Sunday, April 17, 2016

My Big, Fake, Greek Wedding

I've never taken a ferry in Greece before.  I've been to Santorini, but it always seemed to me like a waste of time to spend all that time on a boat when I could be there in less than an hour on a plane.  Well, I've learned my lesson.  Leaving Santorini we took Ryanair which is supposed to be a budget airline but they tack on all these fees for luggage and not doing online check-in and shit.  Ryanair sucks big donkey balls...which brings me back to Santorini.
Well, this time we took a ferry, to get from Crete to Santorini.  Bronte couldn't meet us at the port, but her friend Flora, proprietor of the Flower Pension - where we were staying - sent a driver to pick us up.  Bronte has a thing about signs and me, and wanted him to bear one inscribed similar to the one she and my Dark Lord made nine years ago.  Flora talked her down to one that read, "Slutty M_(my last name)_."

(If you are a newer reader, please understand that I am not slutty, nor is Bronte "Yellow trash," as I sometimes address her.  These are the kinds of jokes that sprout in the sweatshop environment known as hagwon teaching in Korea).
We dropped our stuff at the Pension and headed along the caldera to Bronte's apartment (which I can admit now to being very slightly worried I wouldn't be able to find.  I found it without a problem, but hey, it was 2011 the last time I was there).  Bronte and Vasilis are - let's call a spade a spade - way too cool to be my friends, and yet, they are.  They are also night owls (like I used to be before 11 years of teaching made me otherwise) which meant they'd just gotten up by the time we got over there, and we headed down to Katharos for a big, Greek feast.  It was kind of an overcast, cruddy sort of day, and Bronte was worried that it wasn't nice enough to sit outside, but the three of us have lived in Mongolia long enough that a little wind and rain ain't no thing.
After stuffing ourselves and a quick donkey drive-by (we wanted to be sure Five got that checked off her list), B and V drove us down to Ammoudi Bay.  We'd already told them how much they were looking forward to taking the hike from Oia to Fira that starts steps away from the Flower Pension, so they decided they should hike up the cliffs behind me to the windmills.  Five and Engrish were all for it (I, on the other hand, had eaten about two dozen dolmades within the hour previous and had a food baby to think of...I rode to the top with Bronte and Vasilis.  But the next time I'm in Santorini...)

I also sat out of the next day's aforementioned hike.  I've been to Fira before and Bronte and me had some catchin' up to do, sitting by the pool and eating yet more amazing Greek food.  That night, though, Flora had arranged for us all to go to The White Door, a dinner theater centered around a traditional Santorini wedding set in the 1940s.  Flora had been several times already that year, and had a blast every time.  This was a new experience for me, and even being foreigners and not that familiar with the culture we enjoyed the show.  Especially the part where we got to smash the plates.  Honestly though, the food was not as satisfying as I've come to expect from Greece, so I was happy to know that we were heading out to dinner (at the altogether reasonable hour of 9) later.

Where we met up again with B and V's friend, Kostas.  Let me be honest with you.  Kostas came to Katharos that blustery afternoon for lunch, and we all fell a little in love with him - cute, smoldering brown eyes, "the body of a Greek god!" as the mother in the White Door performance kept proclaiming.  I'm not going to try to justify the fact that all three of us were infatuated with the poor guy - I'll just say we live in Asia and leave it at that. 

I'm telling you all that as a preface to what happened next.  Five, who is the most reserved, most modest, least attention-seeking person I've ever met (I didn't nickname her "Mother Teresa" for nothing), agreed to go out dancing.  None of are exactly the busting-a-move type (although I do like a good hafla), but it was our last night in Greece and we were accompanied by the descendant of Adonis, so damned if we didn't go get our groove on, at least for a little while.  Finally Bronte and Vasilis drove us back to the Flower Pension, where we said some teary farewells (me because I love that yellow trash like my own sister, them because after weeks of me promising them how hot Greek men were, they'd finally met one and were feeling jilted that we were leaving) and extracted promises that they would come visit us in Mongolia.  Then we sat up for a while, packing and reminiscing and eating the baklava Bronte bought for me that afternoon on our joyride.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

When in Crete...

