Part I: My Top 5 Favorites of Italy

I told myself I wasn’t going to apologize anymore. But, I must. The last post I wrote was in February, before the Italy trip. Two months have passed. So, I must apologize—especially if you have checked alwaysorange with any regularity, wondering when I would finally write something. This post is a bit longer; in fact, it is part one. I promise you won’t have to wait two months for part two. Grab a cup of coffee—an espresso, perhaps—and enjoy.

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Where to begin? What to say? What to write?  Italy was amazing. I fell in love with the place. I know, everyone says that. But it’s true. In the ensuing weeks (months) since the trip, my mind has been a collection of thoughts, images, and memories. I’m calling this post my “Top 5 Favorites” of Italy. Part II will be my version of a travel advice piece.

The Food

How could I not start with the food? Mama Mia! Our travel package had Brad and I flying into Milan where we picked up our rental car for the week. Our hotel, Croce de Malta, was located in the smallish town of Montecatini, about a 3.5- hour drive from Milan. Florence the capital of Tuscany was a 40-minute drive from our hotel. Friends had told us about the Auto Grills in Italy—the US version of a toll oasis or a truck stop. They said if we wanted a snack or a coffee, we should stop. I’m sure I looked like the googly-eyed tourist as we walked into our first one. No row upon row of processed chips and cookies. Instead, I found myself looking at a food counter with sandwiches and pizzas nestled behind glass counters, waiting to be warmed for hungry customers. A full service coffee bar also served espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes. No plastic to-go cups here. Instead, coffee was served in porcelain cups with saucers. Once we picked our sandwich to share (ham, arugula, and cheese panini), the woman warmed it in the oven for us. Off to one side, I could see that this Auto Grill had its own bakery to make its bread each day. Really?

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Later that night, we headed out to dinner—I felt very Italian eating dinner at 8:30 pm, btw—to a local pizzeria called Don Chisciotte. This was our first introduction to authentic Italian pizza. Each pizza is meant to serve one person and comes on a large dinner plate. This isn’t thick- crust pizza. Most restaurants, maybe all of them, bake their pizzas in a wood-fired oven. The crust puffs a bit around the edges and often have a bit of char on them, making them look all the more rustic. The dough also has a pleasant “chew.” I ordered a cherry tomato and mushroom pizza. Brad had the ham and fresh buffalo cheese pizza. Our pies hit the spot and we topped off our evening with some gelato at a nearby cafe. Falling into bed that night, I couldn’t believe we were actually in Italy.

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While we ate many delicious meals, one of our favorites also took place in Montecatini. It was Sunday night and we had been gone all day to Bologna and then to Reggio Emilia to watch a soccer game. We wanted a relaxed, sit-down dinner. The woman at the hotel front desk came through with another winner and told us about Da Lorenzo.  

From the moment we walked into the restaurant, the service was attentive and friendly. Very quickly, we figured out that this was a family affair. As we met different members of the Da Lorenzos, we picked up pieces of their stories—a granddaughter who was a university student in Florence, the son who now ran the restaurant, the father/grandfather who made the pizzas. When we entered the restaurant, our server asked us where we wanted to sit and we chose a table near the prep station and wood-fired oven. Watching individual dishes being prepared with love and care was a highlight. To celebrate, we ordered a delicious bottle of champagne. Over the next two-plus hours as we dined on pasta and steak, we talked with the different family members and oohed and ahhed over our dishes. They clearly loved that we loved the experience and the food as much as we did. As our meal finally wound down and we polished off the last crumbs of our desserts, our server arrived with tiny, frosted glasses. As this was the second time we received complimentary limoncello at the end of a meal, I felt like I had passed the “test.” Italians want you to like their food. They don’t want false praise, but genuine enjoyment of good cooking. Tired and full as were at this point, we sipped our limoncello and nibbled on the small pieces of dark chocolate that our server included with our drinks with smiles on our faces.

