Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When in Rome

I never really wanted to visit Rome. 

I love Paris since it's so pretty and I enjoy quieter parts of Italy, but Rome is such big city, difficult to navigate, with a reputation for a plethora of pickpockets. 

I was worried about traveling there. But I signed up for a foodie tour of Rome last summer when the idea seemed much more enticing than it did a couple of weeks ago when I packed my bags to leave in the middle of March.

The tour leader arranged our accommodations in apartments in the Monti neighborhood, sandwiched between the Forum and the Colosseum.

It couldn't have been a prettier spot. 

My first afternoon, I wandered around the corner from my apartment, and stopped short when I looked up and saw the ruins of ancient Rome right in front of me.

I suppose Romans have grown so used to these pieces of the past that are part of their daily landscape that they barely take note as they go about their normal lives.

But as a first-time visitor to Rome, I was more captivated than I expected to be.

The entire city tells the story of humanity. 

The monuments, the cobblestone streets, the crumbling walls, the ruins that have have been built, rebuilt and built again. New buildings constructed on old foundations.

Century after century, through wars and bitter struggles, what remains is the evidence that the people of Rome have continued to have hope and the courage to persevere, despite extremely difficult circumstances.

The churches on just about every corner confirm the faith that has woven the hearts of humankind with the divine aspirations of God for us, from the beginning of time.

Some churches looked so ordinary on the outside, I couldn't imagine how they could contain the soaring ceilings and house the magnificent art inside. 

Like the non-descript and practically hidden away church of St. Peter in Chains that holds the sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo.

Even though I couldn't take photos on my very limited and heavily supervised 15-minute visit to the Sistine Chapel {with more people than I could imagine crowded into such a small space}, there was spectacular art in every church to take pictures of.

Many of the churches open their doors without admission fees, inviting visitors inside to contemplate God, consider the art and experience what residents of Rome have the joy to behold every day.  

And of course there was the food. I was on a foodie tour of Rome, after all. 

I was a novice foodie compared to the other tour-goers, whose vast knowledge of Roman gastronomy provided lively conversation around the table. 

I didn't have much to contribute to their tales of high cuisine and culinary adventures from around the world, and sometimes I wondered what I was doing there, but I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I timidly tasted a plate of crispy curly chicory topped with anchovies, ate pasta with lamb sauce, and even tried a forkful of wild boar. 

But I drew the line and declined the slices of dried goat meat. Especially since I’d just petted them the day before on a visit to a goat farm in Umbria. 

{Don’t worry, they weren’t the same goats.}

I savored every crispy leaf of an entire fried artichoke {which is extremely difficult to make look appetizing in a photo}, dug into creamy bowls of pasta, and on one of my free days, I even revisited a restaurant from the tour for a second plate of their zucchini fries spritzed with lemon.

And there were cappuccinos. A lot. I had one every day, sometimes several times a day.

Coffee is a work of art in Rome.

Even the convenience store and gas stations serve a gorgeous cup of coffee.

I'm a girl who likes a grande mug or two {or three} of American coffee every morning, and I did yearn for it from across the ocean. Rumors that Starbucks will venture into Rome are stirring up the locals.

But by the time I left Rome, I'd grown used to my foamy cup of steaming coffee and learned to enjoy the smaller serving of deliciousness.

So I really did love Rome.

By the time I boarded the plane back to the U.S., I realized there's so much to appreciate in a city that's been around for a few thousand years that I can't possibly see it all in just a day {or even ten of them}.

So maybe I'll even return someday. To live as the Romans do for a short time, drinking their cappuccinos, eating pasta and soaking in history.

I definitely want another fried artichoke and a plate of zucchini fries.

But absolutely not the goat.

I'm visiting with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

All Roads Lead to Rome This Spring

I’ve never traveled during the spring. 

My family always vacationed in the summer when I was growing up, and when I was in college I didn’t really get a spring break. 

We had a week off from classes but were required to stay on campus for a conference. Back then all I could do was dream about the beach and wait for summer.

So I suppose that's why March doesn't strike me as vacation time, but next week I’m leaving for Rome.

I’m joining author Elizabeth Minchilli and her daughter Sophie who are hosting a food-centric tour of Rome.

When I discovered this trip last summer I didn’t realize Elizabeth’s book Eating Rome, had been sitting on my bookshelf for more than a year. 

I bought it when Amazon suggested I add it to my order to qualify for free shipping, even though I didn't plan to visit Rome. But I changed my mind after leafing through Elizabeth's beautiful photos of her lovely Italian lifestyle.

Now I'll be stepping into its pages, living as the Romans do {for a few days anyway} in a neighborhood apartment, visiting eateries and sampling food.

I’ll also be taking a day trip to Orvieto, one of the most beautiful medieval cities in central Italy with a spectacular cathedral.

Where I’ll also be visiting a goat farm. Again.

It just doesn't seem that long ago that I was visiting with some goats in Georgia so I'm wondering how this city girl keeps ending up on goat farms.

