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.

Friday, May 25, 2007

My Date with David

Today I had a date at 5:00pm to see David. He is the most popular guy in Florence and it is best to pay extra to make an appointment to see him, otherwise one risks standing for hours in line.

David looked just like his photograph - tall, statuesque, and still with an innocent look on his smoothly chiseled face, even after centuries of being stared at, drawn and photographed. He didn't seem at all disgusted by the fact that parasitic vendors sell boxer shorts and aprons emblazoned with images of his genitalia, sexualizing a work of art that is so much more. (by the way, if any readers of this blog would like such a souvenir, please e-mail me by Sunday morning, specifying apron or boxers, so I can get you one).

Perhaps he was a bit tired from having killed Goliath so long ago. Rather than making eye contact, he gazed off into the distance with a fixed stare.

Walking around him, I admired his hands (particularly the right one, with exquisitely crafted veins) and his shapely derriere. Within minutes, my date was over.

When the Shoes Don't Fit...


My American size 10 feet just can't squeeze into Italian shoes. Normally I'm a European 41, but for some reason the Italian 41 is just small enough to be uncomfortable, especially with my feet a bit swollen from the heat. Forty one is the largest size, at least in the several stores I've attempted to purchase shoes. There are some very cute espadrilles for sale but my big toes practically poke through the fabric.

What to do?

Well, to console myself today I ate some amazing gelato, chocolate with black pepper, a tongue tingling concoction. Ben & Jerry's, take note!

Then I tried on a leather jacket. Too small.

If all else fails I might have to spend some serious bucks on Italian couture....or just keep eating gelato.

Rainer Maria Rilke on Rome

One of my companions on this trip is Letters to a Young Poet, a tiny pocket book of letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke to an aspiring poet. I have had the book, a gift from a former boyfriend, for more than 15 years and I have read it several times, although sometimes it remains unopened for months or years on end. Like a faithful friend, it is there when I am feeling lonely or out of sorts and need comforting words. The book tends to open to precisely the page I need to read at any given moment, the words still freshly powerful after many readings.

And so it was that I opened the book last night before going to sleep in Florence, after leaving Rome a day earlier than I had planned. The crowds, noise and pollution were too much and I felt that all of the "noteworthy" sites had absolutely nothing to do with Italy in the here and now.

Flipping through the tiny tome, I hit upon this passage from a letter written in 1903:

..Rome (if one has not yet become acquainted with it) makes one feel stifled with sadness the first few days: through the gloomy and lifeless museum atmosphere that it exhales, through the abundance of its pasts, which are brought forth and laboriously held up (pasts on which a tiny present subsists), through the terrible overvaluing, sustained by scholars and philologists and imitated by the ordinary tourist in Italy, of all these disfigured and decaying Things, which, after all, are essentially nothing more than accidental remains from another time and from a life that is not and should not be ours...

Aside from the prevalence of motorbikes and Vespas, perhaps not much has really changed in the last 100 years. My thoughts turned rather cynical in Rome, when I realized how many people are making a livelihood off of ancient history, selling souvenirs emblazoned with images of things past, or opening bed & breakfasts to accommodate the flow of people who perpetuate the tourist "canon", seeing places that "must" be visited.

Trastevere, the funky neighborhood across the river from ancient Rome where I spent a few evenings, bustles with vitality. I will remember it as the real Rome.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Schlepping to, and Slinking through, the Sistine Chapel

On Monday when I visited St. Peter's Basilica, the separate line to get into the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel) curled around the compound for about half a mile.


I had been warned. I was advised to arrive at the Museums' entrance an hour before they opened (meaning 7:45 am) to be able to enjoy the place with the fewest possible people. My bed & breakfast, located in a quiet (e.g. not central) part of Rome, is about a 45 minute journey on foot and metro from the Vatican. Was I really going to get up at 6:30am?

Umm. No. Certainly not after that Negroni. Sorry, Michelangelo, your work is considered to be amazing by most of the world but I am not so in love with it.

