Thursday, November 30, 2017

Who Am I?

It's so hard to get a sense of who someone is, especially if all you have is their web presence to rely on. Here are some interesting facts about me: fill in the blanks.

I've lived in many places and traveled even more.
I have five sons and one husband.
Cleaning house calms me.
My PR for a half marathon is 2:33:02.
My son and I own a cafe.
My father was a scientist who played the piano.
I was always a cat person, now I'm a dog person.
My favourite poem is Ithaka, by Cavafy.
We had a mixed organic farm in Umbria for a few years.
I've assisted at hundreds of births, and greeted many babies.
I have a pen name.
I went to Greece in 2017 to work with people in the refugee camps.
Hot weather is my favourite, anything over 30 celsius.
I founded a volunteer doula organization in 2003.
I have two sisters, younger.
I love to throw parties, but then I don't talk much.
My mother was an artist who taught mathematics.
I co-founded WWOOF Italy in 1991.
Great at cooking, awful at presentation.
Books and reading keep me sane, more or less.
My favorite movie is Down by Law.
I can play the clarinet.
My book is available here.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

How to Build a Wood Oven from Scratch: Part One of Three

I love pizza! And lasagna! And freshly baked foccaccia, any other kind of bread ... did I mention paper-wrapped fish? I guess you might call me a foodie. I own a cafe, and I can cook a mean meal in no time at all (right now my cooking muse is Kenny Loggins, but that's another story ... ).

But the best? The best is cooking either over a fire ... or in a wood burning pizza oven.

So, seeing how we always just get sh** done, my husband and I decided to build one a couple of summers ago. It took two summers altogether because we poured the cement platform at the end of one summer then built the oven last year. It was fun, challenging at times, and we certainly had some "duh" moments.

Here's a visual guide to building your own wood oven. I will describe exactly what we did, how we did it, what we used, and lessons learned!

Part One explains how to build the cement platform, and lets you know what you will need for this building adventure.
Part Two describes how to build the brick stand for the oven, and
Part Three guides you through the complex task of making your oven dome.

Part One of How to Build a Wood-Burning Pizza Oven from Scratch

What do I need to build my own wood oven? 

First, you will need a flat area outside where you will have enough space to store wood, move around while you're cooking, and where you will not be smoked out when the fire is lit.


Measuring Tape
Hammer and Nails
Building lumber
Spirit Level
Builder's String
Rebar Mesh (two times the size of the cement platform)
Building lumber
Building Bricks - at least 200 regular size and 40 flat slabs

Bricks for Wood Oven

Fire Bricks
Fire Bricks - regular bricks (at least 100) and flat bricks (around 40)
Hollow clay slabs -  enough to cover the stand: the first layer of the support for the oven.

We built our oven in Italy, you you will have to look at the measurements of the bricks in your  country and calculate accordingly.

What to do?

First, who is building this thing? Whoever is building it or will use it should sit together, then wander about a bit, maybe with a beer or other cold drink in hand, and figure out where you want it. This is very important! You will be cooking food here, so it should be close to a kitchen or so.
Also, it's going to be smoking sometimes, so you want to position it somewhere the smoke won't be floating straight into someone's bedroom or whatever.

Okay, you've decided where you want it, now you have to build a flat cement platform that your beautiful wood burning pizza oven will rest on.

How big should the platform be?

We decided that we wanted an oven with an inside diameter of one meter. So, calculating from that, our stand needed to be about 1.5 by 2 meters. and the cement platform obviously bigger than that.

The nitty-gritty of making a cement platform:

Block out your area. You will need builder's string, your metal square, and some wooden stakes. You need a flat area!! If you're working on a slope, your construction will need to be levelled. It's possible - we built ours on a piece of land that is terraced and on a very steep hill. But it takes a lot more work, and you have to get to work with a shovel and hoe and make sure the whole area is flat (use a board with a spirit level on it if you don't have a long enough spirit level).

Measuring for the platform

Using the Square

String Guides for Frame

Good Job!

Flattening area
Build your Frame. When you've found or created your flat area, decide how big you want it (see above). You need to make a perfect rectangle. Hammer two stakes into the ground, the distance of the width of the rectangle. Tie your builder's string from one stake to the other. Place the square along the edge of the string, to make a 90 degree angle, and stretch string from that stake the length of the rectangle. Hammer your third post in, then use the same method with the fourth post. Check that all the angles are 90 degrees, and adjust accordingly.