This will be my third visit with goats and really, I'm not that fond of them. 

The Rome itinerary advised us to wear clothes and shoes we don’t mind getting mud or goat kisses on. 

Which as you can imagine sent me into a tizzy. None of my shoes seemed goat-farm-hardy so I bought a pair of very unattractive low-heeled sort of loafers. 

{Even writing the word loafer makes my high-heeled heart cringe a little.} 

But Sophie Minchilli cheerily wrote me that she couldn’t wait to introduce me to her goats. So to take my mind off my shoes, I bought a jacket with lots of pockets that I thought might come in handy for holding little treats for the goats {or maybe a granola bar for me}. 

I'm calling it my goat coat.

And all I could think was, here we goat again. 

{And yes, of course there will be more goat puns!}

Then there's the food, since this is a foodie tour, after all.

Our agenda has us shopping at a local market for ingredients and then spending an afternoon cooking a Roman meal.

I’ll be visiting the oldest bakery in Rome, stopping by a neighborhood pizzeria for fried zucchini blossoms and stuffed olives and tasting Roman cheese, along with gelato and espressos. 

{Did somebody say Italian coffee?!}

I’ve got tickets to see the tourist sites of Rome, too. 

I'm staying a few extra days to tour the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, the Colesseum and Forum and I’ve booked a tour of the palace of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Caesar Augustus.

It's recently been opened to the public after years of work by archeologists and preservationists. 

It's hard to believe frescoes on the walls date from the first century.

Just a few months ago, for the first time I heard Brad Gray, a teaching pastor and historian speak for an hour on this one phrase in Luke’s gospel: “In the days of Caesar Augustus.” 

I sat on the edge of my seat as he described the historical, cultural and geographical aspects of Roman rule and its impact on the people during the time of Jesus' birth. 

It was fascinating and so much different than I'd imagined and now I can't wait to see it.

My grandfather, Louis, is standing far left and my grandmother, Victoria, is standing, second from right.

But most of all, on this second trip to Italy, I’ll also be thinking about my Italian grandparents and great-grandparents. 

In Rome, I'll be a little closer to the southern areas they came from than when I was in Milan two years ago. 

I’ll listen to the language they must have spoken, eat foods that must have been so familiar to them, and see the land where they came from.

I’ve got my camera ready. I have fresh notebooks to jot down my thoughts. 

And I'm hoping for a fresh spring breeze to blow across my wintery, worn out spirit. 

I want to see God everywhere I look in that ancient city because he is everywhere, especially in the same city where the apostles Peter and Paul walked so many centuries ago.

So I'm ready for a spring break.

And I can’t wait to share it all with you when I get back! 


I'm having coffee with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

That Takes the Cake

When I was in Paris a few years ago, I bought a tiny card at a paper store with an illustration of a girl carrying a big cake. I liked it because I’d always harbored a little idea of one day running a coffee and cake shop.

It made sense to me since I like to bake. And I like to drink coffee. So why shouldn't I dream big and then follow my dreams?

I’ve mastered my grandmother’s cream cheese frosting recipe — in several different flavors — that I use to frost my cakes. 

And I’ve put in years of practice by making my niece and nephew’s birthday cakes and throwing holiday parties where everyone says they love my desserts.

I've bought pans and colors for icing, pastry bags and piping tips. I have a wire cake leveler for making flat layers, a cake turntable and different sized icing spreaders.

I love looking through cake decorating books for ideas, and a few friends have even asked me to make cakes for their family celebrations. {And they paid me too!}

I even imagined my name up in lights. 

My niece’s tenth birthday was last week and her cake came from a bakery this year. I didn't make it.

She wanted a chocolate chip cookie cake {something I’ve never tried} but she wanted me to pipe a dolphin in blue frosting on the cookie cake.

As we mixed up the icing together, she talked about the past 10 years of cake-making for her birthday. 

There was the puppy cake, the pony cake, the ice skating cake, and the year she went to see Luke Bryan in concert and wanted a cake that looked like a microphone. 

From the time she could hold a piping bag, she's helped me make almost all of them. She thinks it’s great fun. 

And she makes me think too.

What if our big ideas are just as good when they stay small? 

What if instead of listening to all the voices that tell us to go out and conquer the world out there, we listen to the voice that whispers to look around us right here and do some good within our own little world?

I can't get enough of these words from the Message version of the Bible.
Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. 
Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.
Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. 
- Rom. 12:1-2 {MSG}

I know that God plants dreams in all of our hearts, a unique menu of talents and skills he’s given us that we can choose to use, develop and hone. 

But maybe we just assume because they’re dreams they should be big dreams, wide and extraordinary and remarkable. 

I've read the inspiring words written on canvases, etched into charms: Follow your passions. Never let go of your dreams. Live a great big life.

I admire and applaud those who do that, but maybe there’s also something noteworthy about living small and ordinary. 

