Wow, it's taken a lot longer than usual for my internal clock to return to St. Louis, Missouri time after my trip to Genoa, Italy last week - and even longer for me to tend to the consequences of reentry into non-teaching life (i.e., mountains of laundry, dandelions gone to seed in grass now eight inches tall, gym trips desperately needed, work projects with looming deadlines . . .)
This trip certainly had less programmed downtime than my previous ones this year. Maybe that's what accounts for my biorhythm issues, I'm not sure . . . But what I do know is this: the trip was just as fun and rewarding as those that came before despite being so quick. In addition to meeting many talented students and my gracious hosts Laura Canepa and Serena Venola of All in One Events (also Cookie'sCool founders), I got a sneak peek into some of what's planned for Cookie'sCool in November. Read on for a trip recap, including a few restaurant and hotel tips that may be useful to Cookie'sCool conference-goers. (Warning: Proceed at your own risk; it's a long recap. )
Day 1, May 2
Well, technically speaking Day 1 is Day 2, because I arrive at Lambert Airport (St. Louis) at 9 am on May 1 and don't land in Milan until 7:45 am on May 2 - without a wink of sleep in the air, I might add.
It shouldn't be surprising then that my first stop after changing some dollars to Euros is at an airport cafÉ to get a healthy shot of espresso. Fortunately, the syrupy liquid is enough to keep my eyes plastered open during the four-hour wait for the one-bus-a-day that goes from the Milan airport to Genoa. (Cookie'sCool-goers, take note: You may want to share a rented car from the airport, because it will get you to Genoa a heck of a lot quicker. But . . . the bus is only 25 Euros; a private car can run you about ten times as much.)
The ride is a solid three hours by bus, most of which time I spend tossing and turning to find a comfortable position so I can sleep. (My legs are terribly cramped from the previous 11 hours in the air.) Lest this sound like a sob story, it isn't - at least not completely . The ride takes me through some absolutely stunning countryside - terraced hillsides dotted with farm homes, tall-steepled churches, and other charming buildings. I desperately try to capture these idyllic images for posterity through the dusty bus window with my sorry-excuse-for-a-camera called my iPhone.
Terraced Italian hillside through my bus window.
I arrive at the bus station in Genoa at about 3:30 pm, and I'm greeted right on time by Laura. We work the stuff in her tiny car (the best way to travel in Europe aside from motor scooter) like a complex 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle to make room for my super-sized tool suitcase, clothes bag, and two containers of finished "show" cookies that I never travel without. (For a moment, I wish I'd left all but the clothes behind.) Fortunately, all of my accoutrements fit, and it's off to the B&B we go.
Turns out, I'm staying in a VERY cool place. It's called B&B La Torre, and it's located at 5 Via di Porta Soprana in the center of the old (and tourist-y) part of Genoa, just minutes away from the intended site for Cookie'sCool (more on that later) and countless shops and cafÉs. What could be better for a tired teacher with little downtime than proximity to Italian food and other treasures? Well one thing, maybe - the fact that it's a converted tower on an ancient and architecturally stunning building! (Cookie'sCool-goers, take note: The B&B only has four rooms, and I have dibs on one in November! )
As Laura heaves open the fortress-like doors to the B&B tower, I am transported by smells of freshly baked foccacia from the bakery to my immediate left. But just for a moment. I am jolted back to reality when it suddenly dawns on me that we have to climb four flights of stairs (eight, depending on how you count) to reach my tower-top room. My precious cookie cargo will come with me, but the heavy tool suitcase will stay in Laura's car for now.
I barely have time to catch my breath at the top before being greeted by Marie Eliana, the B&B's welcoming proprietress. She promptly explains how my three keys work (one for the main entrance; another for access to the upper tower; and the last to my room). As much as I try to concentrate on these details, I can't. I'm severely jet-lagged, remember? That, and I'm distracted by the amazing display of mosaic that blankets nearly every surface of my room. Another surprise: Marie Eliana is also an accomplished glass artist!
Mosaic backsplash behind tub, by Marie Eliana. I think I will have to cookie this one day!
