Thursday, October 29, 2009

Everybody Parliamo !

Today was a beautiful autumn day here in Bologna and so, a perfect day for a public debate in Piazza Maggiore. At about 2:00 I passed by a small cluster of perhaps ten people. One of them, the one speaking, was standing on a little plastic footstool. I didn’t stick around but went on a walk into a part of town I had neglected until now. When I circled back to Piazza Maggiore about an hour-and-a-half later, the crowd had grown to about a hundred. They had formed an ellipse in front of the Neptune fountain. This time I stuck around to get the gist of the argument. It had to do with whether Silvio Berlusconi should stay or go as Prime Minister in light of the corruption charges against him as well as accusations of sex with a minor. He has been quoted as saying, “I’m not a saint.” No kidding.

Anyway, the debate at the fountain concerned these issues. What was interesting to me was the way that whoever had the floor was custodian of the footstool. Whoever wished to hold forth would stand on it. Although only a foot off the ground, it was enough to give the speaker sufficient authority to say his or her piece. Two men who were among the crowd had some energetic exchanges but it never got personal . They were on either side of the space where the group had formed. When one was done making his point he would disembark from the stool, walk about fifteen feet across the space and hand it to the man whose views he had just been criticizing. Then the other fellow would mount the stool, talk about how totally wrong-headed the first guy was, get off the stool and walk back across the no-man’s –land to hand the stool back. This went on for quite some time. Their exchanges were very civil. I was fascinated by the ritualistic aspect of it--it was very Lord of the Flies (with a stool instead of a conch shell). I wondered if it would occur to either of them that it would be more efficient for them to stand side-by-side and just shorten the distance between them by about a million percent, but apprently it didn't. Anyway, the space between them and the ensuing Walk With Stool resulted in a dramatic pause between the airings of their two opposing views. Efficiency clearly isn’t everything.

My own efforts at communication in Italian class are starting to yield results but it has not been easy. As I mentioned in a previous post, the rooms are like echo chambers so I really have to work to hear what everyone is saying. The other day in class we saw a riveting video about three people waiting for a train. I won’t go into detail, but in about three minutes we learn things about the characters that are not apparent at first glance. The problem was I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying. When I asked my teacher whether the old man in the film (avuncular and yet a pick-pocket) was speaking in a dialect she said, “No. He’s just not opening his mouth.” So, we have this film made specifically for foreigners learning Italian and they choose actors who don’t open their mouths. Very frustrating. Perhaps our next film will feature speakers without tongues. After our first viewing we watched it again with Italian subtitles. Maybe this would be helpful, I thought. Not exactly. Because the actors were speaking so fast the subtitles flashed on the screen so quickly I could barely read five words before one subtitle vanished and the next appeared. They functioned not so much as subtitles but more like a memory test in which cards with various unrelated words are placed in front of you for a milisecond as you try to remember as many as you can. That was really a low point I can tell you.

Happily I’m starting to hear the language better. I know this because I am getting more out of eavesdropping on the bus than I used to. Although I haven’t heard anything exciting it’s nice to know that all over the world people are looking for better apartments or agonizing over the perfect gift for their sisters-in-law.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Boris Among the Pigeons

For today's blog I am thrilled to introduce guest blogger Boris Impasta who happens to be my ten-year old son. I hope you will enjoy his unique take on Venice:

Pigeons are weird, funny, dumb birds. Their lives revolve around food. It doesn't matter if it's strawberries or prosciutto ham. They'll gang up on you or come on your head to get a scrap. They will chase each other for food or be chased by another that has food. If you look from 200 feet, one person feeds one pigeon (some dots are around). It's kind of like a magnet. You see a ton of little dots that come and make one whole big dot around the person who is the bull's eye.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On the Morandi Trail

The most famous artist to come from Bologna is probably Giorgio Morandi, a painter who lived from 1890 until 1964. For most of his life he lived with his sister in an apartment in a quiet neighborhood, not far from the center of the city. He rarely travelled. The paintings for which he is best known are still lifes of very ordinary objects posed in very intentional ways. Like many art students, including Bill, I was introduced to Morandi’s work in college. As an eighteen-year old art student who was ready to Change People’s Perceptions with my ten-foot tall paintings, I was bored to tears looking at his unflashy, deceptively simple paintings. I still cannot honestly say I love them, but I do think having those thirty years or so acquaintanceship with his work has increased my appreciation of them.

In Bologna there are two places to see the work of Morandi: the Morandi Museum in Piazza Maggiore and the Museo Morandi, Casa, his former apartment which is located not far from Porta San Stefano, an easy bus ride from our apartment. Saturday we spent the day with Morandi, hitting both places. One of my friends, a phrase maker and fish babysitter extraordinaire called this our Moranday.

Morandi’s still lifes were based on a group of vases and bowls that he used and reused during is his entire career. Every once and awhile he would throw in a seashell. This is the stuff I wanted to see, the reason I wanted to visit his studio. Through all my years of seeing his paintings I felt like I could walk right up to the peach colored liqueur bottle with the rectangular sides and say, “I’ve been a fan of yours for years.”

