Monday, 29 December 2014

Italia: A Little Taste of Home

I've been perplexed over how to start this post on Italia (Italy). So much so, that I've found myself at a loss for words up until now-I know. It's a shock to me, too! Let me begin by telling you what I know of Italy and how the culture, and even more importantly, the cuisine, has been a part of my life.

I'm no stranger to Italian food and culture. My mother grew up in Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario which is famous for it's large Italian (once-upon-a-time immigrant) population. The Soo (as many fondly call it), was my home for a very short time, too. My sister was born there while we were en route from Edmonton, Alberta (where I was born and spent four years of my life) to London, Ontario. My mother's family was very closely associated with many of the Italian families in the Soo and since everyone knew everyone...Well, I'm sure you get the picture. My mom and grandmother taught me how to make red pasta sauce (marinara and bolognese), meatballs (the ones that melt in your mouth), lasagna, and sweets like genettis and tie plates/pizelles-both anise flavoured. I heard Italian words that I've only recently discovered are Italian (like kaka and manis) and if you ask me what kind of carb I could live off of for the rest of my life it wouldn't be rice, potatoes or bread (I'm a terrible Asian!). It would be pasta. I could eat pasta every day and never get sick of it. I've always felt part Italian ;)

I left for Italy at the beginning of December after a month of crazy preparation since I would be returning only days before Christmas. Italy wasn't my destination of choice; it was my partners. He-who-must-not-be-named (Harry Potter nerd alert), is working abroad and wanted to get away from the Middle East (understandable since that's where he currently is). Thinking of me-as he always is, the amazing man-we decided that southern Italy would be ideal since the weather is cooler than where he is (and he loathes the heat) and warmer than where I am (and I loathe the cold when there's no snow...and there's still no snow here). Destination: Napoli (Naples).

Travelling to Naples was ridiculously easy and stress-free, thanks to my wonderful friend, owner of Jeve's Pet Care (yes, that's a plug. Check out his company! It's a business I can support, and Jeve is a very good friend of mine: http://www.jevespetcare.com/), who was travelling to Toronto! He dropped me off at Pearson airport and checking-in was a breeze. Flying from Toronto to Charles de Gaulle airport and then onto Naples was sooo simple and quick. Paris had a line at passport control, but it was NOTHING compared to the waits I've experienced in the U.S.A. (SOOOO HAPPY I DIDN'T FLY THROUGH THE U.S.A!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Going to keep trying to avoid it when I can!). Once I arrived in Naples I simply got off the plane and collected my luggage. No one asked me why I was visiting Italy, or how long I'd be there for or what I was bringing into the country. It was a dream. I arrived and waited roughly an hour and a half for my other half to arrive. I'm not going to go into any details about him, because if you've read my blog you already know him as the Irish chef ;)  Yes, that patient guy waited around until I was ready, but I hope he believes I was well worth the wait. Okay, enough of that.

We took a taxi to the flat we were staying at on Via Silvio Spaventa, a hop, skip and a jump away from Piazza Garibaldi, the central train station in Naples. The driver wouldn't bargain with us about cost, saying he didn't understand, but it was clear he did (it only should have cost 16€, but ended up costing us 25€). If you're going to bargain with a taxi driver, write down the price and don't get into the taxi until this is settled upon or else they'll try and rip you off, as our host told us afterwards. Our lovely host, Davide, was able to get us settled in nicely. Airbnb is honestly the most wonderful website. That's the site I've had the most success with.

We contacted Davide at the last minute because the Irish chef was waiting on his vacation dates. Davide was very kind and helpful and the flat was AMAZING!!! It was sooo nice and comfy! We loved where we stayed: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/313850?s=qQ5-. It was a busy street, but that didn't bother us. The noise just made us feel like we were in a lively place with character which neither of us minded. We shopped for food every day at the local grocer just across the street. They didn't speak any English, so we had to practice our Italian and do I ever feel bad for those people! They were really kind and helpful and it was nice to meet locals and see a friendly face if we were passing by. We cooked a lot because we like to and because the produce sold was local and AMAZINGLY delizioso!!! How could you not want to cook with fresh cheese, vegetables, cured meats and olives?!? The local wine was extremely cheap (look at the price tags on the photos below), so we might have drank a lot. In fairness, we used it in our food as well! I didn't take photos of our cooking, but no matter. We enjoyed the local specialties: pizza, pasta and fresh seafood in addition to A LOT of other food!