On Wednesday morning I managed to get my tuchus out the door a bit before 9:00 a.m. The metro was experiencing delays, and we sat in a sweltering graffitti covered car for too long. I started to mentally prepare myself for a multi-hour wait in the sun. Emerging from the station, I was relieved to discover that the line to get into the Museum was about half as long as it had been two days before. And it moved relatively quickly - within 30 minutes I was inside, ticket in hand.

One of the advantages to traveling alone is that I have relative ease of movement. Whereas a cluster of people moves like a sluggish amoeba, I can slink around at will, exploiting gaps in the crowd (thanks, Israel, for the basic training!). So I darted ahead into the Museums. You can either take the express route, directly to the Sistine Chapel, or first visit all of the other sites, following a set of arrows that lead one through a sort of maze. I chose the latter.

The Vatican has accumulated some rather cool things....micromosaics, with tesserae only visible with the help of a magnifying glass, Etruscan ceramics, ancient beads and millefiori glasswork. Not to mention tapestries, jewels, and other treasures. In some of the rooms, the mosaic floors and decorated ceilings were even more entrancing than the objects themselves. The map corridor, with a brilliantly decorated ceiling and enormous wall panels of painted topographical maps depicting regions of Italy, was probably my favorite thing.

By the time I arrived at the entrance to the Sistine Chapel, my attention span was already maxed out and I needed a break. Fortunately, the Vatican has a snack bar at just that very spot. To its credit, the prices were very reasonable, even though they could have easily charged double. Fortified by a cappuccino and a linzer cookie, eaten in the presence of a massive Hungarian tour group that loudly occupied nearly all the seating at the Vatican cafe, I climbed yet another set of stairs into the chapel.

The lights were dim but the colors were brilliant, a riotous mix. A security guard bellowed, "SILENCIO!" and "No photos" at regular intervals, which resulted in maybe a nanosecond of semi-quiet. These futile pleas were followed by a loud recorded announcement saying the same thing, in four languages, that seemed to descend from the heavens themselves. Most of the many people there continued to chat and whisper and the cumulative effect was a dull roar.

I tried to look at each of the many paintings decorating the chapel but my neck began to hurt. It was interesting to see the Hebrew prophets and some Old Testament scenes depicted; at least the cardinals and others who gather in this room are reminded about how it all started. A few other rooms had paintings that included Hebrew text. Something familiar in the vast sea of religious art.

Having survived the crowds, I was surprised to find that there was even more to see after exiting the Sistine Chapel...would I make it? A gallery of contemporary religious art even had paintings by some Jewish artists.

By this time, I was ready for some fresh air. Finally, finally, after wandering down more art-filled corridors and being dazzled by intensely painted ceilings, I was at the entrance to the spiral staircase that would eventually deposit one on the street. Down I went, maneuvering past the groups, eventually sprinting for the outdoors.

Note to Self: Don't Drink a Negroni Alone

I am not a drinker. One glass of wine is usually enough for me, and hard liquor can make me sick. But I am a sucker for color, especially the reddish orange that is part of my business logo, and when I learned of the Negroni, an Italian aperitivo of that hue, I simply had to try it.

And so I did last evening, after taking in a view of Rome from the Janiculum hill and before having dinner. I was in Trastevere (which I think means, "Across the Tiber"), an artsy and relatively quiet neighborhood on the other side of the river from Rome's historic center. Trastevere has many bars with outdoor seating and plenty of trattorie. As I am wont to do, I walked back and forth, forth and back, trying to figure out which one beckoned. Finally, after wearing myself out, I sat down at a small place off the square that didn't seen to have so many tourists.

The drink's color was strong. To call the drink strong would be an understatement. After a few sips I could feel my consciousness split, as if I were having an out of body experience. My central nervous system began to go into a tailspin, while the small part of me that was still lucid advised me not to stand up. It also instructed me to drink some water, which I did, and to eat something. The Negroni came with a snack of prosciutto, which I don't eat, so the waiter substituted chips. But these were not hefty enough to counterbalance the alcohol (don't ask me what is in it - I can't remember!).