So, we took the bus to Via Fondazza, a quiet, narrow street of shops with apartments above. Number 36 was just past Piazzetta Morandi and except for the “Morandi” label on the doorbell, it looked like all the others. We rang and were buzzed up. The austere stairway was like plenty of others, including our own. Upon opening the door, my perception changed entirely. The first thing I was aware of was a portentious voice decribing Morandi’s life and times. A slide show was projected on a wall. It featured grainy photographs of Morandi at work. This isn’t at all what I expected. Where was the studio ? The kitchen ? The bedroom ? Eventually I discovered these rooms behind floor-to-ceiling plexiglass screens. As if the plexiglass wasn’t obtrusive enough, they were decorated with odd graphic shapes, presumably to keep visitors or wayward crows from bumping into them. The odd thing about all this is that Morandi was not wealthy and had very few precious objects. A discreet velvet cordon would have served purposes of security every bit as well as these huge plexiglass walls. After all, Ca’Rezzenico in Venice, a palazzo transformed into a decorative art museum full of priceless and extremely breakable objects does very well with this method. Actually, most of the time you can walk right up to everything in the Palazzo. I really think the Morandi Casa designers needed a little perspective !

The whole time I was there I kept thinking about a possible episode of the Andy Griffith Show (which is one of my favorite TV shows ever). I could just imagine Andy winning the Best Sheriff in the Mount Pilot Region Award. He goes to collect the award in Raleigh (because he always goes there for the big stuff) and when he returns he is shocked to discover that Barney has turned his house into a museum complete with docents (Gomer and Otis, I’m picturing) and all the familiar rooms sealed off from visitors. (Did they have plexiglass in 1962 ?) I can practically hear Don Knott’s high-pitched voice as he proclaims, ”This is the very kitchen where Sheriff Taylor drinks his coffee every morning before his day of crime fightin.’ He takes his eggs sunny-side up.”

Of course our visit wouldn’t have been complete if somebody hadn’t admonished Boris to stop leaning on the plexiglass. I guess the designers of the space didn’t consider all the energy that would now and forever be expended guarding the plexiglass and removing finger, nose and forehead prints from it.

There is definitely something wrong with a museum that hits you between the eyes with its Museumocity. The brochure brings into perfect clarity everything that is wrong with the place, and I don’t think the problem is a faulty translation. Here is an excerpt:

The projects starts from the concept of a “place of narration and memory” [I am assuming this quote is from the architect Iosa Ghini.] and thanks to the use of contemporary materials and technological equipment, aims at giving value to the different functions of the environments; some of them (studio, store-room, anteroom) came back to life according to a planned operation of symbolic restitution of a lost place. Thanks to a museographic setting exploiting the narrative opportunities contained in the different tools used, the visitor can experience the typical Morandian atmosphere in the smallest detail.

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve read Artforum Magazine so I’m a little rusty with the art talk. I think the “different tools used” might be the still life objects, the easel, the paints. You know-- all the Morandian stuff. I guess we can’t just say "studio" or "store-room" and leave it at that can we ? No sireee. We have to call them “environments.” It’s so much more museographic that way. Bill figured out that the “symbolic restitution” phrase was an admission that the apartment was a recreation. This makes sense when you consider that there was a thirty year period between Morandi’s death and the opening of the museum when it was probably empty or perhaps a batchelor pad with beaded curtains and a waterbed.

Despite all the hubub of the documentary film and the fact that the museum guards outnumbered the visitors, it really was great to see the place where the paintings were made. I just couldn’t stop looking at the still life objects all crowded into a closet. They were amazingly ugly; exactly the same kind of vases and knick-knacks you get for free from the florist or win at carnivals; the ones that show up years later at yard sales. What did Morandi see when he looked at his collection of objects ? Their ordinariness ? Or did he see something beautiful in them before he even picked up his paintbrush ?

After our visit to the house we went to the “regular” Morandi Museum in Piazza Maggiore, which is an art gallery with room after room of his paintings, spanning his entire career. Besides the still lifes we could see a selection of landscapes. There were perhaps a dozen of these scattered throughout the museum, at least half of which were views into the courtyard from his studio window, the view we had just seen earlier in the day. I had never been wild about the landscapes in the past, but now I could see that the colors absolutely were those of Bologna: the warm red clay of the buildings, the sage green of the foliage. I appreciated the clever design elements of the museum: walls, paintings and benches. Best of all, there was no voiceover and visitors could move freely through the space.

I thought I might come back from our Moranday all primed to paint still lifes or at least a Bolognese landscape or two, but that didn’t happen. Apparently I’m still waiting to come up against my next source of ideas. I just hope I won’t have to bump into a plexiglass wall in the process.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Battling La Bella Lingua

I am ratcheting up the Italian class. This week I decided to take a twenty-hour course at the school where I have been studying with a tutor. (Four hours a day for five days, not twenty hours in one day). The idea behind it is to immerse myself in the language so that I hear the words better. As things stand now, I talk better than I listen. To which Bill would reply, “And how is this any different from your English ?”

I have to say that I am very frustrated right now. First of all, because we are in such an old palatial building, with high ceilings and real plaster instead of drywall, the classroom is like an echo chamber. Whenever anyone speaks it comes out sounding like that special effects part of the Led Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love.” And baby I’m not foolin’. I’m constantly cupping my hand to my ear like Walter Brennan, that beloved old codger from all the Wild West movies half a century ago. Any minute now I’m going to start saying, “Eh-h-h-h-h? What’s that you say ?”

