Monday, January 31, 2011

I’ve Got One, You’ve Got One

January was all about eating tried-and-true favorites, like tofu stir fry with peanut sauce:

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One of my favorite soups – Moroccan-Style chickpea and lentil from Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker:

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By mid-January, a month after returning from Italy, I was ready for pasta again, my way. I made my own chunky tomato sauce over a small portion of whole-wheat pasta, with spinach and mushrooms and a salad:

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I split the tomato sauce in half and turned half into tomato soup. Goes well with a Rice Vegan grilled cheese:

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Now that it’s the end of the month, I’m coming out of hiatus and getting ready to try new things. Like going to a pond hockey game downtown. Standing in the cold for 45 minutes wasn’t much fun, but these minor league hockey players were having a great time. And when one team got to an early lead, the mascot blocked their goal.

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After watching some of the game Saturday night, we headed to Honey, a restaurant we’ve been to a few times. It’s a special-occasion kind of place. We thought that arriving around 8 would help our odds of getting a table quickly, but instead we sat at the bar for a long while, munching on fries. There are rumors that the restaurant is closed or will be closing, but it was packed when we were there.

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No, the bucket is not filled to the bottom. These fries are good – tiny shoestrings of three kinds of potato. By the time the fries arrived, we were ready to eat. I had one of those moments where I was happy to be with Alex: there was a couple sitting next to us and neither of them touched the fries they ordered. I think they were on an early date. I’m not certain if I was ever a shy eater, but I think there have been plenty of times when I was shy. Saturday night was not one of those nights.

My photo of my entrée makes it look unappetizing, and it wasn’t – it’s actually what I’ve gotten each time we’ve dined there. It’s soft tofu in a crispy basil crust on top of green beans and a root vegetable puree, with coconut milk sauce. The portion of tofu seems to be shrinking, but it’s still generous.

Sunday night we did something else new – we went to The Comet for bluegrass night. I’m not a bluegrass aficionado, but the band was good and enthusiastic. The food was pretty good, too. They serve a small menu with burritos, tacos, and quesadillas. I got a jerked tofu burrito, which included rice, black beans, salsa, and tofu. The prices are low and the portions are hearty. I think I ate 3/4 right away, and nibbled on the rest as I sipped various IPAs the rest of the night. 077

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The bar got really crowded even 45 minutes before the band started, and I noticed an acquaintance standing around with no place to sit. Okay, someone I’ve met precisely twice. I went up to him and he had no idea who I was, but he was happy to take me up on the offer to come sit with us. I have a decent memory for faces and names, but it’s new to me to be friendly like that.

One other new thing I did was make a dessert. I’ve been wanting to make Hummingbird Cake (evidently also called Dr. Bird Cake, as I learned from a co-worker). This is a dense, moist cake, made with banana and crushed pineapple, with pecans and cinnamon. This turned out wonderfully, although it was maybe denser than it would normally be. I used flax eggs and my banana was frozen and then thawed, so either of those could be the culprit. The frosting was delicious, though – Tofutti Better than Cream Cheese makes a great cream cheese frosting!

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One more new thing – I’m in a new decade! Yes, that is my birthday cake. I turned 30 on Sunday, can you believe it?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pizza–My favorite food in Italy, and my trip wrap-up

In this post, I’ll show you my favorite food from my recent trip. Well, almost. Honestly, I don’t like playing favorites, and my actual favorite food might be something that was eaten during a long layover between Philadelphia and Rome. But I’m not including that in my self-imposed end-of-January deadline to wrap up the Italy posts. (Thanks, Jenny, for introducing me to Blackbird Café!) I’ll also share with you a true story, knowing that some of you are probably (hopefully? it’s okay!) skimming, and thereby giving me confidence to disclose things that aren’t even embarrassing anyway.

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This was my favorite food. If I had it to do over again, I’d eat more pizza. Why did I keep trying new things when I’d found a winner?

I look back on my trip with a little pain, but I don’t know how I could have enjoyed myself more. If I give all the details, you bloggy readers might think I’m a big baby, but it’s not a surprise. It’ll happen to all of us. Everything that lives, dies. Things that don’t die aren’t living. Duh.