Luckily, a not unattractive man sat down at a table to my left and we started chatting, which distracted me long enough so that the alcohol could pass through my system. This fellow, from Holland, was in Rome for a month to learn Italian, but he didn't seem to mind speaking English with me. By the time the Negroni had mostly worn off, the restaurant I wanted to try was open (the non-touristy places don't open until 8pm), and he agreed to join me for dinner.

If anyone is hoping or expecting to read some hot details, I can assure you that the food was warm. We both had chicken with tomatoes and olives. It was tasty, if not a tad too salty, except there was very little meat; mostly they used parts of the neck and other bony bits. I believe this is typical Roman cuisine, using parts of the animal that other regions ignore. Offal is a Roman specialty, but I think I'd need to be knocked out by a Negroni or two before offal would seem anything other than awful.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What is the Vatican's GDP?

This was one of the questions that passed through my mind as I climbed to the top of the cupola of St. Peter's Basilica. Admission to the church is free (unless you count the time spent waiting to enter), but if you want a panoramic view you have to pay seven euros, which includes an elevator ride part way up. Then, from the inside of the rotunda, where one can get extremely close to some of the mosaics, it is another 320 steps (according to the sign) on a very narrow staircase with sloping walls to the top, where there isn't quite enough room for tourists to make their way around the tiny walkway on the outside of the structure. Claustrophobes and acrophobes are advised to stay home. Cheapskates can walk all the way to the top, skipping the elevator ride. That is only four euros.

Although the interior of the church is a sacred space, apparently its exterior is not. On the flat roof of the building, where the elevator stops, there are a souvenir shop and a snack bar. Serenely smiling nuns in blue habits work at the store, accepting money for items such as credit card sized and laminated photographs of recent popes, necklaces with crosses that come in egg-shaped plastic containers, a gazillion figurines, snuff boxes with papal images, and all manner of postcards, books and religious objects. Not to mention that the Vatican has its own postal system and sell stamps. I wonder how much they take in each year.

Back on terra firma I witnessed the changing of the Swiss guards, handsome young men in blue and gold costumes who patiently protect the pope while millions of tourists stop and take their picture, at no extra charge.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Real Roman Restaurant

There is more to an authentic Italian restaurant than just the food. There is also the attitude. And so it was, when I joined my older brother (in Italy for work) and a few of his Roman colleagues and friends for dinner on Saturday night, that we encountered the real deal.

A large older woman with a sharp nose, wearing a white apron over her shapeless dress, her hair covered in a white cotton cloth à la Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring and with a blue latex glove on her right hand only, greeted us at the entrance. By greeting, I mean she chastised us for not having the entire party arrive on time, as if she were our grandmother who had prepared food especially for us and it was now getting cold. A woman named Valeria, who had made the reservation, was running late. Someone mentioned the presence in our group of an American professor (my brother), as if that would elicit different behavior, to which she said, not unkindly, "I don't care."

"I think the food here is going to be good," I ventured, figuring that there was a reason she could afford to be so rude. After a few more minutes of standing outside the restaurant and conferring with Valeria by cell phone, we decided to sit at our table and wait there.

"Ciao, American Professor," the woman said to my brother as we entered, shaking his hand. She was now in a slightly better mood.

We were about to embark on what would turn out to be dinner theater with extremely limited audience participation. In Ravenna, a mosaics classmate and I had eaten at a place where there was no written menu. The waitress asked us what we wanted to eat (e.g. pasta or meat) and then rattled off the choices for that evening. I was not quite sure what I was in the mood for, but since I didn't understand much of what she said and she was getting impatient, we ended up choosing a pasta dish, cappelletti, whose ingredients (cheese, asparagus) I recognized. The steaming food was delivered to our table in the sautee pan in which it was prepared.