But it isn't just the room, it's the people in the room that are frustrating me. Oh, I'm sure they're very nice once you get to know them, but they aren't doing much for my Italian studies. Here's why. One of the students is German. He is learning Spanish and Italian at the same time. He seems very proud of this accomplishment but I think he should really rethink it. The result is that every word begins its inception as a distinctly German guttural sound. Then we move on to the Spanish portion of the word. A slight pause and then along comes some sort of extra vowel at the end, for that Italian flourish. He’s the student on my right. On my left is a Russian with huge tatoos all over his arms. Before I took a good look I was ready to compliment him on his sweater. He speaks without opening his mouth. Sometimes when Boris is in a surly mood (my son Boris that is, I don’t think this fellow’s name is Boris although it very well could be) he refuses to open his mouth when he talks and I threaten to take away his allowance. Unfortunately I don’t have that kind of leverage in this case. I assume this student is in Bologna on some kind of ventriloquism scholarship. Next to him is a very nice man from England. He is, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, a “low talker.” I strain to hear what he is saying and catch maybe every third word, but here’s the odd thing—he’s a loud and long laugher. Although I can hear every nuance of his hearty laugh it is not doing much for my Italian conversation.

There’s an American student from Florida who speaks well and clearly. He’s leaving for the United States tomorrow. There’s also an Italian woman sitting in who is minutes from becoming a teacher of Italian and is gearing up for a big exam. Of course she speaks beautifully but since she is only meant to be a mosca (fly) on the wall, she barely speaks at all. And then there’s me. My grammar is a bit improvisational. I speak in that conscientious way that Americans do, with extra hard “r”s. Fortunately my Chicago accent with its flat vowels is actually helpful for Italian where the vowels are quite precise, not rounded like those you hear in Virginia.

At least I’m old enough to "own" my lack of comprehension and to admit it to the teacher . This cluelessness comes across as extreme interest so teachers tend to like me. I’m always the one asking a ton of questions. Today we had to listen to a dialog between two people and then test our comprehension. The catch was that we couldn’t read along with the tape. Remember when we used to have record players and the most hilarious thing was to put the 33rpm album on at 78 rpms? ( Dean Martin never sounded better.) Well, this is pretty much how the dialog sounded to me. When the teacher asked me what I understood I told her “quasi niente.” (Almost nothing). She asked me what I heard specifically. I told her “macchina.” (Car.) Yes, the dialog was about two people discussing the sale of a car although I obviously missed the whole dramatic arc which is unfortunate. Will Guido sell Maria the car of her dreams ? Will her father lend her the money even though he is reluctant to buy a used car ? And what of her independence if she accepts the loan ? Can she come to love a blue car when she has her heart set on red ? There it was, a stirring drama contained within a couple of paragraphs and I missed it all.

After my admission of defeat the teacher did what good teachers do the world over. She tried to find something positive in my handling of the language. As I recall she liked the way I said “buon.” Anyway, I think I’m stuck with this class. As I see it, I can’t switch to another because of the students when the teachers are quite good and I'm in the right class level. My only recourse as I see it is to bring an ear trumpet to class tomorrow.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Balloon Mystery Solved

Several posts ago I was pondering the mystery of a windowbox decorated with balloons as well as flowers. Whatever could it mean ? And how about the Clown Man ? Was he involved ? Well, yesterday he was planting flowers in his front yard which gave me the chance to ask whether the windowbox was his and if so, why was it decorated like that. Yes, it was his creation. The reason ? He wanted to give children something fun to look at. I will admit to feeling a little creepiness in his answer but I don't think he was expecting to lure anybody with his windowbox. He just seems to be somebody who's child-like himself and wants to reach out to others. So while I didn't uncover an intriguing Italian custom, at least I solved my little mystery.

Dear Old Venice

Good news everyone ! I have come up with a new affectation ! Whenever I reminisce about Venice I’ll say “Dear Old Venice.” Just to clarify how this works, I might be discussing a shortcoming—like the rudeness of Venetians to tourist. At that point in the conversation I’ll just shake my head like a doting mother and say “Ahh, Dear Old Venice” or for variety’s sake, “That’s my Venice !” Is there anything more insufferable than somebody using the possessive when talking about a place ? Well, I certainly hope so because I have about a month left to come up with whatever that might be.

I don’t know what I can say about Venice that hasn’t been said before and by much better writers. This was my third visit and each time I have been struck by how suddenly you are there IN the city. One minute you are looking out the window at cars and buses. Then all of a sudden you get off the train at San Lucia Station, leave its utilitarian confines and find yourself face to face with canals, ornate buildings punctuated by Moorish windows, gondolas-- all the evidence you could possibly require to demonstrate that you did in fact get on the right train.

Now that we can do so much planning online, we chose days which promised to be sunny, so every color was luminous. There may be something a little forced about planning an experience so carefully that the light conditions and weather are pre-arranged. Yet when you consider how heavily touristed a place this is, and how choreographed the visits, it isn't inappropriate. Right away you get the impression that there just might be a few too many tourists in Venice when you see a cruise ship the size of a Las Vegas hotel floating down the Grand Canal. There is a pervasive air of impatience on the part of the staffs at hotels, shops and restaurants. Boy are they sick of us. Throughout the city there are bright yellow signs placed at strategic locations indicating the way to Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge and other must-see locales. Apparently several thousand Venetians got together and said, “If one more person asks me the way to San Marco I’m going to throw them in the Canal !” Hence the signs. Hence also the pay toilets for 1.50 Euros—that more than $2.00 !

At this point I feel I can make my blog rather useful. You may be getting sick of my quirky little observations about balloon-bedecked windows and such. So here is a hotel recommendation: Hotel San Sebastiano Garden. It is in the Dorsoduro section of Venice, well away from the crowds of San Marco, although for all I know there are crowds here too during the high season. But at least there are less pigeons. The area is full of wonderful old buildings and campi, the Venetian word for piazze (plural of piazza). It is very easy to cut across this part of Venice to reach the Accademia (Venice's large art museum, now underegoing major addition and construction, causing many rooms to be closed) and places beyond. The hotel was clean, with nicely decorated rooms and a very pretty garden in the back. If the staff is not effusive, it is efficient and polite. The prices are not cheap—that’s about impossible to find in Venice—but certainly lower down the scale than many. By the way, I am not receiving any compensation for this endorsement. Unfortunately.