Building Supervisor
Now you have your area, and you need to sit back and have a drink (water ... or a nice cold beer). Are you really, really sure this is where you want to build your oven? Yes? Ok, let's move on.

You're going to be pouring a four-inch foundation on to this rectangle. You want to make a frame that you'll be pouring the cement into. Find your boards (1 by 4 planks), two width length and two the length of the rectangle. Hammer the planks to the INSIDE of the stakes, and check again if everything is at right angles. Just for the sake of caution, you can hammer a stake in the middle of each longer board to prevent bulging. If the boards are 4 inches wide, the height of the frame will be a tiny bit smaller. Doesn't matter. You will be pouring to the top of the boards.

First side of rectangle

First corner

Completed frame
Put down your rebar mesh. Now you need to put down your rebar mesh. You want 4 mm rebar, and it will come in an area bigger than what you'll need. So you'll need to cut it to size. Measure very carefully - obviously its better a tiny bit smaller than too big for your frame. You can cut the rebar with a grinder or with rebar shears (rent them!). When it's ready (take another drink - water this time!), you want to place it in the frame, but you don't want it to be right on the ground, so you'll want to raise it a little (a couple of inches or about 4 cm). Place four broken bricks or flat stones around the rectangle inside the frame, and then lower your rebar mesh onto the stones, inside the frame.

Rebar mesh laid inside frame

Pour the cement!
Now you're ready to pour! If you're a seasoned cement user, and you have a cement mixer, mix your cement to a foundation-ready consistency.
Wheelbarrow full of cement
Otherwise, buy your concrete mix (a mixture of sand and cement that you just have to add water and mix - you can mix it in a wheelbarrow) - and start pouring! As you pour, you need to flatten the cement with your straightedge and make sure it is nice and flat with no little holes, bubbles or random twigs. As you can see from this picture, the amount of ready-mix you need goes by area:
and remember it's always better to have a little too much cement than too little! You can always find a small hole that needs a little cementing or just throw it in the neighbour's trash (kidding) but if you have too little, you need to make a cement run which is a hassle.

Cement Ready

Pouring Cement

Building Mama
Like I said, we built our wood oven on land that is terraced, so we had to mix the cement in our mixer up top and then pour it down our home-built cement sluice to the lower terrace.You don't have to do this!!!

When your cement is poured, you need to make sure it's nice and flat. 
First pour

Flatten cement

Finished Platform!!

Sit back and look proudly at your work. Let it dry for a few hours until it's hard, then water it twice a day for the next couple of days. Yes, water it. Pretend it's a lawn and sprinkle it well with water. This will prevent cracking. You can't go to the next step for at least 12 hours! Leave your boards on overnight so the cement will dry straight.

In the meantime, sit back and relax, and get ready for tomorrow, when you're going to build your brick stand.

Stay tuned for Step Two: How to build a sturdy brick stand for your wood-burning pizza oven.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Yes, I know the campaign is problematic in so very many ways.

This article makes a good case for the dumbing down of social activism by social media:

I have read several interesting criticisms about the fact that the original sentiment of "me too" whas been taken over by ... pretty much anyone ...

And apparently the bots are also learning about rape culture from the campaign:

But while all this is going on - celebrities' vulgar pasts getting laundered in public, politicians going down for harassing their underlings, scholars getting fired from fancy tenure positions, friends arguing about whether an unsolicited "I heart U" should be recognized as sexual assault ... people are still getting raped.

My friend was raped recently. I've heard many stories over the years - being a midwife, you present an open heart and people tend to trust that you will listen without judging. But the older I get, the harder it is to listen and not act.

So I have put together a little campaign to present my friend with a bit of cash to help out. Please donate and stand with us!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

21 Reasons to Love Rome: A Roman Alphabet

There is no shortage of stuff to do in Rome, ever. You can hang out in your apartment and stare out of the window. You can wander for hours through the streets, stopping here and there for a coffee, a drink or a little something to eat. You can hit the museums. You can go to one of Rome's huge parks. Go for a run along the Tiber! Take a walk at midnight! Take the kids for ice cream at one am! It is a safe city for a woman to travel alone,  obviously respecting your personal safety rules.

Here's a lesson on the Roman alphabet:

Amore: Rome is the city of love. It's chaotic, alive, dark, light, and triumphant.

Bellezza: Rome is the most beautiful city in the world. I love to live in a beautiful place, where I can look out of my window and get an eye massage.

Carciofi alla giudia: One of the classic Roman dishes is this one, and it is scrumptious! Basically, deep-fried artichokes. They come to your table hot and salted, and you pick off the leaves like chips and eat down to the fatty center. Delicious with a cold white wine!