One day is really not enough in Athens, if you ask me.  In one day, you don't get to experience the laid-back-ishness that is fundamentally Greek, just wandering down streets and seeing where you end up.  But that was what we had, if we wanted to see some of Crete and Santorini, too, in less than a week.
After a taxi ride from a driver with a sense of humor...actually, let me stop there for a moment.  That sounds like a good thing, but it rarely is.  I don't want my driver to make jokes like, "No, you're right, this isn't the way we should be going...I'm taking you to the mafia," or, "OH!  You wanted to go to Eleftherios airport?!?"  That is some stressful shit first thing in the morning.  I know the way to and from Athens' airport relatively well, and I wasn't sure where he was going, so I didn't appreciate it particularly much.  We should have called the driver that took us into the city - he gave me his card, but it was too much hassle to think about.  Lesson learned.  Anyways, we made our morning flight into Heraklion and stepped out into bright sun reflecting off the ocean.  Engrish booked our hotel, which was near the waterfront, and after getting settled in, we went around exploring.  We were very close to the main pedestrian area, so we wandered around and found the old lion fountain, which was conveniently located next to a Ben and Jerry's.
"It's only a model."
After a decent amount of walking we found our way to the museum, which had a lot of really cool stuff.  Crete was the center of the ancient Minoan culture, and the palace of Knossos is only 5km outside of Heraklion.  It was cool to see some of the octopus vases I studied in art history classes, and I enjoyed seeing the reconstructions of what the palace looked like (supposedly) in its glory days.
The actual site was pretty cool, and Five, Engrish, and I had fun guessing at what functions different areas had originally (none of us are nerdy audioguide people, so who knows whether or not any of us were correct).  Heinrich Schliemann, the guy who dug up Troy, originally had plans to brutali...er, excavate, Knossos as well, but he died and the privilege went to a British dude, who seems to have been somewhat less of an amateur...meaning I had to use my imagination a lot less in order to get an idea of the grandeur of the place.

Also, I had to buy a hat.  It was sunny, and I have no idea why I wasn't using the olive oil sunscreen I bought from the guy who kept telling Engrish and Five what the fragrances they were considering would do to their boyfriends...
There were other cool things to see and do on Crete.  Unfortunately we weren't there long enough to see most of them, because Crete is a bigass island.  But we did get to see the Venetian fortress...from the outside, at least.  The inside was under restoration or something.  Seeing San Marco's winged lion took me back to the summer.  Later that evening we went to the best restaurant we ate at the entire trip (I'm not counting Katharos, but I'll talk about that in my next post) - Peskesi.  If I'd had my way we would have gone back the next night as well.  They didn't have any of my favorites (tzatziki, dolmades, and Greek salad) because it was authentically Cretan, but it was so delicious that I DIDN'T EVEN CARE.  If you go there, get one of everything.  You won't be disappointed.
We also enjoyed Starbucks on more than one occasion.  You can not underestimate the excitement you feel after months (okay, so it was October and it had only been two months...DETAILS, DETAILS!!!) without it.  Mongolia's improved since I first came in terms of coffeeshops (Tom n Tom's cinnamon hot chocolate actually slays), but there's nowhere that does good frappuccinos.

Oh yeah, and we went to the beach.

Forget about frappuccinos - there is no beach in Mongolia.  Or, well, there might be a good one somewhere around Khuvsgul, but I have almost never been hot enough here to think that getting into a body of water seemed like a good idea.  Not so in Greece.  Even in October it seemed pretty damn hot to me, and even if I weren't in a beachy mood, Engrish and Five were determined that they were going to get some sun (I was not - I hid under my umbrella, determined not to blind anyone with my scary whiteness as demonstrated by the glare coming off my leg).  It was actually lovely - not crowded at all (apparently late October seems like a terrible time to go to the beach for the Greeks), hot, and yet, a nice breeze was blowing off the ocean.  We had drinks from the restaurant just inland and I had my hundredth serving of tzatziki, and it was a nice, chilled way to spend our second afternoon in Crete.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Walk in Athens

