Monday, February 28, 2011

Milan fashion week

Milan is recognized internationally as one of the world's most important fashion capitals, along with Paris, New York City, Rome, London and Tokyo. In 2009, the city was nominated "fashion capital of the world" by the Global Language Monitor; New York City came in first for five consecutive years; and unfortunately  reclaimed the title of top fashion capital in 2010. Milanese fashion is regarded as being practical, but elegant and highly refined at the same time, concentrating more on stylish ready-to-wear clothes, rather than extravagant haute couture. This applies similarly to New York, however, both cities also have upscale haute couture and high fashion shopping districts, many of which have smudge marked windows from my nose during window shopping.

Following the New York and London fashion weeks, some of fashions biggest names brought their collections to the runway of Milan. Occurring twice a year for the autumn (fall) / winter and spring / summer seasons, Milan fashion week is supposed to bring my Italian city to life with swarms of celebrities, media and  fashion industry icons.  Milan has been home to numerous fashion designers, such as Giorgio Armani, Valentino Garavani, Gianni Versace, Donatella Versace, Mario Prada, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce.  So I hit the streets in the hope to soak in some 'Fashion Week Atmosphere', perhaps to pick up a few fashion tips and catch some contageous weight loss from some models.  All I found were a couple of reporters, publicity everwhere, a few more people out than normal, and a lot of areas not accessible to the general public.

 What had I been hoping for? To be transformed into a fashionista just walking the Milan streets?  To spot Kirsten Dunst, Katie Holmes, Tina Turner or Ricky Martin? I would of even been happy to spot Duran Duran for goodness sake!  It is now my aim to somehow attend a fashion show or after party during fashion week before I move from Milan.  So I have 3 or 4 fashion week shows to prove I can pretend to be in the fashion industry, (or at least get hired serving drinks)?

I like to think I am semi-fashionable.  I am sure everybody does, no one gets up each morning and purposely dresses in clothes that they think people will laugh at... do they?  Sometimes I think my image of what is stylish or modern is a little absent. I am trying hard, and I will think outside my box, but there are some fashion trends I just can not welcome.

IF Interesting Fact
I have been noticing in the shop windows and clothes catalogues socks with high heels.  How can socks with sandals ever be fashionable.  It was sent down the catwalk, so it must be cool?

"It's always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting." ~Jean Paul Gaultier

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Muffin top, here I come!

I am not a good baker.  How did I come to this conclusion?  When my children eat my cakes and muffins, more food ends up on the floor than in their mouth.  (Anybody aware of my childrens eating habits knows This is rare!) More crumbs end up on the floor from me just carrying them to the table, and I use a large tray.  My son prefers to eat the muffin wrapper.  My husband thanks me for the muffin before he eats it, not after.  And I, like anybody in denial, do not blame myself; I blame the fact that I think baking powder and bi-carbonate of soda can only be purchased in Milan on the black market, or if you have some sort of connection with the Camorra / Mafia.  And any good baker knows, you need baking powder and bi-carbonate of soda to make a good muffin?
What am I doing?  I am on a diet, finally reserecting my Italian carbohydrate situation that has lead me to my doctor saying, "Perhaps a little bit of exercise?"  I want yummy muffins, not cuddly muffin tops!  But with daughter home ill three days in a row, I was over painting, drawing, acting like a monkey and bathing barbie; it was now time to cook...

You should all know, I have cracked the code; finally a crumble free muffin that does not require a dustbuster!

I am not so good with measurements, my mother would cringe watching me cook using a coffee cup to guess my calculations. But give this a whirl, and keep in mind that this is best made with love and children in toe...