At this bustling Roman place, near Campo de' Fiori, we had no say as to what we'd be eating. The antipasti (fresh tomatoes, lentils, fried rice balls, fried eggplant for my brother and me, prosciutto for the Italians) were plunked onto the table by a waiter who seemed resentful that we were giving him a job to do. Ditto for bottles of mineral water and a carafe of white house wine (what if we had wanted red?). Perhaps he would have preferred to toss the dishes, frisbee style, to our table, so that he wouldn't have had to deal with us. The only choice we were given was whether we wanted parmesan cheese on our pasta course, but the question was asked in such a way that it was clear that the only acceptable answers were "Yes" or "No", and not, "Could I have some on the side?" or, "Could you just put a little bit on it?," or any other personalized instruction. Never mind that we had no idea what the pasta dish even was. People choosing this restaurant, and it was packed, trust the chef to determine what they will eat.

Plunk, plunk, plunk, bowls of rigatoni were dropped on our table.

Next came the second course, roasted veal with fried slivers of potato and a green salad.

No one asked us if we wanted dessert. It, too, was plunked on the table. We each received a glass dish of fresh strawberries along with a spoon. Wedges of a fruit tart were arranged on two plates, one for each side of the table. I waited to see if forks would appear, but they did not, so we ate the delicious cake with our fingers.

However, the restaurant did ask if we wanted an after dinner liqueur. Why not? Small glasses of limoncello arrived, a sweet ending to an evening's entertainment in which our role was to shut up, eat up, and be grateful.

It was past midnight when we left the restaurant. The once grouchy, blue gloved woman hugged Valeria and warmly thanked us for coming.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

E Pericoloso Sporgersi

E Pericoloso Sporgersi is actually the first Italian phrase I ever learned, when I was eight years old. My parents, brothers and I spent a few months near Geneva, Switzerland, where my father was working, but we often traveled by train to see other parts of the country and visit nearby parts of France. E Pericoloso Sporgersi was affixed under every window on practically every train.

It is dangerous to lean out.

The sign was in other languages, too (French: Ne Pas Se Pencher Au Dehors; German: Nicht Hinauslehnen), and English. But decades later, I still only remembered the Italian, perhaps because as a young child I thought E Pericoloso Sporgersi sounded quite silly (try saying it fast a few times), not to mention that the French is a bit of a tongue twister and the German has the harsh sounding nicht. Or maybe I remembered it because the Italian was the first line of the warning sign, followed by the other translations (English was last). Was this because it was thought that Italians would be more likely than French or Germans to lean out the window, therefore it had to be most visible? Or maybe the signs were produced in Italy, so Italian came first out of national pride.

Regardless, on my first train ride in Italy, from Venice to Bologna, I looked for the sign and was dismayed not to find it. Ditto on the train from Bologna to Ravenna. Had everyone learned in the intervening 30+ years to not lean out of train windows? But from Ravenna to Florence, where I changed trains to continue to Rome, the little sign was displayed under the window of my local train, just as I remembered. I photographed it. There was still no Spanish translation on the sign - I will leave you to develop a theory as to why.

The local train slowly wound its way through hilly countryside covered with farms and vineyards and sprinkled with villas and castles. I was tempted to stand up and lean out the window to take some photographs, but I did not.

[P.S. This post has been so popular that I wrote a companion piece. You can read it here]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Sticky and Icky Part of Mosaics

Today we completed the first stage of our mosaic reproductions using the Ravenna method. We had embedded the tesserae onto a lime substrate, a temporary binder that keeps the tiles where we had carefully placed them. The nice thing about lime is that it takes a few days or longer to completely dry out, giving the mosaicist plenty of time to complete this step.

Before transferring the mosaic to a permanent binder (in this case cement), the front of the mosaic is covered with a damp cheese cloth before being sealed with a glue. Once the glue dries, we will scrape off the lime backing, lift the now hardened cheese cloth and put the whole thing onto a cement bed. Then, we will dissolve the glue wash and scrub the mosaic. Voila! (later on we will get to the Voila! part)

The icky part is that the water soluble glue we are using is made from rabbit bones and skin. It comes in small amber colored beads; these are melted over a double boiler before being brushed onto, or rather into, the cheese cloth. The smell is nauseating, and the thought of spreading boiled bunny bones over my mosaic made me want to puke (but, I rarely vomit, so this didn't actually happen). Apparently rabbit glue is also used for other restorations - of violins, frescoes, etc. I was briefly consoled by the thought is that at least all of the rabbit is being used - the rest of it you can find on menus in Italian restaurants or in jackets.