It's Thursday and my spring break is mostly over.  I'm a little bitter about it - for the first time in a very long time I haven't gone anywhere, and instead, am supervising my students in a service project.  I was going to take them to Greece this year, but it didn't pan out, and I have no money to go elsewhere because I spent it all going to the NAEA conference in Chicago last month.  So here I am.
My darling brats were asking about the blog today (they found out about it because of last year's trip), and in an attempt to feel slightly less bitter about my lack of vacation, I decided to relive last fall's trip while pretending I'm there now.  Basically it's impossible to get too much Greece.  You might gain 10 pounds and come back with olive oil spots on your clothes, but you will always come back for more.  Or maybe that's just me?  At any rate, I convinced Engrish and Five that gallivanting amongst ancient ruins was a great thing to do in October, and away we went.
I've been to Greece many times since the first, in 2007, but this was only my second trip up the Acropolis.  Unfortunately the main facade of the Parthenon had scaffolding on it for some maintenance, but the porch of the Caryatids has always been my favorite, anyways.  It was super hot, even early on an October morning, and sweat was dripping off my hair by the time we were on top, so after a good look around we headed back down into Monastiraki where we got coffee, coke, or ice cream (depending on which of us we're talking about).
Monastiraki is great for shopping and food, and we did a little of both - including taking Engrish to buy sandals from Melissinos, the poet sandal maker of Athens (yes, that's a thing, and his sandals are the best) before heading back to my favorite hotel.  The Evripides Hotel seems like it's in sketchy neighborhood but trust me, it's actually fine.  I've stayed there several times on my own.  Along the way we got to see one of my favorite things about Athens - its awesome street art.
I actually made Engrish and Five go down this alley with me later when it was dark; I was hoping all those lamps would be lit up.  Sadly, they were not, and they really figured out what I meant when I said that our neighborhood felt sketchy when it was dark and no one was around.  After a little rest at the Evripides, we went back for more.
I led them past Plaka and over to visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus before it closed for the night.  I love the openness of the area and that you can see the hills all around (including Lykkabetos Hill, the Hill of the Wolves, which I thought would have been a good place to visit since that's our school mascot, but we just didn't have time.  There aren't any wolves actually there, but the view is killer, especially at sunset).  We walked through the national gardens and then headed into Plaka, for yet more shopping and wandering before ending up at Stamatopolous, another fave of bygone days.
It took me some work to dredge up that name.  The first time I can to Athens, Mariette and I went looking for music and food and found this taverna, which was at the foot of the Acropolis and served us a free shot of ouzo.  The three of us were offered that and other treats throughout the trip at the restaurants we ate at - we were also given a complimentary platter of fresh fruits, which - being expensive and of a limited selection here in Mongolia - we devoured with more enthusiasm even than the baklava, let alone the ouzo.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mongolian Summer

