Summer Walks

I like to walk.

But I need stimulation.  Meaning, I refuse to get bored.

And yes, my friends, a walk in the park just doesn’t cut it for me. A walk in the park is NOT my walk in the park.

A shady trail snaking up a hill, overlooking more hills, nope, not for me.

I am a city hiker. 

The following might surprise some of you, o nature lovers, even appall you, but I say it like it is.

I’m not a fan of nature.  Rough paths, wild creatures, nasty insects, ugly hiking boots, and backpacks are not my idea of relaxation.  I would definitely fail at the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela, even though the idea sounds somewhat romantic and idyllic. Nothing idyllic about roughing it for two weeks. Or even one day.

I’m a city girl, as most of my followers know, who has been living in the beautiful New York City suburbs for nearly a lifetime, loving it deeply, but this is as close to nature as I’ll ever get. I love the neat tree-shaded streets, and the convenient free parking everywhere.

But walking down a suburban neighborhood is as boring as it can get, though not as awful as a country trail.

I’m a city hiker, a window shopping hiker.  I get my best workout strolling down city streets, bustling with crowds, enticing shops, traffic noises, even the stimulating smell of exhaust.

I am a born tourist.

I thrive on the majestic sightings of European cathedrals, imposing historical monuments, droves of visitors lined up to enter a grand museum, dazzling fountains refreshing the air on a perfect sizzling summer day.

Keep you trees and wild lavender fields, give me paved streets, wide sidewalks, and souvenir vendors.

Give me London, Florence, Venice, Paris, and Rome.  Give me Via della Spiga and Via Condotti, so I may dream while window shopping at Bottega Veneta, Valentino, Dior, Chanel.  Give me sophisticated civilization at its best.

I do my best hiking when surrounded by what I love: the pure joy and life that is a city.

But, as I mentioned, I live in the burbs.

Though craving an exhilarating hike up Fifth, the idea of getting on a train, or driving into the city looking for reasonable parking, doesn’t appeal to me, especially in these challenging times.  Besides,  the entire experience would occupy the majority of the day, and I just don’t have that kind of time or patience.

Thus, I do the next best thing, to fulfill the aerobic segment of my daily workout: I drive to an outdoor shopping center, and happily walk its entire length, following the enticing trail of stores. I don’t need to go in (though I might), just admire the merchandise in the windows, the always exciting SALE signs, and the energy of people going in and out, talking, laughing, living.

If a sale is seriously alluring, I will walk in, make my careful purchases, and the colorful shopping bag will add just the right amount of weight to my exercise routine.  My favorite barbell!

There will be neatly trimmed hedges and flowery bushes along the lanes, bright red-fuchsia roses, well-cured yellow and orange flower beds, and an occasional bird.  Indeed, I find manicured nature perfectly acceptable.

And then, once home, I will unpack my carefully wrapped treasure find, an exquisite, elegantly hand painted ceramic bowl from Spain, to add to my beloved and extensive kitchenware collection.

It was a good hiking day.

Ten Years of Italian Classes!

Ten years ago, on May 15, 2012, I began teaching Italian Classes at the beautiful North Castle Public Library in Armonk, NY.

This is the first flyer the library published.

So many, many wonderful memories, so many lovely students, many of which are still with me, following the journey through the pandemic with Zoom, then hybrid, then back to just Zoom.

I always thought we would be celebrating with a fun food party at the library, like we did many times for special holidays, but, alas, not this time. We will celebrate on Zoom, raising a glass of wine to this amazing adventure together. Thank you to the Armonk Library for supporting this great program, to the Friends of the Library, to the Bristal, and the magnificent annual Armonk Outdoor Art Show.

Mostly GRAZIE GRAZIE GRAZIE to all my students, especially those who have been with me from Day One. And welcome to the new students who continue to join us.

You are my beloved Armonk Family. I’m looking forward to many more fun classes with you all.

Forever grateful.

When You Digress While Christmas Shopping

It happens to all of us. Ok, definitely to me.

TJ Maxx is bright and cheerful, glistening with festive decorations, lovely music playing, busy, but not too busy, just enough to be filled with happy shoppers, but not so crowded that you can’t get through the aisles with your shopping cart.

