Thursday, October 26, 2006

Life in Italy

My life in Italy is not like "Under the Tuscan Sun." That's author Frances Mayes' story about buying and remodeling an old farmhouse in the Italian region of Tuscany. Her words paint vivid pictures of agricultural areas with olive groves and vineyards, give us glimpses of medieval towns, and offer us a taste of the natural rhythmic lifestyle of the region, complete with local recipes.

It's a way of life that many of us dream about, and an experience travelers happily pay for during their visits to this hot-spot destination. Yet Tuscany is only one of Italy’s twenty-one varied regions, each with its own semi-autonomous government, culture, architecture, language, and food. A one-week vacation in Tuscany will be vastly different than, say, a one-week stay in the northern Alto-Adige region. Awareness of this diversity, especially the knowledge that not every meal in Italy involves pasta, is key for a person with celiac disease.

In order to understand how a country the size of Arizona can be so diverse, it is helpful to know a little bit of its history. Similar to the famous Italian fresco paintings seen in churches and museums around much of the country, which were created by applying numerous layers of plaster one over top of the other before the image and pigment dyes were applied, so too is Italy's history a composite of layers.

Italy’s first layer, or known civilization, was the Etruscans, dating from the 7th century BC. Tombs and museums housing their artifacts are found chiefly in Italy’s central regions. The next layer, the Roman Empire, was the only time until recent history that the country was united. Vestiges are evident all over Italy, with the most famous sights found in Rome. The Roman Empire split into the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire in the 5th century. The Western Empire was subjected to foreign invasions and control from the north, while the Eastern Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, was controlled from Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, Turkey.

Layers of foreign invasions continued to plague Italy throughout the medieval ages, coupled with power struggles among popes and emperors. This led to the rise of influential independent city-states. Venice was the most powerful, known for its trade with the East. The Republic of Florence also grew in strength, and led by the wealthy Medici family, spurred the Renaissance. In the early 1500’s, parts of Italy came under Spanish rule, and even Napoleon had his time in Italy.

In 1870, an etching of the recognizable shape of modern-day Italy became evident when the country freed itself from foreign rule and united under a monarchy. Then, the colors of World War I, Fascism, and World War II were applied, and the nation’s outline was redrawn several times. The new colors of a republic were painted in 1946, and land exchanged hands a couple more times. Numerous coalition governments and political scandals have splattered the canvas over the past half-century, and continue right up through modern times. The result is a colorful and flavorful leading European economy.

These layers of history - equivalent to the marble dust, sand, and paint of frecoes - and where they were applied, have resulted in regional differences that encompass language, customs, and food. So vast are some of these differences, that Italians generally identify with their home region, its history, and its cuisine more so than with the country as a whole. In some regions of Italy, travelers could think they really weren't in Italy! Travel book writer Rick Steves sums up this mind-set even more succinctly: Loyalties are to family, city, region, soccer team, and country – in that order.

To illustrate: The city where my family lives is called Cordenons. It has a population of about 16,000, and is located in the province, or county, of Pordenone. Pordenone is one of four provinces within the region called Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. A region is comparable to one of the U.S.’s fifty states. Often just called Friuli, or FVG, it is Italy’s most northeasterly region. Austria lies on its northern border, Slovenia stretches out from the east. The south of the region embraces the Adriatic Sea, while in the west the Carnic and Julian Alps grow into the Dolomite Mountains that reside in the neighboring regions of Veneto, Trentino, and Alto-Adige. Scattered between the cities and small towns of the region are vineyards, fields of corn, and crops of industrial areas. It is a region that was under Austrian rule during the 19th century, returned to Italy after World War I, but divided again after World War II, with portions awarded to the former Yugoslavia. The present version of the region was created only in 1963 and it is a mix of ethnicities and languages, with its own local langugage known as Friulano. Allegiance is to the Udinese soccer team.

The cuisine of the region where I live is a direct reflection of the Friuli's history, along with its geographic location. For example, in Friuli and the other northern regions, Austrian-style meats are common. As well, polenta, made from corn flour, is more popular than pasta. Potatoes are also common. Fresh seafood is plentiful near the coast, and figures into the coastal cuisines, while dried fish is a staple in the inner mountainouse areas. Dried meats, such as Prosciutto di San Danielle, ham cured by mountain air, are a specialty of the area, as are specific types of cheeses, such as Montasio. In contrast, beans and grilled meat are typical of Tuscan cuisine. The poorer southern regions often dine on vegetable sauces rather than meat sauces, while Sicilians, due to Arab influence, flavor their meals with saffron, pomegranates, and nuts.

