Monday, August 31, 2009

Our Day Out With the Fish

If you own fish I’ll bet that there are times you have felt guilty about not giving them enough mental stimulation. Round and round in the tank they swim, passing the same peeling pagoda and deep-sea diver year-in, year-out. Meanwhile your four-legged friends are playing fetch, catching mice and generally living it up. We had these very same thoughts and boy did we ever do something about it ! We loaded our guppies, danios, tetra, raspora, algae eater and catfish into the van and took them for a ride in the country. Oh what a romp ! Oh what a madcap afternoon ! Oh what a stupid thing to do !

The idea was that our friends would look after the fish while we are in Italy. Since we have kept this fish tank for five years or so, the water has just the right biochemistry. I really don’t know what that means exactly but it has something to do with the balance of well water, microbes and fish waste. Our finned friends seem quite content and are generally long-lived. So were we just going to throw all that water down the sink ? Of course not. This was Gray Gold ! We poured about half of it into milk jugs. Then, we thought we could just carry the twenty-gallon fish tank with half its water to the car, keeping the fish undisturbed. Well it turns out that water is really really heavy. And then there’s the ten pounds of gravel . So the gravel had to go, and we had to empty out still more water. By the time we could actually move the tank (and by “we” I mean that Bill carried the fish tank and I held the door) those poor fish were swimming in about two inches of water, now an inky blue black. Our son Boris sat in the back of the van peering into the murky depths of our fishes’ depleted habitat. Every once in awhile he would call out,”I see a guppy !” or “I see a fin !” This gave us a small degree of hope as we drove down winding country roads. Maybe the fish would survive and not hate us. Every so often we would hear a splash when Bill rounded a curve. He assured me that fresh-water tropical fish are accustomed to heavy storms that roil their waters. I think he meant the ones that live in the Amazon, not the ones that were born and raised at Pet Forum.

Finally we reached our friends’ farm. I told the fish to run and play in the verdant fields but they were having none of it. We reconstituted our fish tank and by the time we left the water was regaining some of its transparency and the fish were looking reasonably mobile. I hope they enjoy their months in a foreign land. So far reports of their well-being have been positive. I understand they’re planning to start a blog.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Confessions of a Reformed Over-packer

I can’t believe it. Finally after almost thirty years I have learned to pack light. (Should it be lightly ? That sounds a little precious to me). Three suitcases for three people…and none of these are huge. Three backpacks each with emergency clothes, books, toiletries…and we are set for three months. Oh how times have changed !

Cue flash-back music. Close-up of my streamlined bag with wheels and pull-up handle which dissolves into a 1970’s plaid bag of ungainly proportions.

For my high school graduation in 1976 I received a set of American Tourister luggage (just like they gave away on The Newlywed Game!) My mother, who gave me this gift, was very proud of the fact that the suitcases had wheels. And they did. Except that the wheels were the size of olives and became useless on any terrain that was rougher than the surface of an ice rink. This was before the widespread use of the pull-up handle, so my suitcases each had a leash. It was exactly like a dog leash so there really is no other term one could use to describe it. If it was not lost by the airline, which would be a miracle, the user could pull the suitcases with it. This made carrying the luggage as effortless as pulling a stack of cinderblocks. Pulling two or three of these suitcases at once was absolutely impossible. It was almost as though the designers at American Tourister were just daring you to succeed, knowing all the while that you wouldn’t. As soon as I’d get one rolling at a nice clip, the other would tip over, its wheels unable to fulfill their purpose. Then I would right that one and in doing so I would knock over the first. Usually a nice man in a business suit would take pity on me and help me with the bags. Maybe that was the entire purpose of the design come to think of it: sort of a lure for good samaritans.

I used these suitcases for many years. Most memorably I took one of them on a trip through Devon in southwest England. My goal was to see the moors, but I was to find out that there was no bus that would simply pull up to the moors and let me out. So there I was in the little hamlet of Bovey Tracey, pulling my red and blue checkered American Tourister by its leash, thumbing for a ride. Did I bring the small suitcase ? No of course not. I brought my middle-sized one which would have easily clothed a family of four for a week. In a surprisingly short period of time an elderly woman picked me up. I guess I looked trustworthy and hapless, and I suppose few serial killers are accoutred as I was. She took me back to her house which was adjacent to the moors. After feeding me lunch she provided me with a map of the moors and I left for an afternoon hike. How much easier it was to maneuvre without my suitcase ! This all happened in December of 1978. That afternoon began one of the largest snowfalls in the history of Devon and so I was snowed in with this very interesting, very kind woman and I spent New Year’s eve doing a jigsaw puzzle with her by the fire. I think I stayed there for almost a week. When my mother visited me a few months later (I was studying in London for the year) we all had lunch at her son’s house in a suburb of London. It turned out that her family had been much relieved to know that somebody had been staying with her. They’d been worried about her being alone during the storm and were glad that she had somebody to help her bring in coal for the stove. We kept in touch until her death in 1985.