I’m an organized shopper, my list is thorough and clearly written in largish print, so I don’t have to fish out my reading glasses, never one of my favorite accessories.

I know exactly which departments to head to, to choose the items for the people I still haven’t checked off. As I aim for the toy section, somehow I detour to shoes, on the opposite side of the store. Just looking, people, really, checking out the new stock, anything new and unusual and at a fabulous price? Just in case. No, thank goodness, I sigh with relief. God knows I don’t need more shoes, probably for the rest of my life.

Housewares always catches my attention, because, you know, I have daughters who run their own households now, and are always thrilled to collect new pretty pieces.

So am I.

An absolutely adorable set of espresso cups in unusual colors – dark blue, soft pink, gray, sand- stops me on my tracks. Yes, I know, I have dozens of espresso cups in all the colors of the rainbow, but…the shape of these little beauties!  Wide, flat, capacious enough to pour the entire content of my individual 1 and ½ (espresso)-cup Moka coffee maker. Perfection at a delicious price. First item in my cart.

Moving on, straight to toy department, ignore, ignore…

Except this: clearance in women’s section. Skirts! Oh, wow, this is exciting, and no, I don’t need any skirts, I have enough of them for nearly every day of the year, short, long, and in between.  But seriously, the prices! I grab a flowy skirt with a cool black and white pattern, lovely for sure, hook the hanger on the shopping cart’s handle, and keep browsing. Not many skirts, really. A much larger selection of pants, which is very common, and which I always found very odd. Why do most women prefer pants to skirts? Comfort, they say. But I think skirts are much more comfortable, and so damn pretty and feminine. Oh, here is another beauty! All black, gorgeous. Whoever has enough black in their wardrobe? I hook this one on my shopping cart, and move on.

Back to task, I collect gift items for my loved ones, ignore the jelly candies, buzz by the designer purses section (feeling virtuous), peruse the seriously boring men’s apparel, grab some rolls of Christmas gift wrap, then go on to the dressing rooms to try on the skirts.

But the skirts are gone.

I check the floor, lift up all the items in my cart, glance at the bottom rack, spin around frantically.  No sign of them.  I retrace my steps, which is very difficult because my tour of the store was (as always) very erratic, sort of zigzagging; I squeeze my way into the aisles, my eyes on the ground.  Nothing.  The two skirts have disappeared.

I’m confused: did someone remove them from my cart when I was engaged elsewhere? Would someone do such a thing? A woman who was bowled over by their beauty and snatched them away?

I stopped the search and caught myself breathing in relief. The music was gentle and holy.

It was the hand of God. 

Yes, He came to my rescue at the right time. He knew that my excitement at finding those unnecessary skirts was marred by a deep sense of guilt, and took matters in his own hands.

He relieved me from that weight. I felt lighter and purer, as I headed proudly to the checkout.

I had shopped only for my family. Minus the little guilty pleasure of the espresso cups.  And they were still in the cart.  God had let them pass.

Life can be fair.

And they look so cute next to the delicious ciambellone I made for breakfast, with a light heart. A simple, hearty Italian breakfast cake, like the one my mother used to make, but using all-American ingredients.  A true winner.  Click here for recipe!

Merry Christmas, my friends!

Writers with Real Lives

That would be me.

Here I am, sitting at my computer, staring at the last sentence I wrote in my novel in progress. 

Two weeks ago.

I barely remember what I was even talking about, so I need to start from the top to refresh my memory.

I have a job (or two), besides a family, and an active household.

My mind sizzles all day with the adventures of my characters, my emotions roller coast through my numerous daily chores. I change their names and their loves, suffer through their challenges, swear to solve the problems I had so cleverly inflicted, while I busy myself in the hallways of my workplace, smiling, helping, acknowledging, performing my duties scrupulously, believing that, once at home, I can shut the door and weave my plot with joy and genius.

Images of a room with a view of an apart in Paris, my desk located by a tall, narrow window with green wooden shutters, overlooking the famous rooftops, tease me, and I swear I can smell the buttery brioches baking in the boulangerie downstairs. Oh the dream of composing my novel in Paris, instead of extracting inspiration from a painting on the wall.