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The Coffee

I love coffee. It it part of my morning ritual. But I don’t regularly drink cappuccinos or espressos. In Italy, cappuccinos start the day. At our hotel, a fancy machine served up hot coffee drinks for hotel guests at breakfast. I wanted to experience Italy like an Italian so I did the same, starting my day with a cappuccino, or two. However, the part I really came to love was the espresso at the counter at any point in the day. Actually, I ended up ordering a macchiato mostly, which is an espresso with foamed milk. I also don’t add sugar to my coffee, but I found I really liked the taste of the milk and sugar in my macchiato. For €1, sometimes a €1.20 for a macchiato, a person could grab a quick shot of caffeine at a gelateria, an auto grill, a bistro, a bar, and of course, a restaurant. Italians generally stand at the counter to drink their espressos because they are small and can be swallowed with one gulp. Again, I felt like a local standing at the counter drinking my coffee. I also found the hit of caffeine to be the right amount of pick-me-up in the late afternoon.

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The Landscape

The Tuscan landscape doesn’t disappoint. It was every bit as charming as the pictures and postcards portray it. I can only imagine how lovely it looks now with spring flowers blooming. I guess I wasn’t prepared to see stone farmhouse after stone farmhouse everywhere I looked. In addition, the terraced gardens with rows of olive trees and vineyards dotting the rolling hills added to the charm. Even driving along the busy Autostrada, the modern, high-speed highway, you can’t escape the rustic farmhouse in the distance. On some of our day trips, we had this view along with the snow-covered Apennine Mountains in the distance, delighting us as we drove from one destination to the next. Probably a favorite image was seeing the town of Cortona in the distance while driving to Orvieto. The sun-soaked hillside made me realize why Frances Mayes titled her book, which is set in Cortona, Under the Tuscan Sun.

Riomaggiore in Cinque Terre

The People

In my pre-trip reading, I knew that I was headed to a place where both men and women took fashion seriously. I was told I wouldn’t find an Italian dressed in yoga pants and a sweatshirt having coffee or lunch. Instead, one would be dressed for the day before heading out of the house for any activity. I certainly observed this reality during my visit. The only time I saw people in workout gear was at St. Luca, where a 5k run had taken place earlier that morning. What I found myself falling in love with, though, was the Italian, fashionably dressed or not. I loved watching the gestures, the mannerisms, and the expressions used when talking with friends over a meal or sipping an espresso at the counter. Throughout our stay, I encountered friendly, easy-going Italians. It was refreshing. I’ll be honest and say that I actually thought of a few responses I might give to a person once they learned I was an American. I was ready for the presidential jokes and comments. To my surprise, this never came up during any conversation. It seemed as if it didn’t matter where I came from. Instead, did I like my food? Was I enjoying my stay? These are my kind of people! However, I must add that I was surprised by how many Italians smoke. Thankfully, this wasn’t an issue inside restaurants or other enclosed places, but I saw young and old regularly lighting up during our stay.   

The Art

On Thursday, our first full day in Italy, we drove to Siena. So much to love about this city. I wish I would have had more time there. I could probably say this about most places we visited. I think that the Duomo in Siena tops my list as a favorite. Maybe because it was the first one we toured in Italy. Something about the black and white marble used throughout the space, or the original, vibrant frescoes in the Piccolomini Library that hardly looked like they were painted 500 hundred years ago (!), or the mosaic floor panel, one of many, that so beautifully and accurately depicts man’s attempt to control his own destiny and the folly of this way of thinking, moved me on many levels. On Friday, I stood close to Michelangelo’s The David and marveled over the fact that someone carved this sculpture out of a solid piece of marble. In the afternoon, I toured the Uffizi and saw more great works of art. On our last day in Italy, we climbed the steps of Milan’s Duomo to the terraced rooftop, enjoying the views of the piazza below. Despite the rain, we were amazed at the detail and intricacy of the spires all around us. The sheer size of the Duomo is also impressive. Again, I wished we had more time. It felt in some ways, that a person could spend a lifetime looking at art in Italy and still not see it all. I’m grateful for what I did see during our trip.

