It’s a throbbing hum so loud it goes through glass. It goes right into your head, too, so good luck trying to concentrate on anything. The birds congregated for no more than half an hour, but then they were off. To where? I couldn’t tell. But I discovered their roosting spot soon enough.

One Saturday a group of us headed out on a dining mission: burgers and beers. A decidedly un-Italian night out. The mood was merry as we headed to the restaurant, but when we got closer to the Garibaldi Bridge, I heard the sound. It was even louder than before, like the screeching score that accompanies the heroine in a Hitchcock film right before she’s about to get it. Making matters worse, the sidewalks were suddenly slick. My right foot slipped out from under me and I almost fell, realizing at that very moment that I wasn’t slipping on mud–the sidewalk was plastered with bird shit. That’s when I heard the sound of “rain,” but it wasn’t rain… People ahead of us ran across the bridge with newspapers over their heads and the lucky ones with umbrellas walked briskly. Our group walked as quickly as we could, but most of us got hit. Some worse than others.



I want to say that we laughed over dinner and forgot all about the birds. And maybe we did for a couple hours. But after dinner was over, we returned to the bridge and the horror washed over us anew. It was the smell. A sickly sweet, rotting perfume that permeated the air. And it was the cars. We walked past cars that were just annihilated with dung, as though they’d been abandoned for months, but in reality the damage could have been done in the course of an evening.

This is all to say that at first I hated the starlings.

How could you not? We met under terrible circumstances. I will probably not cross that bridge for at least another month (and never after dark), but a few weeks after this episode I was treated to an entirely different view. One afternoon the starlings started to roost at their preferred time, always around 4pm, and this time curiosity got the best of me. I went up the Academy’s 4th floor terrace to see them in flight.

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These crazy birds put on a spectacular show! Imagine the derring-do of a World War II-era fighter plane, how it dips and it turns and it seems to defy all laws of physics. Now imagine a fleet of thousands of aerial acrobats flying in unison. The starlings are no longer individual birds, but are more like an avian cloud creating intricate shapes in the sky. It also didn’t hurt that the backdrop to this performance was a beautiful sunset.

For now, the starlings and me are all right. I’ve made peace with this natural phenomenon. I stay clear of the river at sunset and stick to where the ballet is viewed best. The starlings have a limited engagement in Rome, so I’m trying to catch as many shows as I can before they move on.

Going Up

Posted on November 15, 2013

We live on top of one of Rome’s many hills. The view is incredible, but there’s a price to pay. If you head down the hill you must go back up (sometimes several times a day). Before I show you what our view looks like, I thought I’d show you some of the staircases we’re becoming well-acquainted with.

A Weekend in Cinque Terre

Posted on November 6, 2013

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A word about Cinque Terre: you must go there. Even after reading about it, looking at pictures of it and dreaming about what our weekend might be like, I was not prepared for its beauty. In addition to not being an anchovy eater (or so I thought), I am not a hiker. But if you go, you must hike between the villages. Besides dinner at Trattoria da Oscar, hiking between the towns was my favorite experience. There were two trails open when we were there—one from Monterosso to Vernazza and the other from Vernazza to Corniglia. Both were fairly challenging and ran about an hour and a half, but not so tough that we needed special hiking gear to get through them. We had good shoes and a bottle of water to share and were fine. Just a few minutes into our first hike, I understood why so many people come here. The way each village reveals itself as you slowly make your way toward it is part of the magic of the Cinque Terre. I’ve never seen such stunning views in my life.

Anchovies Three Ways

Posted on November 3, 2013

We waited patiently outside the humble entrance to Trattoria di Oscar.

It was our final night in Monterosso as well as our last in the Cinque Terre. A tiny, gorgeous stretch of Ligurian coastline, Cinque Terre is made up of five candy-colored villages built right into the rocky cliffs: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Five villages linked by four hiking trails, one train and the occasional boat. After a terrible lunch in Corniglia (lured by a sunny piazza we chose a place that somehow managed to make gnocci inedible), I wanted this dinner to count.