But the marinated chicken needs to be baked, the Swiss chard cooked and seasoned, the laundry – loaded in the morning before work – must head into the dryer, then a run to the gas station since I’m at 1/8 of a tank, hit the bank’s drive through for yet another necessary withdrawal, then drive to the library of another town to teach my class.

Tonight, later tonight, I promise myself, I will pour a glass of white, then write at least one page (or for half an hour), just to get some lines in, watch this story move along, vibrant and poignant, the way I feel it in my heart.

But I just pour a glass of white.

Tired, bone-tired, not young, though somewhat in denial. The series I’ve been watching on Italian television beckons to me, with all its juicy drama, delicious suspense, and stunningly attractive male leads. So easy to just turn on the dishwasher, then shower, get into cozy pajamas, and surrender to the devious call of the sofa. You deserve to rest, it whispers, the hell with a novel that will never be published anyway.

So sadly realistic.

The guilt will keep me up at night, all sorts of unpleasant appellations will bombard me – loser, quitter, inept, untalented mouse pusher, delusional dreamer. My frustration will tear up every positive vibe I had forced myself to follow, I will shrink into my insignificant world, and try not to cry. Because I don’t cry, people. I have learned to rearrange my emotions, and steel my nerves. Weakness breaks you till you can no longer function.

Thus, I turn on the computer, take a deep breath, promise myself gummy candy (and a generous shot of brandy) for my TV time, reread five or six pages of whatever I wrote before, fall deeply in love with it again, pat myself on the back, and push on.

Like the great Ernest said, I press enter, and just start bleeding.

How you write a novel when you have a real life, an ordinary life.

Dreaming of the day you can write The End.

I Have Never Done This

Until now.

Okay, not exactly only now, like today.  It has been a few weeks, perhaps a month, that I have, somewhat tentatively, engaged in this unusual behavior.

I actually cooked a meal for myself!

Not for my family, not for guests, not for a friend or a neighbor, not for any other human being.

I sort of felt guilty, in the sense of why am I bothering to waste time cooking a dish that only I will consume?  Preposterous. 

If you know me personally, or have been following my blog, you should be aware that I absolutely adore cooking, and especially baking, as you can see from the numerous videos I posted on my website, but I always had an audience, a houseful, a holiday, a reason to hit the stove, and create something awesome for everyone to enjoy.

I never considered myself one of the recipients, because why would I ever dream of cooking something just for myself, when there is lovely Amy’s Frozen Pizza, lots of crunchy cereals, plenty of leftover rice, or asparagus, or a jar of scrumptious Italian sour cherry jam ready to eat?  That and a few crackers, a cup of applesauce, or even some tender sardines in olive oil (which I love!).

I wouldn’t dream of wasting any of my precious time making a meal for myself – better things to do, like work, write, teach, clean my house, watch Italian television, or a decent show on Netflix, munching on raw almonds.

Then my daughter gave me a recipe for quick and easy shrimp with butter, garlic, herbs, and lemon. She bumped into it on Pinterest, and seemed delighted with the results.

Okay, I love shrimp.  I’m not much of a fish cook, not enough experience, but if I’m ever in a restaurant (rare occurrence), I will order a fish dish, simply because I never make it at home (unless they offer a hefty, juicy, medium rare prime rib with horseradish sauce).

I love shrimp so much that I have been known to eat almost the entire tray (including the replenishing) of plump, tasty shrimp at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Of course, I was embarrassed, but not enough to stop.

I remember being at a Christmas party at an acquaintance’s house, when I was eight-months-pregnant with my third child, wearing an elegant maternity outfit of a sparkly top and silky black skirt, four-inch heels, and carrying a dainty black leather clutch with gold detail.  I did not know most of the guests, the living area was very crowded, and you could barely make your way to the tentalizing and abundant buffet, but I sure did! Cradling my sizeable baby belly with my hands, I inched my way to the tub of shrimp, determined and focused to get my share.  About ten times.  I’m pretty sure no one else got a chance at more than a couple of those plump, jumbo shrimp that night!