Strawberry yoghurt muffins
  • 250grams butter
  • 2 cups sugar (cannot find caster sugar here, but this would be preferable)
  • 4 eggs
  • vanilla (you buy it in sachets here, I just used one)
  • 1 cup of berry yoghurt (or flavour of your choice, they sell coconut yoghurt here which is delicious)
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cups self raising flour
  • 1 1/4 cup plain flour
  • 1 cup chopped strawberries
  1. Have all ingredients at room temperature.
  2. Cream butter and sugar together, adding sugar small plastic cup at a time, (a bit of extra sugar may be necessary to replace the sugar your 18 month may take out to decorate the floor with).
  3. Add eggs, one at a time, beating inbetween, (do not hesitate to remove the larger pieces of shell from mixture with your fingers, and if the bench was cleaned first, spilt egg can be swiped straight from the table into the bowl).
  4. Add vanilla quickly while no one is looking as it looks like the sugar satchels the children love to tear apart and play with in cafes.
  5. Mix in the sifted flours and milk and yoghurt mixture alternately.
  6. Gently fold in chopped strawberries. 
  7. Swiftly spoon mixture into muffin wrappers, while children are preoccupied licking a beater each... raw egg, yum, yum... Rocky did it, so it must be good if my children are to win battle??!!
  8. I allowed my children to add a M&M to the top of each.  Provide more than necessary as I can guarantee, 1 out of 4 will actually make the muffin!  (When I took the muffins out of the oven the M&M seemed to have disappeared from each; I even experiemented with a blue; still disappeared?  I either have a chocolate evaporater in my oven, or my 3 year olds has faster fingers than Winona Ryder and Lindsay Lohan put together.)
  9. Bake in a 160 degrees fan forced for 20 to 25 minutes.
When you eat, it is imperative that you make the "num num num" sound to truly appreciate the experience.  These freeze well, and if yours do not work out as well as mine, just heat in the microwave and add  creme gelato (vanilla ice cream).   As my 18 month old says, (when in doubt, troubled, happy or sad), "Taaa, Daaa!!!"

IF Interesting Fact
According to Wikipedi; Muffins are often eaten for breakfast; alternatively, they may be served for tea or at other meals. (This is the best news I've heard all day... look out chocolate, chirioz, sweet and sour pork muffin... here I come!!! Num, num, num!)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Please turn me on!

Never in my life have I had such an issue with being turned on!  I am usually not lazy, but this always seems such an effort.  There is so much fiddling around, grabbing extra bits that should not be necessary, constantly wondering if things are going to fit and if the right hole is being used.  Powerpoints and adapters are now my new worst enemy. I was never very good with problem solving and puzzles, don't you just push really hard until it fits?  Time to put on my thinking cap...

The double standard was initially adopted because in Italy, up to the second half of the twentieth century, the electric power used for lamps and the one used for all other appliances were sold at different fares, charged with different taxes, accounted with separated electricity meters, and sent on different wire lines that ended with different sockets. Even though the two electric lines, (and respective fares), were once and for all unified in 1974, many houses kept twin wires and twin electricity meters for years after. Older installations often have sockets that are limited requiring the use of an adapter if the other gauge needs to be connected.  So not only do half of the electricity points in our house dangle from the wall like a mouse from a mouse trap, but we have plugs for the adapters to adapt the plugs!

Entry point into our apartment for any critters wanting to visit!

4 different adapters and 3 different plugs

Monday, February 21, 2011

No, you like the pink dress...

With beautiful weather bestowed upon us it seemed a shame to stay in the city, so we crossed a destination off our day trip list and headed 35km south west to Vigevano. This destination is particularly well-known for its beautiful Renaissance "Piazza Ducale", in the centre of the town.  Some have even said it is the prettiest piazza in Italy.  After walking through the antique markets, we arrived at the elongated rectangle that was quite breathtaking, although it seemed a bit plain with not many people around.  We did return a couple of hours later and there was more of a vibe with bustling weekenders, I can imagine it would be quite magical in summer when all of the restaurants are set up in the piazza.