Although it is by no means my favorite part of Venice, we did of course visit Piazza San Marco. How nice to see the Cathedral, the Belltower, the arcades flanking the square, the Doges Palace. Maybe someday we’ll be able to see them all together without a large “Guess Jeans” billboard obstructing the view. You see, companies that subsidize major restoration projects get to decorate the large screens that cover the building you came to see. Which means that right now Piazza San Marco has a little bit of Times Square about it.

There’s always one area or another being cleaned and currently the city is making major repairs to the drainage system so there is a substantial wall surrounding the belltower. On Boris's behest we took the elevator to the top of this last structure, the campanile, in Italian and it was great. You can really get a sense of the way Venice is laid out. It was fun to pick out the various churches and palaces we had seen previously at ground level.

Since our visit took place in mid-October there were definitely less children around, and not even that many college students for that matter. The typical tourist, especially in our hotel, seemed to be a retiree, well-dressed and coiffed and physically fit, rather like an ad for Centrum Silver. A nice-looking crowd. These types hardly ever wear tee-shirts with writing on them although I suppose the discreet Lacoste alligator might be their version of the Outer Banks “Brew Through” shirt. It just isn’t a friendly bunch. I know this because while waiting in lines for museums, inevitable here, I like to make conversation with whomever is next to me. This I was unable to do. It seems that nobody wants to be outed as a tourist, which is of course totally ridiculous. If you aren't a tourist why are you waiting to see Bellini paintings in the middle of the week on a beautiful day ? I mean, I’ve taught college-level art for years and I KNOW that people don’t love Renaissance art as much as all that.

We spent two night in Venice and almost three days. We enjoyed it immensely but were ready to leave. At least Bill and I were. Boris was absolutely entranced and I envied the lack of awareness he has about How Much Things Cost. It was hard for me to surrender to the spirit of Venice when a vaporetto ride (the “economical” mode of transportation) cost $30 a trip for the three of us. A simple pizza lunch cost as much as a substantial dinner in Bologna and virtually every church now charges admission. I ended up visiting more Bancomats than museums.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Loving Lard

Greetings. We just returned from a few days in Venice and Padova. So this blog entry was left in limbo for about a week. Much like the cured meats that this entry describes, it has been aging and curing.

I looked at the calendar today and realized that we’d missed the Mortadella Festival. Darn. I hate when I do that. If you thought I was exaggerating when I said that Bologna is very serious about food, maybe the fact that there is a festival devoted to a cold cut will cause you to think otherwise. So you see that it is no coincidence that one of our lunch meats is called bologna instead of, say, venezia.

Despite missing the festival I was not lacking in my own cured meat experience this week. I had an epiphany, or as I like to call it, a lardiphany. Yes, I had sliced lard and I enjoyed it ! It was as though all those years I spent asking for “lean corned beef”, cooking bacon to be extra crispy, looking for the low fat content on ground beef all melted away—much like lard does when served on warm bread . It really tasted like nothing else I have eaten. It was thinly sliced with subtle spices and was a good deal less salty than the prosciutto and other cured pork offerings that are ubiquitous here. Another thing that sets it apart is the color. It’s white. There’s simply no mistaking it for anything other than pure fat.

So here I am, just where I want to be, on the leading edge of a trend because, in case you weren’t aware of it, fat is back baby ! (I keep wanting to write fat is fatback baby.) Yes--after years of being shunned it has returned in a blaze of glory. No longer a food of necessity, it is now artisanal. Of course the lard I ate was extremely artisanal. None of that mass-produced lard you get out of vending machines. Only the finest for me !

The site of my awakening to lard was Tamburini, a food emporium/wine bar. We had been passing by its tables, actually large wine barrels, for a couple weeks How I envied the contented customers dining on huge plates of cheeses and cold cuts along with large glasses of wine. So, one afternoon we happened to be passing by and saw an empty table. What to do ? What to do ? Boris had his heart set on gelato and here we were at the threshold of Cured Meat Paradise. You’re crying your eyes out for us aren’t you ? Not to worry. We solved the problem by sending Boris down the street to the gelateria that sells six types of chocolate gelato, and probably some other flavors too (although why bother with those ?) He brought his dessert back to the table and joined us, so everyone was happy. Especially me. Although I have certainly purchased little samples of meats and cheeses at various salumerie in Bologna, I always did so in a haphazard way. Eating at Tamburini is like having a native Bolognese do the shopping for you, matching condiments, cheeses and meats so that they all complement each other. The fact that every table was occupied by tourists didn’t bother me too much. This place is like a food museum so it made sense that visitors from all over would want to go there. I mean, you'd expect a few tourists at the Sistine Chapel wouldn't you ?

This palace of food is on Via Caprarie which is becoming my favorite street. It’s like a Rodeo Drive of food. Besides Tamburini there are various smaller salumerie, several caffes, the aforementioned gelateria and the Bottega di Caffe, a serious coffee store balanced by a room devoted to candy. In addition there is a store called Libreria Ambasciatori. It is a bit like Barnes & Noble in the sense that it sells books and has readings by authors. It has a caffe too, but then it goes a few steps further with an enocoteca that sells wine by the glass or bottle and several kinds of pasta and meat platters. It also has a large retail wine and food shop attached, and the staff is very knowledgeable about the foods they are selling. So really, it’s more like a combination of Barnes & Noble and William Sonoma. When we were kids we always used to joke about getting locked in the downtown Chicago Marshall Fields at night. Now that Fields has turned into Macy’s my new fantasy is to spend the night at Ambasciatori.

