It's always so difficult, isn't it? To find yourself on the wrong end of a holiday, trying desperately to remember the sight and texture of everything that had been in front of you just hours before: the glint of sun on the acacia leaves, the tiny lizard shimmying along the terracotta patio, the sweet-smelling breeze brushing up against your skin, salty from a morning at the beach.
On the drive to the train station yesterday morning, I told myself sternly to memorize every bump in the road, every burnished field we passed, every not-yet-entirely-unfurled sunflower head, every quiet farm stand selling peaches, every putt-putting motorcycle, every touch from my mother's hand. Like pearls on a broken string, I can feel the sensation of these things falling away in little pops. It's funny what distance does - makes everything you had so clearly in front of you turn blurry. Sharp edges turn soft, warmth fades to cool, the storm that is love and grief at taking leave becomes a gentle lump somewhere in your chest that you try your best to ignore.
I sat in my bed this morning, the window pulled open and New York City trucks rattling the frame as they drove by. Suddenly, a whiff of linden blossoms blew in, the very smell that had been hanging in the air all week in Italy. There I sat, very much in one place, when the scent of another came in. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I could see my grandfather sitting on the top stoop of his house in his slippers, my mother with the garden hose by the roses, my aunt waving from the gate, the tree tops rippling in the wind. Then I breathed out and they were gone.
Sometimes, I wonder at my life. Is this how it will always be? Being in one place and wanting another, not knowing how to accept that a body cannot be divided and sent in diverging directions. Here and there, near and far. I think I am lucky to have both.
Lucky, too, to have spent a week eating milky-sweet ricotta, firm cherries from the orchard, stewy roast peppers with four generations of my family at the dinner table, boozy pistachio gelato in Urbino's main piazza before a warm afternoon thunderstorm, flaky crescia sfogliata filled with stewed chard after a few diligent hours in the Ducal palace, drippy, sun-warmed melons on the back patio.
And with Ben's brother-in-law joining my aunt in the kitchen at times, we had paella and flan as well. Lucky us, indeed. One night, after a Marchigianian feast of homemade tagliatelle with pigeon ragu, tomatoes stuffed with wild fennel-scented bread crumbs, and rosemary-roasted rabbit, Francisco brought out his abuela Margarita's flan, eggy and cool and spiced just so with cinnamon and lemon. We ate slices of it, sauced with gently bitter caramel, under the starry night sky.
Though all good things, maddeningly, must come to an end, at least the clothes in our suitcase still smell of the herbs my mother cut from my grandfather's garden, a jar of our neighbor's acacia honey fills my kitchen with sunshine, 903 photographs from the last ten days clog my computer and I've got a few prized recipes to recreate in my own kitchen. Best of all, when I close my eyes, I can still see red poppies lining the road and feel my mother hug me tightly. That'll have to do until next time. Which can't come soon enough.
200 grams of granulated sugar, plus 5 tablespoons
1/2 liter of milk (whole is preferred, but 1% works)
1 organic lemon
1 cinnamon stick
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle 5 tablespoons of sugar at the bottom of a cake pan, and add a judicious squeeze of lemon juice. Place the pan over medium heat and swirl the pan occasionally, until the sugar melts and then caramelizes. Let the sugar turn a deep brown, then turn off the heat. Don't let the sugar burn, but do let it color substantially. Set aside
2. Heat the milk in a heavy saucepan with a 1-inch piece of lemon peel and the cinnamon stick. When the milk comes to a boil, turn off the heat and let the milk sit for a few minutes. While the milk is steeping, whisk together the eggs and the remaining sugar until the mixture is frothy and pale.
3. Discard the lemon peel and cinnamon stick and very slowly pour a thin stream of hot milk into the beaten egg mixture, taking care not to let the eggs curdle. When the milk has been entirely incorporated into the eggs, pour the custard through a strainer into the caramel-lined pan. Place the pan carefully on a rimmed cookie sheet. Pour water into the cookie sheet until it reaches halfway up the sides of the cake pan.
4. Put the pan in the hot oven and bake for an hour, or until the top of the custard is burnished and the custard has set. (A cake tester inserted into the custard should come out clean.) Carefully remove the cake pan from the cookie sheet and let it cool on a rack. When the custard has cooled, store the pan in the fridge. Before serving, place a large plate over the cake pan, then flip the pan so that the caramel is on top of the custard. Cut into wedges and serve.