The snow is coming down in tiny little nano-flakes tonight, as I sit here trying to patch together what my summer was like after leaving Italy.  I've been in denial about the fact that it is Getting Cold now, but I can't do it anymore.  On a weekend like this, you can't help but wish for some sun and heat, and sadly, when I tried to go for pho yesterday, the Pho House was Closed (I peeked in the window and the register and stuff was cleaned out - eek!), so I guess it's apropos that I'm finally sitting down and hashing this out.
Because I have this funny thing about not being considered a resident (my family says this is a thing, so I'll try it out...THANKS, OBAMA!) I only stayed stateside for about three weeks this summer.  After I came back from Italy I was in UB for a week (Naadam!), which was good because my freaking suitcase got lost.  Again.  This is the same suitcase that got lost en route to both Siem Reap and Athens, which makes three times in a six-month period, and this time I didn't actually get it back before I left again - I had to pick it up in Seoul on my way home, and when I finally DID get it home, I declared it cursed and left it there...but I digress.  That week I was lucky to have my first visitor in Mongolia - and in fact, my first visitor since that time when Evil came to Ras Al Khaimah......Azhaar, my belly dance teacher extraordinaire, part-time therapist (the part-time being where my one-hour lessons became two), and pretty much all-around amazing person.
In addition to being a dancer, Azhaar is a musician.  Although I think she decided to come to Mongolia primarily because I invited her, when I started talking about all the kick-ass music and dance we were going to see, she got a little bit excited.  Most visitors to Mongolia during the 11-13th of July find a way to get in on the Naadam action.  To be fair, Azhaar and I made one brief trip to the stadium area, more to take in the madness than anything else, although we made sure to have a Naadam khuushuur and managed to watch a little archery while we were at it, but that was not what we spent our time and money on.  Instead, she found a friend on facebook to take her shopping for a morin khuur, and spent her first day doing that while I worked on finishing our mural at school with the Kawaii Kid (whom, upon meeting, Azhaar declared that she couldn't escape Korea.  I might have laughed at that a little).  The next day, we did some wandering before meeting up with Engrish for dinner and a show.  Khusugtun is a Mongolian band, runners-up in this year's Asia's Got Talent, and stars of the Night Temple Museum event held at Choijin Lama Temple on July 9th.
I've seen a lot of incredible performances since living in Mongolia, but none of them beat this one.  It wasn't just that Khusugtun was fantastic, although they were.  It was the setting that made this concert so special.  The Choijin Lama temple museum has a pretty incredible atmosphere...a bit spooky and otherworldly, and is possibly one of my favorite Buddhist temples.  Seeing it at night, with the accompaniment of Khusugtun's music, gives me chills just from the memory. 

We saw some other great music that week - we went to the National Morin Khuur Ensemble, a concert in Sukhbaatar Square, as well as the Mongol Deeltei festival.  I forgot how much I enjoyed traveling with Azhaar - as I indicated when I filled out her tourist survey, she is a first-class culture vulture.
I came back to Mongolia in early August to - strangely enough - a second visitor, Evil's niece, Katie.  It was a completely different experience, showing Katie around.  She was really interested in culture, too, but more of the nomadic lifestyle culture than just the music and dance.  I wasn't sure I was going to be able to take her to a Naadam, since the season was sort of over by then, but she made it just in time for the first Danshig (religious) Naadam in over a century.  It was basically the same as any other Naadam, and even took place at Khui Doloon Khudag (where the horse races normally take place) but additionally involved a lot of monks chanting, and rumor has it that Tsam dancing took place, although I didn't get to see it with my own eyes.  This gave her the opportunity to have Naadam khuushuur (which, if you can't tell by the fact that this is my second mention of it in this post alone, is a tasty treat), so it was pretty lucky all around.  At least until we left the city.  True to my word, I arranged for some nomadic experiences for her, and we went out to Kharkhorin first to see Erdene Zuu Khiid with a plan to visit Enkhaa's herder friends on the way back.  And then Katie spent the whole night sick, so our marvelous plan was cut short.  Still, she had a good time and it's always nice to have company visit.  Although I was ECSTATIC when I was FINALLY alone in my apartment.  Two months is a long time to either visit or be visited.  I can't state that enough.
Although her timing was good on the Naadam Katie missed, by a mere couple of hours, a falconry festival held at Chingisiin Khuree Tourist Camp, near the airport.  As I've mentioned before, it can be hard to find out about things going on in and around UB, and I only found out about it because my famous friend Allyson had been the day before and posted about meeting Ashol Pan.
Ever heard of her?  She's this really badass Kazakh girl eagle hunter.  When I went to the eagle festival in Olgii two years ago, she hadn't become famous, and all of the hunters we saw were men.  A year later she was there, and already a news story - I was kicking myself for going the wrong year (although I guess if I had gone in 2014 I would have missed seeing the dumbass foreign guy get attacked by an eagle, so you pick your luck).  I hopped at the chance to meet her, and she was sweet enough to pose for a photo when Enkhaa introduced me and the newly-returned Five to her that morning.
Stupid *@#%!^$ bird.  Nobody messes with Khublai
Ashol Pan was really the star of the show, but that didn't stop the organizers from putting on a little pageantry.  They opened the festival with a reenactment of Khublai Khan and his hunting party, explaining that not only did they hunt with eagles and falcons but even used TIGERS to hunt.  The part with the falcon didn't go so well, since the bird decided it wasn't interested in coming to him, and finally had to be bribed with something dead and presumably tasty to make a small hop from its handler to Khublai's hand.
We got to see some of the same exercises that Engrish, Geek, and I saw at the Eagle Festival (which is good, because our fall break no longer lines up with it).  They had finished with a performance of trick riding when Five and I decided it was time to be off.  I could have watched it all day, but I'd lost my sunscreen and nobody was making khuushuur, so Enkhaa brought us back to Zaisan, and we eventually met up with Engrish so that the terrible trio could reunite at long last. 