The funny thing is that five minutes' walk from these shops are four of Bologna’s museums. They’re interesting and they’re free and I know I should be spending a lot of time in them. But something strange happens whenever I walk down Via dell’Archiginnasio. Like a shopping cart with a faulty wheel, I find myself veering right toward the food instead of left toward the art. I guess I'm just exploring new avenues.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Here and Eternity

Here are some interesting statistics derived from the Bologna Pagine Gialle, the Yellow Pages. Within the city, population just under 400,000(not including outlying areas), there are:

184 Catholic Churches
76 Gelaterie (Serving Gelato and sometimes other desserts)
484 Caffes (Serving Coffee, snacks, sandwiches)

It looks like I’m trying to make some sort of point about the worldly outweighing the spiritual, but I was just trying to make sure that there really were a ton of these institutions. I had a scary moment there thinking I was just walking in circles, seeing the same one or two every hour.

But no, there really is a caffe on almost every block if not two (and not one of them a Starbucks.) It is truly a mystery how they all manage to stay in business, but there are very few empty storefronts, or empty caffes for that matter. Somebody is always drinking an espresso somewhere and if the caffes offer identical beverages at identical prices, the clientele differs from one to the next. Clearly some are student hangouts while others are for retirees or office workers.

The gelaterie are (quite understandably) very popular spots. Gelato is practically the only snack food you’ll see being eaten on the street. You just don’t see the Italians carrying bags of chips or BIG Gulps. Even at the amusement park Gardaland virtually nobody was in possession of portable food. I’ll leave others to make the link between the dearth of snacks and the lower obesity rate in Italy.

Of course, Bologna, being a major city, has churches of all sizes, several which are as grandiose (if not always as visually compelling) as any you would see in Rome. Basilica San Petronio, for example, is the fifth largest church in Italy. Especially interesting to me are the smaller churches hidden away in the secluded areas of the city. Also, it’s worth keeping an eye open for the ex -churches, those that are now being reused for other purposes. For reasons never fully explained they have, for lack of a better term, gone out of business. I don’t know if these were shut in an abrupt way during a war or if it was a long, drawn-out affair. Perhaps there were weeks on end in which signs were posted: Closing Our Doors Forever ! or to adhere to a more biblical tone: Closing Our Doors For All Eternity !

On Via d’Azeglio, a street full of boutiques just south of the Basilica you can find the former church Santa Marie Rotonda dei Galuzzi. It is now a profumeria—a store selling perfume and makeup. It is not difficult to imagine its former life as a place of worship. The interior is painted white with large fluted columns that frame the space that used to be the nave. The ornate capitals and ceiling moulding date it as Baroque (like virtually every church interior in Bologna). The space behind a now-absent altar has an empty framed area where a painting must have hung. In this luminous setting shoppers purchase Lancome, Chanel and Estee Lauder products. What an odd juxtaposition it is! As if it were a church dedicated to the Transcendence of Appearances.

Continuing on through the Piazza Maggiore, past the statue of Neptune by Giambologna we cross over to Via dell’Independenza. It isn’t quite Fifth Avenue—not so fancy—maybe more like Lexington Avenue. In the window of one of the trendy boutiques lining the wide, noisy street is a tee-shirt featuring a photograph of a younger (50 let’s say) Angela Lansbury above which are the words “Murder She Wrote.” I don’t know about you, but when I want to get out of my deepening, widening middle-age rut the first thing I do to “let myself go” is to don my Angela-gear. Thank goodness I can find replacements in Bologna should the need arise !

Tomorrow night is one of the language schools “social evenings.” We’re meeting at the school and then going out for pizza. If it’s like the “gnocchi night” it will be a multi-national all-ages affair. There will be wine and animated if grammatically -flawed conversation. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be the one in the “Angela Rules !” hoodie

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Little Mystery

I said when we were starting out on our Italian adventure that our plan was to do pretty much nothing and while it has been difficult at times to stick to this regimen, we have actually adhered to it quite well. Oh sometimes I fall off the wagon and actually do something productive. I mean, the laundry isn’t going to get up and wash itself, but for the most part I have kept my ambitions to almost zero.

The result of this approach has been that I see many strange things and I have time to ponder them. For example, this window box balloon/plant arrangement was on display in early September when we arrived. We pass it every day on our way to the bus stop. At the beginning of our stay I thought that its owner was the recipient of some kind of balloon- floral bouquet which s/he was nice enough to share with passersby. Of course the balloons, as they tend to do, started losing air. We figured, well that’s the end of that. Yet the day after we witnessed the balloons valiantly gasping for their last remaining thimbleful of air, they were replaced with new balloons. So, now I’m really mystified because it is obviously an intentional and possibly permanent display. The new balloons were blue and red. Perhaps this was some kind of good luck arrangement in anticipation of a baby ? I Googled all kinds of things: balloons, windows, fertility, baby, obsessive tourist with too much time on her hands. Niente. Nothing. You can see from the photo that the balloons have been switched again. They have probably been arranged twice a week since we've been here.

