Costumes, parties and musical chairs

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The Big Party

It has almost been a year since we set foot in Italy for the second time as a family and as my regular readers will know, we have had a lot of experiences; one of those being kids birthday parties and I have to say up front- I’m not a fan.

Our first invitation to an Italian birthday party was in the very beginning of our stay here. We were driven up to a magical villa in the rolling Tuscan hills: prosecco was flowing, local cheese for the tasting and kids were running wild in the forest-like-yard, it felt like a movie set. Fast forward to present day and I now know through suffering a few parties that in fact our first birthday party was not the ‘norm’ and I can honestly say I much prefer the Australian system of dropping the kids off and picking them up at a set time instead of all the suffering you go through standing in small community halls with little ventilation, listening to inappropriate English music blaring at full volume, kids shouting, running, screaming, laughing and crying for up to 4 hours straight: my idea of hell.

My friend Sue emailed me a few weeks ago telling us it was her son’s birthday and he would love it if we all came, oh and by the way it was a costume party!

Hang on, I thought, this is new? I also must explain Sue is a mad, funny English woman who has been living in Italy for the past 30+ years and has keep a lot of her English sensibility, not to mention her passion for a good party with no community hall in sight. We were going!

The theme for the party was History which got the boys excited. It was planned that the boys and I would go over for a sleepover the weekend before (also happened to fit in with our book club boozy meeting), then we would pop out to Emmaus and see what we could find in the way of costumes. When we arrived at Sue’s that weekend she had already whipped up Matteo’s Roman solider costume and it was brilliant to say the least. I knew then that I wasn’t leaving until we figured out and made the boys costumes with her. I know my weaknesses and costume design is one of them.

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Alex’s costume basics

Emmaus was as fabulous as ever, the boys fell in love with the place and then proceeded to tell me it was the best place for movie props (they would have spent a fortune if they were on their own…a fortune being 50 euro and that would buy LOTS!). Anyway, Alex wanted to be a Greek solider and Max Caesar or someone in a toga. It took Max all of two seconds to find a white sheet (beautifully pressed) some red ribbon, a ring and presto he was done for the grand total of 2 euro! Alex on the other hand wanted the costume to be as authentic as possible… twenty minutes later, lots of discussion, disagreements, excitement and jumping he was sorted for the grand total of 18 euro.

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Middle of costume making with Sue

It was back to Sue’s place for gold spray-painting, cutting, designing and heated discussions between Alex and Sue while I meekly tied Max’s toga, pinned on some ribbon and then proceeded to sew (again took me about 5 minutes, minus the sewing).

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Max’s quick costume design

I know Sue is a good friend because she put up with Alex’s pedantic ways and after making two soldier costumes she was still looking forward to the party. I, on the other hand, was exhausted!

The following Sunday I bravely borrowed Shelly’s car while she was off working in NY and drove us up to Pistoia. Just another experience to add to my list and one I don’t want to do very often as driving in Florence is a little freaky, especially when you’re not use to driving on the left-hand side of the road and in a manual. I kept on yelling out “Am I on the right side of the road??” 

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Let the fun begin

The party was a huge success all due to Sue’s fantastic organisation and constant supply of party games (something Italians do not do). Musical chairs is now know to all that attended the party as a very scary and dangerous game due to the misfortune of a poor girl attending. She was having so much fun when the music stopped she slipped and missed the chair and by some crazy bad luck, managed to fall and splinter her ankle bone! The poor girl ended up in hospital waiting to get a screw put in her leg. I will never play musical chairs again without thinking of this day and feeling weak in the legs.

You know it has been a great day when the boys pile back into the car at dusk, fall asleep in the back seat (even when mum is looking a bit freaked out behind the wheel) and say they don’t need any dinner because they ate too much cake. I think it was the perfect way to end our birthday-party experiences in Italy. Happy 11th Birthday Matteo!