Ever since then, school's pretty much been non-stop and I've found some new things to torture myself with, but we did manage to take a much-needed vacation to Greece, which I'll have to tell you about the next time I sit down.  Til then~

Monday, November 9, 2015

Art Teacher in Paradise

So it turns out that blogging has become the thing I do when I can't sleep (my last post), or when I have a little extra time in the morning (this post).  I just looked at my "all-time" stats and it was kind of sad to see the downward trend of my hit mountain, but what can I say?  I got art shit to do.
One of the reasons my printmaking teacher, Subler, encouraged us all to participate in that study abroad in 2001 was because the Venetian Biennale takes place on odd-numbered years.  A biennale is an art event that takes place approximately every two years (literally it means every two years but has come to be able to fit other regularly spaced events), and the event that made it a thing all started in Venice in 1895.
Well, the 2015 Biennale was the fifty-sixth in the history of the event, but of particular note for me and Mongolians because this is the first year Mongolia has participated, and this helped to spur me on in my desire to make it back to Venice this summer.  I first learned this when an acquaintance posted their IndieGoGo campaign on Facebook.  I'll let you read the story yourself via the link...long story short, their goal was to raise $50,000; they only raised $820 and awareness, but sometimes awareness is what you really need, because somebody's fairy godmother got on the horn and made stuff happen.