Getting back to this fabulous, super-easy dish, I tried out the recipe one day, meaning to share it with my husband for dinner.  He was not interested (not a fan of fish), and had already had something to eat. 

So, I ate it myself.  All of it.  One pound of shrimp over rice. Bliss. I genuinely believed I was in heaven, at least for that half an hour or so.  The shrimp was frozen raw, quickly defrosted under cold water.  I minced some garlic, chopped a handful of fragrant fresh cilantro, squeezed a juicy lime, added some spices, and a generous glass of white wine.  I replaced the butter with extra-virgin olive oil (lactose-intolerant, unfortunately), and just barely reduced the delightful sauce over medium heat, then spooned the steaming shrimp and all over freshly cooked hot rice, watching it soak into it, envelop each grain, infuse it with a fantastic, exotic flavor, the kind you only experience in your dreams.

I plated it in one single large plate, poured a substantial amount of chilled white wine in a goblet (a must!), and enjoyed this luxurious, heavenly, sophisticated meal, that was actually the easiest thing in the world to make.

Here is the original recipe, my friends.  You can use lovely butter and fresh parsley, with a good squeeze of lemon – more Italian-style -, or follow what I do, with the olive oil, lime, and cilantro.  Either way it is delectable, and I’m pretty sure it will become your favorite dish also.

Serve this glorious personal feast on a gorgeous plate, or on a stunning Indian metal thali, like I did (check out photos). A meal fit for…well, a princess, which is how I feel while I’m consuming it.  Yes, a princess who cooks her own meals…and would not want it any other way. Do cook, my friends, it is the highest of highs!

Go ahead and indulge, even if just by yourself, in front of the TV, Netflix on. 

It will soften your blues, pull you together again, when you feel you are just hopelessly free-falling, and no one is there to catch you.

An earthy piece of life, of resilience; a spark of attitude and determination.  Maybe even a secure rope to grasp.

Paint a smile on your face, and cook some shrimp.

Tomorrow will be better, I promise.

Il Parrucchiere: Ricordi d’infanzia

Va bene, sì, adesso mi fa piacere andare dal parrucchiere.

Mi guardo nello specchio, vedo questa ricrescita castana, e mi dà fastidio.  No, non mi lamento del colore, per carità! Sono infatti felice che la ricrescita sia ancora del mio colore naturale, e non grigia o bianca, nonostante abbia superato i quaranta da un bel pezzo.

Ma voglio tornare bionda, ecco. Non sono stata dal parrucchiere dal luglio 2020, poco prima del matrimonio di mia figlia. Mi sento irrequieta, incompleta, insomma non me stessa. Questa maledetta pandemia ha bloccato tutto, ha cancellato tante cose, anche un po’ i sogni e la speranza.

Ma ce l’ho fatta finalmente. Doppia mascherina, il segno della croce, e mi sono messa nelle mani abili della mia parrucchiera di fiducia (sono 24 anni che la conosco, so essere leale io!).

Ma non era sempre così, la voglia di andare dal parrucchiere. Se avete appena scoperto il mio blog, io sono cresciuta a Portici, una bellissima cittadina vivace ed elegante, alle porte di Napoli, dopo essere nata e vissuta a Napoli fino a nove anni.

Mara a 12 anni

Comunque, mia madre era anche lei molto fedele al suo parrucchiere, Raffaele, un distinto signore dai capelli grigi che aveva la sua attività a Capodichino, nella zona dell’aeroporto, ed ogni tre mesi si montava tutti sulla piccola Fiat 750 blu del babbo, e si andava dal parrucchiere. Mia madre era naturalmente di ottimo umore, entusiasta all’idea di ritornare al suo biondo da Marilyn, mentre per me iniziava la solita tragedia: il taglio corto a scodella, a mezza orecchia, con la frangetta fino a metà fronte. Una roba antica, insomma, la stessa pettinatura della mamma quando era piccola, che lei considerava ancora perfettamente adeguata alle bambine tra i tre e i tredici anni.