Do Not Drive: Don't drive in Rome! If you are staying in Italy for a while, and landing in Rome, get a taxi into the city and spend your time in Rome without a car. Taxi, streetcar, subway  (the "Metropolitana") and walking are the best ways by far to get around this amazing city. Then head back to the airport, pick up your car, and get on the road!

Eterna: Rome is described as "the eternal city". It is ancient, it is modern. It has survived over the centuries. It has an air about it that is ... well .... eternal. If you love Rome once, you will love her forever.

Foro Romano: My husband spent his teenage years in Rome and he knows every pathway in the centro storico. We were there last summer. First (10:30pm) we ate at a sidewalk restaurant in the Ghetto.

Then he took me for a walk through the streets until we arrived at a spot above the Roman Forum, looking down on the historic ruins. We were not the only people there. There were other couples, and a young woman was there sitting on the wall writing in her journal.

Ghetto: This is the ancient Jewish ghetto of Rome that was created in the 1500's. Walk from the Foro Romano or Campidoglio and head towards the Tiber, and you will find the Teatro Marcello, an ancient Roman theatre where concerts are still held during the summer. Then past the Portico d'Ottavia you will find yourself on a wide pedestrian street filled with restaurants, gift shops and bakeries. Try the Ba'Ghetto restaurant for a late dinner!

Hotels: I've stayed in cheap guest houses, Airbnb's and fancy hotels. I suggest avoiding the Trastevere, because it can stay loud most of the night. My favorite area to stay in is just off the Trastevere, close to Piazza San Cosimato. It's more residential but still fun, and a ten minute walk from the party action if you're so inclined.

Isola Tiberina: My favorite place in Rome! Come to the island in the evening or late afternoon to wander around, have a drink, meet friends, get a gelato with the kids or just walk and people-watch.

Largo di Torre Argentina: Just off the Corso di Vittorio Emmanuelle, a large road lined with shops, is a city block full of Roman ruins. You can walk around and peer through the fence at the four temples that still stand in the middle of Rome. It is also home to a herd of street cats, who lie in the sun and stare out at the tourists from inside the fence!

Menafreghismo: A quality the Romans have that means ... loosely translated ... "couldn't care less". It's not admirable, I guess, but it means that you don't have to feel like you have to live up to expectations...

Navona: Piazza Navona is full of statues, ancient monuments, fountains, cafes and tourists. Go do the tourist! If you start there, you can go in any direction, walk for twenty minutes and you will find another historic spot. But first, sit and have a gelato or a coffee and watch the fountains.

Oligominerale: This may sounds weird, but it is on the label of some mineral waters. Roman tap water is fine to drink but it tastes a little gross. If you are buying water, get the oligominerale. It is good for the digestion.

Pasta: When in Rome, eat carbs. Pasta, pizza, pastries, they are all there for you to enjoy! If you overindulge, head out for a run along the Tiber!

Quirinale: Was a palace built by the Pope in the 16th century. Now it houses a museum where top-notch art exhibitions are shown. Everything from Picasso, back to the Rennaissance and beyond. Tickets are reasonable - 12 Euro for adults and kids are free.

Romani: The Romans are loud, rude, dignified, fun-loving, sexy, well-dressed, warm, homophobic, intense. They love to eat, drink, and socialize. They are thieves, honest, frank, conniving, rich and poor. In short, Romans have many of the best and worst human characteristics.

Sensuality: Rome invades the senses. Your eyes are full of beauty, of the old mixed with the new, of pathos, of colors and textures. Noisy Romans yell, car horns blare, dogs bark, a cannon erupts at noon, tourists laugh, babies cry. You can smell perfume, garbage, urine, fruit, coffee, pasta, wine, garlic. Feel the sun on your face, a light rain, the softness of a new silk scarf. And taste the magic.

Tevere: This beautiful slow-flowing river meanders through Rome. The bridges over it are many and some are very old. On its banks, merchants and restaurants sell food, drinks and clothing all evening until late into the night. In the morning though it is empty and a wonderful place for a run!

Università la Sapienza: Rome's university is world-renowned!

Verità: Truth! The Bocca della Verità is famous as a tourist trap - there is an ancient myth that you cannot tell a lie if you put your hand in the lion's mouth and speak - or the mouth will close.

Zecche Romane: Zecche are ticks! But you won't get Lyme disease from these - it is also the name of the ancient Roman coins.

There's so much more to love: the language, the dogs, the children, the wine, the food, .....