I managed to locate Palazzo Mora (which hosted the Mongolian Pavilion as well as a couple of other national pavilions) fairly easily, one of my first days in Venice.  One of the great things about the Biennale is that there are all these palaces with doors wide open to let you see internationally renowned art FOR FREE.  I rushed through the door and up the stairs, past some really cool pieces of art (such as a hallway of shoes made of bullet casings and some really fascinating sketchbooks) til I made it to the Mongolian pavilion.  It featured the work of two artists, T. Enkhbold and Unen Enkh, and the installation, featuring rough materials such as felt and leather, reminded me so strongly of Mongolia that I might have felt a little homesick as I sat on the floor and watched one of the videos, in which Enkhbold sets up his ger on a faraway shore...in the Netherlands, if I'm remembering correctly, but it's been several months thanks to my computer problems, some laziness, and the fact that the Kawaii Kid keeps suggesting really interesting anime to me.
One of the things that blew my mind in 2001 was the insane variety of materials and creations on display at the Biennale.  I had forgotten how much of it there was until I made my way to the Giardini this summer - the main things I remember from the 49th was Ron Mueck's Big Boy, Do Ho Suh's floor of people, and (of course) all the video art (particularly the Bjork video with the robots...beautiful, in a weird way...)  Walking through the Giardini, I remembered more, but couldn't be distracted by ghosts of the past.  There was the artist who made swatches with different kinds of earth and an installation which read Peace, but could only really be seen from the right perspective.
I LOVED the Australian (I think - sorry guys, like I said, it's been a while) pavilion.  It had the feel of a crazy antiques shop where skulls had been painted on the cuckoo clocks while someone had defaced currency with swimming sperm.  I also appreciated the tree on wheels outside one of the pavilions (German?), but I think I loved the Japanese pavilion the most at the Giardini...
Chiharu Shiota's installation, "Key in the Hand," featured about a million keys (rough estimate) strung through the million miles of red yarn tangled throughout the space...and a few rustic boats.  I felt like one of those keys must be mine, and if I could grasp it I could untangle it's line from the others, finding my way back to...something.  I liked the feeling of possibility it invoked in me.
It was just after I'd purchased my vaporetto pass and was taking a ride somewhere (possibly to Murano) that I realized I recognized a name on one of the posters - Rashad Alakbarov.  As soon as I figured out why I knew his name I totally fangirled.  Alakbarov is an Azerbaijani artist who creates the most amazing installations using light and shadow.  I tracked down "The Union of Fire and Water" at the Palazzo Barbaro (which, I swear, would make a great haunted house.  It had some serious presence!) one afternoon to see his art in person, and it.  Was.  Fantastic.  Not only was his work even more amazing in person than it is on This Is Colossal but it fit perfectly into the mood of Palazzo Barbaro, particularly the message, "I WAS HERE," which was reflected off a grouping of mirrors.  But my personal favorite was "DO NOT FEAR," spelled out in the shadows of knives.
My last stop was the Arsenale.  I hate to admit this, but I was a little undone by the time I got there.  It was hot, the sun was shining, and I was thinking more about the dinner I was supposed to have that night with a Shanghai friend who happened to be in Venice at the same time (historic ravioli.  Need I say more???)  Also, the Arsenale always kind of strikes me as a madhouse - it's just sensory overload!  I took a good look around, and I liked what I saw, but by that point in time, I was a saturated sponge, and there wasn't much more art I could soak up, no matter how much I wanted to. Nevertheless, with everything there is to see, I'd love to take my kids to Venice for the 57th Biennale.  I can't even imagine some of the things they'd say about the art, but I'll probably have to, since I have no idea how I'd plan that and keep it reasonably priced.  Still, a girl can dream.
Oh, hey - I have one last thing to tell you (all six of you regular readers)!  Last fall I entered the Harmonic UB Tourist Photo Competition.  The original deadline was in September 2014 and I hit them with my best shots (yes, I live here, but I am still a tourist...or at least travel around Mongolia.  Details!), but then they decided they wanted to give more people a chance to compete, so they changed it.  To September 2015.  So I waited patiently for the next year for the damn thing to wrap up.  There was an exhibition of the best photos on the concluding weekend, but I didn't know about it until the photos were added to the facebook event, and although they said winners would be announced soon, none were ever posted on any of the associated pages...I would know, because I was watching and waiting.  My hopes were dashed while we were in Greece (I have a lot of writing to do...) and Engrish said she'd got an announcement that some Chinese woman had won the contest, but I was dubious, since there were supposed to be three prizes and c'mon, what the heck, why didn't I get an email, too?  Finally, one month and a week later, I get a short, very innocuous message in my hotmail account letting me know that I've won second place!  Honestly I was hoping for first place, because the prize was a trip to the Gobi and I've never been, but I don't mind going to Khuvsgul again, if someone else is paying.  So, yeah.  Another second place win for me.  Yay!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dat Glass, Doe.

It's been a helluva long time since I wrote anything.  My guests from this summer are partly to blame, particularly Belynda...if she hadn't been here after I got back from Italy, I might have finished writing about my trip then.  Or maybe not - my laptop won't connect to my wifi at home so I have to type on my stupid little transformer, which is fine when I'm traveling but annoying any other time.  Also, there's the fact that I was at home for the better part of a month, and don't even get me started on what internet is like in the styx.  And now school's started, so I've been busy with other things...such as planning a trip for my students to Greece, which it turns out none of them are going on, because in spite of what I believe about them, they can't think for themselves.  But better late than never, right?
I have two things from Venice left to write about, and this is the first.  As per the fact that I've changed my reason to travel from phallic worship (having run out of sites to visit) to learning stuff, I put some serious effort into tracking down a place where I could start to learn how to work with glass.

When I was in Venice in 2001, I visited Murano, and loved it - loved being away from the main part of the lagoon and seeing the glassblowers work.  I think anyone who watches it finds glassblowing fascinating.  Dale Chihuly is one of my favorite artists of all time, and I had dreams of being able to sculpt glass like him.

Well, the course that Abate Zanetti, the workshop I found that offered beginner courses, had for that week was not "How to Blow Glass Like Dale Chihuly."  It was lampworking beads, and I figured it was better to start small, anyways.  I signed up, and when they reached their minimum number of students (2, it turned out) I paid my deposit and started getting stoked about the fact that I was going to making some stuff out of glass.  Yee.  Haw.