Here are some snapshots:

 Can you see the price??? 1.80€!!! Awesomely enough, the wine was very nice. The one on the left from Pompeii was crisp and dry. The one on the right was a bit sweet and full-bodied. Both were much too easy to drink. I'm glad we didn't overlook these as they were better than the more expensive wine I had in the restaurants!
 Our first dinner out at a restaurant close to the station. Not a place I'd recommend. Stay away from restaurants around the Piazza Garibaldi (Garibaldi Station) as they're overpriced and don't serve the best food :(
 GELATO!!!! COFFEE gelato! I LOVE gelato! The Irish chef made sure we stopped for some for me to try out since he knew it was one of the foods on my hit list :)  Check out the name of the place: Vanity Cafè
Sadly, I have NO pictures of the Indian food we purchased from this place. We found it on a side street off of Via Toledo, but it was incredible! Spicy, too! Yum!!! 
 Ohhh, more street food. This came from a restaurant literally a few feet from the flat. It's bread with pasta, sauce, cheese and aubergine (eggplant). This was so yummy that I could have eaten another one. I tried a ham and cheese version of this, but it wasn't half as good.
 These are my sister and father's favourite chocolate, so I had to eat an actual Italian Ferrero Rocher. They would have wanted me to, lol!
 With all the sweets around, I couldn't resist getting some one afternoon! This sugary little delight had a hint of lemon and it was sooo soft and warm!!! Thank God we walked A LOT!
The Irish chef opted for chocolate (he loves it!). This Nutella-filled croissant was nice, but after accidentally squishing the rosette on top it looked a little like kaka, which I found out means poop (that's the nicer version) in Italian, Hungarian AND Arabic. You learn something new every day!
I passed this delightful dessert shop by the station and had to stop in! I'm not a sweets lover, but my curiosity sometimes (always) gets the best of me and then this is what happens...
 Voilà! Chocolate pastry for the Irish chef and a lemon concoction for me!
 I saw A LOT of pastries shaped like this and I'm still not sure what they are. I have to say though that most weren't filled with cream AND this one was almost completely soaked through with a glaze that tasted like limoncello (the local alcoholic specialty: a lemon flavoured liqueur).
We went out for a "fancy" dinner at an outdoor restaurant (covered with heaters) and it was incredible! We started off with steamed mussels (which were HUGE!). I also tried the limoncello which you can see behind the mussels!
 A basic salad that was PHENOMENAL because of those huge, green, BUTTERY olives! I couldn't get enough of those olives! P.S. is rocket popular EVERYWHERE else in the world except Canada??? I just discovered today that we call it arugula...I feel so uneducated about the "spicy" lettuce.
This was the Irish chef's choice: Battered and deep-fried cod and it was mouth-watering!
I ordered a mixed deep-fried fish plate and I was in HEAVEN! It may have taken me three years to eat (because my de-boning technique is quite...Tedious), but it was SO TASTY! I can't remember the name of this location, but it wasn't too far from the Orto Botanico di Napoli (the Botanical Garden).
 Our guidebook recommended Sorbillo. HOWEVER, it recommended the location at via Tribunali 32...NOT 38. Ooops. Regardless, the pizza here was sooo yummy! A LOT of pizza places on via Tribunali are worth trying!!!
 What is the world coming to when designers have nothing better to do than design (if you can call it that) a pop can??? It was a sad moment for me.
The Irish chef chose a pizza with tomatoes, goat cheese, zucchini and prosciutto
 My pizza was pesto based with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil :)   
 We found this gem in Pompeii: the starter platter. LOOK at that mozzarella!!! I enjoyed EVERYTHING on that plate!!! The tomatoes were sooo fresh and were farmed locally (of course they were! We were in EUROPE!!!)
 This pasta was hand-made that morning and is a creation of the chef's. I helped out when it came to eating the small octopus!!!
My pasta was not as unique, but between the melted cheesy goodness, the eggplant and tomatoes, who cares? It was to die for! I didn't talk. Imagine that. We ate in silence. Doesn't that say it all?
 Dessert: another homemade concoction by the chef who'd baked it earlier that morning (chocolate tart).
Maybe by the time we got these clementines we were so full that I was going to burst, and maybe I didn't want them to go to waste and wanted to keep them for later, so maybe I threw them into my purse while no one was looking. Maybe the waiter looked at us funny when he took the plate away and noticed NO peels ;)  I'm not called mikan monster for nothing ('mikan' is actually a tangerine and I was given the name by my family in Japan when I visited and wouldn't stop eating tangerines).
The view of the street from the interior of the restaurant. It was a beautifully warm and sunny although we did get a little rain in Pompeii that afternoon.
The view of the restaurant from the street. I recommend eating there!