Blink and you'll miss it. The sign leading the way back toward Monterosso.

Blink and you’ll miss it. The sign leading the way back toward Monterosso.

With the warmth of the sun several hours gone, there was no mistaking the brisk chill hanging in the air. I thought the more humble we looked, the more deserving we’d seem to be for one of the few inside seats. Some unlucky couples sat outside, bundled up and bearing the cold, but I didn’t want to be one of them.

There was just one woman working, tall and slender with a cool, androgynous style. She moved with necessary precision. Each trip outside was a calculated mission. She delivered drinks here, took an order there, while clearing a table in between. Interrupting this rhythm seemed impossible, until she finally made eye contact with Peter. In his adorably garbled Italiano-English he sealed the deal. A table would be ready in an hour.

“Inside?” He asked as politely as could be.

“Yes, inside.” And then she rushed off.

When you step inside Trattoria da Oscar, you suddenly feel like you’re in a cove under the sea. It is dark. The room is small, no more than 8 tables, with a curved, textured, cave-like ceiling. It’s all white and gray with a luminescent glow, the kind of lighting that heightens the sexiness of everything. There’s an extra sparkle in your glass of white wine… and in the eyes of the person sitting across from you. This under-the-sea effect isn’t apparent from the outside, making it all the more enchanting once you walk inside.

Yet Oscar is not overly sleek. It’s not the kind of place where you’re presented with a beautiful plate of food, with no clue who made it or where it came from. A working kitchen takes up a third of the room. There is a man, a kinetic equal to the woman outside, who is clearly cooking your dinner—and creating an intoxicating alchemy of scents in the doing. So it doesn’t just feel like you’re in an oceanic wonderland, it smells like one too.

It doesn’t just feel like you’re in an oceanic wonderland, it smells like one too.

Peter and I sat at a table closest to the kitchen, with just a counter and a low set of stainless steel shelves dividing us from the action.  Elvis Presley crooned from the speakers. We ordered a bottle of local wine—Sassarini Bianco—and I sat back against the sea floor wall and listened as Peter described what was happening in the kitchen.

“Okay. Now he’s taking a giant piece of squid and chopping it into rings with scissors,” Peter said, peeking through the space between the open shelves. “Whoah. He’s got a big frying pan. He’s making some kind of sauce…”

It was almost like our own private episode of Iron Chef. This delicious ballet—from order to production to plating to service—was mesmerizing to watch. I wish I could tell you that the cook was named Oscar. And that the woman working was his wife. But I don’t know. I didn’t ask them. I just know that they seemed like a team in every sense of the word, and their restaurant felt alive and breathing because of it.

But what I really want to tell you about are the anchovies.

We ordered Anchovies Three Ways (acciughe tre modi). Let me tell you, I am not typically an anchovy kind of girl. To be honest, I would have been happy with the calamari as an appetizer. I knew I’d enjoy it, but it would have been lazy ordering. Cinque Terre is an anchovy kind of town, so when in Rome, etc…? You get the anchovies.

Oh my god, I am so glad we did.

The woman delivered a plate that looked like modern art, pointing at each section quickly, “Salty, white wine and pickled.” She may have given us a quick smile. Then she was off.

The Salty anchovies were filleted and flash fried with oregano and capers scattered across them. I never realized how many expressions of salt there could be. One bite was like an atomic bomb of saltiness—the brash taste radiating across my tongue in so many different shades, the anchovy may as well have been dancing a Merengue in my mouth.

The White Wine anchovies were cooked whole, presumably braised in white wine, parsley and other herbs. Both Peter and I had a different revelation here—the anchovies were so meaty, they tasted like tender white fish with none of the saltiness of the previous version.

The Pickled anchovies were my favorite. I had no idea I would ever fall in love with a plate of picked anchovies! But the little fillets were the perfect balance of sweet and sour, with a salad of spinach and red onion to cut the tartness.