The first day of the course I rolled my sweaty ass out of bed and made my way to Fondamente Nove to catch the vaporetto (via the cafe where I bought my brioche and aranciata).  I was SUPER early, partly because I didn't want to be late, but also because I've become an early riser (NOT to be confused with a morning person...just because I'm up before the sun doesn't mean I want to talk to anyone - or hell, even see them...)  I strolled around the island, which was quiet, since most people were still asleep, and sat down to read for a while, until I got a gnat in my eye and had to go looking for a mirror so I could fish it out, which is the state I was in when I came to Abate Zanetti.
They have a showroom where they give a presentation of the noble history of glasswork in the lagoon as well as having a display of pieces of art that were created based on winning designs submitted by schoolchildren (which reminds me - I was going to have my brats enter...guess I need to go back and look at their website).  On one side of the showroom was the fornace, where hot (literally) men were making big, amazing things.  On the other side was the lampworking studio, where we bent the fires of creation to our whims and made stuff.
This is the "lamp" we used, and it felt like the blazing heart of the sun.  Lampworking basically amounts to melting the glass rods in a small, intense fire and shaping it around metal rods to create beads.  With a little practice, you could make other things, as well, and around day 3 (aka, when I realized that being precise and perfect wasn't really my thing), I started experimenting with putting petals and things on my beads, with limited success.  I had a lot of fun with that, but most of those beads didn't survive, as there are principles of heating and cooling at work that I either didn't understand or wasn't really aware of.  It DID make me think that I'd rather sculpt glass than blow it.
One of the techniques we learned was how to decorate our beads with thin rods we'd pulled out of the larger rods of glass.  You heated them in the fire, and just briefly touched them to the bead to get dots and - if you had enough control - swirls on your beads.
These are some of my finished pieces.  It was hard work, and scary at times - while you're heating a rod, sometimes it will crackle and even shatter.  We wore protective goggles and cotton clothing, but I still got a sliver of super-hot glass on my arm at one point.  I also came to have a new appreciation for my students - every time our teacher Diego came over to my side of the workspace I felt the impending judgement, sure that I was about to hear "Disaster!" which was one of his favorite English words.  But eventually I just decided I didn't care, and I was just going to have fun with it, and while my beads aren't masterpieces by any means, I really enjoyed the course.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Food of the Gods

Marika's in da house
Pretty much no matter where you go in the world, Italian food will be tasty.  Cultures that will fuck up everything else (I'm looking at you, England) will manage to get pasta right.  This is mostly attributable to it basically involving boiling noodles and adding sauce, but the fact remains: if you're afraid to eat anything else, put your trust in pasta.