We wandered the streets and stumbled upon an exhibition of Italian Fashion at Cavalleria del Castello, (Lady Knight's Castle). "Italian Fashion, 1951-2011. Una storia lunga 60 anni. A history of 60 years "  The children had a great time playing chase on the grass ouside in an attempt to shake the wiggles out, and hubby and I enjoyed the sunshine.  Something we are learning about the smaller Italian cities is that access  to babychanging facilities is limited.  "Can you not give our son some dignity?" is the general comment from soul mate as our sons nappy is changed in the open. Not too sure what my son had been eating, but trust me, this nappy change was best not done in a confined space anyway; and in hindsight, this was a better location then the one I chose later in the day, (near a blanked out window of a restaurant, but right in front of the menu board, needless to say those perusing the menu did not go inside).  We headed into the exhibit and were greeted by many timeless outfits that justified why Italy may be known as the fashion hub of the world,  and is a place specially known for the famous designers.  My princess, too young to read, (english or italian), ignored all signs of warning and verbal direction from us, and could not resist to touch every single dress on display.  She was also quite confident in telling me which dresses I did and did not like.  Suprise, suprise, apparently the long sparkley pink one was my favourite.  I tried to tell her I prefered the plain black coat, "No no no mamma, you just like the pink one!"

Next we headed towards the Castle Sforzesco.  The old castle has a unique raised covered road, that was high enough for the horsemen to ride through, and it still has places for the horses to be tied and troughs for them to drink from.  The castle also has an elegant loggiato, supported by 48 colomns, and is currently host to 'Preview' the museum of haute couture, a view from behind the scenes, with more than 100 dresses, (this will soon become the Italian National Museum of Costume.) Since it all seemed to be about Italian fashion on this particular day, we could not resist taking the kids to the International Footwear Museum.

If you need more reasons to immerse yourself in Italian fashion, the International Footwear Museum Of  Vigevano might be a good place to start.   Over 200 designs are displayed among the shoes belonging to Pope John Paul II and Marilyn Monroe.  There were shoes designed by Giuseppe Zanotti, Manolo Blahnik, Pollini, Jimmy Choo, Givenchy, Armani, Dior, Moreschi, Gucci and many other high fashion designers.  Visitors can appreciate the evolution of footwear from simple functional objects to design and fashion icons.  Ethnic exhibits include clogs from Holland, seal skin Eskimo boots and mocassins from the Cheyenne & Shoshone tribes of North America. In my opinion, it was well worth the trip to Vigevano, just to visit the world famous "Museo della Calzatura" (the footwear museum), but then again I am female, my husband may have a different view.

Vigevano is a quaint, pretty city, rich with history and pride.  The inside of the Cathedral was breathtaking and we managed a lovely meal with octopus, shrimp salad, gnocchi, pizza and wine.  (I am always happiest with a full belly!)  Only half a day was necessary and it was nice to explore a new destination with a nice Italian ambience.
IF Interesting Fact
You will not find Vigevano in the Italy Lonely Planet book. Which just goes to show that there are still some hidden treasures.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

No drive Sunday

Before travelling to Milan, I was constantly being told about the bad pollution; I had a vision of having to wear surgical masks in the streets, (which I would do fashionably by the way), but I was concerned how the young ones would keep their masks on as keeping a hat on their head already seemed to be an issue.  Few cities have the luxury of having clean air; for many, it is an everyday problem. You may not believe it, but Milan is currently ranked number 6 in the world for the worst air quality in a city. The city has the most smog in Europe because of all the cars (and mopeds) running around. Apparently small chemical particles are the cause of health worries, which can cause respiratory problems and cancer.  Unfortunately, I do not feel the Milanese are serious about these health worries, perhaps eradicating their bad smoking habits would be a good starting point to rectify the situation.  Majority of the population smoke, young and old; I think they missed out on that global health memo.  Milan is all about fashion; is it in fashion to smoke again? Fortunately for my family, Milan is fast becoming successful in dealing with their air problem, (in regards to the cars).

As part of an anti-smog plan, Milan has implemented an Ecopass scheme; charging vehicles to enter an 8km2 area of the city centre, this is in hope that we can improve the quality of the urban environment. The charge depends on the euro emission standard of the vehicle. (Obviously the smaller the car the less emissions, I am  now grateful for my husbands choice of car.  If we did not have the Fiat, we probably could not afford to drive; the fee may be between 2€ and 10€ a day!) The scheme has been effective in curbing not only pollution emissions, but also congestion.