More mosaic by Marie Eliana; this is the backsplash in the tower room's kitchenette.
Marie Eliana continues with her intro drill (use the tub, not the shower, which leaks; spin this dial to start the fridge; use that remote to turn on the TV and this other one to change channels . . .) Ordinarily, this would not be TMI, but today, it's a complete blur. I am severely jet-lagged, remember?
I listen politely, but as soon as the ladies part ways, it's head to pillow for me! I sleep soundly from 5 pm to 9 pm, and wake just long enough to take in a quick dinner. I head to Sapori di Genova for no particular reason other than it's right around the corner. Salami with "scones" (more like deep-fried cheese fritters) and chardonnay "frizzante" (sparkling) catch my eye. I figure they're the perfect combo of alcohol and "heavy" - just what I need to later launch me into deep, uninterrupted sleep. From all that Laura and Serena have told me, tomorrow will be a busy prep day, and I'll need all the ZZZs I can get.
Prep Day, May 3
"Busy" may have been an understatement. Of the four projects that students will tackle over three class days, one and a half still need to be baked. (The trickier contoured heart sides were rightfully left for me.) I also estimate that we need to pre-ice about 30 cookies so that they're dry in time to be stenciled and stamped in tomorrow's one-day class. Then, there's the icing . . . According to my calculations, we'll need to kick off the first day with at least nine batches. (That's 18 pounds of powdered sugar, baby!)
Fortunately, Serena (who doubles as prep person when not translating) and I are joined by a small army of eager students who have generously offered to help us with the prep. What was once work quickly turns into a party!
Students Pinuccia (left) and Carla (who was also with me in Portugal) arrive early, along with others, to help out.
Big round cookies for 3-D wedding cake cookies, all topcoated for the one-day class.
The lovely Serena making icing. She mixed close to 20 batches (40 pounds-worth of powdered sugar) over our three days together!
Slowly but surely, I bake about 20 heart box sides, one by one, as one is all the oven can fit.
The All in One classroom space is bright and cheery. Here it is, all ready for my first one-day class. BTW, this is not the location for Cookie'sCool (as I said, more on that later)!
Thanks to the wonderful company, I probably could have prepped forever! But at 7:30 pm, we call it quits so that everyone can catch their train rides home. With the exception of the puzzle cookies for the two-day class (which still need to be baked), we're perfectly organized for tomorrow's one-day class.
I cap off the day with a quick meal at L'osteria dei Bischeri, again a stone's throw from the B&B. The restaurant is highly recommended by Laura, who as I soon discover, knows all the very best restaurants in town. I overdo it with fresh artichoke flan to start (artichokes are everywhere; they're in season), followed by a pesto/pine nut-filled ravioli and then classic panna cotta with caramel sauce - all for a very good price. (Cookie'sCool-goers, take note: This restaurant is not to be missed.)
With a smile on my face, I'm out for the night.
One-Day Class, May 4
Laura picks me up at the B&B at 8:15 am, just in time to catch Serena as she's stepping out of the nearby train station. We arrive at the event space by 8:30 am and immediately set to work tinting icings. I'll show students how to make icing in class, but with only one day and two ambitious projects (3-D wedding cakes and eggs) to complete, students won't be able to spend too much time mixing colors. Plus, if we "control" the colors, icing consumption is likely to be less. Along with teaching all that I can as best as I can, controlling prep time and costs for the venue are also very important to me.
By 10 am, all of the students have arrived and class is in full swing. As usual, I lead with a mini demo and then allow students a couple of hours to practice those techniques on their projects. There are three such demos throughout the day. Class officially ends at 6 pm, but we need every second of it - and more. The last enthusiastic students leave the school at about 7:30 pm; then clean up and prep for the next two-day class take Serena, Laura, and I through about 10 pm.
Thankfully for Laura, also a fantastic cook, I am armed with delicious leftover five-grain salad from lunch. Otherwise, I'd have gone without dinner.
The class, around mid-day. Fast and furious.
A happy student . . .