There was a question in the comments I never addressed, and it’s a good one. Why did we take our trip that week in December, subjecting ourselves to cold and snow? Well, it was important to Alex’s dad that we make a trip during the same calendar year that his father died. The grandfather was a recognized at a church service we all attended; plus, we visited the mausoleum, his apartment, some family friends, and held a little reception. Originally, we were planning to travel in May, but this seemed important to do on the timeframe specified by Alex’s father.

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We didn’t eat here, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the sign.

So, Sunday night, just a few days into the trip, – and right after I ate that delicious pizza pictured above, which I look back on as my last oblivious meal – I learned via email that my grandmother had died. Now, maybe I’m naïve, but this was a surprise to me and it hit pretty hard.

Initially,  I was tickled to have internet access for the first time in days. I could hardly wait to check my email, only to be faced with sad, bad news. For the rest of the week, I was frustrated with lack of information as I waited on trans-Atlantic emails, wondering if the funeral would be scheduled at a time when I could be back in the country.

(It wasn’t, and that’s fine. My family wanted to do it soon, and I understand that. The event itself was actually going on while we were trapped in the car. Remember the time Alex and his dad were putting on the chains? I spent that time inside the car, by myself, crying my eyes out and listening to Patty Griffin sing Long Ride Home over and over.)

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I ate breakfast daily, typically fresh fruit and juice. There was almost always a fight over the clementines, especially when there was only one or two. I enjoyed espresso, probably too much, because I didn’t want to cut it with milk and I was too embarrassed to ask for hot water or cafe americano.

So, yeah, that trip had a big black cloud over it for me. In nearly every photo, I’m on the edge of tears from trying to break my “holding it together” face into a smile, and my only appetite was for wine and bread. Now, before you think I’m nuts, I realize there are only so many tears you can shed for dead grandparents. Who are old. Who have lived long lives.

I’m happy to report that this is why I felt immediately better once I was able to hear from my family and take off my happy face imposed for my travel companions (only to find out that they had heard the news, while Alex reminded me that there was nothing I could do—and I agreed—and nudged me to just enjoy the vacation).

Actually, seeing these travel companions was part of what was so painful for me. Throughout the trip, our party of six was clearly divided in half, and each time I suggested to Alex’s sister that we trade teams so she could spend time with her dad, there was laughter like I said unwittingly said the Mystery Word on The Ellen Show (you know, when everyone gets the joke except the person who said it). It wasn’t lost on me that the point of this trip was to support Alex’s dad, losing his father, and meanwhile I wanted nothing more than to be with my own father going through something similar and much fresher.

I hope it comes as no surprise that I was worried about the survivors, not the dead grandmother. Of course, they were doing okay, in their own way. My dad. My grandfather. I had the chance to visit him Christmas Eve. He said, “I ain’t grieving too bad.” (Don’t laugh, he’s Southern.) He died three weeks later. You didn’t think those two trips to Memphis were planned amidst all my other trips, did you?

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Of course everyone loves fried food: these fried mixed vegetables were part of our meal at 4 Leoni.

Now that almost a month has passed, I’m finally feeling better and coming out of my funk. I’m comforted and scared, knowing this can’t happen again. I’m out of grandparents—so if it happens, it will not be an old person. At least yet. Nearly five years ago, another grandmother died while I was vacationing with Alex, but back then we were too busy falling in love for it to hurt too terribly bad.

Thanks for sticking with my through my pity-party; I know my general down attitude was showing in some of my writing. Now, I’m all set to have some fun this weekend. And like most other bloggers who take a little break, know that the food I’ve been eating has still been delicious, even when I didn’t stop to tell you about it. And I highly recommend the tofu cubano at Blackbird in Philadelphia, photos coming soon.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Falafel in Venice

Believe it or not, I did eat some non-Italian food during my trip. I went to a place I had researched myself, and as it turns out almost everyone who has been to Venice has heard of it.

After a morning touring a palace and church overflowing with opulence, we headed up to the northern corner of the city to visit the Jewish Ghetto. Suddenly we were alone on the street and everything was plain.