This experience proved to me that chance and opportunity are closely related in travel. And I have to say that if my luggage was not the smartest choice for the journey I always think that it must have made me look so ridiculous that all the other wonderful events ensued as a result. I looked so ridiculous that it was possibly inevitable that a total stranger would take pity on me. I’m glad it was her.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Grandma Ruth's Grand Tour

Here it is, the middle of the day and it has been raining for hours. I’ve been puttering around and having gotten bored with my life at the moment, have decided to delve into another’s: my grandmother’s. Grandma Ruthwas not only intelligent and observant; fortunately for posterity, she was very organized. She documented several of her trips across country through letters, photos and other ephemera which she mailed home and assembled in meticulously labelled and dated scrapbooks. In fact she even wrote the date on which she assembled the scrapbook.

Grandma Ruth was born in Chicago on December 30, 1903 which was the night of the Iroquois Theatre Fire, one of the deadliest blazes in history. Amazingly, her two aunts had been planning to go to the Iroquois theatre that night, but due to her birth they stayed home. They both lived to be elderly, very lady-like ladies.

In August 1931, at that time an unattached woman of 27, Ruth travelled to Yellowstone and points beyond with her friend Diana. Here is an excerpt from a letter she wrote from Manitou Springs, Colorado. I especially like her description of the sunrise and what she wore to “rough it.”

Tuesday, 7:30

Dear Bill [her brother],

Just got back from a beautiful trip to Pike’s Peak. We left here at 2 o’clock this morning and oh! the sky was gorgeous. I never saw so many stars in my life. We arrived up at the Peak, a distance of 23 miles, at a quarter of four. Then we watched the sun rise on the horizon. It was magnificent. We could see little towns lighted up way down in the valleys. Th lights sparkled like diamonds. Then it started to get light and we started back at about 5:30. It was all light by then. And was it Cold ? Well I wore my suit skirt with a jersey, blouse, my suit coat, my white coat and rented a man’s sheepskin coat which I wore over all. I had on my woolen hose and golf shoes and my feet were so cold as they get in zero weather. The temperature up there was said to have been about 33 but on account of it being 14,000ft. above sea level and having such dry air it feels very very cold.

I guess I was about the only one in the party who didn’t get dizzy or sea-sick. I felt fine and still do. Diana was pretty dizzy tho. She is upstairs fast asleep now. I’m going to have breakfast first and then hit the hay for the rest of the day (Poetry).The trip costed $6.00 but I enjoyed in spite of all that.

In her later years my grandmother visited Egypt, China, Australia and many countries in Europe, but she never kept the detailed notes that I have of these early trips. Sadly and inevitably perhaps, the ease of photography and the affordability of long distance calls, made such documentation unnecessary.

Friday, August 21, 2009

When You Can't Afford a Villa

As a rule, we tend not to take three months off of work and daily life to go to Italy and do nothing. I certainly would have no objections to doing so every year, but realistically, we are self-employed artists with bills that need to be paid. So, finding an affordable place to live was the most important part of this adventure. Since many people have asked me how we found our place, here are some things I have learned so far.