One of my favorite local dishes is frico, a cheese entrée, or secondo, found only in the Friuli region. It is a dish with a long history, traditionally considered a poor-man's meal. Usually made from a combination of varying aged local Montasio cheeses, typically a young cheese, a slightly aged cheese, and an aged cheese, they are melted together with butter until the desired consistency is reached. That can range from gooey to crisp. A local Friulian osteria in Cordenons, an osteria being a small family run restaurant, offers frico several different ways: cooked with onions and herbs, with speck (an Austrian-style meat that is on the Italian celiac society’s “questionable” list), with arugula, with sausage, or with pears. Served with a salad as an antipasto, and polenta on the side, frico is a savory meal. A glass of local wine, maybe a red Refoscoe, is the perfect accompaniment. This osteria also routinely stocks gluten free pasta, even though it is not on the Italian celiac association restaurant list.

Pasta and pizza are still synonymous with Italy, however, and are found throughout the country. Fortunatly, there is an active celiac group in Italy that has worked hard to help people with celiac dine out safely. (Italian Celiac Association, This group has identified and trained restaurants all over the country to prepare gluten free meals, including even gluten free pasta and pizza. While many of these places routinely stock gluten free pasta, getting pizza often requires advance notification.

So, is my life in Italy the same as "Under the Tuscan Sun"? Mayes and I do share some of the same pastimes, such as exploring small towns, sampling local wines, and learning to prepare regional foods. It's even been suggested to me (by a local no less) that I should purchase an old house, remodel it, and settle in for a while. It's a rather appealing thought. Still, my life in Italy could never be the same as Mayes. The regional history, geography, and the people themselves dictates that. More poignant, though, is that I have celiac disease. (August 2005)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Move to Italy

I moved to Italy. Not permanently, but for at least a year or two. The length of stay is dependent upon my husband’s military job, which is what brought me here in the first place. As it’s not permanent, though, my family and friends look upon it as an extended vacation for me. I am the envy of them all.

Of all European countries, Italy seems to be America’s favorite. Few other places can compete with Italy’s blend of ancient history, world-renowned art, vigorous cities populated with espresso-fueled inhabitants, and misty hilltop villages. There is also Vatican City with its religious treasures, as well as Italy’s other holy trinity -pizza, pasta, and pane (bread).

The food is probably the aspect of Italy that Americans know best. Indeed, authentic Italian eateries, themed chain restaurants, and pizza parlors cover the United States like melted mozzarella cheese on a large pizza pie. These same places, however, are the ones most often shunned by Americans with celiac disease. The reason, of course, is that many of the items served at Italian restaurants in the United States contain gluten, namely the pizza, pasta, and pane. Consequently, concern about how I will manage my gluten free diet while living in Italy tempers the envy of my friends and family. They worry that I will not be able to participate in one of the country’s favorite pastimes: eating.

Trying to reassure everyone that I will not starve while living in Italy, I stress that there is more to the region’s culinary repertoire than what we find in the U.S. Likewise, I point out that some of the gluten free products we buy in the States are made in Italy, and that one of the top celiac doctors, Dr. Fasano, is from Italy. I venture so far as to say it could be even easier for me to live in Italy than in the U.S. with celiac disease.

Reassurances aside, I am nervous, and plagued by questions of my own. What will I eat when dining out in Italy? Where will I find gluten free products for use at home? How will I convey my celiac needs when I don’t speak the language? Even the U.S. military medical board that has to grant medical clearance to each member of the family prior to the move questions whether celiac can be managed in Italy.

We had about a six-month window from the time we learned we were moving to Italy until the day the movers arrived. It was a busy six months as the family and I continued to live in the present in San Antonio with work, school, volunteer opportunities, children’s activities, and dining in familiar celiac friendly restaurants. At the same time, we prepared to uproot our home and our lives. My husband planned for a new command position, the children anticipated new schools and activities, and I surfed the internet for an Italian celiac support group site, which I found. Thankfully, there was also an English translation, but we all put “learn Italian” at the top of our to-do lists.

On moving day, the months of physical and emotional preparation boiled down to four intense days of packing, cleaning, and tying up loose ends. It was our seventh military move in 19 years of marriage, so I figured we were old pros, though having celiac was the ever present cloud casting its shadow. Eating was often on the fly, but I had set aside enough gluten free food to see me through the pack out and beyond, and I was confident about dining out in San Antonio, visiting favorite local restaurants one last time. On the morning we left town, I sat on the airplane and felt the heaviness of the move’s preparation slip off my shoulders. Then, as the plane’s engines roared to life, a new weight pressed in on me, I really was on my way to Italy. Well, almost.