That said, I didn't cook the month I spent in Venice in 2001.  Mostly I was being lazy (heh, I really didn't cook much the month before I went to Venice...or the month after...or really much during my college years...or in the years since then...) but there was also intimidation factoring in there.  I get along pretty well in Italian, in spite of never learning it, but I can't rely on it.  At this point in the game I can look at a package, make some inferences, and 9 times out of 10 I'll come out ahead, but I didn't have those coping skills fourteen years ago.  I'm making up for it this week.  My final AirBnB host, Lorenzo, showed me my shelf in the refrigerator, and I thought to myself, "Heh, not likely."  And then I went to dinner and spent 25 euro on gnocchi and water, and had to reevaluate.  So I'm experimenting, and it's been nice.
Fresh gnocchi - a new way I'm willing to eat potatoes
Taking cooking classes has kind of become one of my things, and I was desperately scrambling before I left to figure out where I could do one.  Acquolina Cooking School was actually the first one I came across, but I putzed around before I actually contacted them (in retrospect, I'm not sure why).  More than anything else I was interested in learning to make homemade pasta, and when I finally emailed them, they said they'd do the pasta class on Friday, July 3, even though Monday was ordinarily pasta day, so I was ecstatic (in fact, so ecstatic that - in the ensuing emails - I skipped over the part that said cash only and had to run out to an ATM, grumbling at myself all the way).
Ravioli stuffed with fresh cheeses
Fortunately the bancomat wasn't that far and in 10 minutes I was back and meeting Marika, our chef for the day.  Villa Inez, where the cooking school is held on Lido, is her home, and the kitchen was fantastico - hey, you know you're in Italy when you've got  frizzante on tap.  We started by making three kinds of dough - regular, basil, and gnocchi.  She had all sorts of great Kitchen Aid machines and things to make it less time-consuming.  A crew of 8 of us were cooking these things for FOUR HOURS, but in the old days yo mama'd be up at 6 to start making everything.  Once the dough was wrapped up airtight and setting in the fridge, we started making sauces and fillings.
Tortellini with meaty goodness filling
We finished the gnocchi by cutting them into little pieces and rolling them against a fork, and then learned how to roll out the dough.  The tagliatelli reminded me of how the Tsataan made their noodles...rolling up the dough and then cutting strips...but you had to wait until it had dried some or else the dough just stuck to itself.  The ravioli and tortellini could be made right away, though.  The ravioli was pretty straighforward, but the tortellini...oh gosh, that was hard work.  You had to cut the dough in a square, sprinkle it with semolina so it doesn't stick together (you cut them all at the same time), keep them covered so they don't dry out, brush the semolina off, put the filling on top, moisten half the sides, fold it over, seal it up, then fold the two acute angles together and pinch them into a little sitting shape.  It was exhausting.  It was also my absolute favorite dish.  Once upon a time, Evil got me addicted to Trader Joe's tortellini, and I used to think they were pretty good.  Now, I don't know if I can ever go back.

Alright, probably I can.  Remember: I'm lazy.
One finished product: tagliatelli in buttery sage sauce
Finally, at long last the time had come for us to dig in.  The food was superb, in spite of the fact that we noobs did most of the work.  Attribute that to Marika's AMAZING recipes and guidance.  The table was set with what I recognized as Murano glassware, and when I asked Marika she explained that her husband's family is one of the original "secrets-handed-down-from-father-to-son" glassmaking families, dating back to, like, 1400 AD.  We were also served special prosecco that either her sister's in-laws made or her sister-in-law's family made (I don't remember which, because by that point dessert was on the table and it kind of derailed my brain a little bit, and all I could think was, "I wonder if Enkhaa knows a good place for us to hunt wild strawberries this fall so I can make this...")  Part of me kind of wanted to try it, but fortunately alcohol's never been the hard part of my religion to live up to.
The grand finale: panna cotta alla fragolina di bosco
As I mentioned before, Villa Inez in on Lido, and it was SO REFRESHING to be there.  I'd been putting off heading out there; I went to Lido several times when I was here before, and loved spending a morning or an afternoon at the beach, but there were far fewer tourists here back then, and I had visions of beaches in China, where the sand AND the water are absolutely packed.  After all, Burano used to be a sleepy little island - when I went in 2001 I was pretty much the only tourist there, but this time, there were people everywhere with their freaking selfie-sticks.

So I walked straight across the island to the beach.  I had time before we started cooking.  I didn't have to go that far to tell that there was a difference.  Almost all the people I passed were living there - having a breakfast espresso and brioche, moving slowly and enjoying life, not taking shitloads of photos.  Out at the beach, there were a handful of people.  Admittedly, it was 9:30 in the bright and early, and I'm sure it was busier the later it got, but I don't do the beach in the afternoon, so this was good enough for me.

I went back the next day.  I was a little pissed at first - apparently I was too early for the first #2 vaporetto, and had to take linea 1 instead (which stops at every freaking point along the way.  I could have SWAM there faster than that!)  But it was a cool morning, and I had a chocolate brioche before hitting the beach, where I laid out my towel before walking into the water.  It was chilly, but I've been taking partly cold showers at Lorenzo's (mostly because it's so hot here that it actually feels good), so I adjusted quickly enough.  I relaxed, floating in the water, rocking to the rhythm of the waves, and when I decided I'd had enough, laid in the shade under a boardwalk (which, as far as I could tell was built for no other purpose than to throw shade) and read.  If that's not a great way to start a morning, I don't know what is.