1. Be clear about the goal of your trip. Yes, I know that our long-range plan is to do nothing, but we want to pursue this goal in an interesting place. Another way of saying it, the way I say it when I want to sound respectable: we want to immerse ourselves in a lively yet manageable city. That put Rome out of the running. (There is such a thing as being too lively).
2. Be flexible. When I started researching places to live I had a group of possible cities: Mantova, Bologna, Verona. Affordability was important, as was a place in a neighborhood with proximity to buses and shops. If I couldn’t find those attributes in city A, I would have crossed it off my list and gone on to city B.
3. Everybody wants to live in a villa, but not everybody can. We scaled down our ambition and looked for an apartment. In any event, I am petrified of driving in Italy and many villas would be out-of-the-way and require a car.
4. The leads in guidebooks are not that useful. Just about all of them list companies that specialize in villa and apartment rentals. I e-mailed several of these with specific requirements and got no personal responses. What I did get were weekly SPAM e-mails informing me of various properties throughout the world.
5. Ask your potential landlord lots of questions just for the heck of it. I googled Bologna and apartment rentals and found an associaton of local property owners with a variety of apartment to rent. Once we found one with the number of bedrooms we wanted and a neighborhood location, I e-mailed the owner with lots of questions. That is the important part—the asking. The main point is that you want to see if the answers are timely and specific. Also make sure the landlord gives you a direct phone number, not just the number of the agency.
6. Like much in life, paying deposits is a risk. We had to paypal one-third of the three-months rent. Yes, it’s a risk, but so is buying a house, getting married and seeing movies starring Jim Carrey. Once I paypalled the money I took a deep breath and then I stopped thinking about it. After all there are so many other things to worry about !

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What's with the title ?

Would people think less of me, I wonder, if they knew that my secret ambition is to coin a catch-phrase ?

Many years ago, Bill and I were having a conversation about another person who was, in my opinion, something of a wimp. To make my point that life is tough and that this person should just deal with it I said, “This ain’t no marshmallow factory !” The “this” in question was essentially “real life.” I thought it was an amusing little phrase but I didn’t have any particular ambitions for it at the time and so it languished for a decade.

Recently, I took it out of my metaphorical language cold storage. (It was right next to “Cool Cat,” the nickname I’d chosen for myself that nobody would use). Surprisingly, when I said it to Bill, not only did he have no recollection of the phrase--he thought it originated on Seinfeld ! Of course I was flattered. That show did have a certain amount of success as I recall. And yet, I wanted credit. I googled “This ain’t no marshmallow factory” and Seinfeld just to make sure. There was no reference to this phrase anywhere. It's mine, I tell you ! I hope you will use it in good health and often. After all, a catch-phrase unspoken is just a phrase. (Hey ! That’s a pretty good catch-phrase right there!)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Love and Butter

Walking into the Carmike Theatre last night, I was surprised to find a long line spiralling in a rather aimless way between the concession stand and the ticket-taker. “Well, that Harry Potter certainly has legs,” I thought to myself. Then I noticed that the line contained a lot of women, many of whom were, like me, “of a certain age.” "Well maybe they're here for that 3-D movie about the guinea pigs," I thought. They were, of course, waiting for Julie and Julia as I was.

Well, I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the size of the crowd. Charlottesville is a foodie town after all and the commercials for the movie have been irresistable, with Meryl Streep capturing the awkward and endearing Julia Child in the older black-and white segments of The French Chef. Oh the guilty pleasure my mother and I used to experience when we would see Julia Child mess up a dish ! (It really wasn’t until I started teaching art classes in which I had to demonstrate techniques that I realized it’s not so funny when it happens you )

I was fascinated by Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child. I would not say that she dissolved into the role. Rather, she was somehow simultaneously Meryl and Julia. It was a little bit like a dream in which your aunt suddenly turns into Ethel Merman but it’s your aunt and Ethel Merman at the same time. (Well, my Aunt Blossom was the Sophie Tucker of the North Side of Chicago so maybe it wasn’t such a stretch after all. Now if my Uncle Bill turned into Ethel Merman that would be weird. He just didn’t have her vocal range.)

One of the things I learned from reading Julie and Julia was that Veal Prince Orloff, which is central to that classic Mary Tyler Moore episode in which she throws a small dinner party for a congresswoman, (the one where Mr. Grant takes half the platter of food), was a featured dish in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was almost like a “final exam” dish, a showstopper. It is a veal roast au gratin with mushrooms and I believe there is also a cream sauce. I considered making it recently, maybe with a Mary Tyler Moore themed party, but the idea of veal and cheese made me feel nauseated.

