Sunday, November 22, 2009

Only A-a-a-chooo

Italy Through My Window

I’ve been sick for several days now. Nothing major, just the kind of cold that results in a general crumminess. I’ve mostly been in bed and with the weather remaining damp and the sky gray for possibly the seventh day in a row, I haven’t felt motivated to emerge from the house too often. It is very strange and frustrating to be bedridden in Italy. Italy is out there and I’m missing it ! It is some comfort to look out and see the stucco house across the courtyard and to hear occasional conversation of passersby. At least I have reminders that I’m drinking fluids and blowing my nose in another country.

When Bill sees our neighbors he’ll tell them that I am “malata.” They look at him with intensity (according to him) and ask “Influenza ?” He answers “No. A-a-a-choooo.” It is quite apparent that Bill is very happy about how easy it is to communicate without any of the tedium of actually learning a language. Boris is the same way. “All you really need to know is ‘vuoi giocare ?’” (Do you want to play ?) Meanwhile, I am sitting around with two dictionaries, two grammar books and an extra book devoted to Italian verbs. So clearly there are two contrasting attitudes about learning La Bella Lingua in Casa Impasta.

Last night Bill and Boris came back from our neighborhood gelateria with a big tub of three flavors. The place we like to go is called Tentazioni, on Via Toscana. In our collective opinion it rivals the best in the city although the number of flavors is limited. Anyway, I really did start to feel better afterwards , so now I’m thinking that gelato must have some of the same healing properties as chicken soup.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sometimes Travel is Boring

I have to say that travel is a lot easier when the weather is warm and the skies are blue. If it’s sunny and eighty degrees you can go to a caffe, have a glass of wine and basically do nothing but watch the people. I can do this for hours. When you do this in a foreign country you can say you’re soaking up the atmosphere or learning about the culture. If you do this in Charlottesville eventually a waiter will tell you to move along.

I bring this up because we have had awful, depressing weather for at least a week. We wake up and the sky is a yellowish gray, the kind of light that can set off migraines for me. And that’s on a good day. Other days it rains, or the sky is almost the color of charcoal. It’s hard to know what time it is. We were out yesterday afternoon, and it appeared to be dusk. It was actually 3:30. We enjoy the night better than the day, because that depressing low-lying cloudy sky becomes atmospheric after the sun goes down, and it really isn’t very cold out. There are lots of people out strolling in the central area, and with the Christmas lights it really has that festive bustling quality that a “real” city can have. I mean cities where people actually live and work.

We are leaving Bologna in a week, and are just trying to revisit parts of the city we have enjoyed. After visiting Ravenna we decided that we didn’t have it in us to scope out any more neighboring cities, rushing around to the sites and trying to make train connections. So, for the most part we are staying put. Except for my idea last week of visiting San Pietro in Casale, 20 minutes outside of Bologna. If you look for this town in a guide book you won’t find it. Here’s a link though. The reason we went there was that every time we took a train east we would pass it. From our vantage point through the train window it seemed like a pretty little town, and one afternoon I could see an outdoor market taking place. So I got it into my head that we were “meant” to see this town.

Getting there was easy and cost about $5 for all three of us. We arrived at about two in the afternoon and upon leaving the train station were greeted with an unpromising view of blocks of non-descript housing planted along a straight road that spread out in both directions, seemingly without end. Here’s a little bit of geography and history for you. With few exceptions, notably the Apennine Mountains, Emilia-Romagna is FLAT and as a former midwesterner I know flat. In addition the road that connects towns and cities along this terrain is perfectly straight and flat. The fact that it is superimposed on an ancient Roman road makes it a little more interesting. But only a little. So, San Pietro in Casale is adjacent to this road It is mostly residential, composed of two- and three-story apartment buildings. (Single family homes are the exception in Italy, even in the rural and suburban areas.) There are some factories and office buildings on the edge of the town and then the town gives way to orchards and small farms. Eventually you will run into one of the prosperous and interesting cities of the region--Mantova or Parma, for example. But you'll also come across a lot of towns you've never heard of.