I asked about non-animal glues that could be used for this purpose. There are substitutes (such as a heated mixture of water and flour) but each of the animal-friendly versions comes with limitations, either drying very slowly or requiring extensive cleaning afterward. Luckily, there are other ways to make mosaics, using materials available at Home Depot. These are sticky, just not icky.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mosaics: Paying to be a Roman Slave

Luciana, the owner of the mosaic school in Ravenna where I am attending a five day workshop, told us yesterday morning that we were going to be Roman slaves, spending the rest of the day cutting marble into little pieces (tesserae) for our mosaics. We were each given the ancient tools - a hammer-like object, rounded at the top with carbide blades at the tips, and a hardie, a striking surface that is embedded in a log of wood.

The hammer is large, and the mosaic tesserae are tiny, and at first it seemed impossible that such an unwieldy instrument could cut anything precisely (at least in my hands!). It also looked difficult to be holding a hammer, but Luciana reassured us that it is actually healthier on the body to work with these tools than to use a modern tile nipper, which you squeeze in one hand to cut the material. Repeated use of the nipper can lead to carpal tunnel problems, whereas the Roman tools won't. I felt better knowing that the Roman slaves who prepared the mosaics did not go home each night will extraordinary pain in their arms.

Once I got into the groove of cutting marble, it was quite meditative. The trick is to rest the hammer on the log between taps (very little force is required to cut even marble!), to maintain an erect posture, and to trust oneself to hit the material and not one's fingers (which steady the object being cut). After a few hours I had a growing collection of small to tiny rectangles of marble, some of which I'd use in my mosaic.

We could choose to copy one of a dozen designs that the school pre-selected, none of which really grabbed me. But I had to decide so I selected an image of a duck that comes from a floor mosaic in Tiberias, Israel, figuring it would be a way to link my travels. In an attempt to spice up my image, I used my new cutting skills to create tiny and shiny red glass tips for the duck's feet, decking it out for a night on the town.


My Favorite Italian Phrase: "Self Service"

Italy has "self service" restaurants (yes, they use the English expression), which are jazzy cafeterias serving fresh and freshly made food. In front of your eyes, you can have a pizza baked to order or watch a chef swirl olive oil in a skillet before she adds pasta and sauce. Often there are several varieties of pasta cooking on a stove, but not in such large quantity that the food sits around. The chefs keep busy during lunch hour, when these places fill up with Italians and tourists alike.

For the non-Italian speaker, the "self service" restaurant takes some of the mystery out of ordering as you can peek at all the choices before selecting, to both figure out what they are and to see if they look appealing. And frequently you can build your own salad; they charge by the plate size, not by weight, so if you have no shame about loading up a small bowl with all sorts of vegetables you can have a healthy meal for just a few euros.

In Italy, eating at a cafeteria is no less festive than dining at a restaurant. Wine is readily and plentifully available, in sizes ranging from a full bottle to a single serving, reds and whites both. And of course there is an espresso machine!

Because the food is relatively inexpensive (about half the price of a regular restaurant), I am often tempted to order many things, just to try them all. But my waistband keeps getting tighter, and I need to leave room for my daily gelato fix...I may need to return to Italy to complete my due diligence!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Full in (but not of) Bologna

Looking for a place to spend a day or so in between Venice and Ravenna, I decided to visit Bologna, where food reigns supreme. Instead of stores filled with glass objects and souvenirs, there are shops loaded with cheeses, meats and homemade pastas, all neatly displayed in cases or in the windows. Gigantic parma hams cluster in large bunches from the ceilings, each probably worth more than its weight in gold. The fact that I don't eat pork slashes my choices considerably, making it easier to decide what to taste.