Just wanted to leave you with a funny shot. Don't worry! We didn't eat here-mostly out of fear. Lol! Maybe this needs to go on www.engrish.com or does 'amnesia' mean something in a different language? Anyone???

Monday, 10 November 2014

Rewind & Fast Forward

As a 32 year-old thinking back to my high school days at Oakridge Secondary School, I admit that I'm conflicted as to how I feel about the whole thing. I wasn't popular, but I wasn't an unknown either. My circle of friends was large, but close-knit, predominantly female and consisted of girls who were and weren't popular, but were incredible (at least in my mind).

 Semi-formal, Grade 10 (1997-98)
Lounging in the halls...Grade 9, I think (1996-97)
A few us joined up for a quick pic before entering the auditorium to collect our diplomas.

High school didn't start off too well for me, lol! I struggled with the academic transition (although I'd earned the highest marks among my elementary school peers). I was out of place among the mostly rich students who were also blessed with beauty, athleticism, brains and the gift of being outgoing and confident. I was shy, scared and unsure of how to feel comfortable with who I was. Although I wasn't brilliant, I learned the ways of high school academia and my grades hovered in the 80s to low 90s (although Algebra & Geometry would disagree). I wasn't beautiful, but unique since I was one of two female Asians. I wouldn't consider myself athletic, but I was good enough to play mixed doubles on the badminton team. Eventually, I walked my own line.

 Grade 9 yearbook photo (sorry it's blurry!)
Embracing my weirdness at the Red Feather game (American-style football) in grade 10. 
Graduation photo

I was so focused on doing well academically, that, even though I had my fair share of crushes (including one on a geography teacher who was super dreamy!), I refused to let boys sidetrack me. Of course, the irony is that no boys actually paid any attention to me, hahaha! I never had a date or boyfriend from school and trying to find a date for dances and graduation was next to impossible.

Jo directly quoting me in my yearbook about my schoolgirl crush, lol!

Once upon a time (in Canada), high school went from grade 9 to grade 13, or as we fondly called it, OAC. Phys(ical) ed(ucation) was mandatory in grade 9. Now, I loved being active, and in addition to making the badminton team (yeah, you're still laughing from the first time I mentioned that, aren't you?), I also made the cheer leading team...I declined the acceptance, but I was happy that I'd been able to make the cut! Phys ed was always daunting to me because I had asthma (blah!), and I had to change into my gym uniform in front of 40+ girls who were waaay more comfortable with being naked in a public space than I was.

The first day of gym class I didn't realize we'd have to take notes. Lacking paper and pen, and knowing absolutely NOBODY in my class, I tapped on the shoulder of the girl in front of me who jumped at my touch and looked at me with a look of mortification on her face. I apologized and asked for paper and a pen, which she obligingly gave me. I introduced myself to her and gave her my hand which she hesitated to take. She introduced herself, and in no time I called her either Jo (thinking of her as Louisa May Alcott's beloved protagonist in Little Women), or by her Greek name. She's Greek Canadian, born to Greek parents. Eighteen years later, we're still best friends; her friendship has been the most important one of my life.

Jo and I at graduation :)

In spite of our lengthy friendship, I didn't know what her wedding plans were. I don't if this is surprising to people, but we never actually communicated about weddings. Is that odd? I don't even know. We did meet at a time in our lives when infatuation was an every day occurrence and fairy tales could still come true, when daydreaming of Mr. Right at times competed with our attention to Mrs. Wilson's bio class. I know we were both innocent and hopeful, but we only spoke of marriage as something that wouldn't happen for us. Most eligible bachelors ran fast and far. No, that life wasn't meant for us. Then we arrived at UWO (Western University) and smartened up: there were plenty of suitors, but now the issue was how to find that good guy who deserved us, the one we'd fall in love with? Unfortunately, more often than not, it felt like UWO was more like an Oakridge reunion.

