Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Tasting an Italian Cooking Class

After taking a ferry across Lake Como and touring a villa on what felt like the hottest day I’d spent in Italy, I was scheduled to spend the afternoon in a cooking class. 

My trip to Italy for an art and faith retreat a few weeks ago was in the middle of their hottest summer in ten years {according to the locals} and my century-old hotel didn’t have air conditioning. I was hot, sleepy and completely lacking energy to tackle a cooking class. 

I thought about skipping it to put my feet up in front of the oscillating fan in my hotel room, but how could I come to Italy and not learn to cook?

So I walked up the steep steps to the top of the village hill and up even more steps to the tiny cooking school. 

I put on an apron {that felt more like a coat} and read the chalkboard hanging on the wall that held our menu: bruschetta, spinach ravioli, tagliatelle, and tiramisu for dessert.

Our large retreat group was split into several small groups since the kitchen space couldn't accommodate all of us. I’d asked those who’d gone before me how intense it was. 

{I was still a little battle-scarred from the beginner culinary course I’d taken last summer since my skills hadn't advanced much.}

No pressure, they assured me, you could do as much or as little as you liked.

We got started with the tiramisu so it could chill while we cooked the other dishes.

When the instructor Elizabetta, a charming girl who spoke almost flawless English, asked for someone to whip the mascarpone cheese and egg yolks, I volunteered. 

Whipping ingredients for baking I could do; rolling out pasta dough, I wasn’t so sure about. I also offered to dip the lady fingers in the coffee, arrange them in the pan and spread the cream over them.

I figured if I volunteered for the easy stuff early on, maybe I could leave the more challenging work to others.

I think it would be awfully nice if life followed this formula, don’t you? 

I’d avoid what compels me to step forward in faith, sidestep what calls me to stretch beyond my capabilities, and steer clear of what moves me outside my carefully constructed comfort zone into unknown territory. 

But I think that's called living on autopilot. Doing only what's familiar, without a lot of risk, and not putting my heart into it.

I think I'd rather approach life wholeheartedly, even when it's awkward and uncomfortable. I'd rather be willing to answer God's invitation to join him on adventures, like this journey to Italy. 

Even when what I'm doing is rolling out dough in a sticky, hot kitchen across the ocean.

As I watched my fellow culinary colleagues make the noodles thinner and thinner and then stretch it into the ravioli molds, I decided to give it a try.

But Elizabetta took a phone call just as I started to form the ravioli and I wasn't sure what to do next. 

My spoonfuls of spinach filling seemed too big but one of the girls helped me seal the noodles shut.

When Elizabetta returned she gently slid my imperfect little pillows of spinach ravioli to the side, saying they were a bit too plump to use.

But not to worry, she said, it's all good.

Finally, after hours of cooking in the kitchen, Mama Italiano breezed in to finish off our class. She was Elizabetta's mother and spoke little English but exuded hospitality. 

I watched as she expertly seasoned our bruschetta, gave a quick stir to the pan of tomato sauce on the stove, and poured our wine.


As we gathered to eat our dinner at this Italian table out on the courtyard, I listened to the life stories of Cindy and her daughters Minet and Natalie from California, Donna from Ohio, and Jane from Virginia. 

It didn’t matter that my pasta didn’t make the cooking pot or that I was hot and disheveled and sweaty. 

The evening was enchanting. 

We celebrated our diplomas that we'd completed an Italian cooking course. And in this small circle of friends, surrounded by the summer heat of Italy, with the aroma of tomato sauce wafting out from the kitchen, I knew this was one of my favorite nights here.

My apron that I wore all evening was mine to keep. I tucked it in my suitcase and decided not to wash it when I got home. 

The little pieces of pasta dough stuck to it and the flour dusted over it are just little bits of my keepsake of Corsi di cucina gusto Italiano, which means taste Italian cooking classes.

I did. And it couldn’t have been more delicious.

I'm linking up with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart. Join me there for more posts from my blogger friends!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Unpacking Italy

I’m still unpacking from my trip to Italy.  

I’m unpacking my suitcase, perusing all the art supplies I brought home. I’m unpacking what I learned about creating art and living an artful life. I’m unpacking my thoughts about adventure and courage. 

And I’m unpacking the wonder at how God works in my life. 

I have a feeling I’m going to be unpacking from this journey for quite a long time.

Months ago when I first learned about this creative art and faith retreat in Bellagio, Italy, led by Laura McCollough, with guest artist instructors Jeanne Oliver and Stephanie Ackerman, I wasn’t sure why I was so interested in going.

I don’t create art pieces. I’ve never tried hand lettering or art doodling. I’m not a world traveler, since Paris is my lone passport stamp. 

Yet I felt such a strong pull to go, I figured Italy must be calling my name. 

But really, it was God who was calling me there.

Inviting me to widen my perspective, live larger, and paint outside the lines. And at the heart of it all, there he was waiting to show me yet another facet of who he is. 

I considered him in the ancient splendor of the Duomo in the center of Milan, the magnificent Gothic cathedral.

I saw him in Leonardo da Vinci’s stunning masterpiece, The Last Supper, as I stood overwhelmed in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. I remembered back to last summer when I sat in Orlando reading a book about the painting, never dreaming that I would see it with my own eyes. 

I even recognized him in the beautiful buildings of Milan as I walked the streets of the fashion capital of the world, home to the original Prada store.