My guidebook strongly recommends an award winning ice cream shop, Sorbetteria Castiglione, so off I go, wandering through arcades and porticos that are at least two storeys high. To call Bolognese architecture grand is an understatement. Many of the doorways to older churches and buildings are dozens of feet tall, and I feel like a dwarf as I make my way down Castiglione Street. Sadly, many of these buildings are also amply adorned with graffiti. Bologna is a student town, perhaps that explains the prevalence of spraypainted gobbledygook?

Soon I arrive at the ice cream place. They have a limited selection of flavors, half of which are the house specialties. You pay by the weight - I choose 250 grams worth of three flavors: dark chocolate, Michelangelo (an almond based flavor) and a cream of ricotta with caramel. Simply stunning, making Venetian gelato seem like a Hoodsie. I am tempted to order another portion and try even more of their special recipes but want to leave room for something healthy (um...before this I also sampled some pizza).

Bologna is home to several brick towers, erected back in the 12th century by wealthy families who wanted to make a statement - the Donald Trumps of that time? There used to be 180 towers, and now there are around a dozen, of which one can be climbed (another, right next to it, was poorly built and now leans more than 3 meters off center). I figured climbing nearly 500 steps will be a good way to work off the ice cream...up I go! Oddly, the ticket booth is not located on the ground, at the entrance, but a good 50 steep steps inside the tower, where the clerk perches in a tiny alcove and collects the three euro admission.

The ascent makes the four flights of to my Venice hotel room seem like not such a big deal. Halfway up, on a wooden staircase that hugs the inside walls of the tower, with just air in between, I decide that I really shouldn't look down or worry about when the last time the tower was inspected. Periodically, there is a floor or platform in between endless staircases where the out-of-shape can catch their breath. At the top, the view is well worth the effort and there is a refreshing breeze. Mission accomplished.

Returning to terra firma, I spot a religious procession, with clerics in many different colored outfits parading through the main square while singing. A small group of protesters has gathered, but they don't look particularly angry or upset (many are laughing and smiling) and the signs they are holding or wearing (affixed with tape), advocating civil unions and equal rights, are simply white pieces of paper lettered with magic markers. No large placards to be found, no one is chanting or shouting. Uniformed police stand around, just in case. Some photographers zoom in for shots of these signs. The writing is so small that you have to be quite close to read them. Later, I read in my guidebook that Bologna has one of the country's "better organized" gay communities....

And now, you've guessed correctly, it is time for dinner. So far, my guidebook is batting 1,000 with food recommendations in Bologna, so I walk out of the center in search of a trattoria it mentions as being popular with locals. It is Saturday night, and the touted prix fixe menu is not available, but I decide to try the place anyway. A typical Italian meal has a first course (usually pasta) and a second course (meat or fish), but I can't fathom eating all that food. I order a side salad and truffle flavored cheese filled tortelli (larger than tortellini), and a 1/4 liter of insanely inexpensive house wine, which I can't finish. I had forgotten how intense the truffle aroma is, and when my plate arrives it stinks (at first I thought that the waitress had neglected to shower...). But the pasta is handmade, the cheese mouthwatering and I am smitten.

In a bit of a stupor and completely full, I waddle back to my bed & breakfast and go to sleep, under a crucifix.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Venetian Retail Eccentricities

Some observations on Venetian, or perhaps Italian, retail culture.

1) Many shops have signs that say, "Entrata libera" (free entry). I am a bit puzzled, because it is not as if there are shops that charge admission just to look around. Museums, yes, but stores, no. And none of these shops could be confused with a museum. Hmm.

2) In many cases, it is cheaper (per bead) to buy a beaded necklace than to purchase the individual beads. I asked a shopkeeper why, and her response did not make much sense. She said the necklaces were less expensive because it is more convenient to the customer to buy the necklace than to make it themselves. Wouldn't a person pay extra for that convenience?

3) It seems that the shops that do not have the "Entrata libera" sign have other signs: Don't touch, or No Self Service. Now, these stores have the atmosphere (but not the appearance) of a museum, where everything on display (mostly glass art) is too precious to be handled. As a tactile person, I am not crazy about these shops and often I don't even bother to go inside.