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We ate at Gam Gam, a Kosher restaurant right on the water, and enjoyed a nice break from pizza and pasta.

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We started with the full appetizer sampler. This included marinated mushrooms, hummus, baba ganoush, warm cooked carrots and zucchini, a piece of falafel each, and at the far end of the table, egg salad and cold chickpea and celery salad. It really was fun to eat from so many little plates! We had a basket of bread and fresh, hot pita and a generous portion of some super spicy green relish.

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We shared two other dishes: couscous with vegetables, which were very oddly spiced. You may do best hearing from someone who is familiar with these spices; I can’t say I enjoyed them. Honestly, I think it’s just my unfamiliarity masquerading as dislike. If I were in a position to eat there again, I might give them another chance.

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We also got potato latkes with apple sauce, which were served on a slaw of carrot and cabbage. These were really good.

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This was a really nice lunch and a great break from the constant touring, crowds, and stress of traveling. But I’m not sure I’d say it was my favorite. I’m giving that some thought, and I’m considering a wrap-up soon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

4 Leoni: Rick Steves Approved

I promised you Rick Steves. Yes, he makes an appearance here. Keep reading – I knew that famous name would draw you in!

My visit to Florence, contrary to the long hours in the car, was supposed to be a quick visit. We were to arrive early one afternoon, and leave mid-afternoon the next day. We had to be very selective with our time. No, this is not where we consulted Rick Steves. Don’t you think that the less time you have, the more likely you are to do the things you knew about before you researched your trip?

We spent the afternoon in the Uffizi and then walked around town, peering into storefronts and walking across the closed Ponte Vecchio. Eventually, it was time to seek out food. Between the three of us (me, Alex, his father), we wanted to make sure that the posted menu had at least one choice we wanted, and we wanted to see whether other diners were in the restaurant and if they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

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We finally settled on a cute, cozy restaurant, Trattoria 4 Leoni. There were several interesting vegetable-laden choices on the menu, and the place was packed. We went in and were seated at a table near the door.

We started with tomato basil bruschetta. This was good – we were given a second portion when our waiter said that he mistakenly placed an order for another table. Or something – maybe it was burned just enough to be acceptable for free. 

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We also got a salad with romaine, avocado, pine nuts, and basil pesto, which was served in a deep bowl on a raw cabbage leaf. I ate the raw cabbage. Yum!

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I had ravioli stuffed with eggplant, and they were delicious. All the food was good, and although it was simple, it was different enough from the usual we’d been eating for five or six days at this point. Each of us was really pleased with our find.

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Our waiter, who claimed he was from the 51st state, Albania, followed us outside to help direct us to the bus stop. See the unassuming, quaint, front of Trattoria 4 Leoni? Cute, right? I would put it in my guide book, wouldn’t you?

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While we were in the restaurant, it seemed like 90% of the patrons were speaking English – this was a much higher percentage than even in the Uffizi. And there was a billboard with photos and a little write-up of Anthony Hopkins saying he ate there every night that he was in Florence. So, I decided I should check the Rick Steves book Alex’s mom had picked up from the library and left with us – sure enough, this restaurant was in there! No wonder we had such a great meal. 

Of all the places I dined during my trip, this was the only one that was Rick Steves approved. And so it is only with Rick Steves’ approval that I feel comfortable disclosing the name of the restaurant. He did let me down, though. After my success with this place, I scoped out his recommendation for a lunch spot for the next day – only to discover that it was closed (maybe they knew the weather report and stayed home?).

My goal is to finish my Italy posts by the end of January. I’m setting reasonable expectations, mind you, as I only expect to have one more after today. Right now I’m eager to see if Rick Steves does any domestic tourism, and I may begin only eating in local places he endorses. If he doesn’t, I may have to start cooking again.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Pasta Post

I have a controversial confession: I get tired of pasta. Not just tired of it meal after meal – I can get tired of it mid-meal. I like it, but when faced with a whole plate of noodles, I’m likely to get bored and leave half of it behind even if I’m still hungry. Now that more than a month has passed since the trip, it’s hard for me to look back over my photos and only find a few photos of pasta, because I feel like it’s all I ate.