The Duomo in Siena

Whew! There you have it—some of my favorites about Italy. Stay tuned for Part II. In the meantime, if you have been to Italy, I would love to hear some of your favorites.

 

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Tuscany Bound!

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Tomorrow, Brad and I will travel to Europe, specifically Italy, for the first time in our lives. Finally.

This has been a dream for a long time. For a husband-and-wife team that loves exploring new places and learning about new cultures, Europe has been on our wish list for a while.

It’s not like we didn’t want to go sooner. In the early years of our marriage, finances were tight. Brad was a youth pastor and I was finishing college and starting my teaching career. Once we became more financially stable, we were too busy figuring out our lives to recognize that this window of time before children arrived might be a good time to go. When it did dawn on us, I was a stay-at-home mom with two young children. We lived on one income and, once again, travel to Europe was beyond our financial means.

So I started my Europe folder. Whenever the Chicago Tribune or other publications ran articles on budget-friendly European travel, I added them to my folder. From time to time, I pulled out the folder out and reread the articles, dreaming of the time Brad and I would go. I loved hearing friends share their stories of the places they visited (Okay, sometimes I was slightly jealous too). I couldn’t wait for the time I could say, “I’m going to Europe.”

Last fall, an incredible online deal for Italy appeared in my inbox. If you haven’t heard of Travelzoo, you need to check it out. This particular deal included round-trip airfare, hotel, and a rental car for seven nights in Tuscany. One of the perks of living near New York City is that it is a hub for international travel and with that comes great deals for travel. The price for this trip was amazing. The dates perfect—during our Spring Break. Within 24 hours, we found ourselves pulling the trigger and purchasing the deal.

And here we are. The day before we leave, pinching ourselves and feeling like giddy teenagers. One of the highlights of our 25th anniversary trip to Montreal this past summer was the realization that we make a good pair when we travel. We like hanging out together. We can still irritate each other or have different expectations that we need to sort through, but I’m excited to take a trip like this now after so many years of marriage. We have our shared history to help us navigate this new adventure.

I plan to write some more about our trip after the fact, but if you want to come along while we explore the hill country of Italy, follow me at Instagram: aliciabrummeler. I will be posting regularly. Can’t wait for that first espresso on the Autostrada!

Arrivederci, amici.

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Slow Cooking: A Magical Transformation

img_1548It could be because it is winter. It could be because whatever is “old” is now “new.” Or it could be because cookbook writers and others have been singing the praises of the humble crock pot for the past several years. Whatever the reason, slow cooking is enjoying a revival. The latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens even contains an article about the wonders of slow cooking.

I am the product of a crock-pot-using-mom. In my own family, when I taught in Texas and needed to put dinner on the table every night, the crock pot was a lifesaver, making an appearance most weeks during the school year. These days, my crock pot doesn’t even reside in my kitchen cupboards, claiming precious retail space. I have it tucked away in a makeshift pantry in another room. However, last weekend I pulled it out and used it to cook a sirloin pork roast along with some potatoes and carrots.

It was the best meal I have had in a while.

Over the course of the ten hours or so that the roast cooked, a magical transformation occurred. The result? Meat so tender and so flavorful that it melted in your mouth. The potatoes and carrots were soft, but not mushy, and captured the meaty flavors of the pork roast. My seasonings were simple—a couple of garlic cloves, half an onion, some salt and pepper, and some water to create moisture.

Even better was the low cost of this meal. I bought the meat at Aldi for under five dollars. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was close to three pounds. Of course, potatoes and carrots are inexpensive food items. To round out the meal, I made biscuits—something else I haven’t fixed for a long time. A simple meal for sure, but so good and perfect for a January winter’s night.