4) Pastry Bars. Perhaps the rest of Italy has these, too, but Venice is the first place I have encountered the pastry shop and bar in one retail establishment. An interesting concept! Italians come here for a drink after work and to eat pizzetti (tiny pizzas), whereas I have ordered some tiramisu or a chocolate potato (a dense tuber shaped concoction of cocoa, liqueur, and other goodies, with a grape center and dusted with cocoa powder). Initially the bar aspect turned me off but the desserts I have sampled so far have been exceptional. Maybe I'll be ordering grappa to go along with it in a day or so....

Ex Ossibus

This little Latin phrase means, I believe, "from the bones of". I spotted it in the Treasury section of Saint Marcus' Basilica which, in addition to boasting an astonishing number of gilt mosaics, also houses assorted precious reliquaries, or little bits of bone of various saints that have been stored in lavish casings. The Treasury boasts that it contains some relics of Jesus Christ himself, and my guidebook said that the Church has in its possession one of the thorns from his crown. Isn't that worth paying two euros to see? I thought so. Unfortunately all of the little bits and pieces of people were labeled only in Latin, on the containers themselves, and since some of the containers were several deep in the case I couldn't read all of the descriptions. It didn't help that a railing prevented one from taking a close look. Why the Italians chose not to provide clearer guidance as to what is what (or who) is a mystery to me.

My Fashion Faux Pas

This posting is a bit of an addendum to Muchas Glassias, where I commented on the appearance of the guys guarding a glass factory in Murano. After having observed a few more men with wide ties and suit jackets that button quite high and have the appearance of being just a wee bit too tight, it occurred to me that I might be witnessing the latest in Italian fashion, rather than a fashion faux pas. My mistake. Maybe the glass goons simply couldn't pull it off properly. Anyway, I am still not enamored of the look, even if it is "in".

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Dear Dr. Bernanke:

I was just reading an article about you in the International Herald Tribune that said you are a consensus builder and, therefore, are slow to change interest rates.

It would be nice if you could do just a little something to strengthen the dollar, which has fallen steadily since I left the US. I kept mum in Israel, where prices are a bit cheaper, thinking that maybe the situation would turn around by the time I arrived in Europe, but in Italy the dollar's weakness is truly upsetting me and causing me to put on the kilograms. Why? Just about the only snack I can afford is a single scoop of gelato (it costs "just" one euro; the only other things I can get for one euro are: a McDonald's hamburger, a bottle of water, a coffee, or a visit to a public toilet, which is required if I drink enough coffee or water). If my current gelato consumption continues for the next few weeks I am going to turn into a cow, which will seriously impair my ability to attract a mate. Loneliness will follow, not to mention extravagant bead buying to distract me from my situation.

See what you've done?

But I don't want to sound too selfish. There are lots of other tourists here who would also be thrilled to see the dollar move in a different direction, and the Italians might not mind either. At least then the Americans could help the Venetian shopkeepers unload some of their excess inventory. I don't think I have ever seen so many stores with so many goods in them; it is kind of unsightly. I am trying to do my part but, to emphasize, I can only do so much when a stupid little euro is costing nearly $1.40.

Thanks for your attention.

Oh, by the way, should I decide to buy a house could you make sure that interest rates are low? This might mean the reversal of whatever you do to strengthen the dollar but I know you can do it!



Clothe a Cold, Float a Fever?

So, I am sick, feeling a bit hot and feverish with a stuffed nose. Not a big deal, just my body trying to tell me to rest after my insisting that it be active in the heat (both in Israel and Italy) after not sleeping well for quite some time.

Had I been truly wise, I would have stayed in my hotel room all day, only leaving to drink tea and eat fruit. Except that, with all my Internet savvy, I managed to book a real doozy of a hotel room (up four full flights of steps, plus the room itself is really an afterthought - someone plastered over part of a hallway, added a cheap door, and now they charge a small fortune for it!). Since ascending to my room is worthy of a stairmaster workout, I am loathe to descend without a very good reason, yet I could not imagine lying there all day, being sick AND annoyed at myself for having a room with no view (the windows are positioned above eye level; yes, I tried to switch rooms but they are fully booked).