The anchovies eaten together is where the magic happened. It felt like a literal magic trick—how did they take the same tiny fish and create such utterly different flavors with it?  While alternating bites between the salty, the pickled and the braised white wine anchovy, my taste buds could barely keep pace with each change in flavor. My tongue tingled long after the plate was cleared from our table.

It felt like a literal magic trick—how did they take the same tiny fish and create such utterly different flavors with it?

After the first course the stereo switched from Elvis to Sinatra. “The Best is Yet to Come” started playing. This song is unabashedly my favorite Sinatra tune. Ever the optimist, I enjoy hearing it under any circumstance, but this night it felt very specific. Was the best yet to come that night during dinner? During our time in Italy? Or during our marriage?

That night at Trattoria da Oscar we realized that this very weekend in October matched the weekend twelve years ago when we first started dating. This weekend jaunt to Cinque Terre became an inadvertent anniversary celebration. Maybe that’s why I remember this dinner so fondly. Maybe that’s why it’s what I hope to remember most clearly many years from now.

For our main course we had the Spaghetti con Fruta di Mare (poetically put—fruit of the sea). The dish is for a minimum of two people and we soon found out why when the woman set down a steaming hot braising dish, at least a foot across, on our table. Inside was a mountain of pasta, clams, mussels and shrimp in an herby tomato sauce. This is the moment when your stomach somehow finds the necessary room. We helped ourselves to what seemed like a generous amount, but there was still so much left.

As we slowly made our way through the dish, plucking a mussel here, peeling a shrimp there, I noticed an Italian couple sitting next to us. They were in their 40’s and looked to be locals—it was ten o’clock and they were just sitting down to dinner, so you know they weren’t tourists. When we were about halfway through with our pasta, the woman brought an identical braising dish full of spaghetti over to their table. Not speaking, and barely making eye contact, they both served themselves massive portions and just went to TOWN. The woman picked out each and every bit of seafood like an assassin. Her bare hands were her weapon of choice. Once the bowl for discarded shells was full, she got down to business. I could spend a decade living by the sea and still not have the chops to eat like her.

There was no dessert, sadly. Trattoria da Oscar had the most whimsical looking house-made tiramisu, but they were out by the time we finished dinner. It was served in a little glass jar with a hinged lid, ladyfingers daintily layered upright along the side of the jar. It’s a dessert to be replicated at home, I suppose.

Oh, and the wine…. The wine was so good. As I mentioned, we had a bottle of Sassarini Bianco—just their house white. It’s produced in Cinque Terre, so naturally it compliments the seafood that is so plentiful there. I remember a bright, flinty taste, a dance across my tongue that lingered just a little. Something just a little sweet to wash the salt away.

Please Don’t Hate Me (I Live in Rome)

Posted on October 28, 2013

Let’s just get down to business. I’m writing to you from Rome. I’m in Rome because I live here. And I’ll continue living here for the next 9 months.

To me, this fact is amazing. So astounding that I couldn’t believe I had physically arrived at the American Academy in Rome on September 16, even though I was staring its beautiful fountain right in the face (no amount of pinching helped). My disbelief carried on until, well… right about now.

The view from our bedroom.

The view from our bedroom.

I could continue to live my life in this strange waking dream. Walking and talking and eating untold Italian delights all the while not feeling wholly present. But I realize this is dumb. I live here! This is my life! If I don’t own this precious time here, if I don’t accept the basic fact that I belong, then I would be a fool.

It’s funny, though, how you can be astonished into silence. I’d never experienced that before. Have you ever felt like you needed some time—maybe many months—to really let something sink in? On March 1, 2013, that’s what happened to me.

We toasted the possibility of an adventure so grand that the dream itself was enough to satisfy us.