Around week four the plot thickened. I saw a man leaving the building who was very distinctive looking. He had wavy dark hair, way too long to be in style. It was reminiscent of Chico Marx. He wore brightly colored clothes, often red, and his bicycle was two-toned, also bright colors. He looked, in other words, like an off-duty clown. Now, it must be said that I am not at all certain that he is the owner of the apartment and balloon window box, but wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out he was a clown and his whole apartment was furnished in clown style ? I’m picturing a bouquet in the center of the table, all made of balloons to go with the one in the window. I imagine him sweeping the floor at night, causing a spotlight to get smaller and smaller. Maybe the shoes in his closet are all really really huge. I know that if and when I get my explanation (I’ll ask my Italian teacher if I can’t find out from my neighbors) it won’t be nearly as exciting as my little idea. So maybe I shouldn’t find out anything. The reality would only burst my…balloon.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Beaten Path to Pisa

We went to Pisa yesterday. I was overwhelmed by the scale. The massive scale of kiosks where one could by these miniature sculptures of buildings along with refrigerator magnets and calendars. Please be sure to notice the fine detail of windows and columns on the sculpture above. After parking the car and walking down a crowded street we came upon a piazza surrounded by immaculately kept green grass. And you know what ? It turns out that Pisa has full-size versions of these very same miniature buildings !

That's really a smart-alecky way to start a blog post I know. The buildings are quite lovely and I can only feel sorry for the cathedral which is absolutely stunning but has to share space with one of the most famous structures in the world. I think I'll start printing tee-shirts with its image. The caption will read: "We Saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa and As Long As We Were Here We Saw This."
Bill spent a lot of time trying to get a convincing photo of Boris holding up the leaning tower. Not only does he seem to be supporting it, he looks so huge that he's supporting it in mid-air. That isn't an illusion. All that pasta and pizza really is making him bigger.

As if the photo wasn't corny enough, after lunch I couldn't resist saying,
"Hey ! We're having Pizza in Pisa !" Now that's comedy !
Oh--one last thing. I have been having trouble getting the "Comment" option to show up at the bottom of my blog. It vanished completely from the last post. For this one I have it back but it is WAY down at the bottom, so if you want to comment you'll need to scroll down. It seems like strange things happen to the layout whenever I include photos.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Pleasures and Perils of Food

I woke up this morning –late late morning it must be said—to the aroma of onions and tomatoes. Saturday must be ragu day for somebody. Well, it just confirms what every cook and wine geek says--that the sense of smell is as important as the sense of taste. (Hmm. I’m employing a lot of dashes in my writing today. It just makes me feel so breezy and carefree when I do that, like somebody who wears a lot of silk scarves). Back to my point about the sense of taste. The other afternoon I took a cooking class in which we made gnocchi, small potato dumplings. Let me tell you that gnocchi is A LOT of work. The biggest bang for one’s buck was putting a couple of little leaves of basil on top of the layered gnocchi/tomato sauce/mozarella. That millisecond of work made the whole kitchen smell like a summer garden.

Cooking classes seem to be a growing trend in Italy. Week-long courses are readily available and some are tied in with agroturismo in which you live in somebody’s home in a rural setting. For me, the afternoon class was really enough to give me a taste (if you’ll pardon the pun) of Italian cooking basics. We met at the language school, Madrelingua, (which I am enjoying and would recommend, so I've linked it) and the six of us that comprised the class took a ten -minute walk to the home of our chef-teacher. She was a young woman, obviously enthusiastic and well-organized. She managed to coordinate the tasks so that we ended up with gnocchi, polpette (meatballs) and tiramisu. Unfortunately she was one of those fast talkers who was extremely hard to understand. (She was speaking Italian after all). It’s a good thing that a cooking class is mostly demonstration or I think we would have all been totally mystified.

The most interesting aspect of the class for me was checking out the gadgets she used which were dedicated to very specific tasks. To puree the tomatoes she had something called a passapomodoro (which would be translated I think into "tomato pureeifier"). It looks like a salad spinner with a crank that pushes the juice and pulp through mesh, leaving the seeds and skin. The other item resembled one of those hand-held cheese graters, the ones that look like a garlic press except that the holes were large. This is actually a potato press. You put pieces of cooked potato in the storage area and squeeze the handles. The potatoes get extruded through the holes and this is how you get them ready to be mixed with eggs, flour and parmesan for the gnocchi batter. Now I understand why the one we have back at the apartment didn’t work so well with parmesan cheese. Generally I’m very much opposed to having gadgets around the house that only do one thing. They take up a lot of space that we don’t have. However, I can definitely see the advantages of both of these. I was very interested to note that the CD’s and books in our teacher’s house were mostly devoted to punk musicians. I like imagining her making gnocchi for Sunday dinner to a Sex Pistols soundtrack.

When it comes to food, every tourist, traveller or expat is thrust into a situation which requires diplomacy or (for the brave or foolhardy) honesty. I’ll always remember meeting the daughter of my landlady when I was studying in London. Her name was Pam. She was about five years older than me but seemed like she was about forty-five. After hearing that I was from the United States she said, “I don’t like your bread.” Well, how would you feel to be blamed for the processed bread of an entire country ? This was 1978 after all, well before artisanal bakeries starting popping up all over the States. I have to say that my relationship with Pam was never very good. I don’t think I could ever quite get past being unjustly linked to Wonderbread.

It was quite a different story the other day, in terms of food diplomacy. We were talking with an Italian friend who lives in our neighborhood and she told us about a wonderful butcher a few blocks from our house, a very traditional place and well-regarded. Oh, and they sell horsemeat exclusively. I want to bring this to your attention so that if you come to Italy and see a store called Equine Macelleria you will know that it is indeed a horse butcher. Equine isn’t a family name. Our friend was quite enthusiastic about the product. It is easy to prepare, strong-flavored but tasty. And all of a sudden I am hearing my husband say in a bright, enthusiastic voice, “We’ll have to try it !” At least I think it was him. In real life he is not this keen to try things like horsemeat. He can be quite fixed in his views and he’s not afraid to take unpopular stances. (He has been known to say that Ella Fitzgerald lacked gravitas. I mean who on earth criticizes Ella Fitzgerald ?) But as I said, residing in another country can bring out the diplomat in a person.

