This is the third birthday I celebrated outside the United States and the second one here in Italy. It was without my family, but spent with people who are quickly becoming like family to me. It was everything I could have hoped for and nothing like I thought it would be.
First, because I'm the most awesome wife ever, I told Leif to ride with his team in the morning. I stayed home and got the house ready for our lunch guests and did some baking. He came home happy and ready to do anything at all to make my day perfect.
Our good friends Katarina and Biago came to lunch with their daughter Sofia. We had two first dishes: pasta with pesto and couscous with curried shrimp. Both turned out perfectly and I'm happy to say that the only leftovers is about a cup of couscous. For dessert we had an Orange Olive Oil cake that I made. Right here and now I'm giving credit to my new friend Christine for the recipe. It's a hit with my Italian friends.
I know it seems that I write about food and meals a lot for someone who isn't a professional cook or food critic. It's not even really the food that's the great part of these stories. (but the food's great) It's the time spent at the table with friends while eating that great food. There was no mad rush to finish the meal so we could all sit around and talk. We talked while we cooked the pasta, then while we ate it. We talked while we made the couscous and shrimp, then continued while we ate that. We talked over our cake and coffee. And when we stopped eating we sat where we were and talked some more.
We talked about the food, yes. But we also talked about work, and families, and told stories about growing up. We shared ourselves while we shared the food. And even more exciting is that two years ago we spoke almost exclusively in English. Now over time we have a friendship language that freely moves between English and Italian, with the occasional Swedish thrown in for fun. All those languages has made our friendship richer and deeper because we don't just state a feeling, but use every word at our disposal to define it completely for everyone in the group.
They left almost three hours later and in true Minnesota fashion we were still trading stories as they walked down the stairs. We had just enough time to clean up from lunch when our friend Ola stopped by to pick up something from Leif. This sweet man apologized to me as he gave me my birthday kisses because he had tried to find a flower shop open but of course it was Sunday and so they were all closed. For me the thought was gift enough.
After Ola left we had just a few minutes before P-O, another friend, showed up to take us to his house outside of town for dinner with him and another friend, Claudia. I was starting to feel pretty special.
His house is high above Florence and the silence is like a blanket. There's a big fireplace with a little fire; just enough to make it smell woodsy and warm and throw those great lights across the room. Most of the rest of the light came from candles. They were everywhere: on the mantel, on shelves, on the floor, in the massive chandelier above the table. The flames flickered all around us as we toasted my birthday with champagne. The man knows how to create an atmosphere.
We cooked together, the four of us. We cleaned and sliced artichokes and onions and zuchini while Claudia made the beer batter for a kind of Italian tempura. After these starters we moved to the dining room for Swedish shrimps. A huge bowl of fresh Swedish shrimps in all their leggy, mustachioed glory sat squarely in the middle of the table. I probably don't need to remind anyone that I'm from an inland region where the shrimp comes cleaned and washed and most likely frozen. I'm not squeamish, thank goodness, but my shrimp stripping talents didn't impress anyone else at the table. They took pity on me and started tossing cleaned shrimp onto my plate.
The shrimp were followed by cheeses and more of my orange cake. Cheese is another one of those foods that are a pleasure to explore here. So many ways to make it, so many different stages of maturation. Pecorino aged in beer, gorgonzola made with goat milk and with cow milk just to taste the difference.
We had eight different wines we tried over the course of the meal, from all over Italy and right outside his door. There was a beautiful Brunello and a Chianti from 1999, both of which I enjoyed. There were some lovely fresh whites and then of course, dessert wines with the cake. I had a tough time keeping track of the four or five glasses I had in front of me as we moved from white, to red, to after dinner drinks.
Again, the food was only a backdrop for the conversation we shared in front of the fire, This conversation was less Italian and more Swedish, but just as deep and fulfilling for me. I'm learning, slowly, the art of friendship.
A wild ride down switchbacks into Florence was an exciting (and slightly dizzying) end to a birthday I will never forget. I feel loved.