Also I have recently been introduced to the matter of  'No drive Sunday'. (Do not quote me on this, it is not seen on billboards; just my own slang; sounds like the calling for a 2 for 1 feed at your local restaurant). Pretty self explanatory.  You can not drive your car on a Sunday, and if caught you are fined.  Of course this is not every Sunday, but there is no particular schedule for this, (similar to how they decide on Sunday shopping trading), I think everyone just meets once a week, compares social calendar or draws short straws, then takes next agenda action!  Apparently this is something you are just supposed to know.  Now we check the commune Milano website once a week and look for the pop up alerting us to restricted traffic.  This has been in play for the last 2 Sundays, considering we have been here for 8 months, pretty sure I have missed a few alerts. 

Even if your city is not on the list for worst quality of air, it is still important to look after the environment.
1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
2. Use Less Heat and Air Conditioning
3. Change a Light Bulb
4. Drive Less and Drive Smart
5. Buy Energy-Efficient Products
6. Use Less Hot Water
7. Use the "Off" Switch
8. Plant a Tree
9. Encourage Others to conserve

I pretty much have all these points covered apart from 6 and 8, (bit hard to plant a tree living in an apartment in the middle of Milan).  My son definitely has number 7 covered, off on off on off on off on, what is it with kids and light switches, constantly feel like I am at a disco.  Point 9, now achieved... go on... get to it!

Friday, February 11, 2011

"Help, my, grey, bag..."

Today was a lovely day for a walk. Not a cloud in the sky and a balmy 13 degrees, (a very drastic and welcomed change from the 3 degree days the week prior). I have been opting to do my grocery shopping this week from a store 15minutes walk away, instead of downstairs, with the pure motivation of fresh air and a bit more exercise. After a lovely stroll to the shop, my son falls asleep in the pram and I saunder home, zigzagging the streets and taking photos of the beautiful buildings in the hidden streets. I stop off at OVS department store on the way home, making the most of my childs nap time, I try on a few items, and am very proud of myself as I decline the urge to purchase and leave the shop.

As I near home, I stop by a small stall selling random items; spotting some cute reusable shopping bags for 1€, I reach under the pram to retrieve my purse. Which is kind of hard to find since my purse was in my handbag, and my handbag is no longer under the pram. My handbag is no longer under the pram. My handbag is no longer under the pram. Oh my goodness, my handbag is no longer under the pram! In my head I scream, then I start to ransack my own pram like a teeneager on her wardrobe before a first date. Items are flying everywhere as I empty the entire contents of the pram onto a busy sidewalk. I even lifted up my son, knowing full well that I do not store my handbag under his bottom, I still had hope, (my absentmindedness has seen me do some pretty bizarre things in the past). Throwing all my groceries back into the pram, I quickly reversed my entire walking route of the morning in hope it "jumped" off the pram by itself, and was waiting patiently for me on the side of the road. I head back through the department store, check change rooms, look under cloth racks, cross streets in the same places as before and head towards the grocery store. I am now regretting the mosey exploration of earlier and those beautiful buildings in the streets now just look old and mouldy!

Back to the grocery store, I ask in my best 'italianish' if anyone had handed in a lost handbag. "Aiutarmi, mio, sacchetto, grigio". Which loosely translates to "help my grey bag". She held up a plastic bag with groceries telling me that it was not mine. I agreed that it would not make a suitable handbag and decided to head home. My return walk seemed twice the distance as I am left with time to make a mental list of what was in my bag;

o Permesso di Soggiorno (3 months of paperwork in Milan, permission to stay for my self and the children)
o Tessera Sanitaria (3 months of paperwork in Milan and my golden pass to the free medical system)
o Patente Australiana (Australian drivers license that can not be replaced here)
o Carta Bancomat (UniCredit)
o Carta Visa Debito (NAB Australia)
o Carta Visa (NAB Australia)

Then I start to think about the little things... photos of the kids, my optical prescription (I was wanting some new sunglasses), 150€, all my loyalty cards, MY IKEA FAMILY CARD; oh, and the keys! Car keys and house keys! "I know" I say to myself. "I will call my husband from my mobile phone that is inside our apartment that is locked with the keys that I do not have. He will know what to do." I have a slight mental breakdown and continue with irrational thoughts for the remaining walk home;

  1. My husband will be working in the tunnel so he will have no phone service and will not come and rescue me.

  2. My husbands number is not stored in my head, but instead it is in my stolen purse or locked apartment.

  3. I need to collect my daughter from school at 1pm, which would leave me strolling the streets with 2 children until my husband returns from work at 7pm.