Upon first arriving at our hotel in Italy, after a long overnight plane ride and a long drive, eating pasta took precedence over rest, face-washing, and probably even over hand-washing. Here we are in the mid-afternoon soon, with a plate of pasta plopped on the table. At the hotel restaurant, there were never any choices, for us, at least.

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Honestly, I have no idea why we got a fresh long pepper alongside a bowl of cheese. I cemented my status as an outsider early in the week by eating half the pepper and none of the cheese. None of my travel companions knew why we got the pepper, and none ate any. I thought it was just hot enough, and it was a fresh addition to the plate.

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After the pasta, we’d have some salad, and eventually we began ordering side dishes. We were presented with large portions to share of well-oiled, well-cooked, vegetables. For example, the broccoli below was really good, in a decadent way, cooked beyond tenderness with lots of oil and garlic.

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All the above photos are from the two meals we enjoyed at our hotel restaurant. The restaurant was generally packed even with folks who weren’t guests at the hotel, and the food was good. We kept seeing enormous calzones leaving the kitchen, although we were never presented a menu to order from and only had plates of pasta. I’m not sure if anyone out there reading would ever make it to this place, but it was one of my favorite parts of the trip and I’ll share the recommendation: Il Quadrifoglio.

After a few days there, we hit the road by car. Many of our meals were at the Autogrille or other service-plaza style eateries. Below is a pasta arriabiata (I was trying to get them to put in the spice for me) at one roadside restaurant. You see, as I had no interest in finishing the whole plate, it didn’t matter that there are four un-sauced noodles sticking together.

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At this service plaza, I took a tip from a fellow traveler that didn’t work out so well for me. Apparently, in order to stomach a full plate of penne, you need to pile at least eight noodles on your fork and continually pop forkloads into your mouth. I could do this for about two bites before I would have to stop and chew.

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It was also at this service plaza that I realized that not all side dishes are served warm. That delicious plate of spinach was cold, cold, cold. I eventually tried to enjoy the chilled vegetables, which is not a problem with raw veg, but I can’t really stomach too much cold cooked veg. In the upper right, there are cold cooked cauliflower, cold cooked broccoli, and cold cooked green beans, along with the lettuce, tomato, and carrot salad. Maybe it’s just familiarity, but I enjoyed the cold green beans, but not the others.

I recognize that this post sounds a little negative. I ate enough in Italy, promise – but maybe this is just proof that even someone who spends a lot of time cooking, shopping for food, trying to grow it, reading about it, writing about it, taking photos of all of it, can eat just to eat and it’s not a big deal. On our third or fourth day, I don’t remember, I expressed a desire to eat at someplace other than the hotel restaurant or at rest stops, and that seemed like an unacceptable wish. If we were to veer off course, we needed to be sure to follow the advice of Rick Steves. I am a self-proclaimed NPR junkie, but I’m not a Rick Steves disciple, but just you wait – he will make an appearance in my next Italy post, whenever I get around to it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Two Cities, Two Veggie Burgers

Who needs to stick to chronological order? I’ve got veggie burgers on the brain and some important news to share. I’ve actually eaten more burgers recently than are included here, including a Boca patty at Red Robin last night (no photo, but it was just like this).

Over the weekend, I was in Memphis, and I wanted to head back to Huey’s for a black bean burger. Remember when I posted about Fuel Café, and their veggie burger? That I didn’t like it as much as I liked Huey’s? Consider this a public service announcement: it’s good. I recant my previous comments.* Sorry, Fuel!

The problem is that Huey’s no longer offers the black bean burger. Sure, it’s on the menu, but our server told us they don’t have it anymore.

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Thankfully, they do offer a chargrilled veggie patty. It looks kind of like the black bean patty, but it’s not really the same thing. This veggie patty is most palatable when loaded with toppings or a carrier for sauce, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

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That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, especially Alex who is always grinning.

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I’ve heard in previous comments that my brother is good looking. But if you try to take him out while football’s on, he’ll be glued to the television.