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A Spring Brunch

The day could not of been more perfect on Sunday just gone. E, Shelly and I had worked out that it was a rare Sunday we were all in town together and so it was quickly decided we should have a brunch. These events seem to work better for us when no great amount of time can change the plan, a day and a half of planning was sufficent.

Shelly announced her backyard should be a perfect destination, I announced I’d just read some great food blogs lately and I was eager to make some new food and E was also up for some spring cooking- the day was planned! At 10am on Sunday morning as the sun was peeking through the clouds Shelly sends a photo of her backyard saying maybe they needed a lawnmower?? E and I on the other hand were throughly excited with the prospect of sitting in a buttery looking yellow field, what do you think? Although, if little miss P (aged 3) had decided to walk off without her big sister then I’m afraid we might have lost her!

The butter field Shelly calls her backyard

The butter field Shelly calls her backyard

Sitting in it felt like something from a period movie. In fact all four kids thought the field an absolute delight and we only saw them when food was brought to the table. Perfect!

Talking of food, I had recently read a delicious post from Italy on my mind about Sicilian cauliflower fritters. Her photos looked beautiful, the flavours sounded wonderful and I thought they would be perfect for a brunch addition. I made them Sunday morning and I have to tell you it was very hard getting them out the door as I LOVED them! A very easy and tasty recipe perfect for brunch, they tasted so good all the kids ate them as well as the adults.

Cauliflower fritters

Cauliflower fritters

Granted my photo isn’t as pretty, however, I was getting myself in the weeds with remaining cooking jobs and needed a quick snap before I forgot.

The second dish I made for brunch was the kids favourite; bean nachos with guacamole. My boys love this dish and as I popped it on the table I soon found out it was a favourite of a few adults too. You can’t really go wrong with kidney beans sauteed in a cumin, paprika, tomato sauce and drenched in melted cheese on crispy corn chips. One of the guests at the brunch was floored to be served nachos in Florence…and yet I didn’t hear any complaints!

bean nachos

Bean nachos

E made a delicious asparagus and orange salad and a divine dish of sauteed poatoes finished with red onions, mini capers and sweet peppers which was an instant hit.

Asparagus salad & serving of the eggs

Asparagus salad & serving of the eggs

It was a feast for all the senses and just in case you were wondering where the eggs were (seeing as it was brunch), Guy made a delicious pot of tomato-poached eggs that never seemed to end. With all the food ready to go and prosecco being poured like water from a tap, I can honetsly say it was an extremely memorable afternoon. A feast for the eyes as much as the stomach.

My third contribution to brunch was inspired from blogger, the seasoned traveler, who posted a delicious looking piece about phyllo cups filled with lemon mascarpone and fresh strawberries. I thought it was the perfect sweet to bring for Sunday brunch, however, as I looked through my cupboards I realised I didn’t have anything to make the phyllo cups in. I then decided to add an Australian touch and serve the lemon mascarpone on mini-scones. Because I didn’t have the yummy crunch of the phyllo I need to ramp up the mascarpone so I made a lemon curd and folded it through so there was an extra kick of tang.

Strawberry and lemon mascarpone scones

Strawberry and lemon mascarpone scones

Lunch was over, the scones were devoured in seconds and we were all sitting back feeling quite fabulous (the tap of bubbles hadn’t stopped yet). It is hard to feel anything but happy when you are sitting in a field of yellow.

Shelly relaxing in her backyard

Shelly relaxing in her backyard

Coffee was offered around about an hour later and the sun was really warming us up so I suggested I’d like an affogato. This was met with a lot of agreement, however, no one had the inclination to get the gelato. A further conversation of our favourite flavours of gelato then got the wheels turning and my darling husband and friend offered to fetch the gelato if someone else made the coffee, this was the end result…

Gelato for the kids

Gelato for the kids

Mascarpone and caffè gelato with a shot of coffee

Mascarpone and caffè gelato with a shot of coffee

I have often said I love our year in Italy and it is gatherings like this that make it so special. We all feel like we are still living in a dream, and for now I am quite happy to keep it that way.