There was no escaping the country without first visiting our children’s grandparents. I am lucky in that my gluten free diet does not present much of a problem while visiting family. My mother also has celiac, and my mother-in-law has willingly become familiar with my requirements over the last few years. Both requested a shopping list from me so that they could have some of my favorite gluten free products on hand upon my arrival.

For a month, I visited family and friends on the east coast, purchasing gluten free foods as I went along. Health food stores and specialty grocers are getting easier to find in many areas of the country, and it seems that many mainstream grocery stores now carry some gluten free products. Dining out, though, is still a task that must be approached defensively, as evidenced by a few of my own experiences.

At an Outback Steakhouse in Barnstable, MA, I encountered acrobatic croutons that “jumped” from the standard salad mixing bowl to the one used to mix my gluten free Grilled Chicken Brisbane Caesar Salad. At least that was the explanation given to me by the restaurant manager! While dining at an Indian restaurant with my celiac mother in Gaithersburg, MD, I received assurances they were familiar with the requirements of the gluten free diet. After finishing our meal, my mother and I were asked by the restaurant host about our weight loss success with the celiac diet. I got ill from anxiety! I also tried dining at Panera Bread Company in Leesburg, VA, which seems to me a very odd place for celiacs to eat. However, many of their soups and salads are naturally gluten free, but it took them three attempts to prepare my salad without bread or fried wonton strips.

Better success was found at a seafood restaurant located on a bay in Orient Point, NY. As I launched into the details of my gluten free diet, the waitress interjected with, “Oh, you must have celiac disease.” She then informed me that her daughter has celiac, and put forward that the restaurant chef could easily prepare a gluten free meal for me. I dined on Seafood Cioppino, a classic seafood stew with mussels, clams, and scallops straight from the bay, served over rice, not pasta.

These mixed result defensive dining incidents could happen to anyone, yet they were a cause of deep concern for me, and questions about how I was going to manage living gluten free Italy continued to haunt me. Really, how was I going to dine defensively in Italy when I was having so much trouble in my own country?

There wasn’t much time to ponder, as it was nearly departure day and I had to prepare for the trans-Atlantic flight. My husband had gone to Italy ahead of our three children and me in order to start work, so in addition to feeling the stress of being a celiac traveler, I was also starting to feel the stress of traveling as a single parent.

It was supposed to be a direct seven-hour late night flight on a no-name military charter from Baltimore, MD to Rhein Mein Air Base near Frankfurt, Germay, followed by a two-hour layover, and then a one-hour hop over the Alps to Aviano Air Base in northern Italy. Because of the nature of the flight, obtaining a gluten free meal was not an option. And because I had flown military flights in the past, I packed enough gluten free food to last me several days, just in case. My carry on was filled to the brim with yogurt, tuna in foil packs, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, gluten free crackers, cookies, fresh fruit, carrot sticks, homemade trail mix, and a chocolate bar. I did not regret it.

As the plane sat on the ground in Baltimore hours past its scheduled departure time, I should have been nervous when I saw duct tape being carried to the cockpit. Like most of my fellow passengers at 3:00 a.m., most of who were on their way to duty in the desert, I was too tired to care. The duct tape must have done the trick, however, because soon we were airborne, rushing to meet the sun over the Atlantic Ocean.

I relied on my supply of gluten free food to get me through both breakfast and lunch while onboard. Upon landing in Germany, I learned that due to our late arrival and flight time restrictions in Italy, the plane was now unable to complete its scheduled itinerary. Hours passed while the crews tried to come up with a new plan. At one point the Italy-bound passengers were told the plane would still fly to Italy, but with a detour through Kuwait. I took stock of my food supply, and wondered if it would last me through such an ordeal. It probably would, but I still protested that my dietary restrictions could not be accommodated if we flew through Kuwait. Other passengers also voiced their dissent, and finally the flight left for Kuwait without us.

The military folks in Germany initially didn’t know what to do with us after that. Eventually, accomodations were made and we were taken to a hotel for the night. Arriving too late in the night for a restaurant meal, I found dinner for my children in a German bar, but nothing for me. Fortunately, the hotel staff understood the few German words I knew as I tried to explain celiac disease, and they rounded up some fresh fruit for me from the hotel kitchen. The breakfast buffet the next morning was easy to navigate, but by lunch I was once again digging into my personal stash. Hours of phone calls and negotiations later, those of us stranded in Germany (six adults, five children, and two dogs) boarded a commercial flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Venice, Italy.

My husband met us at the airport in Venice. From there it was about an hour drive north to the area I would soon call home. The task of dealing with my fear of eating gluten free in Italy was just beginning. After taking stock of all I'd encountered just to get to this point, though, I knew I could handle it. Besides, I still had some gluten free food left in my bag! (July 2005)