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insights on art, culture, lifestyle, spirituality, travel, music, society and much much more from a jet-setter currently on "furlough"…

An Unexpected Holiday Surprise (Orvieto)

The first post in my Natale in Italia 2010 series is dedicated to Suor Giovanna Galli and Staff at Istituto San Lodovico in Orvieto, Italy. Why hasn’t Rick Steves featured this charming Bed & Breakfast in his guidebooks yet?

It was a frigid, cold and cloudy morning in Orvieto, Italy; the temperature barely reaching 40 degrees. It was the 29th of December, 2010, the last day of my Italian holiday. I was happy to be spending my final day in the charming medieval town of Orvieto, where I studied 7 years ago. I arrived the day before, in the afternoon and had to catch the train back to Rome that night so that I could fly home the next day. As I shivered my way down the Corso Cavour, I tried to take in all the sights: strings of holiday lights hung between buildings, the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists alike and of course, the church bells: echoing its majestic presence in the town’s main piazzas. The holiday season has never looked so beautiful.

My destination this morning was my former “stomping grounds” (if you will): the convent of Istituto San Lodovico. Our study abroad program was housed in San Lodovico back in 2004, and many of us students became good friends with the sisters that serve(d) here. There is something about (Italian) nuns that make me smile. Perhaps, it’s because they have broken all the stereotypes we claim to have about people of the cloth. Since 2007, the convent is also a Bed & Breakfast (with rave reviews on TripAdvisor, I might add). I have stayed here every time I came back to Orvieto to visit, except this time. Since it was December, the San Lodovico was fully booked due to the Umbria Jazz Festival and other Christmas-related festivities. I stayed at a nearby hotel instead.

I had a 9:30AM appointment with the La Madre Superiora, also known as Suor Giovanna and wanted to look my best, despite the frigid temperatures outside and a dwindling traveler’s wardrobe. It had been 3 years since I’ve last seen the sisters and in Italy, it’s all about La Bella Figura. I even stopped by a local clothing boutique to purchase a blended light-dark purple scarf, as my other one reeked of cigarette smoke from my previous engagement the night before (I was NOT the one smoking, by the way).

The eggshell yellow walls of the convent’s main entrance (Piazza Ranieri, 5) loomed before me, and before I knew it, I reached up to the keypad to ring the bell. The door was unlocked for me almost immediately and I walked into the courtyard without a problem. Though it was a chilly and somewhat gloomy day, you could still hear the birds chirping, even in the dead of winter! I wanted to pull the Nikon out and take a wide angle shot, but instead reminded myself to stay in the moment and enjoy it for what it’s worth. No running tour of the convent this time, just a quick trip upstairs to see my old bedroom (Camera #8).

At the porteniera, I was greeted by Suor Giovanna and San Lodovico’s administrative assistant, Barbara with huge kisses and hugs. Has it really been three years since we last saw each other? It was Suor Giovanna’s birthday the day before, and she had taken the day before off to take a road trip up north to visit her sister (blood-related). I’m sure she did something Ferrari or soccer related (yes, she is a BIG fan of both). I presented them with gifts of “fancy” Godiva chocolates, peppermint taffy from Trader Joe’s and Old Navy performance fleece scarves, as well as a bottle of Vin Santo (something special for the holidays, made in Orvieto) — all of which were received with immense enthusiasm and gratitude. I knew this was a busy season for San Lodovico, and was grateful for any time I would be able to spend with the Sisters. These women (with their dynamic personalities, and love for God, people and good vino) have made a huge difference in my life. After chatting up a storm (Italians talk a mile a minute, in Italian, nonetheless!), looking through the photo album I brought and asking me a zillion questions about what I’m doing in life, Suor Giovanna decided that I should join her and the staff for lunch. I agreed, and told them that I had to go back to the hotel to check out, and then return to mangiare…

******

Just like it has always been, lunch (or pranzo) started promptly at 12:30PM. I arrived around 12:10PM to help the Sisters set the table and bring the plates to the table. I reunited with Ivana (the Cook) and Suor Franca (the other sister at San Lodovico), plus got a “Brava!” from Suor Giovanna regarding my setting the table (woohoo! She approves.) On the menu were the following mouth-watering dishes:

  • puff pastries topped with potato salad, peas and shrimp
  • local red wine (a smooth Umbrian merlot)
  • fioretti pasta with a cheese center, tossed with olive oil
  • sauted lamb slices, so juicy and tender
  • parmaggiano-reggiano cheese
  • our favorite, infamous, “convent bread” (rustic white bread, unsalted)
  • dessert: yellow-ish winter melon, tasted sweet and refreshing
  • Espresso caffe’ with WAY too much sugar (zucchero)
Man, they totally spoiled me! This meal was specially prepared by the sisters and the longstanding cook at San Lodovico, Ivana. They don’t eat like this every day, especially since the price of meat has increased in Italy, so this was indeed a very special luncheon for us all.
The conversation during lunch ranged from the latest Orvieto news to the kinds of Christmas presents received, more updates about my life and why it’s better to remain single instead of lovestruck. The door bell and telephone rang numerous times, as the townspeople and friends from afar came bid their holiday greetings to the sisters. At one point, we all had a moment of being “lost in translation” and my then well-spoken Italian went out of the window. Suor Giovanna took that opportunity to joke with me about coming back next summer for an intensive Italian course with her… secretly, I’d love that! And so, I stayed quiet during most of the meal, savoring each bite and giggling to myself about how many things haven’t changed since I was last here. I also put my “Food Stalker” abilities to the test, documenting each dish; preserving the memory of (good food) to last a lifetime. Simply put, it was so amazingly good to be home.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Suor Giovanna offered to drive me to the train station after lunch, but I had to decline, telling her that I had to say goodbye to other friends before heading south to Rome. It was probably for the better, as my stomach was full and  probably could not handle a roller coaster ride in her little Silver Volkswagen sports car, bumping along down the cobblestone slopes of Orvieto. Before leaving, she presented me with a surprise, and undoubtly, the best gift ever: 3 lbs.  of authentic, straight from Parma, parmaggiano-reggiano cheese. I was instructed to eat it with honey, in pasta or simply, on its own.
I. was. estatic. Best. gift. ever. It’s not everyday that the Mother Superior of a famous convent which dates back a few centuries B.C.  presents you with a huge block of parmaggiano-reggiano cheese for you to enjoy back in your deprived home country. Though I lament the fact that there just wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted to do in Orvieto, I am eternally grateful to the Sisters for organizing such a lovely lunch and making me feel so special. I could definitely feel the love that afternoon. And hey, I will be back… maybe for an intensive Italian course alla Suor G! As Suor Giovanna so aptly put it in our quick, yet bittersweet farewell: “Un altro l’anno, allora!”
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