Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Catania-Bucharest Connection

Over the Columbus Day weekend, I flew with my friend Michael to Romania, a place neither of us had ever been. It came about like this: I was looking for cheap airfares from Catania and on I found roundtrip tickets to Bucharest for less than ten euros each! In the end, with taxes and fees, each ticket came out to 69 euros, still slightly less than $100. I had always wanted to see the painted monasteries of Romania, so here was my chance!

Next, I went online and found a private tour agent who would arrange everything--airport pickup and delivery, car and driver, three nights' accommodations, and all sightseeing for a very reasonable price. This lucky find was Fernando and his wife Elena at Fernando's Hideaway.

I wondered why and how MyAir could have flights to Bucharest from Catania every day . . . it seemed very odd. Our flight was jam-packed on a Friday afternoon. We later learned from Fernando that many Italians have investments and businesses, even large factories and corporations in Romania. Why? One reason is the cheap labor; Romania is in the EU but not yet on the euro currency. Designers and producers of Italian clothing and accessories are finding it very convenient and cheap to have them made in Romania. Secondly, the Romanian language is the closest language to Italian--they are very similar. Even I could read and understand much and make myself understood pretty much! Amazing! Romanians also love all things Italian--food, clothing, shoes, furniture. Like America, if it says "Italian," it's a sure hit.

Although there was a lot of car time, Fernando did a great job of driving and his new vehicle is very comfortable. We stayed for two nights in their country home built specifically for visitors in the countryside of Moldavia. The house was built on a historic pattern of a house in their village and all built in the old, traditional ways--log structure with mud, sticks, and plaster, a wood oven/furnace and wrap-around porch. Their only concession to modern times was the installation of two large, modern bathrooms. Many of their rural neighbors do not have indoor bathrooms. We got there very late, but their elderly neighbor had come and made the fire to heat the house, and everything was immaculately clean and perfectly arranged for us. We found we were the first guests to stay in their new house!

Because of Fernando and Elena, we learned everything and more about Romania and its culture, history, geography, politics, economy, and religions. We were able to see three of the most famous painted monasteries, all UNESCO sites, and that alone was worth the trip for me! They are indeed international treasures! We met Elena's mother, who made us delicious sandwiches for lunch and pressed upon us a bottle of wine and another of Romania blueberry liqueur. We visited with an elderly but lively Romanian nun, now retired from her administrative position at her monastery, and admired the beautiful rugs she now weaves. We spent time with a pair of retired Romania teachers who have established their own award-winning ethnographic museum of Romanian artifacts and art, filling several buildings. Because of Fernando and Elena, we got a private tour complete with demonstrations and funny stories given by the wife.

I ate some of the best soup I've had anywhere in the world in Romania. Every day I tried a different one--capon with cream, vegetable-meatball, and borscht (beet)--all fabulous. The food everywhere was plentiful and comforting and cheap! The wine, both red and white, was also surprisingly good.

My own paternal grandparents came from this part of Romania about one hundred years ago. I shared what I knew of them with Fernando, who is a bit of an expert in the various groups that settled in northern Romania--Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews. He has promised to help me continue to research my grandfather's ancestry, as he was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army of Prince Ferdinand and later a farmer married to a German settler before they emigrated to the United States. I came to know how it was this all could have easily happened in this area, which was surprisingly diverse and peacefully so, so long ago.
I will return to Romania.

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Alison's R&R Lunch at Lisa and Onorio's

When Alison arrived in Sicily for the start of her R&R from Iraq, I was in Romania, so my friends took care of her for the afternoon. Kendra picked her up at the Catania airport and whisked her away, top down, of course, to Lisa and Onorio's house. It was Lisa's birthday!

Here is Lisa's description of the lunch: "Well, we started with a prosecco. Onorio was out grilling the beasts we were about to partake of. They included the following: two Florentine steaks (extremely thick), two large turkey thighs, eight sausages, one salami, and one whole chicken. (This for four people, mind you.)

"In addition, he made the Florentine special called Fetunta. In Sicily, they call it bruschetta, but ours is brushed with a garlic cloves, grilled, and then olive oil is poured over it with some salt. Then, for veggies, it was a tomato, onion and zucchini salad, and then my famous beet salad. For dessert, it was cannolis as they couldn't make my birthday cake . . . .

"Then, we made our way to the digestivos . . . which your daughter tried them all. :) ,then coffee. I forgot to bring out the blueberry pie and Onorio forgot to bring out the antipasto . . . which was prosciutto and salami. I thought we were missing something when we were drinking the prosecco. Oh, well.

"Then, I put her in the shower. I didn't know what kind of water pressure you would have at home, so I told her that she would see Jesus in my shower with such hot water and super-duper water pressure. She did say that she saw Jesus."

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sunshine and Seafood in Scoglitti

Some of my friends have been after me for quite some time to organize a roadtrip to Scoglitti, on the southeast corner of Sicily, a sleepy little beach town where our friend and auto mechanic Tony owns a restaurant. I had been there once before and told them how much I'd enjoyed it. Finally, we settled on a day and arranged it with Tony, who would meet us near Ragusa and guide us around the area before having lunch at his restaurant in Scoglitti.

After about an hour's drive from Sigonella, Tony met us "at the second Tamoil" on the highway to Ragusa. (Tamoil is the biggest gas station chain in Sicily.) We drove through Comiso and past the now-abandoned U.S. Air Force base there (brand-new school, closed). We stopped for a coffee and the best little ricotta "cream puff" with a crunchy crust I've ever had. The area is famous for ricotta made from cow's milk (usually it is sheep's). I hope to return to try the Sicilian breakfast of warm ricotta sometime.

Tony took us to his son Anthony's new house, still under construction, and Anthony gave us a tour of the whole place. He is currently laying tiles and stones mosaic-style in the entire front yard, quite a large and ambitious project. His wife studied art and it helping design it. Like many Sicilians, Anthony is doing all of the finishing of the house himself with the help of family members. This saves a lot of money but takes a lot of time. He's going to have a beautiful place when it's all done.

Next, we went to the famous Sicilian Donnafugata Castello, a popular destination for both locals and tourists in the area. This is not where the wine by the same name is produced, but it is a nicely situated and attractive palace that has been somewhat restord for tours. We enjoyed the various rooms--the standard "hall of mirrors," banqueting rooms, the bishop's rooms, the painted ceilings, suits of armor, statues, chandeliers, hand-painted wallpaper, antique furniture, and the surrounding gardens. Photos are not permitted inside, although we sneaked a few.

By then, we were all starving, so we proceeded on to the little fishing/beach town of Scoglitti (sko-YEE-tee) and the restaurant run by Tony's other son, John. Along the way, we passed the Greek archaeological site of Kamerina, where 100,000 people once lived. John wasn't quite ready for us, so we took a little walk across the piazza and down to the seaside, which has a great esplanade and fisherman statue along with a view of the fishing boats and beaches. The palm trees and sunny day combined to make us all happy we had come to see "Tony's World." Scoglitti by the way, was the site of the Allied invasion in 1943, although today there is not a trace of it. Below are Lisa, Pat, Kendra, and me.

Finally, we settled down to a fine lunch at Pizza in Piazza prepared by John for us--cold seafood salad, pasta with lobster and salmon, mixed salad, and a whole fresh fish for each of us. We ate every bit, washing it down with bottles of the local Cerasuola wine and followed, of course, by expresso.

Fine food, fine friends, and a fine day for all. Life is good!

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