Am I perhaps being closed-minded ? Should there be more horsemeat in our country instead of less? Kentucky’s economic base could be greatly expanded. I’m picturing KENTUCKY RACEHORSE JERKY: They thrilled you on the track. Enjoy them as a snack ! Oh gosh, did I really write that ? Please forgive me, especially my horseback riding friends, but I’ve been having trouble sleeping so my mind has been wandering and not into very profound territory as you can see.

It occurs to me that I did not mention that the friend who waxed poetically about the horsemeat had invited us to dinner this weekend. Wouldn’t it be something if she served horsemeat due to Bill’s keen show of interest ? We discussed this later on and he referenced Anthony Bourdin’s travel/cooking show in which he eats scary food. I reminded Bill that Anthony Bourdin gets a zillion dollars to eat bunny ears or whatever. All we have is this blog.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Drinking in the Atmosphere

I have already come up with three ways to make everybody hate me when we return to the states from Bologna:

1. While in conversation, stop in the middle of a sentence and say, "Now how does one say that in English ?"
2. Say, with great authority, "Of course it's impossible to get a good cappuccino in the States. It really isn't a question of foaming the milk, the issue is one of creaminess."
3. Take foreign words like cappuccino that are in common usage in every 7-11 and McDonald's and italicize them.

Oh I'm sure I'll have lots more annoying quirks to bring home to everybody It's become kind of a parlor game with Bill and me. Nevertheless, the second point about the cappuccino does have a certain amount of merit. While I am actually quite content with the cappuccini I get stateside, I did gain some insight about the careful balance of coffee and milk from Three Monkeys Online, a blog with interesting articles generated from all over Europe. Read the article on cappuccino for greater detail. I actually do think they're right about the texture. It's different here, with more cream and less of that spongy looking foam we get back home.

But that's really such a trivial matter and you know, living abroad without much to do forces one to really focus on What's Important In Life. For instance, right now I am very much preoccupied with the extreme variations in caffe macchiato throughout Bologna. Basically, this drink is espresso with steamed milk on top, and it's a good drink for somebody like me who thinks those little cups of espresso look awfully skimpy. And yet I have gone to a couple places where my macchiato has--shocking--NO MILK AT ALL. Some have a teeny amount floating on top like an oil slick. It's really hard to know what to expect. It's a little like ordering a Coke and sometimes getting a Sprite, sometimes getting a root beer.

Yesterday morning while on my way to Italian lesson Number 3 I passed a bar (caffe to us) that was quite crowded with people standing around the counter. If you see a bar where the counter is crowded, it's a local place. If you see a bar where the tables are crowded (which means customers are paying twice as much money for a coffee as they would at the bar), it's a tourist place. At least that seems true in the morning. Possibly after work anybody and everybody finds those scenic tables irresistable. So, ever the savvy sipper, I stopped in for a coffee. The woman next to me had a beautiful drink in a diminutive cup, an espresso topped with a cloud of creamy milk. I asked her what it was, and she told me it was a macchiato. I told her of my confusion about this elusive drink and she confirmed what I had guessed. It just depends on the style of the barrista.

Of course one can't spend one's day going from caffeinated drink to caffeinated drink. What an empty existence that would be ! An alcoholic drink now and then is just the ticket. My favorite so far is the Spritzer. Assuredly not the 1970's white wine and club soda beverage, but a mix of prosecco (a bubbly white wine, very popular in Northern Italy) and Campari or Aperol, two very bitter concoctions that are always served in mixtures with other things. This is one of those syntheses where the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts and will definitely become part of the repertoire at Casa Impasta.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ferrara on Two Wheels

Today we went to the nearby city of Ferrara, just a half hour by train from Bologna. We had planned to go to Ravenna to see the mosaics, but yesterday I met with my Italian tutor and it happened that we were reading an article about Ferrara . The article discussed the fact that there are 2.7 bicycles per inhabitant and that 87 percent of the population use bikes as a mode of transportation. The reason for these astounding statistics is that the historical area of Ferrara became a pedestrian zone after World War II, decades before other cities even considered it. I was intrigued and since Boris has become such a bike nut here I thought that this would be a treat and would make the viewing of museums and palazzi go down easier. So Ravenna was postponed and Ferrara was our new destination.

Leaving the train station we found a bike rental shop right away, one of several in the city. For about ten dollars per person we each rented bikes with locks included. They were fitted out with those mousetrap rack things in the back and mine even had an adorable basket. Getting into the historical part of town went pretty smoothly. There are separate bike paths set well away from the roads. Once within the city gates the situation changed a bit. On the bright side we were able to cover a lot of ground and it was enjoyable being part of the passing parade. The downside was the chaos of the traffic in the narrow multi-use streets. Bikes mingled with pedestrians, each pretty much ignoring the other. I know that when I’m walking on the bike/walking path at home I hear these perky alerts every few minutes: “ On your right !” as a bike passes me at blazing speed. There is none of that communication here, but for the most part everyone seems to coexist. Being used to it must be a tremendous help. The trickiest part is that the pedestrian streets aren’t totally without cars. Taxis and service vehicles are allowed and at one point a whole street became clogged because a garbage truck was making its rounds. The street was so narrow that unless we wanted to tag along with the truck all morning we had to practically flatten ourselves against the walls of the flanking buildings in order to pass.