Seeing all those people in line for the movie made me think of how each of them had his or her own memory of watching The French Chef or being influenced by her books, or being the beneficiaries of somebody who cooked from her books. Last night after the movie I remembered a special and indirect influence. In 1988 I went to Italy for a six-month stay. My mother accompanied me on the flight and we travelled together for two weeks. Having seen a PBS show in which Julia strode through Parma’s wonderful food markets, my mother suggested that we spend a few days there and so we did. What I remember most about Parma is my first encounter with the passeggiata, the ritual of the evening stroll in which couples and groups of young people walk around the central square. On our first night we were wondering if there was some kind of festival going on. Where was everyone going ? After seeing the same groups circling again and again we realized that they were not going anywhere. They were out to see and be seen. Nevertheless, we were surprised to see the same thing the following night. I still don’t know when we finally learned what the ritual was called and that it was a nightly occurrence. One of us must have found the appropriate entry in the Fodor’s or Frommer’s when we got back in the hotel room. The passeggiata became something that we looked forward to, an incentive (as if one were really needed) to find a table with a view and to have a glass of wine. Or maybe I was still sticking with Campari and soda before I realized that I loved the color but hated the taste.

So, while others may owe Paris to Julia, I owe her Parma. It seems only right that I should follow Julie Powell’s lead in leaving a tribute at the Smithsonian reconstruction of Julia’s kitchen. But it won’t be butter; it will be a block of Parmesan cheese.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Why in the world Bologna ?

Ten years ago Bill and I spent two weeks in Italy. I had lived in Florence many years before that and on this, my second trip to Italy, Bill’s first, I never tired of saying that I was going to show him “My Italy !” It was actually Bill’s little phrase, and we loved to pair it with a dramatic gesture when, say, we were waiting for an hour at the bank. On our trip we hit the major cities: Milan, Florence, Rome, Venice. Although we also visited Bologna and Vicenza, our itinerary was a typical one. We took the trip that everybody took. Not that I’m complaining. When we returned and friends would ask which places we visited, I would tell them that we found a wonderful, little, out-of-the-way city that had…get this…WATER INSTEAD OF STREETS !! When they would tell me (as invariably they would) that they too had been to Venice I would exclaim in disbelief, “WHAT ? You‘ve been there too ? That is so amazing ! However did you come across it ?” Pretty quickly people stopped asking me about our vacation.

This trip is different because Bologna is a city less travelled; unless you have been there, you probably do not have a ready mental image of it. The due torri (two towers) simply do not have the worldwide recognition of other, more famous tall edifices. Handsome though they are, I have never seen paperweight versions of Bologna’s towers in anyone’s home although I can think of several who employ miniature Eiffel Towers in just this capacity.

Certainly Bologna’s architecture, with its miles of porticos, is beautiful and it is a great walking city. It also has great food and a prestigious university. What it does not have, which to me is a real plus, is a great museum. Well, I’m sure it has some darned fine museums, although I don’t remember them. But there is no Uffizi , no Vatican Galleries to make the city a “required” stop. The difference between Bologna and Florence was obvious to me when I was there. Most noticeably, we didn’t come across people waiting in lines to see things. And if, for argument’s sake, there is less to see, I don’t think I’ll miss it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Starting Out

In less than a month my husband, ten-year old son and I will be travelling to Bologna, Italy where we will live for three months. We have rented an apartment in a neighborhood a short bus ride from the city center. Other than our arrival date and tickets for an opera in October, we have no particular plans. Basically, we want to take a look around and eat a lot.

As was to be expected, I am nervous about virtually every aspect of this trip. One day I turned to my husband Bill and said, "I'm worried about things you've never even dreamed of." Strangely, he did not look in the least surprised. I try to imagine one of my grandfather's sisters, Belle or Fanny, telling me, "You know, there are lots of people out there who would give their eye-teeth just to have a chance to worry about such a lovely trip." Not that this helps.

At least this blog has given me a more immediate focus. It is hard to write and worry at the same time. Right now I am pondering a new title. It is just possible that “This ain’t no marshmallow factory” is less poetic than it should be. Since “Under the Tuscan Sun” has already been taken, perhaps I should go with “Through the Bolognese Portico.” The preposition plus suggestive Italian detail definitely has possibilities. Yet, considering the many rainy days in Bologna (hence the existence of said porticos), maybe a better title would be, “Where is the Bolognese Sun?” Another approach, and it must be a terrific one since so many writers use it, would be to pair a food characteristic of the country with a container that is equally evocative: “A Bowl of Olives,” “Un Cestino of Figs”… “A Schmear of Butter.” I can see that whichever way I go, it will be necessary to pepper my entries with lots of italicized Italian phrases, and I will try to amaze everybody by the ease with which I switch back and forth between the two languages, not to mention the plain-text and italic buttons on my keyboard.

I promise this blog will be about something and not just a blog about blogging. Mostly it will be about my areas of interest that I hope will be interesting to others: art, food, travel and homeschooling. A presto.