 

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Winter Fare: Soup for Dinner

A few weeks ago a snow storm passed through my area. Starting mid morning and ending later that evening, continuous, powdery snowflakes fell, resulting in approximately eight inches of snow. Since it was a Saturday, it was a perfect day for enjoying a fire, going for a snow walk, and planning for dinner.

Thus began the pantry raid to see what ingredients were on hand for soup.

Fortunately, I had a bag of lentils, along with an onion, a couple of garlic cloves, some carrots (these are optional), and olive oil—all the ingredients necessary for lentil soup. Usually I default to Ina Garten’s recipe for lentil soup, which uses a few more ingredients. But this time I wanted to try my friend Rachel Stone’s recipe that she included in her book Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food. Rachel is a fellow colleague and a writer. I haven’t finished her entire book yet, but I love what I have read and I like that she includes recipes at the end of each chapter.

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Whenever I make soup for dinner, I also want to make bread. Knowing I had the time, I decided to make french bread. Once again, I have an easy go-to recipe that is a favorite. All you need is some yeast, warm water, flour, sugar, and salt. This recipe also makes two baguettes. Usually we eat one and freeze the other for another time.

Scrounging around in my freezer, I discovered a frozen pie crust. Of course, the husband and college-aged son wanted Lemon Meringue Pie, but I didn’t feel like driving to the store in the snow in search of lemons. My instincts told me that a look through my More with Less cookbook would probably reveal a good recipe. I landed on Shoo-Fly pie. Leave it to the Pennsylvania Dutch to provide a yummy option without a lot of fuss. The filling is molasses (if you don’t like strong flavors, perhaps skip this recipe), eggs, baking soda and water, with a bit of flour. In addition, there is a crumb topping that is combined into the filling and sprinkled on the top before baking. Served warm with a dollop of whipped cream, this pie is perfect for a winter evening.

The biggest challenge to pulling off my dinner was timing. I needed to allow the lentils to soak before cooking them. Also, soups taste better when they have time to simmer for a bit so I needed to factor that piece in as well. I also needed rising time for the bread. Once I figured out those parts, this was an easy, satisfying meal to prepare. I baked the pie during the second rise of my french bread so the oven was already warm when the bread needed to bake.

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The evening ended with watching the final two episodes in season one of The Crown, a fabulous and fascinating show on Netflix that I highly recommend. The snow stopped by the time we went to bed. Our stomachs were full and our beds warm. A perfect ending to the day.

 

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How to Cultivate a Writing Life: Attend a Writer’s Conference

At the end of October, I attended my first Writer’s Conference—The Indiana Faith and Writing Conference at Anderson University. I’m so glad I went.

I’ll be honest and say I was a bit nervous beforehand. I wasn’t sure what to expect. As silly as it may sound, I still find myself hesitating before readily saying, “I am a writer.”

Somehow the idea of walking into a room filled with other writers felt intimidating. A bit like junior-high school and wondering if anyone will want to sit with you at lunch. Fortunately, my mom attended the conference with me so the experience wasn’t as nerve wracking as it might have been if I was by myself. As for the worry about the “scary” writer crowd? Nonexistent. Smiling, friendly faces greeted both of us as we found our seats for the opening session.

While I enjoyed the workshops, for me the best part of the conference was the plenary sessions. The writers and poets that spoke inspired and challenged me. Addie Zierman, the author of When We Were on Fire and the more recent book Night Driving, gave the first plenary address. I read her first book and appreciated her honesty about her complicated relationship with her faith. On Friday evening, Susanna Childress poet and professor of English at Hope College spoke. Speaking in a slow, southern drawl, I found myself captivated by her storytelling as she explored what it means to abide in the midst of mystery.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, Frank X. Walker, a former poet laureate for the state of Kentucky shared poems from several of his collections. His poems, told from the perspective of real, historical figures, combine the beauty of poetic language with compelling characters.