The vehicles at least stick to conventional traffic rules. The bike-riders on the other hand are operating by their own inner compasses. They aren’t rude intentionally, but if somebody wants to cross your lane to buy an espresso they’re just going to go ahead and do it. Intersections were the absolute worst. The biker who has the right of way is the one who believes he has it.

We attempted to follow the bike path that is supposed to be on top of the city wall but I’m afraid we made a hash of that and somehow lost the wall. Or the wall stopped. It’s really hard to say which. We did however manage to find the ugliest square block in the city with derelict graffiti-covered warehouses. Yep. We’re definitely the people you want to team up with on The Amazing Race.

All in all I would say that I enjoyed Ferrara except for the bike experience. Ironic isn’t it ? The very thing that enticed us to go there was the thing I liked the least. It has very few tourists and the people were very friendly. If the tourist sites are few, the singular atmosphere makes up for it. With so few cars and so many people pedaling along, its as though everybody in Ferrara is part of a very quiet procession. As the day became more cloudy the atmosphere became more dreamlike. At times I felt as though I was inside a painting or a stage-set in which everything has less weight than ordinary things. This sensation of lightness, of freedom, reached its zenith for me at the moment I returned the bike.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bologna on a Sunday

I saw this hanging in a Palazzo we visited yesterday..
Clearly it is a Renaissance Disco Ball.
Looking for something a little unusual in a Bed & Breakfast ? Do you find the typical B & B too short for your liking ? Look no further ! This tower has a couple rooms for rent. It's right in the middle of Bologna and if you get lost on the winding city streets you can probably spot it looming over the other buildings. Just don't get it confused with the other towers nearby. In the closeup the windows above the entry show where the rooms are.
The sign on the door says that an upper room is available for wedding receptions. No mention of an elevator however.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Walking and Talking

I have come to the conclusion that I am a really out-of-shape. Yesterday we spent several hours walking around, having a look at the museum of Medieval History. It wasn't a particularly demanding sight-seeing day as those things go, but by the time we got home every muscle in my legs ached. This I don’t understand. Bologna is flat and surely my years of living in central Virginia with its hilly if not mountainous terrain would have given me the requisite physique for this trip. I’m beginning to think that the aches and pains are due to walking on stone. Bill, on the other hand, thinks it’s because when I speak Italian to people I get on my tiptoes, putting undue stress on my calves. And he may be right. Why I do this is anybody’s guess, but it does take every bit of my attention to carry on a conversation in Italian and I probably tense up. So, in order to improve my conversational skills and hopefully get off my tiptoes I am going to take a few individual lessons at a local language school. Hmmm... taking a language course to improve my physical fitness. That has to be a pretty unusual strategy.

I stopped by the school yesterday and took a test to determine my level. It was Upper Intermediate, which was disappointing to me. Surely all those years of practicing and studying should give me a higher rating, but sadly, I’m not a detail-oriented person when it comes to language. I can never remember when to use in, a, or da. I am a busy person and I just don't have time for a lot of prepositions. At any rate, I’m glad that when I answered the self-evaluation question (before getting my test results) I selected the response “I have a good knowledge of Italian” instead of “I have such an amazing fluency in Italian that it borders on the poetic.” That really would have been embarassing.

Awkward segueway coming up here. Speaking of conversation, which I sort of was a moment ago, when we left our apartment yesterday afternoon to go to the park, we passed a group of four women in a courtyard just down the street. They were sitting on benches in animated conversation. When we returned home two hours later they were still there, still animated. It is amazing to me how central conversation is to Italians of every age. By way of comparison, think about the times you might have taken your child to the park. (If you live in Charlottesville Pen Park is a good example—large enough to have a decent sized sampling of people.) Think about how many of the parents are on cell phones while their kids are playing (including you or me). A lot right ? Maybe half the parents there ? That hardly ever happens here in the Bologna parks. The large one a few blocks from our apartment is packed with kids and parents after school. While the kids are playing,the parents are talking. Certain areas of the park seem to be reserved for the seniors. These are the areas with several benches grouped together. Every afternoon we find groups of them in animated conversation. I am interested in the fact that it is always men and women together. They are generally dressed very well, the women in dresses and the men in “grown up” slacks. It is very rare that you would see a man in his seventies in jeans. And cell phones ? Hardly a one.

This after-school park ritual has been a wonderful opportunity for us. Boris has met kids that he can ride bikes and play soccer with, and Bill and I have gotten to know some of the parents. When you start to speak to the residents it is almost like a curtain is drawn back and you see parts of Bologna that you miss in the guide books and tourist areas. So, now we know where to buy the best lasagna. We learned what the schools are like. We have commiserated about how boys hate to do homework. We found out that the reason the playground is roped off was that a child died last year falling off a deteriorating swing. Now the city has to check every single bold and chain on every piece of equipment. Which will apparently take months.

With my newly acquired information about where to get the best lasagna, I headed over to the local pasticceria yesterday. The price for a small container was shocking. So shocking that I can’t even bring myself to write down the price in this blog. But I paid up and brought home the precious container. When I told Bill what I paid he asked why I bought it. Well, that was the first thing he said after he recovered from fainting. I answered, “Because I didn’t want to disappoint you !” Boris nodded his head fervently. He had been looking forward to the lasagna all day. So, it has come to a pretty pass. A layered pasta dish has become central to our lives. We think about it all day and we’re willing to pay whatever it costs. I kind of get the whole drug addict thing now.