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And he’s taken.

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Monday, we drove home, through aftermath of the mid-South’s snowstorm, and stopped for supper in Louisville at Third Avenue Café. Do you have restaurants you like to frequent in other cities? This is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the Elvis theme that makes me feel right at home.

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I was a little overwhelmed with the multitude of choices. You know how it’s easier to choose when your choices are limited – well, I finally settled on the veggie burger there, too, even though I’d just had one at Huey’s the day before.

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The waiter said he didn’t even like veggie burgers, but theirs was the best in the city. Right about now it might be making its way up to the best in several cities. This burger comes with vegan red pepper aioli on a tasty special bun, along with homemade mesquite chips. I like the spicy bean flavor of this burger – the extras are simply extras.

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Alex got the tempeh Reuben, which is also good. I had several bites of this, and once I start cooking at home again, making a Reuben is high on my list (after eating lots and lots of vegetables). I’ve already recreated the edamame and wheatberry salad.

Over the past month, I’ve only been home for a week (and not all at once) but I plan to stay put for a while, cook for myself again, and catch up on some things I’ve been meaning to share.

*That was the important news, sorry if it doesn’t sound very urgent. It is important for me to clarify!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Great Mini-Blizzard Adventure

I’ve been traveling more than I intended and more than I wanted in the past month. I’ve experienced traffic jams, 20-minute flight delays, three-hour flight delays, long lines everywhere, and people trying to take my baggage off the carousel. I even allowed the threat of a blizzard to delay my arrival to Philadelphia by a day. But all of that is tolerable and expected after the 23 hours I spent in a car to go what should have taken three hours.

Please excuse this lengthy and not-exactly-food related post. I wanted to chronicle our tiny disaster leaving Florence. There are photos of everything I ate along the way, as well as the answer to the burning question everyone has asked: what about the bathroom?

Three of us (Alex, his father, and I) started the morning in Florence, doing the normal tourist stuff, and we planned to leave by 1 or 2 p.m. to be at Alex’s uncle’s home in time for supper. This lunch was my last meal before the ordeal: bread soup and Tuscan white beans. Delicious at the time, and a nice change from pizza and pasta.

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As we were leaving the restaurant, the snow was starting to fall. Our waiter encouraged us to stay for a bit and wait it out, but we wanted to do a few more things in old Florence before getting on the road to get to Umbria.

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12:45 p.m.: The snow didn’t look too bad, but it became worse as we walked through town.

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Traffic was still moving. Visibility was low, but there really wasn’t that much snow.

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2:30 p.m.: We headed to our bus stop to get out of the city and retrieve the car, but a friendly passer-by let us know that the busses weren’t running. We considered trying to get a taxi, but there were none to be found. It didn’t take us long to decide to start walking along the bus route, back toward the hotel.

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At the time, we thought that once we got to the car, everything would be okay. The walk took less than 45 minutes, and it was nice to walk through the non-touristy parts of Florence and see more of the city. Plus traffic through the city was hardly moving, so we would have been stuck in a taxi (meter running) or in a bus, anyway.

We popped back inside our hotel for a bathroom break, to make a phone call to the relatives who were expecting us, and to ask the desk clerk for information on road conditions. Alex cleared the few inches of snow from the car and we attempted to get onto the feeder highway to the Autostrada.

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4:00 p.m.: Traffic was completely jammed in the intersection. We couldn’t figure out why, until we reached the uphill curve to the highway that leads to the Autostrada. Cars were getting stuck, other drivers are coming out of their cars to help push cars up the hill, and we got stuck, too.

Alex actually asked an Italian man to drive our car up the hill while he pushed. At this point, we kept thinking that once we get to the Autostrada, everything would be okay. Getting there was a challenge, though, as there were lots of pauses as people could not get their cars up the hills. The side of the road was filled with parked cars whose drivers had given up.

5:15 p.m.: Eventually we did the same gave up, and I snapped this photo of the rental car to make sure we could identify it in the event that we needed to.