  4. I would have to feed my children bugs sourced from under the bark of trees for nutrition as the only food I got in my grocery shop earlier was a tin of tuna that required a can opener.

  5. I would have to replace my sons dirty nappy with a large palm leaf;spare nappy was in my handbag, no money to buy more nappies, no entry into the apartment where there are nappies, so a big palm leaf would have to do. Considering we live in Milan in the winter, not Bahamas in the spring, this palm leaf nappy thing could also be a problem.

  6. After a quick day dream about living in the bahamas, I then realise that I am the worst parent on earth that will not be able to care sufficiently for my 2 young children.

As I talk myself down from my mental cliff, I return home to be greeted by my porter, who casually hands me a set of keys to my apartment that I did not know he kept. (Is this who had been coming into our place, misplacing odd socks and stealing my sanity?) So to make a long story short, probably a bit late for that now, I contact my husband with no drama, and I am able to feed, cloth and clean my children without bugs, palm leaves and tins of tuna. Soul mate leaves work like my knight in shining armour and comes home to help with the long process of cancelling credit cards, calming his wife, contacting car companies and speaking to banks, (we even managed to get his bank cards cancelled by mistake), the day just keeps getting better!

After making a list of lost possessions, we head off the the local Carabinieri to file a report of stolen property. Arriving at the police sation we are seated in a waiting room, similar to that of a motor mechanic waiting room, and are told that some one will be with us shortly. We only waited for 30 minutes, which is definitely a record for us as far as time wasted in waiting rooms in regards to Italian paperwork. The police were very helpful, and the children both fell asleep in the pram for the entire time we were there.

I now officially feel like I have lost a part of me. I have no Italian identity cards for myself or the children, I have no Australian drivers license that was allowing me to drive here, I have no new handbag that was purchased the week prior, (it was the last one in the shop, my husband had been searching for me for the last month), and I now have no faith in society. All of the above is replacable, (even if it does involve 3 more months of paperwork again), apart from my faith. My husband has always been the one conscious and weary of others, I always gave benefit of the doubt. I hate the fact that this attitude has now been stolen from me.

IF Interesting Fact
The Carabinieri uniforms are designed by the house of Valentino and Police uniforms are designed by the house of Armani.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Food for thought

Food is an important part to a balanced diet. As a matter of fact, it is the only component. Therefor conquering the task of a successful grocery shop has been a priority for me in Italy. A trip to the grocery store is always a good way to get perspective of a new surrounding, it is often always on the agenda when we holiday, (you can learn a lot about a place in the cereal and fresh food aisle). I knew the healthy food pyramid was different in Italy when I saw the length of the pasta aisle. I am trying hard not to adjust our eating habits too much. We have been living here for a while now, and I have found myself needing things that I never thought about when I was back in Australia.

First of all, I had to learn the Italian names for simple things; pictures on cans, squeezing produce and smelling things will only get you so far, and results in some disapproving glances from fellow customers, as well as some odd tasting meals.

I have searched high and low for lemon pepper... store some in your suitcase on a trip back to see family, or put it on your next package wish list with vegemite. I do not know why it is not sold here, nor did I realise that it is a seasoning that I used so often. Cream of tartar? Bring it along or do without; this is something that I have also searched for, and being a lover of home made play doh (for my children of course), this item is sorely missed.

Cheese is such an important part of the Italian diet and Milan has welcomed me to the world of cheese and high cholesterol with open arms. In the dairy section you won’t find cheddar cheese or sour cream, (I use plain Greek yogurt as a substitute, blessing in disguise if you look closely at the fat content). You will however find cream cheese, (“Philadelphia” is easily accessible), but they have numerous cheese spreads that taste the same and are quarter of the cost. Sliced cheese similar to Kraft slices are available, but are a really white colour and a little soggier than what we are used to. I know what you are thinking, why would a country that produces such a variety of cheeses make processed cheese? The answer is so expats with children can make a quick grilled cheese sandwhich, although I am substituting most melting processes with mozarella nowdays. How very Italian. Mozarella, marscapone and ricotta is readily available and extremely cheap considering I would only find similar products in a fancy deli back in Australia. A tub of ricotta cost me 65c this morning! Parmasen and other similar cheeses are all bought from the deli section of the supermarket, which has more varieties of cheese than Australia has of beer.