In early winter, Peter was nominated for the Rome Prize in literature—a yearlong fellowship to live and work at the American Academy in Rome. He was on the long list of nominees. Never knowing just how long a list, we didn’t dare to dream it might actually happen. Well, maybe for one day and one night we dreamt. We toasted the possibility of an adventure so grand that the dream itself was enough to satisfy us. After that the subject only bubbled up in conversation a few times. Without ever agreeing to do so, we simply stopped talking about it. Our hope went underground—silent, but still very present.

The winter wore on, until one March morning I stepped outside and pulled a thin envelope from our mailbox. It was addressed to Peter from the American Academy. The letter was practically weightless, like the dreaded envelopes circulated during college application days, the kind of mail that could not possibly contain good news.

I carried the letter upstairs. I may have even laughed a little. It felt like the inevitable had occurred. This thin envelope was actually doing important work—setting the world back on its proper course. Time to stop dreaming about languid afternoons spent sipping prosecco in sun-speckled piazzas (who does that anyway?). Time to step back into my real life.

I handed the envelope to Peter with a sad smile. I said, “My heart is sinking… but just a little.” When he opened the letter and started reading, I could see his eyes skip quickly over the words. He looked disappointed, but not devastated.

What happened next is very strange. It’s the exact moment, I think, that I stopped living in reality. Peter let out a little yelp—a choked laugh, a sound of disbelief. He shoved the letter into my hands and made me read it aloud:

“Dear Mr. Bognanni,
We are pleased to inform you….”

And this is the point when I couldn’t bear to write a single word about my life. I couldn’t even think about it concretely, much less write about it. I didn’t know it until I experienced it, but sometimes there is news so unbelievably good that your mind just doesn’t accept it as true. Maybe this is the happy corollary to receiving terrible news? A kind of shock sets in. And then, there quickly follows an intense feeling of guilt.

So, back to this Please Don’t Hate Me thing.

Guilt. What’s the deal with that anyway? Is it a product of being Midwestern? Was it something I learned growing up? The moment I learned that we were in fact moving to Rome, something went numb inside me. When it happened, I jumped from elation right into shock, anxiety and dumbfoundedness. That’s no way to embrace good news, I know. But I felt fundamentally guilty. Like I was the recipient of too much good fortune, way more than my fair share. If I was able to share some of my luck with others, I would, but how do you share a yearlong fellowship to Rome? I don’t even understand how Peter is sharing it with me. So how am I supposed to take this experience and talk about it with others in a way that feels right?

I am so free here. I am more free than I ever have been and possibly ever will be, until I’m old and retired and nearing the end of my life.

More than feeling guilty about Rome, this incredible place where we’re living and this food we’re eating (more about all of that later), I feel guilty about the time. I am so free here. I am more free than I ever have been and possibly ever will be, until I’m old and retired and nearing the end of my life. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to someone so young. So average. Someone who didn’t lift a finger to ask for this time off.

But herein lies the problem. To feel like I don’t deserve to be here is doing nobody any good. That ugly feeling is certainly not helping me. And to waste such a colossal bit of good fortune is insulting to all the people who don’t get to be here (and who probably know precisely what they would do with all of this time).

The trick is to accept this wonderful gift. To look it right in the eye and simply say YES. And THANK YOU.

Someday I may not be so lucky, but for whatever reason, right now I am. No one’s checking up on me. No one cares how I spend my days. Since I have a chance to do anything, I should do what I most dream of doing. If only I could tune out every last voice, especially my own negative one, and get down to doing something I love….. so what is that?

The answer for the moment is writing. Outside of work, I haven’t devoted serious time or attention to it since I was in college, yet it’s something I care a lot about. I want to devote part of this year to writing for no other purpose than to explore subjects that interest me.  So, welcome to my new blog. It will most definitely be about my and Peter’s year in Rome and beyond, but it will also be a more personal account of what’s swirling around my head.

I want to thank my friend Susan for inspiring me to get more personal. She’s been writing a brave and hilarious blog about her life called Brand New Sour Milk. I admire her talent for writing honestly, but critically about her own life in such an artful way. I hope to do the same here!