Although I've been unlucky in love (let's face it, I've been unlucky in love my whole life, hehehe!), Jo met a special someone. Mr. S. I was normally happy for Jo when she told me of a new love interest, but Mr. S was different. Maybe it was how she spoke of him, or the fact that she didn't tell me about him right away, but I detested him before I'd met him. I'd prepared tough questions to grill him and my best stone face. Of course, my hatred was short-lived. He was good-natured, kind and funny, but it was how he and Jo interacted together when they thought no one was watching that gave me pause. He quickly proved he wasn't perfect and that he could be daft when it came to women (as most men are), BUT, I also saw a man completely accept and love Jo for all that she was and all that we knew she would be. I watched him show her a love that I'd only dreamed of having waaaay back, once upon a time. Eight years after they'd started dating, Mr. S proposed to my bosom buddy, and next July we'll watch them marry in GREECE!

With less than eight  and a half months to go, we went dress shopping in London (Ontario, Canada) on the weekend. It was quite an experience since I think it was overwhelming for me more than any of my companions (Jo, her mother and her sister). I'm not a fan of the economy of weddings. It's become such a commodity and expense that I feel the sentiments have lost a lot of their meaning. Sorry, I digress!

Jo had seen shoes in the front window of Petrov Bridal and went in to book a dress fitting. We watched her try on beautiful dresses, but it was a Pronovias gown that was the showstopper, or perhaps it was Jo beaming while she was wearing it that was showstopping. That moment for me was the highlight of the day. She was stunning: here was the girl who never thought she'd get to be a bride. When we were younger, we were so determined it wouldn't happen for us (for various different reasons), that we made a small wager: the first girl (between the two of us) to get engaged would treat the other to a grand dinner at a restaurant of the non-betrothed's choice. I lost. Even though I never entered marital "bliss," I was officially the first engaged, and as such, I owe Jo a dinner...Still. That story is for another day though.

 Jo loathes sequence, so this one was very quickly a "no," which is why I can post it ;)
Although it has a Spanish and Mediterranean feel, no one thought this had a "wow" effect. Next! 

Eva (Petrov), the owner of Petrov Bridal (http://petrovbridal.com/) is a long-time acquaintance and is AMAZING! I met her through her son, also an amazing person. Eva has such a beautiful heart and smile. Her patience must be noted and appreciated! We were booked in a private sitting room (it was huge!), and had beverages throughout our FOUR HOUR session. Eva sells European gowns available exclusively at her store! She's a classy, gracious, giving person and she treated us very well. I have only praise for the service we received. I've had friends who have purchased their bridal attire from Garber's Bridal, Balletts Bridal & Formalwear and Nicholas & Elizabeth (all located in London), and they all had the absolute worst customer service! In fact, when I was shopping for my wedding gown, I refused to go to any of these shops. I would never recommend any of them and would encourage you to visit Eva (@ Petrov Bridal), or visit a boutique store such as Leslie's Clothing, Lolita or Elizabeth Noel (all located on Richmond Street). I've made purchases from all stores and the customer service and prices were superior to those bridal stores previously mentioned (except Petrov Bridal).

Back to my best friend's big fat Greek wedding. Jo's sis and I decided to try on bridesmaid gowns (only two different styles), as a test and reference point for the other dresses we know are to come. Both were beautiful, but only one was a stunner! I'd looked at what was available for "maids" at Petrov Bridal. I will freely admit that I cannot stand bridesmaids dresses or the concept of them: overpriced, hideously coloured (I don't enjoy wearing colour or the ridiculous notion that ONE colour is going to suit an array of skin colours since that's almost NEVER the case), one-time wear dresses. It's such a waste of money, time and effort, but those are just my feelings. Anyhooo, I tried on the dress below and loved it, although I know what you're all thinking, "Mik, it's a July wedding in Greece," BUT, it's an evening wedding and we're apparently on a mountain...Or in the mountains, but it's supposedly cooler there. This lace and organza concoction was one I fell in love with immediately. Please forgive the quality of the pictures! They're the only ones I could find. There is a shot of me IN the gown, but because the floor model was too big, it looks comical and wouldn't do the dress justice. It fit Jo's sister like a glove and she looked FABULOUS, but for some reason I don't have a picture of her in it :(