 

 

40 years and counting

Nesli and I at my 40th B'day dinner, 2013

Nesli and I at my 40th B’day dinner, 2013

I have been a bit laxed in my blogging this week as I have hit a milestone. I turned 40 on Sunday and I have been celebrating my 40 years of existence all week…..because I can. It’s funny I have been going through old photos and looking back at my life (as I am sure we all do when we hit a milestone?) and there are two things that stand out clearer than day.

1. I have filled my 40 years with a lot of stuff, I could almost say some years have been jam-packed!

2. I have met an outstanding amount of people and have the great pleasure of saying I have an awesome, eclectic assortment of friends all over the world.

Roisin my running partner in the World race, Chicago

Roisin my running partner in the World race, Chicago

I have always loved doing things, anything as long as I am doing something and having fun. Travelling has always been a huge part of my life, even before I realised how much I love going to different countries and exploring how other people live. Mum and dad installed the travelling bug into my sister and I at a very young age and I haven’t really stopped, nor have they!

Mum sitting in the departure lounge at Tokyo airport a few years ago

Mum sitting in the departure lounge at Tokyo airport a few years ago

The fact that I am lucky enough to have timed my 40th while we are spending a year in Italy is quite brilliant. If I am being totally honest, I wouldn’t have thought it even possible 10 years ago and yet here I am feeling the love from all my wonderful friends and family from all over the planet sending me warm wishes on my birthday. I truly believe I wouldn’t be the person I am today without having so many supportive, positive and truly wonderful people in my life. I made a decision a long time ago to leave behind people who have negative and sole sucking vibes….this was an excellent move!

I love the fact that I am still in contact with friends from High school, and I want to be in touch with them. My old bosses are some of my oldest and dearest friends. I love that the Mexican guys I use to work with 5 days a week in Chicago still keep in touch, even though I was nicknamed ‘hard nose bitch’ (well you can’t be a shrinking violet when you work the grill in a kitchen!) and constantly asked when I was leaving!.

Friends I travelled the world with when we were young, silly and quite stupid (considering some of the situations we got ourselves into!). These ladies have a very special place in my heart. As we discovered the world around us, we also discovered who were as individuals and what  made us the strong, independent women we are today.

Nic and Max, Chicago 2002

Nic and Max, Chicago 2002

When I finally grew up a little more, fell in love and met my life travelling partner I was so excited to see what we were going to get up to with our life together and I have to say it has been better than anything I dreamed up.

8 months pregnant with Alex, Chicago

8 months pregnant with Alex, Chicago

The kids came and that made me grow even more and placed me in a community of extremely talented women I call my very dear friends. A new country and a new baby really throws a spanner in the works but I wouldn’t change it for quids, I just wish the world wasn’t so far apart. I have a brilliant family (ok we may be a little mad, batty and talk to much) but a family I cherish and love and who have excepted this crazy path Nic and I have chosen and offered nothing but support and love. With all this I was not expecting to meet a whole new group of people I would open my heart to  and welcome them in with open arms.

Shelly and Nesli at my 40th, Italy 2013

Shelly and Nesli at my 40th, Italy 2013

This trip to Italy was looked at as an adventure and an experience. I am so blown away at the beautiful community I have here. I love the fact it is possible to still make wonderful friendships because there really isn’t a ‘cap’ on how many great people you meet in your life (must have been a random thought when I had too much prosecco!?

Elena

Elena

 

Ross

Ross

 

Sue

Sue

Anyway, what I am trying to say is in 40 years I have managed to do, see, meet and love some truly wonderful people and places and I am so grateful to everyone who has helped me get this far. Life is about living it to the fullest and meeting people from whatever situation you are in and making the most of it. I will never be a millionaire (airfares are a killer), however, I will be enjoying a lot more countries, people and revisiting old and dear friends for the next forty years, this much I know.

