• Nikki Martinez

Lake Como Life: Tempo, Tempo!

In 2016, we spent long summers on Lake Como, where my husband worked. I was not yet running a full-time business; my children, then very young, required all my attention and energy.


As a new mom, I was often eager to RUSH to get to the next stage, used to the action and pace of my life, prior to giving birth. I was used to the vibrant and noisy streets of Manila, Kampala, and Bangkok.


Living on the lake taught me the importance of being present in life. Taking the time to treasure and savor, sip each learning moment. With the curiosity and creativity of a child.


It was here, on the silent lake, that I learned about being still.


About self-acceptance, and trust.


The following story was written on the lake, to remember the folks there who embraced us with open arms and that wonderful, real Italian hospitality.


Nikki Martinez Voice Arts Painting
Madonna di Gera Lario. Watercolor by Nikki Martinez

Our December day begins as all days in Lake Como do.

The chimes of an ancient church bell ring, waking its residents at 7 a.m. Its music sails across the stream which runs between our beach and the harbor.

I see the winter moon, still visible in the dark sky, reflecting its glow on the ripples. It seems reluctant to leave.

And then, seconds later, streaks of amber pierce the sky. Over the Alps to the north, a rising sun charges the lake with its energetic light.


Lake Como travel by Nikki Martinez
View from the Cinque Casa Hotel in Gera Lario, Lake Como. By Nikki Martinez

It is 2016. I am a young mother, my children are just six and three years old. In between writing, painting, teaching art, and feeding them, I study Italian.

From borrowed books, Michel Thomas CDs, recipe magazines, and travel brochures. Also, from my son’s homework when he brings it home every day. And from the neighbors and friends to whom we’ve become endeared.



Today is the annual Christmas brunch, hosted by the town mayor. The intimate crowd of just 50 residents has been gathering every December. They come to commemorate Christmas with—what else—a traditional feast.

At midday, Analisa, our 62-year-old former landlady, greets us in the parking lot. She is now a close family friend. We’ve agreed to walk together to the Christmas brunch.

She’s dressed today in a long camel-colored mantel and colorful scarf. She has a trendy new haircut, and encrusted amber stones dangle from her ears.


“Buongiornata,” I greet her. “You are looking lovely.”


“Today, everyone will be elegant!” she beams. Then she takes my daughter’s hand in hers, and we stroll along the promenade to the party.

We sit at the front end of the long dining table in this family-run restaurant. Piero, Analisa’s aging husband, awaits us. He is readying the wine bottles and greets the kids with bear hugs.

Truth is, I’m here to kill two birds with the same stone. Or, as they say here, “Prendere due piccioni con una fava (Catch two pigeons with one bean)!

That is, celebrate the festa with friends, but also, learn more Italian.


Being here provides me with insight into the fascinating culture, and a free language tutorial.


The menu on the long bedecked table consists of the typical feasting of a four-course cuisine.


Seven types of antipasti. Three kinds of primi, two secondi, dolce, cafe, e vino.


As the food arrives, I start with cold rice salad, potato salad, salami, bresaola (cured meat), and pickled onions.


A little embarrassed at how quickly my plate is filled with appetizers by the waitress, I try to quicken the pace of my eating.


But Piero stops me from across the table.

“Tempo, tempo,” he says, winking. The wrinkles of his happy smile tell me silently: “Take your time, there’s enough of it!”


Yes, there is. You learn it when you move here and discover that siesta lasts from midday until 3:00 p.m. Shops close, business goes on hold; stores pull down their shutters.


People gather in family-friendly café bars and restaurants. They enjoy a long, wine-infused lunch over lively chatter.


Halfway through the third type of primi comes the tortelli di zucca. Mini pillows of pasta filled with aromatic pumpkin puree, tossed in olive oil and sage herbs.

I take my cue from Piero, who asks for just a couple of pieces.


“Buoni,” he acknowledges his pasta.


“When do you say, Buono, or Buona or Buoni?” I turn to ask Analisa.


She explains: “This depends on if a noun is Femina (feminine) or Maschio (masculine). So you can have a buono gelato, or a buona carbonara.”

“And buoni?” I’m still confused.

Per tanti (for many)”, she replies. “Italiano non è facile da imparare (Italian is not easy to learn)!”



Finally, the main course—three types of meat! By now, I can’t imagine eating anymore, but I succumb.

To the scaloppine ai funghi, pork escalopes in a creamy porcini mushroom sauce.


The house wine is flowing. A side staircase in the restaurant leads to an underground cantina or cellar.

The Valtellina, a region known for its premium wines, is set on the border of Italy and Switzerland. Blessed with a good location and climate, there are plenty of vineyards in the region. They have been producing excellent wine for thousands of years.

Simone, the hotel manager, is an awarded sommelier.


“On Sundays in Italy, the families come together to eat,” he tells me. “Not as much as they did 50 years ago…but it’s still a tradition.”


What strikes me is the simplicity of each dish that Simone has served.


The steaming risotto, rich with four types of local cheese, looks ordinary. Yet each bite is a spoonful of flavor.


Desert arrives—a chilled glass of sorbetto di limone (lemon sorbet). The kind of crushingly sweet yet light citrus flavor. It goes down well after a full-on feast.

Ma, fragole per me (But—strawberry for me)!” insists my two-year-old daughter.

“Per favore!” I chide her before Simone suddenly reappears with pink strawberry gelato.

Analisa beams proudly. The child eats well, feasting on every course.


“The beautiful Alessandra was conceived in my house!” she announces proudly, to her friends, and everyone within earshot. I blush with embarrassment.


Changing the subject, I ask Analisa more about the local produce.

How do they bake those cakes? How do they cure the bresaola, or bottle the wine?


She repeats to the other elderly ladies beside her what I have said. When she turns back around to face me, she’s flashing not one, but two handwritten recipes.


Guarda (look),” she says, fumbling with her glasses to read the printed letters. Someone has written precise instructions for creating torte di castagna. It is a cake recipe using seasonal chestnuts as the main ingredient.

Our feast ends with a giant chunk of pandoro, the traditional golden Christmas cake. Soft as a cloud, buttery and sweet. Yellow on the inside roasted golden on the outside and dusted with powdered sugar. My son devours it in seconds.


To punctuate everything, there is caffè corretto (literally, “coffee correct”). This is an espresso shot infused with liquor – in this case, grappa, the preferred local digestive made from grapes. It has a dizzying 60% alcohol content.

The only proper way to drink coffee after a meal, of course.

Then, each lady present receives a deep red poinsettia, the Christmas flower. The mayor thanks everyone in attendance.

And four hours after it has begun, the feast comes to an end.


We say our arrivedercis and linger awhile longer for more customary chatter.


As we walk home along the lake promenade, we pause. Seagulls soar under a drifting sun.

“Tempo, Tempo,” I recall Piero’s lingering words.


“I will be 74 on the first of January!” he had said, a beam of pride glowing in his eyes.


Tempo, Tempo.

In English, we use the word to measure music. In Italian, we measure life.


I chase the kids home, their shrieks of laughter piercing the quiet lake. Life is still and silent, but I know these times won't last forever.


It’s been a good day, and I stop to snap a lasting memory of it.


Sundown on Lake Como. By Nikki Martinez
Sundown on Lake Como. By Nikki Martinez

A longer version of this article was originally published in Asian Traveler Magazine. You can listen to more audio Sleep Stories set in Italy, on Breethe.


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Travel Tips in Lake Como:

Hiking:

Try trekking in the Val Masino or Val di Mello, an otherworldly level of beauty. With jagged rocks and boulders, it is popular with rock climbers in the summer. http://www.valmasino-online.eu/


Biking:

The lanes that wind around the lake are for pedestrians and bikers. No matter what season of the year, you’ll enjoy touring this land the slow and sweet way, on foot, or pedaling it. http://www.lakecomo.it/

Wellness:

A favorite family getaway is the Bormio Terme, just a couple of hours from the lake. It is a public pool that also includes a sauna and restaurant. Its main highlight is the thermal waters from natural sources. http://www.bormio.eu/category/activities/hot-springs-relaxation-wellness/ For a couples getaway, the QC Terme Bagni Vecchi and QC Terme Bagni Nuovi are romantic.

Skiing:

Visit the slopes in Madesimo, Livigno or Bormio, for family-friendly fun.

Watersports:

Come during the summer and you’ll find the lake packed with every kind of acquasport. Choose depending on your level: kitesurf, windsurf, sail, or stand-up paddle. Take your first kitsesurf lesson from English, German or French-speaking instructors at the 414 Kitsefurf school.


Wine Holidays: A visit to the Valtellina should include a tour of the vineyard trails. Find them encircling the lake, and taste the local wines at any bar or restaurant.


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Hotel Recommendation:

Cinque Casa Hotel, Via Statale Regina, 107, 22010 Gera Lario, Lago di Como

For reservations, call: +39 0344 84119


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