 Lazaro Noir 3378: Front
Hello. I love you, dress: Back

So, it is with great pleasure that I announce the upcoming marriage of Jo and Mr. S! I've always said that I'll never go to Greece without Jo. Now, I'm happy to report that I will do so...Even if it means wearing a hideous, overpriced dress I'll never, ever wear again :) I'd only ever agree to it for my sister...And my beloved Jo, because, if you didn't already guess it, I'm not a supporter of the whole big wedding thing. I don't like weddings in general. However, I'm ridiculously excited for Mr. S and Jo's wedding!!! Greece! With AWESOME people I love...Including my date ;) It's going to be incredible.

To Do:
1.) Search Airbnb for a place to stay
2.) Request a list of official bridesmaid duties
3.) Get started on planning the bachelorette party!
4.) Learn Greek!!!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Eat, Drink and Be Scary!

Re-adjusting to autumn: level of difficulty for Mik = extremely hard. One day it was sunny, humid and hot. The next day it was overcast, raining and cold. My body shut down and I wanted to stay in bed every day, all day long. After a terrible bout of SAD (seasonal affective disorder: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/definition/con-20021047), I deliberated buying a happy lamp (to help deal with the shift in my mood), but decided against it because I don't want to become dependent on it. It's still tough some days, but things are a bit better. Oddly, a lot of people I know have also admitted to having a tough time adjusting to autumn's arrival this year. Unfortunately, my lack of love for autumn has meant that I haven't really appreciated the beauty that's surrounded me:

 The view from my balcony #1
The view from my balcony #2
Coming home from a walk.

Thanksgiving was a great success...However, I completely forgot to take photos because I was so preoccupied with making a delicious meal. Sorry :(   That being said, I did go out. I went out A LOT, and I feel like there wasn't much worth snapping shots of: went to Crabby Joe's (never impressive), Tony Roma's (I'd decided on a salad because everything else just seemed overwhelmingly HUGE and fatty) and Barakat (but didn't even order because I wasn't hungry that afternoon!). Here are some snap shots of the goodies I got:

 Okay, this is at Icarus. I went with a group of friends and LOVE the Mediterranean lamb meatballs and warm potato salad...AMAZING! I'm not a fan of the AFTER taste of lamb, but these meatballs are to DIE FOR. Londoners: GO. NOW!
Possessed @ Icarus (look at all those red eyes!) and gorgeous smiles! 
 Okay, the Little Beaver is considered a dive, but yet has the most AWESOME desserts! I went out for brunch with a group of acquaintances and friends from high school and although breakfast was OK, this slice of pumpkin pie was the highlight for me. Incredible!!!
 Every Friday, the mosque on Oxford Street west sells fatayer. They have spinach, potato, meat and cheese (like arayas, but as you can see from the pic, A LOT bigger and a lot meatier!), zaatar and zaatar with cheese...OH, MY. They even have western pizza style. It's heavenly when eaten fresh out of the oven!!! 
 There are still days when I'm not sure how I feel about Paramount (on Southdale Road: http://www.paramountfinefoods.com/). Anyhow, my sister suggested we go and-as always-I ordered WAAAAAY too much food! Hummus, falafel, kibbeh, arayes, fattoush, tahini and garlic "mayo" are ALL necessities! Did I eat too much??? YES! I DO have to mention that the falafel, fries and shwarmas at Pita Pita are MUCH better than Paramount's.
Arayes and falafel :)
Fattoush and bread massacred.
I love me some kibbeh!
Last on the docket for food: I went to McGinnis Landing for drinks with my girlfriend and I ordered the peach cobbler and it was disappointing. I'm not a fan of McGinnis Landing or other "family-style" restaurants like Kelsey's, Moxie's, Tony Roma's, Shoeless Joe's, Earl's, Crabby Joe's, etc...  To me, they attempt to offer a bit of every kind of food and rarely end up doing anything amazing-even if they specialize like Boston Pizza and Montana's. Are there exceptions? Of course! East Side Mario's has always done a great job in my humble opinion. Red Lobster can be hit or miss, but when it's a hit, watch out!!! Even though it's on my "I'm-not-a-fan" list, Montana's beef ribs ARE amazing!