The olive grove

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It’s not everyday you re-connect with a person you met 8 years ago when life was throwing you a few curve balls; for example……living in a foreign country with a new-born baby and a toddler; your husband going off each morning to bury himself in the archives of 16th-century Europe, or trying to work out when you should leave the apartment so it fits in with feeding schedules for the baby, toilet stops for the potty-training toddler and last but not least, trying to figure out how to make friends.

I met Melanie at a local English speaking church (St. James) where a bunch of mums started a mother’s group for English-speaking mums living in Florence. It was something I really needed and a chance to speak to someone other than my 3-year-old son.

Melanie also had a boy the same age as Max and a new born a few weeks older than Alex so I’m sure we had lots to talk about….Oh did I also mention she is a chef and one of the best cake designers I have seen; her website should explain her work better than I can write about it. Anyway, I say ‘I’m sure’ because to be quite honest I don’t remember a whole lot of the early days when Alex was only weeks old, however, I did remember Melanie and I did remember talking to her about food, cooking classes and a few other bits and pieces even though we never had a strong connection as I left about three months after meeting her. Thanks to Facebook we reconnected a few years ago and have been following each others career ever since.

When we found out we would be heading over to Florence this year I was so excited to reconnect with Melanie in person and basically pick her brains about all she had been doing in the 8 years we have been living in separate countries. I was also happy to learn she felt the same.

Once we settled in to our place in Florence I gave Melanie a call and she invited us all out to the family olive grove for a much needed swim in the pool, a relaxed, delicious meal, vino and lots and lots of talking. This was an offer I was not going to refuse!

It was a really hot day when Paolo her husband came to pick us up at 4 in the afternoon. Foolishly I thought it wouldn’t be so bad re. the heat, and when I stepped out of the house into what felt like an oven on full range, all I could think about was a pool and a cool breeze.

I had never met Paolo, and we laughed at the fact that we really were complete strangers getting together on a chance meeting that happened 8 years ago when our lives were very different. This is stepping out of your comfort zone; if I’d never of connected with Melanie over the internet once back in the comforts of the world I knew, we would never of arrived at the olive grove and we would of never been able to talk for 4 hours straight about our lives both in and out of the kitchen- it was fantastic!

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Melanie has since had a third son and all 5 boys got on like a house on fire; swimming until their fingers were shrivelling like dried prunes; gathering sticks for bows and arrows, making swords, daggers and anything else you can whittle out of a piece of wood. Running through the olive grove trying to catch the fat bunny that feeds on all the vegetables will be forever in their memory, this I can guarantee!

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As the air cooled Paolo stoked the BBQ while Melanie took me around to the outdoor kitchen and we played with produce that was grown a stone’s throw away (seriously, a dream come true for me). We used olive oil that was pressed from the trees around us and I had a hard decision wondering which tomatoes I would use for the salad.

ImageWe decided to keep the food simple and stress free. I made one of my all time favourite faro salads before we left home. I can’t seem to get enough of it at the moment, though I’m sure this will pass when I eat it one too many times…….well maybe?

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We were in for an absolute treat. As Melanie was cutting off slabs of pecorino cheese onto a plate she was telling me of their family’s butcher who goes and hand picks the animal he slaughters and then lovingly butchers the beast, then sells it from his shop in the back hills of Southern Florence (I have been promised a visit to his shop as it is quite difficult to get to if you don’t know the area……..YES, I am excited!!)

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So a quick reverse, the pecorino Melanie was cutting (pic below)  and also the prosciutto we ate with the melon were from their wonderful butcher, honestly the man can do no wrong in my book!

The other treat Melanie had in stall was the 35-year-old balsamic vinegar she drizzled over the pecorino: a brilliant flavour combination and the texture of the balsamic was syrupy, sticky, rich and divine to put it simply.

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Melon, prosciutto and homemade salami..I could of eaten this all afternoon..

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I don’t have to tell you the olive grove holds a special place in my heart and being asked back for a second week was heavenly for all four of us. We will have many more fun days/nights with Melanie and her family this I am sure of but for me this will be a memory I will hold onto when I’m wondering what an earth I have done with my life……I feel very lucky indeed.