. . . and her amazing needlepoint cake ready to be assembled.
Another pretty cake by Carla. (Unfortunately, I didn't get any shots of finished projects, as I was too busy decorating my own demo cookies!)
Two-Day Class, May 5 and 6
By now, Serena and I have achieved a certain synchronicity, where she's anticipating just what I might need just as I'm needing it. I'm so grateful for her support, which covers everything from icing-making to translating to helping students with techniques when I am busy with someone else. She's great!
We head into the two-day class with everything prepped, including all of the icing mixed. And with two days to do two projects (though more complex than yesterday's), the class proceeds at a relatively relaxed pace. We do a multi-piece 2-D puzzle, which allows students to get really creative about where and how they apply the 13 or more techniques that they learn. We also make what has become one of my more popular projects - the 3-D heart box. As always, it's a thrill to see each student's unique take.
Everyone topcoats their heart box pieces on Day One.
Carla, intently decorating puzzle pieces on Day One.
Day One's focus is on "laying the foundation" with techniques like outlining, flooding, wet on wet, and marbling - those that don't require drying time the way stenciling and stamping do. Here's a lovely marbled puzzle piece by Pinuccia.
Heart box sides also get decorated on Day One - an exercise in edible papers.
On Day Two, the focus is on stenciling, stamping, dusting, and painting - techniques that work best on dry topcoats. Here, Carla and Pinuccia work on the finer details of their projects, which are now coming together in 3-D.
The wonderfully gracious Laura with one of her many magnificent lunch spreads. She made most of what we ate for lunch each day - the best class food ever!
Pinuccia's puzzle all wrapped up - literally and figuratively.
Carla's finished work from all three days. There's actually more, not in the photo and off to the right!
Last Day in Genoa, May 7
I only have one day off to explore the fair city of Genoa before I have to return to Milan (and then home) on the eighth. I must use this "spare" time wisely.
So I start by sleeping in until about 11 am!
Then I scour local shops for goodies. I pick up a cute apron for an upcoming Cookie Connection giveaway, as well as a sleek, but inexpensive computer bag to replace mine which is on its last legs. (I love the Italian design aesthetic.)
Then I while away the rest of the day in cafÉs, sipping espresso and taking in the local sights, mostly from a seated and very relaxed position.
A shot of espresso works wonders kickstarting my day.
View from my cafÉ chair, just steps from my B&B.
Tonight's dinner is greatly anticipated. I'll be going out with Laura, Laura's SO Paolo, Pinuccia, and Carla. (Sadly, Serena has to work her other job.) It's these times between classes that are often the most cherished, as I get the chance to really know my wonderful hosts and students.
As expected, dinner is fantastic - the company, the food, the conversation, everything . . . (Cookie'sCool-goers, take note: We ate at Al Giardino degli Indoratori, another of Laura's great picks, about three small blocks from the B&B and another spot not to be missed!) Paolo teases me about the use of my middle initial by constantly referring to me as "Julia M" or "Julia M Usher". I try to explain the reason for it, but the wine has already taken over. Laura talks with great energy about Cookie'sCool and her commitment to bringing the world of cookiers together. We exchange gifts, but, more importantly, hugs and many laughs.
Last night, with Laura and Carla.
The whole dinner crew, happy and slightly (?) inebriated.
We leave the restaurant at about midnight, and I'm steeling myself for some tearful goodbyes. But the night's not over (yay, I hate goodbyes!) . . . We ramble through Genoa streets, chatting and laughing and looking at sights, for almost two more hours. Last stop before the B&B: the site of Cookie'sCool, a majestic 15th century-ish palace!
Yeah, this is the site. Amazing - my camera (ahem, camera skills) do it no justice.
I gaze in appreciation - not just at the building, but at the warm and wonderful people who surround me. I'm counting the days 'til November when I'll be fortunate enough to come back. Thank you, Laura, Serena, and the entire, extended All in One team for this opportunity to know you and your country that much better.
(Those on the fence about Cookie'sCool, take note: You can learn more about this landmark event, November 14 through 16, by clicking here!)