So, I planned a relatively easy day, squeezing as many vaporetti (water bus) rides out of my $40+ tourist pass (valid for 72 hours) as possible, before it expires tomorrow afternoon. In other words, I went island hopping, traveling from Venice to Burano (known for its lace and extremely colorful houses), then to Torcello (a small island with a very valuable gold mosaic in its basilica and a bell tower with a tremendous view of the lagoon), changing boats in Burano to return to Murano (for a final look!) and then back to Venice. The water and the breeze were refreshing, and I probably spent a few solid hours floating around, not exerting myself. Even climbing the bell tower was relatively easy; instead of lots of steps some genius had built a ramp. Hallelujah!

Early this evening, returning to a street vendor who was selling some unique lampshades which I thought might look fun in my studio, I spotted another interesting shop. And despite my repeated vow (OK, I say this silently, so no one has actually heard me) that I am not going to buy another thing, I spotted a greenish, velvety-ish and ruffly-ish jacket, a more flamboyant version of the top I wore to my chocolate party. It fit. It was also heftily marked down from a stratospheric price to one in the double digits. I pounced.

We shall see if clothes shopping is a cure for my cold. I hope so!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Muchas Glassias

I hope there is not more glass in Venice than meets the eye because there is simply a glut of glass products, glass objects, glass beads and glass art in this city, especially on the island of Murano where the glass is produced. I have seen so much glass in just half a day that my eyes are glassing over.

On Murano, you can watch the glassblowers at work. I have seen glass artisans before but figured I'd have a look anyway. Getting off the waterbus at Murano, a few men pointed the way to a fornace that allowed visitors (not all do). A group of young cigarette smoking men, wearing jeans, shirts and wides neckties under buttoned dark pinstriped blazers that were too short and too tight, looking like a cross between the Blues Brothers and the Gambino family as dressed by a thrift shop, appeared to be guarding the entrance of this factory. Their main purpose, it seemed (other than to make me giggle), was to make sure that everyone obeyed the no flash photography rule or broke any merchandise. One of them even gave a brief shpiel, in theatrical English, about how the glass is produced. Taking a look around their gift shop, whose contents were nothing special compared to some of the finer glass I had seen, it occurred to me that all the hoopla they created - the men shepherding tourists to the factory, the guys in ties - were a way to drum up business. I can't blame them. Shop after shop overflowed with nearly identical merchandise, with just a few displaying some extremely well crafted pieces. Tourists seemed to be sticking to small items and trinkets and I wondered if and when all the glass would find a home. I did not torture myself with this question or feel compelled to let loose a ton of euros to help the cause, although I did make a small purchase.

From Boker Tov to Buon Giorno!

To ease the transition from boker tov to buon giorno, I decided to visit the Venetian Ghetto as my first stop this morning. Apparently the word ghetto, formerly spelled getto, simply meant iron foundry and was the name of the island in Venice where the Jews were sequestered in the Middle Ages before Napoleon came along and knocked down the doors. Now of, course, ghetto has just one unhappy meaning.

The small area is now home to just 30 Jews (thousands of others live in different parts of Venice), Judaica shops, a Kosher bakery and restaurant (I even saw a sign for falafel - 4 euro!), the Jewish Museum, a Chabad center, a few synagogues and a yeshiva of sorts. On a tour of some of Venice's, if not Europe's, oldest synagogues, built in the 16th century and no longer in use, the droopy eyed, greasy haired and unsmiling guide rattled off dates and descriptions and indicated that he was pleased that the group did not pepper him with questions; that would have required work. Perhaps there wasn't much of a transition to be made from Israel, after all.

Wandering into a Judaica gallery, I met the friendly and business savvy Israeli owner who also has a gallery in Old Jaffa (from which Jonah set sail, landing in the belly of a large fish), where I had been a few days before. A small Jewish world, indeed. To complete my ghetto visit I snacked on a smoked salmon sandwich at the Museum's kosher cafe.