La notte prima dell’evento io dormivo poco, l’ansia mi divorava, il pensiero di tornare a scuola il giorno dopo, conciata con tale indegna pettinatura, e pregavo che nessuno se ne accorgesse. Naturalmente preghiera ignorata, tutti lo notavano e ridacchiavano. Tutte le altre ragazzine avevano i capelli lunghi e ondulati, che spesso intrecciavano, o tiravano su in una lunga e abbondante coda di cavallo. In realtà, non ho mai capito perché mio padre condividesse l’opinione di mia madre per quanto riguardava la mia acconciatura, ma fatto sta che finiva sempre così. Anche se devo ammettere che mio fratello la passava peggio, con quel taglio militare a spazzola da spavento. Non ricordo la reazione di mia sorella, essendo lei più piccola e priva di opinione sulla sua pettinatura.

Il tragitto sembrava lunghissimo, un calvario, anche se non ci si metteva più di mezz’ora, credo. Io rimbalzavo a scatti sul sedile posteriore, tra le buche stradali, il traffico rumoroso e la nausea che mi bloccava la gola, dato che soffrivo tanto di mal di macchina e di quel peso insostenibile nel cuore.

Avendoci accompagnato a destinazione, il babbo ci salutava, e spariva per qualche ora, in giro a passeggio da solo, in santa pace, spesso fermandosi all’aeroporto, a sognare futuri viaggi in paesi distanti.

La mia mamma Wanda

Biondissima, sorridente, trionfante, la mamma emergeva dal parrucchiere, trascinando noi tre bambini appresso, incavolati, e rassegnati

Finalmente, alla tanto attesa età di dodici anni, i miei decisero di non sottopormi più a quella pettinatura sfigata. Non mi tagliai più i capelli fino a diciannove anni, felice di sfoggiare la mia lunga chioma liscia e castana.

Ma eccomi qui, adesso signora newyorkese, più bionda che mai, e infinitamente gioiosa di esserlo.  Perché, insomma, una bionda è sempre una bionda.  Sì, è vero, blondes have more fun!

(Mamma, questa è per te, la più bella bionda del mondo).

The Hair Dresser : An Italian Memoir

Now I love it.  Going to the hairdresser.

When I look at my brown roots (yes, my friends, still brown, though I have well passed my fortieth decade!), I get restless.  I have not had my hair colored since July 2020, shortly before my youngest daughter’s wedding. Homebound by this horrible pandemic, I have been watching my hair grow darker by the day, desperately yearning for a trip to the salon.

Yes, I have been been a blonde for 15 years now, and I LOVE IT!

However, going to the hairdresser wasn’t always lovely.  If you have just discovered my blog, I grew up in Italy, Naples specifically, with parents who believed that nicely trimmed short hair and bangs were perfectly appropriate for a little girl.

I grew up in the small city of Portici, next door to the metropolis of Naples.  My mother had a favorite hairdresser, Raffaele, in the area of Capodichino – which was within walking distance of the Naples airport – and she was quite loyal to this  gentle, gray-haired gentleman.  Every three-four months, my father would collect my mother and the three of us in the old blue Fiat 750, even after we moved to the suburb of Portici, and would drive to Naples for our haircuts. 

Mara at 12

Tragedy.  For me.  I dreaded getting my hair cut to mid-ear, with very neat, straight bangs halfway down my forehead. But that is what my parents believed to be the most appropriate hairstyle for a 7 (8-9-10-11) -year-old-girl.  Except that I would have to go back to school, and that hairstyle had not been fashionable since my mother was a little girl.  Of course I didn’t even know that at the time, but I found out later, looking through ancient photos of my mom as a child.

The night before the ‘hairdresser day’ I would practically spend my dreams in nightmares of anxiety and dread.  You know when you must be resigned to a dreary fate, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, because you are totally powerless?

Not a good place to be, no matter how old. (Okay, so, I often feel that way now, at my mature age, but that’s another story for another blog).

When we arrived at the salon, I was already strained by the, approximately, 20-minutes car trip, suffering from extreme car sickness, exacerbated by the noisy traffic and the smell of gasoline; so I took a deep, nauseated breath, when I was released from the back seat, and braced myself for the scissor attack.