The final plenary address was given by Alex Marestaing, a writer of young adult fiction. He challenged us to have a strong voice as writers. The writing life can be discouraging and fraught with self doubt. Yet, there are moments when “God walks in the room” and you realize that you must continue to write no matter if the words ever leave the pages of your journal or Google Drive.  His talk was the perfect conclusion to a wonderful weekend.

Even though it has been several months since I attended the conference, I still find myself recalling the talks, the workshops, and the conversations with fellow writers. This is why attending a writer’s conference is such a  valuable experience. Whether you call yourself a writer or not (no one checks your credentials at the door, btw), hanging out with others who love words and well-crafted story adds a richness to everyday life. These are people who care about writing and want to learn how to improve. These are people who have experienced the highs and lows of the writing life and have insights and thoughts to share with others. These are people who love the good, the true, and the beautiful. These are the kind of people I want to hang out with.

 

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A New Year, A New Book

It’s Monday. The start of a new week and a new year—2017.

On several occasions at Always Orange, I have professed my fondness for New Year’s Resolutions. Over the years, my practices regarding this tradition have adapted to fit my season of life. These days, I am more likely to set some goals for myself at the beginning of August to coincide with the start of school. But whether I am setting goals at start of a new calendar year or a new school year, I value the opportunity to pause and reflect on the “what ifs” for the coming year.

My  “books-to-read-in-the-coming-year” list is always part of this process. Like many avid readers, I have a book stack in my room. Actually I have two. One is on my nightstand next to the bed. The other is on my desk, waiting to move over to the coveted first-position spot.

Guess what? I have a book recommendation for your “first-position” spot.

If you are looking for a practical, engaging read, I think you will find Everywhere God, Exploring the Ordinary Places helpful. No pressure here. Just a reading suggestion as you think about the books you want to read in the coming year. Or if you know someone who could benefit from such an approach to expanding her thoughts on how to walk daily with God, this could be a great gift or suggestion.

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And one more request. If you are currently reading Everywhere God (perhaps you are close to finishing it?), would you consider posting a review on Amazon or Goodreads? Reviews are a crucial part of the publishing process for any author.

Blessings, readers—may 2017 be a year where you discover God’s presence in unexpected ways in your everyday life.

 

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Advent, Week 4: Gift Giving

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On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Matthew 2: 11

The Christmas story brims with generosity. There is the long-desired child that comes to Elizabeth and Zachariah. John the Baptist prepares the hearts and minds of a people waiting and longing for the Messiah. The gracious hospitality of Elizabeth to Mary—the  young, pregnant, and most likely frightened teenage girl—who stays at Elizabeth’s home for three months is another example. And then we have the Magi, offering lavish gifts that many scholars believe helped support the family financially, especially on their trip to Egypt.

Over the years, I have listened to my parents recount the story of the Christmas they spent in Israel. They were young, newly married, poor graduate students. After attending a Christmas Eve service at Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem, they were invited to spend the night with a woman who had connections at the school where my dad was a student. My mom always told with great affection the lovely, yet simple, meal the woman served, the heated water bottle she placed in my parent’s bed before bedtime, and the single rose gracing their bedside. As a young child, I did not appreciate or understand how this memory could evoke such strong emotions in my parents. I was far too worried about the lack of presents. How could anyone be happy with NO gifts?  

Little did I realize what a gift my parents received.

Now when I hear that story I have a completely different response. Yes, receiving an actual gift is wonderful. But presents aren’t the only type of gifts.  In this case, my parents received the gift of hospitality. The fond memory of that experience has stayed with them through the years.

As we head into the final week of Advent, let us consider some other ways we can give a gift. Perhaps you can offer the gift of time to a lonely friend or an act of service to a neighbor. Maybe you can bake some homemade goodies to share with coworkers. Or maybe you can even host someone in your home whom you may not know very well, like the woman did for my parents.  Who knows the impact your gift of time, service, or hospitality may have.

Blessings to you and yours this Advent season.

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