Ethnic food is not as accessible as in the International Aisle back home; instead of an aisle, a whole 3 shelves display the Italians nerve to try new foods. ('Why fix it if it ain't broken?') So if you get a craving for Mexican, Japanese or Indian, you might be able to put something together, but it is definately not a cheap meal. I’ve found that Milan's China Town, covers most of our Asian urges, items can be 4 times cheaper here than in your average supermarket. And flour tortillas, don't get me started... either take out a mortgage on your home, or just substitute for the cheaper option of a packet of padini.

Breakfast is supposed to be the most important meal of the day? Brioche (crossaints) seem to be the typical Italian breakfast on the go, it is extremely rare to see anyone sitting down to a big greasy 'hang-over' fry up. And I challenge you to find a healthy cereal. 3 out of 4 on sale are chocolate based. Child's heaven, parents nightmare. Finding oats for porridge was initially an ordeal, and we even crossed the border to Switzerland when we first came to further our hunt and illiminate frustration. Perhaps this was a bit overdramatic, as I have since found them on sale at a butcher stand at the local community market; would you believe it is next to the 'Milo'! Our family eats oats in the morning so we'll live forever, then we can spend the rest of the day living like there's no tomorrow!

Majority of our weekly shop is done at the fresh food market every Saturday, and we can generally get all we need for 30€, (this would be 80€ at a grocery store). Where we save money here, we make up for in cheese, wine and nappies! Life is an experience, (and an expense).

IF Interesting Fact

Milan is ranked 15th most expensive city in the world regarding cost of living.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Golden family jewels in Pavia

I was keen for some fresh air and to escape the 'runny nose asylum' that is currently our Milano apartment; so in denial about our health, we decided on a day trip to Pavia, 45 minutes away. Pavia is a university city with fine Romanesque and medieval buildings. I come from a country that is not old, so I was amazed to walk through a town that has so much history. The university of Pavia was established in 1361, (that is 527 years older than Australia), and had graduates such as Christopher Columbus, (yes the world is round), and Alessandro Volta, (inventor of the electric battery). "You know Alessandro Volta, that's where the word voltage comes from!" says my husband with way too much enthusiam. Can you guess who paid more attention in history lessons?

Pavia is also known as the city of 100 towers but only a few remain intact today. We were told there was a good cluster in Piazza di Leonardo di Vinci near the University. We found 3, and later spotted one more.

Pavia's Duomo has the third largest dome in Italy, but it was only completed in the nineteenth century. Both da Vinci and Donato Bramante contributed to the church's design. Apparently it has a very impressive interior which we did not get to see as it was closed for lunch between 12 and 3, (yes the religious must eat also). In 1989 its bell tower collapsed, killing four people; there is still rubble and remains to the left of the church. . The Regisole monument in front of the Cathedral of Pavia was interesting to see; it was a man on a horse, with yellow testicles. I am referring to the horse, not the man. I am skeptical whether these golden jewels were part of the original sculpture. It did none the less provide a giggle.

We visited the tourist information centre for a map and advice on places to eat lunch (with children). We were directed across the covered bridge of the Ticino River. It was here we found a Napolitano Restaurant, (not quite the authentic Pavia food), the meal was lovely and after free icecream we left to explore some more.

We ended our trip by seeing the extraordinary Certosa di Pavia, 8km north of Pavia, it is an extravagant religious complex and the monastery is one of the most notable buildings from the Italian Renaissance period. This sight see was our favourite of Pavia, although it did provide some challenges. No photos were to be taken inside the gates, (it was just so beautiful, but could not capture it on film); and there was to be complete silence, (try explaining this to a 3 year old who knows enclosed spaces with high ceiling echo, echo, echo).