Through the week, I caught a glimpse of his fingerprints on the hearts of the 24 new friends I first met as I boarded a bus for the curvy drive to Lake Como for the faith and art retreat. 

I had decided to take my chances without Dramamine but at the last minute, the ladies on the bus convinced me to take it. Even though I gripped the seat in front of me the entire way, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. 

{On the way back, I skipped the Dramamine!}

I pinched myself as I stood on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, a historic elegant hotel overlooking Lake Como, at a welcome reception to kick off our week together.

I was charmed by Hotel Florence, run by the same family for over a century, as I woke up every morning to push open the shutters to see the beautiful vista of the mountains and the lake.

I sat with serious artists while I tried to treat art paper with gesso and pick up a charcoal pencil to make my first attempt at sketching a face. 

I had been hoping for my first art lesson to be a blob of water or a feathery cloud, but here I was trying to line up a nose between two eyeballs {and not very successfully, I might add}. 

When it was time to use scissors and glue to make a travel journal, I felt relieved but not exactly more competent.

I spent the week visiting one stunningly beautiful spot after another. 

Walking through historic villas and gardens, boating over the lake to charming restaurants, savoring the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted in settings I could only dream about.

And I thought about how I got here. 

Four years ago, I wanted to write about a disappointing relationship experience as a guest blogger. But there was just one problem. I was a writer without a blog. 

With the help of some gifted friends, I launched a blog and it has forever changed me.

It has transformed, reshaped, inspired and awakened. It has encouraged, motivated, summoned and revitalized. 

But most of all it has been the passageway for me to find my way to the heart of God and to discover what my own heart has been searching for.

Now that I’m home, I’m realizing this trip to Italy is like a beautiful package swathed in layers of colorful tissue paper that I’ll be unwrapping for a long time to come. 

Every experience revealed the adventure, courage, hope, peace and joy that I was hoping to discover.

Because I found that as I stepped into the ocean, God parted the waters.

I'm linking up with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart and with Bonnie Gray at the Faith Barista. Join me there!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Bus Stops Here

I'm leaving for Italy next week with my packet of Dramamine tucked safely in the front pocket of my carry-on bag. 

I'm not really a regular taker of Dramamine because I'm not a fan of naps. In fact, I think I've only used it once. But when I opened the email from the faith and art retreat leader filled with last minute details about the trip, it was the all-capital-letters warning about the bus ride that caught my attention.

It seems that the road from Milan to Lake Como is an extremely curvy one. And I’ll be traveling it on a bus. For about two hours. 

The email said this was NOT the time to think you can beat motion sickness and to TAKE medication. {That was the gist of it anyway.}

Now I’m the girl who gets queasy just thinking about riding a bus. I don’t do theme park rides or watch jiggly videos on YouTube. I get dizzy just looking over my shoulder too quickly.

I wasn’t always this way. 

I grew up in Pittsburgh, navigating up and down its steep hills without a second thought. 

But Florida’s flat roadways have me conditioned to a tamer sort of traveling, which is rather tedious for those who enjoy an ultimate driving adventure.

Like I’m apparently going to experience on the road to Lake Como.

I was telling my sister how I was dreading the bus ride and I’d probably turn six shades of green by the end of my journey, when my niece overheard me and offered her eight-year-old assessment. 

“Oh Auntie, you always think of the worst things,” she said. “What if that doesn’t even happen?”

She’s right, of course. 

Although I hope for the best, my life’s motto has always been to imagine the worst since that’s just how things seem to go for me. 

I’ve convinced myself that with this train of thought, I’ll be better prepared.

But this is rarely true. 

It’s never provided a softer landing for my fall. Whatever disappointment, failure or difficulty occurred wasn’t any easier to accept. All the worst-case scenario planning that went on in my head just made me worried and anxious. 

So this bus ride to Lake Como might be the place to put the brakes on this train of thought.

This kind of thinking wants me to ponder, well . . . me. 

What will I do? How will I feel? How will I look? 

I suspect these me-centered thoughts will resurface as I attempt an array of activities for the first time during my trip to Italy. 

But God has been inviting me to blur my focus. 

I’ve been attempting to look through a new lens, seeing my usual self-conscious preoccupation much less sharply. And when my image grows fuzzy, I can see the frame of another much more clearly.

This is how God’s counterintuitive design for our lives works. 

When you empty yourself, you’re mysteriously satisfied. 

When you give it away, you experience abundance. 

When you release what’s in your hands, your heart inexplicably fills.

I’ve found that the very things in life I’m desiring most, might be found when I consider myself least.

Somehow I think when I remember the hearts of those sharing their love of Italy and their artful talents with me, I’ll find this trip to be everything I’ve dreamed of.

Months ago when I first heard of this faith and art retreat and my heart soared at the thought of it, God whispered, “Let’s go to Italy together.”

So I’ll be making art of scripture as I learn to Bible-journal. 

I’ll be painting and drawing from the hillsides of Italy. 

I’ll be cooking with some Italian mamas. 

And I’ll be seeing the homeland of those who came before me in my own family.

So I’m hoping for the best on the bus ride to Lake Como. Because I hear the drive offers some spectacular views. 

Just between you and me, I think I’ll keep the Dramamine tucked in my bag. I wouldn’t want to doze off and find the bus stopped and discover I’d missed the entire exciting drive. 

Or would I? 

{To be continued in three weeks.}

I understand wi-fi is spotty where I’ll be staying, but follow me here on Instagram for mini updates of my journey to Italy!

I'm linking up with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart. Join me there!