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We walked back toward the hotel, again, and weren’t terribly surprised to find that it was just more than ten minutes walking to get back to our starting point. We stopped by a service station in search of tire chains, but they didn’t have our size. Alex might like for me to mention that he’s such a car guy that he noted our tire size upon initially examining the car – independently of expecting to purchase chains.

5:45 p.m.: I stayed in the hotel lobby, looking for information online, and Alex and his dad headed down the road to another service station we’d noticed on our walk from the old city to our hotel. Thankfully, they found an auto parts store just about to close and slipped in under the gate. Alex picked up the appropriate sized tire chains, which were the key to us getting up the icy slope.

We stayed at the hotel bar a little longer, enjoying a drink and looking for more information online. Alex had a chamomile tea; I had a Bittburger beer; and, Alex’s dad enjoyed a Jack Daniels. We snacked on potato chips and pistachios provided by the bar, and I had a Primal Strip. Of course we didn’t eat too much – we were convinced we’d be able to stop for supper once we got down the road.

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7:00 p.m.: We walked back to the car, wondering if it will still be there. (Of course it was still there, no tow trucks have made it through the traffic jam.) Alex was tickled to have the tire chains, which were cheaper than another night at the hotel or train tickets. By this time, the snow had subsided.

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9:23 p.m., 67118 km: Alex finished putting the chains on the tires. At this point I decided to start taking some photos of the dash to chronicle our time and distance.

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We got back in the line of traffic creeping forward, but we soon found ourselves trapped when everyone had once again stopped. People were getting out of their cars and jumping across the median to a McDonald’s that has probably never seen this much business.

The other drivers were generally friendly and looked to each other for news on what was going on. We borrowed a cell phone from another driver to get in touch with the family waiting for us and got gems of advice like, “turn back and go to the hotel. Try it again in the morning.” Um, thanks – brilliant idea!

Although we had turned off the car and cuddled in our coats, we turned on the car and the radio for updates. If we trust Alex’s dad as translator, the news on the road conditions were more hearsay and complaining than actual fact.

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And, this is where we stayed overnight. Alex was driving, I was riding shotgun, and Alex’s dad was in the backseat. At one point we were talking to him and I thought he was upset and ignoring us, but when he started to snore we realized he had fallen asleep. We were all getting a little touchy by this point, so I encouraged the men to get some rest. I tried to sleep, but I kept jerking awake with every noise and flash of light, so I listened to about six episodes of This American Life on my iPod and waited to see what would happen next.

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5:45 a.m.: We saw one lane onto the Autostrada open, but police had the southbound onramp blocked. No one could head the direction we needed to go. However, thinking we are smart, I noticed that traffic seems to be be flowing just fine in the southbound direction. So we choose between heading west to Pisa and then south, or simply heading north an exit or two and turning around to go back south according to our original plans.

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Dash updates: 9:37 p.m., 67119 km; 12:52 a.m. Saturday, 67119 km; 4:45 a.m., 67119 km; 7:56 a.m., 67161 km; 9:26 a.m., 67166 km; 2:46 p.m., 67381 km.

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We found a rest stop where we grabbed some juice and had another bathroom break. Of course, yet again, we would have treated that oasis differently had we known we weren’t in the clear yet. Only the slightest bit further down the road, we realized that the southbound Autostrada wasn’t closed due to a slick onramp. We were stuck in a backup, again, for more than three more hours.

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10:45 a.m.: The weirdest thing happened when the road was finally clear. Traffic completely dissipated. We went from total gridlock to an hour of slow moving through slush and packed snow to nothing. Everyone had broken free.

11:30 a.m.: We stop for another rest stop and an actual meal, our first since lunch the day before. Even though I had gotten almost no sleep, a bottle of wine sounded good, along with some fresh fruit, pesto and potato pasta, and a salad we shared in a roadside cafeteria.

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After lunch, we still had almost two hours of clear driving. Finally, just before 3:00 p.m. the next day, more than 24 hours after we began our walk to the car, we parked safely at Alex’s uncle’s home. We stayed up for dinner and visiting, only to leave before dawn the next morning for our flight back to the U.S.

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