That might only hold meaning to those around us, in our circle of friends, at our workplaces, neighborhood and churches.

Overlooked gestures like baking muffins and sharing them with my neighbor. 

Having coffee with an acquaintance who's feeling a little lonely. 

Getting out my baking pans because my niece sends me a text that she's really hungry for my vanilla cake and could we make one together?

These intentions are worth aiming for and following too, aren't they? Making them a reality is sometimes no small feat, juggling schedules, making time and expending energy. 

And they might even be worth more than we could possibly think.

So I no longer want to open a little cakery. 

The truth is, I need far more training {both culinary and business} than I have for an endeavor like that.

I think I'd much rather make fun cake-baking memories in the kitchen with my niece. Where it seems something always goes wrong, just adding to the little adventure.

The dolphin we piped on the cookie cake was messy. We had the wrong sized piping tip. 

We scraped it off and tried again. 

Even with the second effort, I thought it looked more like a blue blob than a dolphin, but my niece thought it was great.

As we all gathered around the cookie-cake to sing happy birthday to her, she asked for the dolphin to be carved out of the middle of the cookie. 

That was the piece she wanted to eat. 

Maybe your little corner of the world is like mine, where small things can loom large, what's unnoticed is noted, and what seems temporary can have a lasting effect.

Like the memory of a slice of cookie-cake that's so very sweet.

{And no, I did not make this swan but I'd like to learn! It's a culinary creation from the Swan Coach House in Atlanta.}

I'm having coffee with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Valentine's Day Tale

Once upon a time, a man wrote me a poem for Valentine’s Day.

Although it sounds awfully romantic and should have been the stuff fairy tales are made of, the ode written in my honor wasn’t quite like that.

Many moons ago I was a starry-eyed girl in my twenties and my boyfriend at the time said he wanted to write me a poem to express his feelings for me.

For weeks he'd been talking about the effort it was taking him to compose this literary feat, so I couldn't wait to read it. 

He drove to my house on Valentine’s Day and hand-delivered his sonnet to me.

But he didn’t want me to read it in front of him; he said the words were too tender. 

So he gave me a red rose, handed me the poem and left.

As I read through the two painstakingly written pages, I discovered the surprise ending.

He said he loved me. . . . and he hated me. 

And he didn't know what to do about it.

After the jolt of reading the word hate in a poem about love, I realized I shouldn’t have been surprised. We'd dated for almost a year and he wanted to get married. 

I just wasn't so sure I was the one he should marry. 

As he envisioned me being his wife, he'd tell me what he didn't like about me. 

He said he hated how my shoes dragged across his carpet when I walked, and he didn’t like how I peeled a hard-boiled egg. 

{In case you're wondering, he magically pulled the eggshell off in one long strip and I smacked it hard on the table and chipped the shell off in tiny bits.}

I guess I failed to realize that for him, carpet-walking and egg-cracking topped the list of his most desirable qualities in a future spouse. 

There were plenty of other idiosyncrasies too, that he pointed out, but they were all compatibility factors, not character flaws. 

Our relationship ended not long afterward.

Maybe a poem isn't the wisest way to tell a person what you wish they could change. 

Especially when a girl waits all year for Valentine's Day.

That's why I’m glad there’s an entire book of poetry that tells me how much God loves me. 

The Psalms are filled with eloquent and emotional verses, many penned by David, a man who experienced God’s great love for him, despite his many failures and flaws. 

I love the soaring language and the heart-rending honesty as he cracks {and sometimes flings} open the door to his soul.

The Psalms tell me that even when I don't measure up and fall short, God is always kind.

Even when my actions don't please him, he’s forever loving.

And even when my heart goes wandering toward other passions, he still wants to be with me. He pursues me with devotion, encircles me with love, and surrounds me with grace.

Who wouldn’t want a love like that?

David's silver pen writes:
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. - Ps. 57:10 {NIV}
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. - Ps. 143:8 {NIV} 

No love on earth matches God's love for me. No love exceeds it. No love compares to it. 

I could search the dating world {via the internet} for someone to love me like God can, and I wouldn't be able to find that unconditional love anywhere.

God’s love is meteoric, his loyalty astronomic, His purpose titanic, his verdicts oceanic. Yet in his largeness nothing gets lost; Not a man, not a mouse, slips through the cracks.
How exquisite your love, O God! How eager we are to run under your wings,
To eat our fill at the banquet you spread, as you fill our tankards with Eden spring water. You’re a fountain of cascading light, and you open our eyes to light. 
Ps. 36:5-9 {MSG} 

But every so often I pull out a sweet reminder of God's love, shown to me in human form. It's my first Valentine's Day card, given to me when I was a five-month-old baby. 

It's from my dad. 

He wrote inside that I was a little bundle of joy that won his heart, not just on Valentine's Day, but every day of his life.

And that's my all-time favorite, happily-ever-after Valentine story. 

I'm joining my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart.