Thursday, June 7, 2007

Culture Shock

I wasn't out of the country for very long, in the grand scheme of things. Three months is not much time, yet I am experiencing some culture shock nonetheless.

At the Newtonville Whole Foods last night, my mother and I were lingering over the sushi case, carefully evaluating each possibility and deciding which colorful delicacies we'd have for dinner. I was not shocked by the sushi (even though I hadn't eaten any for 90+ days) but by the fact that two other customers waited for us to make our choices before selecting their dinners. Neither of them reached across us, asked us to move over, or otherwise exhibited any sign of impatience.

What is wrong with these people? I wondered. Aren't they hungry? Aren't they in a hurry?

After spending time in Israel and Italy, the politeness of the Whole Foods customers came across as docility and made me realize just how powerful our socialization is. For many, maintaining lines, order and a sense of fairness are practically sacred, and people get very upset when these rules are violated, when someone behaves unpredictably. We are taught to "wait our turn" and "be patient", and that doing so makes us "good" or "civilized" people, vs. the "bad" people who cut in lines, honk their horns and are impatient. This conditioning is so deeply ingrained that we don't even question the meanings we automatically assign to our own and others' behavior until we have an opportunity to step away and gain some perspective.

Although I never quite got used to the more assertive behavior in Israeli "lines" (actually, throngs), and it often drove me up the wall, at least the people were visibly pulsating with life, desire, anger, irritation. Emotions were on display and there was electricity in the air. It was a theater of sorts, even if one didn't quite enjoy the play, didn't really understand the dialogue and didn't like being a supporting actress on occasion. The atmosphere in Italy was not as charged as in Israel but, even so, the pacing of transactions (say at a pasticceria) was fast; there were no lines, the customers who were served first were those who knew what they wanted and spoke up, even if they didn't arrive first.

Since I am still in traveler mode, and haven't yet developed a routine, perhaps I am feeling a bit judgmental about the civility here simply because it feels dull by comparison. Of course, over time, I will probably get used to it, expect it, and maybe even enjoy it. If not, I can always go to the Somerville Traffic Department to observe the spectacle of outraged residents trying to convince indifferent clerks that they shouldn't have to pay their tickets. It is great theater, and admission is free. You just need to stand in line.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Imagining Italy in Boston

I travel not only to see and experience new places, but also to bring some of that excitement and and freshness into my daily experiences at home, to create adventure out of routine and to loosen the hold of old limiting beliefs and preoccupations. Wanting la dolce vita to linger a bit longer, today I decided to pretend I was still in Italy.

After a lunch of artichoke raviolis, pecorino cheese and a small glass of red wine, I decided it was time to hop on my bicycle. "Normally" I wouldn't exercise on a hot day after consuming alcohol, but since I was imagining I was in Italy, after all, where I had done exactly that just a week ago, I wasn't terribly concerned about being hydrated. If I needed a drink of water, I would find one. I wouldn't let the fact that my bike doesn't have a bottle holder keep me indoors.

I chose Harvard Square as a destination, thinking I might visit Campo di' Fiori, an authentic Italian pizzeria named after the famous Roman plaza, for a beverage or dessert. Cycling through Watertown, I spotted a rubenesque middle aged man on a white Vespa, wearing a matching helmet. After riding alongside cars, forgetting there was a bike path, I made it into Cambridge and locked my bicycle. Campo di' Fiori, in the Holyoke Center, was not only closed, it was out of business. A sign promised that another pizzeria, Oggigourmet, would open shortly.

Disappointed, I headed to the other Italian-esque place I remembered, Toscanini's. That, too, was shuttered, at least temporarily, due to construction on the facade of the building. Remembering that if I were in Italy I would patronize a local, artisanal gelateria, I went into Herrell's. Stepping way out of character, and being slightly outrageous, I ordered a scoop of ice cream in....a cone! I decided not to be so concerned about how messy it would be if I were unable to eat the ice cream faster than it melted.

The chocolate pudding ice cream dribbled quickly in the heat, covering my fingers with brown stickiness. The pathetic napkin was no match for the sweet goo. But I was in Italy, so I didn't care if I looked like a four year old while licking my fingers. Besides, a sink can't be far away. Wandering onto Brattle Street I noticed that the Cambridge Center for Adult Education was open and I stopped in to wash my hands. Conveniently, they had a water cooler and I helped myself.

Refreshed, I popped into Tess, a clothing boutique that has seemed out of reach if not a tad snooty. It was also one of the few apparel shops on Brattle street that was open. The retail landscape had radically changed in my absence - Ann Taylor and Jasmine Sola, stores that had anchored that part of the Square, were empty, either closed or awaiting renovation. But imagining I was in Italy, I didn't care that I was entering Tess with sweaty cycling clothes. Fingering the fabrics, I looked at some of the tags. The prices, no longer in euros, no longer shocked me.

Missoni and Me..and a Torah

It was my mother, with her keen eye and appreciation for quality, who first brought Missoni, the Italian knitwear company, to my attention. Missoni's products are characterized by bold - often zig zag - patterns, bright colors, exquisite workmanship, and eye popping prices. For many years I have been intrigued by their designs, whose wild exuberance both attracts and repels me.

At a department store in Florence I noticed some of the Missoni spring scarf collection on sale, the average price of one being $140 at current exchange rates, or more than double what I would normally spend on fabric neck decor. Would I spring for one, I wondered, after having this fascination with their brand for so long?

A few days later I visited the Jewish Museum at the Florentine synagogue, which housed a collection of older ritual objects. Towards the rear of the exhibit I noticed a Torah scroll covered in a woolen fabric with the unmistakable colorful zig zag pattern that characterizes many a Missoni item. I asked a Museum staffer about the resemblance, and was told that the zig zag is an old Tuscan pattern, which Missoni has adapted if not appropriated.

Returning to the department store on my final day in Florence, I carefully examined the scarves. To buy, or not to buy? Not, as it turned out. I didn't love any of them.

During my final hour in Florence, I hurried up a street I had not been on before. There were many knitwear shops with scarves galore. My time in Italy was coming to an end and I didn't have the luxury of deliberating. I picked up a few at a boutique whose owner seemed indifferent to my presence. Advancing another few blocks, I spotted a sign that said "Missoni Winter Scarves 50% off". Entering the shop, I asked the clerk to see the scarves. She showed me the full priced spring scarves.

"And isn't there a sale on winter scarves?" I asked, a bit sheepishly.

"Yes, they are downstairs. I'll accompany you," she said, turning on the basement light. They had a few scarves left, two of which were potential candidates. While deliberating, I spotted a multicolored item folded on a shelf of a wall cabinet.

"Is that a design for men?" I asked, half hoping it would be so that I would not be tempted.

"No, it's for women. It's a sweater," the clerk said, laying it out on the counter. It had two of my favorite colors - olive green and shades of red orange, along with brown, blue and white. It appeared to be my size, and I was smitten. It was the Missoni for me.

Dare I look at the price tag?

With 30 minutes to go before I had to collect my luggage and head to the train station, I had no choice but to take a peek. The euro total was solidly in the three digits, and still was after the 50% discount. Then came the lousy exchange rate.

"It will last you a lifetime," said the voice in my head.

A few moments passed. The sweater was long, tunic style, and I asked the clerk if she could show me how it looked with a belt. Quite fine, actually.

I pondered.

"I will just get the sweater," I told the clerk.

"But the scarf looks so nice on you," she said, draping it across the sweater, which I was still wearing. Damn, she was good.

"If I buy both," I asked, Israeli style, "can I get a further discount?"

"Well, I suppose we can ask the owner. Why not?" she suggested.

We went upstairs. The owner raised his eyebrows at the proposal - wasn't 50% off enough? - but genially shaved a few euros from the price. He also reminded me that, as a non EU resident and given the purchase amount, I was eligible for the VAT refund, which he could grant on the spot. Punching in a few numbers on the calculator, he showed me the new total.

It was now a number I could swallow.

I signed the receipt and, running several minutes behind schedule, hurried to my bed & breakfast and was still packing my bags when the taxi arrived to take me to the station. What the zig zag clad Torah has to say about all this, I have no idea.

Italian Counter Culture

Thursday morning, seeking a taste of Europe, I walked over to the Keltic Krust in West Newton, a bakery that my mother discovered after moving here many years ago. They make delicious buttery scones and I was hunkering after one. I decided to eat it there and ordered a cup of coffee to go with it. Sitting in the empty cafe, which was quiet except for the sound of a local radio station, I missed the noises of Italy's pasticcerias, where people drink their espresso and eat a pastry while standing at the counter chatting with the barrista, the saucers, cups and teaspoons gently clanging on the glass. Italians don't linger over their morning snack and as new customers enter, the barristas create the custom coffees, first placing the saucer on the counter - clang - then the cup filled with the brew - clang.

I discovered these sounds towards the end of my trip when, uninspired by the offering of individually packaged "toast" and average coffee at my bed & breakfast in Florence, I decided to eat where the locals were. For a few days I enjoyed my favorite panini - bresaola (dried beef), arugola, parmesan - and a macchiato, with the bustle of the barristas and clanging of cups as background music.

During my scone, the rain began to come down and, umbrellaless, I chose to wait it out. It was an opportunity to try another of their offerings - I chose a hot cross bun. While not hot, it was very tasty, denser and more filling than the scone. At the quiet counter I noticed another delicacy - a chocolate potato - which reminded me of a similarly named creation I ate in Venice. Remembering the dense, rich, alcohol-soaked confection I had enjoyed a few weeks ago and many miles away, I bought one to go, saving it for that evening.

If I needed a reality check that I was no longer in Europe, this potato was it. Dry and containing barely a hint of rum, it was more like a cocoa turd than the chocolate potato of Venice. Perhaps the Keltic Krust should stick to scones, and maybe I should, too.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Arriverderci, Italia!

Travel can be exhilarating, exciting and disorienting. I have flown dozens of times yet I continue to marvel that in such a short span of time I can be transported from one environment to another that is completely different. How is it possible that this morning I woke up at 5:30 in cool and misty Venice, where the hotel clerk gave me an unexpectedly affectionate sendoff and now, after many hours of travel by boat, bus and plane, and schlepping bags through several airports, and eating foie gras and drinking Bordeaux in my business class seat (using the extra miles was well worth it!), I am in warm and sunny Newton?

My cat, lovingly cared for by my mother in my absence, and oblivious to the miracle of modern travel, greeted me with her characteristic kvetchy meow.

I left Italy just as the rhythm of its language was beginning to sink in and I was getting used to eating dinner after 8pm and, like many Italians who eat a light breakfast while standing, to ordering my panini and espresso in the morning at the counter of the local pasticceria (the food at my B&B in Florence was skippable). Perhaps I was not quite ready to say goodbye, which in my experience is the best way to leave a still want more without having gotten tired of the place. Sadly, I think I might have overdosed on Israel. On the train from Florence to Venice I was reading about many of the other cities and villages I could visit, and I am thinking that a pilgrimage to Perugia, home of the epynomous chocolate, could be an excellent excuse for another adventure.

The other disorienting part of travel has nothing to do with time zones and jumbo jets. My mischievous mind likes to play tricks on me and I am just beginning to learn how it works. Example: When I am here (in Boston), my mind tells me that I want to be somewhere else...anywhere else. "Just get me out of here!" screams my mind. And so, occasionally, I go. When I am somewhere else, my mind thinks of home, which - from afar - acquires a slight romantic glow. During grey New England winters, I tell myself that I want to be somewhere warm and sunny...and then I visit places with gentler climates and end up buying shoes and accessories that I can wear at home when the weather gets which time I want to be somewhere else.... This is how I end up with an enormous collection of woolen scarves, collected over the years in other countries during warm months. In Florence I picked up a few in a bit of an eleventh hour shopping frenzy (a potential topic for another posting: why is it that I - and others - spend more money at the very end of a trip?).

And so I am back, but without a home of my own. I will remain a nomad for an indeterminate amount of time, and I will attempt to sustain the attitude of a curious traveler while I decide what to do next, and where/how to live. Two of the nicest places I stayed during my travels - bed & breakfasts in Eilat and in Ravenna - were both spunkily decorated homes with relaxing and fragrant gardens. Being in these environments stoked a powerful desire for such a home of my own, except that for the last few years I've resented having to take care of even a postage stamp size yard.

For many minutes I have been staring at the computer screen, wracking my brain for a clever way to wrap up this posting. Since I'm no longer paying for computer time at one of Italy's many Internet cafes, I have the luxury of dawdling. But maybe the only thing I can say is, "Wherever I go, there I am", torn between wanting to be firmly rooted in a place and wanting to be unencumbered, free to go where I please.

To be continued.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Signora Alone

After a brief freak out over prices in Venice, I decided to get over my sticker shock and start enjoying some dinners in restaurants. In Ravenna, during my mosaics class, I often had company for dinner. But in Rome and Florence I've mostly been a signora dining alone, and I can't say that I've been received with open arms.

Yes, they have space for single diners, but it usually the worst seat in the house. Last night, at a popular enoteca (wine bar) in Florence, I agreed to be seated at the bar; the previous night there had been no seats whatsoever so I was glad to at least have a chance to sample their food and wine. At first I chose a spot at the end of the bar, but it turned out to be in front of the meat slicer. I realized this when I looked up and found myself staring at a pig's hoof, which was attached to the pig's leg, which was attached to the pig's thigh, which was being shaved into thin pieces of prosciutto.

I moved over a few chairs so that I would have a different view. But then a few more people came in and wanted to be seated at the bar, and the maitre d', an unsmiling woman with cropped hair, asked if the signora could move over. I did, but I was a bit annoyed.

Tonight I went to another bustling restaurant with outdoor and indoor seating. They only had room inside, I was told, which I accepted. I was shown to a seat at the end of a bench, facing the kitchen, in a room with no other diners.

I asked if there was another spot available. The maitre d', a brisk woman with long hair, grudgingly showed me another place, in a room that had other people in it.

"Is this OK for the signora?"

It would do.

Tomorrow is my last night in Italy and I'll be spending it in Venice. I know a great self service restaurant there - it has good food and no attitude, and I can sit wherever I want.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bicycling with Blondes

Looking for a change of pace, I signed up for a day long cycling (and eating) trip in Tuscany. There are a few companies that organize such tours, and without researching it to death I called an outfitter and asked if they had space for one. They did! The man on the phone advised me to go on a tour on Saturday (today), as a bunch of college kids had signed up for Sunday. Fair enough.

So...I was a bit perplexed to arrive at the meeting place and discover that I'd be riding with 20 other people, more than half of them Southern blonde sorority sisters (the rest of us ended up being their group photographers). A Canadian woman, and one of the few other brunettes in the group, commented, "I don't think I've ever seen so many natural blondes in one place."

Neither had I, come to think of it.

Perhaps blondes have more fun but, with the exception of two Amazon-like basketball players, this group of golden haired females had far less brawn than the brunettes. Our ride was just 20 kilometers, but the first part was relentlessly uphill. Only the "old" folk and the basketball stars made it to the top (and up subsequent hills) without walking the bicycles. I wasn't exactly a Lance Armstrong, breezing along, but out of a sense of pride I muscled my way to Fiesole, a picturesque village overlooking Florence. I arrived soaking with sweat, out of breath and ready to keel over - I had picked a bad day to skip breakfast. A vendor in the town square had candy for sale; a marzipan banana gave me enough sugar to continue.

Returning to the bicycles after a brief walk around the town, we proceeded uphill to our lunch spot, a restaurant called Casa de Prosciutto (luckily they served things other than ham). After enjoying antipasti, eating two kinds of pasta and drinking some locally produced Chianti (from Montereggi, for those who are interested), we were all ready for a nap. The strong espresso didn't seem to have an effect.

But there was no time for a siesta.

Next we rolled to the winery which had produced the Chianti (and which also makes its own olive oil) and where we had a chance to sample some of their table wine and purchase several varieties. I liked the idea of buying some of their products, which are not exported, but decided against adding to my already insanely cumbersome luggage. Besides, I think the wine tastes better when consumed in situ, under a hot Tuscan sun.

Whatever goes up must come down, and so it was that we found ourselves descending the hill on very steep and sharp hairpin curves, on country roads that are already quite narrow. They were a bit too terrifying to be fun, especially when competing with cars and motorcycles for a wider turning radius around some of the bends. With the exception of one sorority sister who wiped out, we all made it downhill unscathed. I just hope that when I wake up tomorrow I can still walk.