Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On the Birthday of a Dear Friend

It was a cool October evening, a whiff of rain lurking somewhere in the humid overtones of the night air. Adrienne’s brown hair whipped up in the frenzy of a sudden gust of wind while my raincoat ballooned out into a cape of gortex as we quickly moved down the marbled cobblestone street of a small Italian town, somewhere near the coast of Capri. I clutched my shoulder bag close to my body, checking the dark sky for signs of clouds obscuring the stars, impending precipitation. Lights were twinkling in the noisy trattorias and cozy cafes we passed as we walked; bearded Italian men and women, bronzed to European perfection, strolled nearby, tossing the light cadence of their language into our ears.

We landed at our destination, smiling – a single bench perched on a small hill. In a calm little park overlooking the cool flapping water of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Adrienne and I sat together, comfortable despite the hard wood seat. We opened my roomy bag and pulled out the bottle of rich red wine, two plastic cups and a bottle opener, a loaf of crusty white bread, hunks of white flaky cheese and mounds of fresh green grapes. Bright juicy tomatoes. We clinked our glasses in the cheers of happy travelers and attacked our wandering picnic fare with the same gusto that we often shared in those months of studying and traveling abroad. As the evening went along, always with the sound of soft waves breaking close-by, we ate, drank, and talked with the serious ease of comfortable companionship.

That autumn semester Adrienne and I lived in the same apartment, studying art history in Florence and exploring the Italian countryside in unison. It was a world deliciously far from the usual large lecture halls and musty libraries of our home university. Adrienne and I had not known each other in our first few college years, but when thrown serendipitously together in Italy we immediately found that we were kindred spirits. We hiked throughout all of Italy, picnicked at Pompeii, rode trains with large contingents of singing Italian soldiers, hitchhiked through a fit of giggles when we found ourselves stranded in a remote corner of the Tuscan countryside. Perfectly situated in our apartment right down the street from Florence’s Mercato Centrale, we cooked dinner together every night; Adrienne’s infectious laugh was always a delightful companion.

I don’t, actually, know what I would have done without her. I had arrived to begin my semester in Italy only a week after returning from Namibia, Africa. I had spent the previous three months as a volunteer English teacher in Katima Mulilo, a remote village on the Caprivi Strip. Coming from that intense experience of pervasive poverty, encroaching disease and little hope, Italy was a blaring shock to my senses. I was overwhelmed, to say the least. My post-Africa anxiety, I soon found, was all-encompassing. I felt guilty for who I had left behind; hesitant and wary of the unmitigated pleasures of my current situation.

On that cool and humid night near the ocean of Capri, one month into my Italian life, Adrienne listened as I talked about my experience in Namibia. It was the first time I had been able to verbalized what I was feeling. My fears, guilt, sadness over leaving the troubled African village to which I had grown so close. She listened that night; she listened consistently, continually, beautifully as I worked my way through all of the difficult emotions in the coming months, painful feelings I was not even aware I harbored until Adrienne’s gentle support allowed me to explore myself more deeply. Hours of involved conversation later, peppered, of course, with a plethora of fresh picnic food, we felt the sharp splash of rain drops landing on our cheeks as we looked up at the dark sky. A bright red umbrella magically appeared in Adrienne’s hand. Arms around each other and laughing with unabashed giddiness, suddenly free of tension and fear, we skipped up the hill back towards the hostel we were bunking in that night. Dark figures awash with the pattering of laughter, lost under a vibrant red umbrella.


On Saturday night Adrienne arrived at my apartment, a short ten blocks from her own, glowing in a bright flowered dress, funky cowboy boots. Her laugh, infectious as always, filled the room. Joined by other familiar college faces, we celebrated her birthday with a vivacious eating-fest.

For my first foray into ‘serious’ cooking since my move to New York, I indulged the vegetarian in all of us (though mainly our anti-meat friend, Grace) and made quinoa (one of my favorite things) with Moroccan winter squash and carrot stew, pomodori ripieni (roasted tomatoes stuffed with bread and cheese), and a voluptuous dark chocolate cake. The meal was warm and colorful. The smell of the chocolate cake as it baked lingered happily in my nose all evening. It was comforting and homey, fitting fare to celebrate the birthday of a wonderful friend.

We all gathered together on the rooftop of my apartment toward the later hours of the night, clinking glasses of wine and gazing at the sparkly view of Manhattan. Though nowhere near Italy and far from picnics of bread, cheese and grapes, when we stood there on the roof, none-the-less, I could almost hear the lapping ocean waves. Or maybe that was just the wine.

Happy Birthday Adrienne!

Quinoa with Moroccan Winter Squash and Carrot Stew
Adapted from Epicurious

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, chopped
3 minced garlic cloves
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Pinch of saffron
1 cup water
1 can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 medium sized butternut squash, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes 2 cups peeled and cubed carrots

1 cup quinoa
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped peeled carrot
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups water

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
For stew:
Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion; sauté until soft, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add garlic; stir 1 minute. Mix in next 8 ingredients. Add 1 cup water, tomatoes, and lemon juice. Bring to boil. Add squash and carrots. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat. I let it simmer for almost an hour; the vegetables were soft and tender, a wonderful consistency. Season with salt and pepper.

For quinoa:
Rinse quinoa; drain. Sauté onion and carrot in the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, about 10 minutes, until beginning to brown. Add garlic, salt, and turmeric and sauté 1 minute. Add quinoa; stir 1 minute. Add 2 cups water. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low. Cover; simmer until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender, about 15 minutes.

Stir in half of cilantro to the stew. Serve with quinoa and more cilantro sprinkled on top.


Rainey said...

That is completely beautiful! I'm there with both of you when you write. And if I were Adrienne, I think this entry might just be one of the birthday presents/wishes I'd remember all my life.

Happy Birthday, Adrienne! Happy Memories, Molly!

PS I don't think I've ever gotten quinoa to cook fully (and mine stays "clumpy" as a result) but your Moroccan squash and quinoa tagine might make me try it again. ;>

Anonymous said...

i've been reading this at work each day when i want to escape for a bit. it makes me so happy, remembering, and when i go back to my (less heartening, more bland) windows on this computer, all i can think is that i wish we could go back to italy -- right now.

that was my favorite day there. i never reread it in my journal because i can remember all of it so well (despite the wine), but i love reading your rendering of it.

i love you, molly, and i'm so glad you're here in brooklyn. you made my birthday warm and happy, but in truth that's no different than any other day with you.

thanks so much.

p.s. i had a big shmoozy all-important all-consuming benefit last night for work...the moral of the story is they had little potted herbs as centerpieces, and at the end of the night i stuffed 11 of them in my bag to take home, thinking you could begin a little windowsill herb garden. so. come get your herbs.

p.p.s. miss olivia misses you.

Anonymous said...

and thank you rainey :)

...good luck with your quinoa!