I will admit that my brother had it worse: He would get a harsh crew cut, which my father believed to be ideal for a young boy.  My little sister, well, being the little sister, she was in la-la land, and had no opinion whatsoever about her haircut (like mine, but she had wavy, and more abundant, hair, and could pull it off better than me).

My father – not one who would be hanging around a hair salon – would wave us a cheerful good-bye, and head out to explore the neighborhood, stop for an espresso, and perhaps, walk into the airport and dream of faraway places, adventurous traveler that he was.

A couple of hours later, my mother would emerge, a stunning platinum blonde, a la Marilyn Monroe, with her trail of three bored and resentful children.

I would cry that night, demand that I don’t go to school, express reasonable feelings of temporary anger and hatred, then head to school anyway the morning after, hoping and praying that no one would mention my haircut.  But they did, of course.

My mother Wanda

Well, once I hit 12, my father finally relented, and allowed me to grow my hair to my heart’s content.  I did not cut it again till I was 19.  I sure loved my long, light brown hair.

Well, my dear readers, I couldn’t wait to get back to the salon, in Westchester, NY, these days.

I got my blond back!

Oh yes, Blondes DO have more fun.

(For my mother Wanda, the most beautiful blonde in the world)

Buon Carnevale a tutti!

We are celebrating this ancient festival today, when anything goes (or almost!).

There are many foods associated with this event, all involving the consuming of rich and fatty foods, since the following day is Ash Wednesday, when, in the past, all meat was forbidden for the forty days of Lent, as a sacrifice.  As a matter of fact, the word Carnevale comes from the Latin carnem levare, which translates to ‘take away meat’.

The point of Carnevale, also known in the US as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), is to enjoy this day in every possible way, eating a variety of delicious foods.  Many traditions are associated with the Italian Carnevale, including celebrating with amazing costumes and masks borrowed from the famous Commedia dell’Arte.

In my family, when I was growing up in Italy, we wore cute cardboard masks, sometimes costumes, and there would be lively plays and poem reciting at school.

My mother always made the delicious Frappe di Carnevale, also known as Cenci, or Chiacchiere. They are dough ribbons, fragrant with lemon and wine (or brandy), deep fried till golden, tender and light.  They are super easy to make, and here is my recipe!

Buon Carnevale, and eat up!

Learn Italian!

Do you have a smattering of Italian? Did you take it in high school, or studied it on your own? Well, then you are welcome to join us!

Our Italian Language and Culture Class happens happily every Tuesday night through Zoom, snow, or rain not-withstanding.  Yes, we definitely need  to thank technology these days, which allows us to interact easily with anyone anywhere.  No small thing.

Go the North Castle Library, click on the calendar, find our Italian Class, and follow the prompts.  You need to register to join.

Looking forward to meeting lovely new people, who have my same passion for Italy and all things Italian!

A presto, miei cari!

The Storm

The storm can engulf you suddenly.

While you go about the business of life.

Working, creating, worrying about the stupid things.

Because this is how we roll, we imperfect human beings, who are trying our damndest to be…what?

Nothing, really.  We are just attempting to survive, and, if we have any whimsical, always unrealistic, dreams, we put them aside till the right time comes.

My dear friends, the right time never comes.

So we cower, and follow the most traveled road, not realizing that only some of us are good travelers.  Some keep stumbling, taking all the wrong turns, turning back, getting lost and smashing into walls, crying in the shadows, cursing fate, regretting decisions taken decades past, when we could barely count decades, but we trusted.  Others, dreams, the future.

The future is now, and it is as cloudy as a London sky.

The brilliant ones seize the future before it happens, twist it and mold it like Murano  molten glass.  The others – the weak, the fearful, the responsible – just find themselves projected there, broken, confused, scrambling to just stay afloat.

And, mostly, fail. 

Try your damndest, as I said, but the winds can be so instantly overwhelming that you are swept away before you have the chance to realize that it is windy.

You cannot fight the storm, dear ones. Just close your eyes, and allow it to divert you where it will.

Then, if you can, try to pick up the pieces.  Yes, difficult task, some are unreachable.

The storm is wicked. 

But so is life.