Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rome-ward bound

In exactly an hour, I'll be leaving Hotel Vannucci, hopping in a cab and taking a train to Rome--my last stop on this 3-month European adventure before I head home to New York on Monday afternoon.

It's really surreal, the thought that this is the last time I'm going to have to sit on my suitcase(s) and pray for them to close, that after the next three days I won't have to wrestle with a foreign language to get my point across. On one level, I can't believe it's already been a month at Hotel Vannucci, but on a million more levels, I can't believe it's only been a month. I still may not be able to read Calvino fluently, but I can ask you to put the goose under the vacuum sealer in perfect Italian. I've learned how a kitchen is run, how to cook and cut and bake--I tried sitting down and writing everything I learned how to make here, and it felt like when I was four and tried writing down all the words I knew; I just couldn't keep up.

I've also gotten so close with the staff. They're all just incredible. I'll miss joking about being a New Yorker and not an American with Marcela, the breakfast lady (because I'm picky about my coffee), I'll miss chatting with Laura about her daughter and joking with the kitchen staff about how every single man who walks into the restaurant should be the man of my dreams. I'll miss hearing "Ciao bella" and "Come va tesoro," from Debora, the most perpetually cheerful woman I've ever met. I'll even miss Orlando and his jokingly chauvinistic remarks. I'll miss--gah--everything about them.

Yesterday was my last day in the kitchen (I made it out, against all odds, with all 10 fingers--a small burn on my left forearm is the only real lasting damage from the kitchen foray). The day went by exactly as all the others did. (Actually a good opportunity to write down my daily schedule, since I never did explain it):

8:30-9:30: Breakfast with the guests
9:30-11:30: Made 2 focacce (one focaccia, two focacce), made egg pasta dough with beets for red-tinged ravioli
11:30-12:00: Family meal with kitchen staff, Orlando and waiters. Spaghetti all'amatriciana
12:00-3:30: Dessert line on the lunch rush. Between plating desserts, I made 2 torte di mele and 2 apricot cakes for breakfast the next day. Prepared whipped cream all'albicocca for the desserts.
3:30-5:45: Afternoon break. Packed.
5:45-6:30: Made 2 frittate, prepared fruit salad for breakfast (snuck in, as usual, some triple sec. And they wonder why there's never any leftovers...).
6:30-7:00: Family meal. Salad and pistachio-crusted lamb.
7:00-11:00: Dinner rush. Helped with the contorni before the dessert rush started because Pasquale has been out the past few days. He fainted while taking a shower, hurt his back and needs at least 5 days to rest and recover. The kitchen has been strained to the max to make up for his absence; Alessandro hasn't had a day off in the last two weeks. Moved on to plating desserts (I've never seen so many orders for torta di mele in my life) for the pizzeria and the trattoria. This tiramisu was the last dessert I made on my shift. Basta. A normal day that went off without any major mistakes. A month into the shift, I've finally hit my stride.

After I finished cleaning, the chef told me to go downstairs, change and head to the pizzeria to say goodbye. I did, gathering my belongings from the locker-room downstairs (I'm keeping my kitchen whites more because I'm assuming no one would ever want to wear them after the month of sweat I poured into it), and headed up to the trattoria but no one was there other than Eli who was cleaning up.

I lingered, not really knowing what to do or how to say goodbye when suddenly the chef appeared with a beautiful fondente--a white chocolate, dark chocolate, amaretto, caramelized nut-crusted spectacle, Deborah appeared with an armful of champagne glasses, Sandy popped out with three large bottles of prosecco and everyone else--Freddy, Flavio, Roxy, Enzo, Orlando--filed in and started clearing a table.

We sat down, popped open the bottles of the sweet prosecco and I handed a card to Orlando. I was going to give it to him the next day--a thank you note to everyone in the hotel--but I figured it was as good a time as any. It was written in my best Italian (writing it sort of felt like the closing chapter to my Italian education) and Orlando read it out loud. About the time he got to the sentence, "Sono venuta cui per imparare l’italiano, per fare uno stage alla cucina ed io non ho fatto solo così (benché io scambi sempre pesche/ pesca e uva/uova…), ho incontrato anche gli amici che io non dimenticherò mai," (I came here to learn Italian, to do an apprenticeship in the kitchen, and not only did I do that (even though I still mix up fish/peach and grape/egg), I also met friends who I'll never forget) I just started crying. It was partially because I was thoroughly embarrassed by my Italian and by what I was saying, partially because I was relieved that the month was over because this has truly been one of the most challenging and tiring experience of my life (always running, always trying to understand, having to remember everything after the first shot, always in danger of being scalded or cut or slipping or sending something tumbling), partially because this experience ending meant that my whole summer was coming to a close and mostly because I was just so thankful and happy that everything worked out more perfectly that I ever imagined months and months ago when I was planning this summer from the Adams library.

Deborah walked over to stroke my head, "Che carina, lei piange!" (how cute, she's crying) and I said, "In English, you'd say I'm a sap." Orlando said, "In Italian, we'd just call you a woman." Everyone hissed and laughed and it lightened the mood enough to finish the letter.

We cut the cake and I opened my presents. A Sadler cookbook, one of the most famous Italian chefs and Alessandro's favorite, a card from everyone, a magnet of Citta della Pieve ("we hear in America you all decorate your fridges with magnets. Is this true?), and a clay mold of the city.

* * *
I spent all day today packing and cleaning. Had one last meal with the staff. Dan's grandmother (with whom I went to the opera. haha, oh life) came by to say goodbye and now I'm just worrying about how I'll manage with my suitcases on the Italian trains...but I'll do it somehow. To get home, it's worth it. As sad as I am about leaving, I've never felt more ready to go home.