On top of all of this eating, I somehow made it out for Halloween...TWICE! Once as a minion and once as a gangster for a Great Gatsby themed party where I got to hit a piñata for the first time ever!!! It was awesome! 

Halloween Party #1:
At McCulloch's (http://www.mccullochs.on.ca/): my sis helping me find parts for minion goggles...Which hurt my head so much I couldn't wear them (they were "drunk" glasses, so they hurt my eyes, lol!), and kept breaking :( 
My sis and her besties as Snap, Crackle and Pop (Rice Krispies)
Actual characters.
 Minions: 3/5
 I might have cut my jumper a bit too short (which my father was predicting I'd do, lol! I had to wear running shorts over my FANTASTIC yellow tights!!!). Shirt and jumper: Value Village! Goggles: McCullochs and Fabric Land. Tights: Target.
At the final destination we ran into another minion (6 of us in total!) and another Gru!!! We danced all night, and although I was the designated driver, I had a blast being a spectator!
BEST costume for me was Mr. Clean!!!
Actual logo

Halloween #2: 

Hail, hail, the gang's all here!!! I'm blessed to have these AMAZING people in my life. They've saved me a time...Or countless times.
 Flapper girls and me trying to channel my androgynous side as a gangster but failing miserably as I ended up emulating Baz Luhrmann's vision of costumes in the 20s. As always, my obsession with Madonna was never far from my mind. I was inspired by her 1990 'Vogue' music video.
I LOVE laughing! My friend, who I thought really resembled will.i.am, is pretty funny! I don't know WHO took this picture, but I have to say it's one of my favourites from the Halloween festivities!
 Showing Elmo some love before clubbing him to death.
Elmo: The after picture. I've got some evil eyes going on. Don't know what that's about, lol!
Smile! beautiful blondes!!!
Not posing, but showering J with loving looks ;)
The spread! My lipstick consisted of four layers (lip liner x2, lipstick and lip gloss x2), which somehow ended up on my WHITE tank top at the beginning of the evening, BAHAHAHA!!!

As I do a lot of driving for work, I found some pretty great houses dressed up for Halloween. To protect people's privacy, I'll just give the general area of these houses.

Oakridge area: this house was, BY FAR, the best of the bunch I saw. I'm sure kids would have been scared walking up to this place to trick-or-treat!

The FULL view (which was sooo elaborate that I had to take this picture from across the street!)
 That grey thing had red eyes that lit up and it spoke. Freaky.
 Those characters were not people, but were life-size!!! Eeeeek!
 The decor on the front lawn
 This guy TOWERED over me!
 Okay, these things were just creepy! They talked and their eyes moved and they were swinging, and ugh, weirdness and spooky awesomeness combined!
 Zombie alert! Not a person! Seriously, this is still the SAME house!
 This chick was my size and kept crying and singing a lullaby.
 These people are totally into Halloween!!!
 Still more!
And when you left, this skeleton thing crawled after you!!! FANTASTIC!

Byron area: I'm sorry these pictures are fuzzy, but between my flash and the lack of street lighting, they wouldn't focus properly :(  ALL of the following decorations are HAND-MADE, folks!!! I know this because the house belongs to my sister's co-worker.

 Frog eyes (left) and a giant spider on the roof!
Clowns ARE scary! Mike Myers is ALSO scary!!! 
 Pumpkin carving!!! MINION!!!
 The front yard.
 Are kids freaked out by this stuff, because it looks INCREDIBLE to me!
 Trying to imagine myself as a kid approaching this place and I think it would have scared me a bit.
 Home-made!!!
 Look at that GIANT Frankenstein!
 The view from across the street.

Whitehills area: I saw this place while driving and had to turn around to take pictures. I had other, better shots, but I captured the car plates (of the car in the driveway), and decided against adding them.

 Love the effort that people go to for this holiday!
 I wonder what it looked like at night. It was around 3pm.
"Sorry, I'm not home right now. I'm walking into spiderwebs, so leave a message and I'll call you back!"

Lots of pictures for y'all! Hope your Halloween was safe and wonderful! I've missed it for two years, but I certainly got my fill this year :)