There was nobody around as we walked through residential streets looking for the central area. The green and blue shutters of the cream- and peach- colored homes were closed tight. We felt like intruders, as though we had ridden into a town of the Old West on our horses. Bill expected that at any minute we’d hear a creaking door, flapping loose on a hinge. Perhaps the sound of a tinny piano would come from a town saloon. But no. At last we found the center of town which consisted of several banks, a movie theatre, a church , stationary store and a couple caffes. Except for the caffes everything was closed. There were a couple solitary people sitting outside, but the weather wasn’t really hospitable enough to do this with any enjoyment, and they didn’t look like they were especially happy to be huddled on the benches

So, within about fifteen minutes it became clear to us that San Pietro in Casale was undiscovered for a reason. It’s pretty boring. The funny thing is that when you go somewhere that has little to recommend it, you tend to search for interesting things about it. It’s kind of like when I go to my dentist and I try to figure out the pattern on the textured accoustical tile ceiling. It’s something I wouldn’t spend five seconds doing under normal circumstances, but when I'm getting my teeth drilled and filled, I suddenly find this activity quite absorbing. In a similar way, we looked for anything that might be a tiny bit interesting in San Pietro in Casale. Certainly, the church, Saints Pietro and Paolo (that’s one church, two saints) is very pretty in terracotta stucco and white. Unfortunately it was closed. We came across the town supermarket. It was in in a well-designed modern shopping center of sensible dimensions; it didn’t overwhelm the apartments around it. We admired the timbers that served as a portico and looked nice against the stucco walls.

I guess I can now see where that expression, “Nothing much to write home about” comes from. But this too is travel. Some places are just ordinary and probably most people the world over live in just such ordinary places. The good part is that the town's residents won’t have to worry about a travel writer buying a home and penning a witty travel-log called “My Year of the Bella Vita in San Pietro in Casale and Don’t You Wish You Were Me” which will subsequently bring in huge tour buses and ruin the town. To be honest, there isn’t much there to ruin.

We did what we generally do when we’re at a loss. We found a caffe. This one was quite comfortable, possessing chairs and tables. Perhaps you already know that at least half the caffes in Italy offer only stand-up bars, so to find one with furnishings was quite a welcome sight and served to give shape to the day. We had a light lunch and I took a look at jewelry the woman at the next table was selling. After lunch we had dessert. And then we had coffee. And we laughed thinking ahead to some day in the future, when back home in Virginia, we’ll say, “Remember that crazy day we went to that boring town ? What was it’s name again ? Who's idea was that ?” I don’t know that San Pietro in Casale will ever hold any magic for us, but it will always be worth a smile.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cioccoshow 2009 !

These tools and locks are molded chocolate, dusted with cocoa.

Concessions set up in front of the Duomo. That might be the Dave Clark Five on the right.

In the words of Rhoda Morgenstern (from the Mary Tyler Moore show), "Chocolate Solves Everything." Crummy gray weather (four days straight)? A Common Cold ? (Which I have) Uncooperative Homeschooler (ditto) ? Well, there's nothing like a five-day chocolate festival to cheer everyone up. Piazza Maggiore, Piazza Galvani and other streets in the center are now full of vendors selling all types of chocolate. They have come from all over Italy and I also spotted a Belgian chocolatier. So, we had a great time, trying various confections and enjoying the visual spectacle. Enjoy the photos and I'm sorry that multi-media doesn't include sending flavors over the internet.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Going to the Teatro

Such a small world. Earlier in the week we went to a performance by the Spaghetti Western Orchestra. Just think about all the connections for a minute. The band performed music by Enrico Morricone, an Italian composer of film scores that were set in the American West but filmed in Italy. The members of the Spaghetti Western Orchestra who sang the songs about the American West that were filmed in Italy and composed by an Italian are from… Australia. At certain points one of the performers spoke in a Clint Eastwood voice. This was especially humorous when he was speaking Italian. “Sto cercando un uomo. Il nome e’ Bob Robertson.”

Bologna is actually not a very large city. In fact it seems smaller the more we’ve lived here. I think one could cover the entire historical area in less than a day on foot, as long as you didn’t stop in the museums. And yet for a city of rather small size, it has a lot of performance venues. Just ten minutes from our house is the Villa Mazzacorati, a grand Palladian style home made only slightly less imposing by the crumbling stucco and faded paint. It is now owned by the comune of Bologna and serves as a social center, clinic and also houses a historic collection of toy soldiers.
A few weeks back I visited the Villa for a concert by a soprano who sang selections from Italian opera and some American favorites. The poster said she was going to sing songs from Liza Minelli’s repertoire, so Bill really wanted to go. I told him he couldn’t show up just for the express purpose of laughing at the singer. As it turned out he and Boris made other plans so I went by myself.

I did not have high hopes. The performance was held, not in the gorgeous theatre which I’ll discuss momentarily , but in a utilitarian multi-purpose room filled with folding chairs. Just about every seat was taken for this free event. By my estimate I was the youngest person in the room. And I’m not that young. It became clear that the Villa Mazacorati functions as a social center for the retirees of the neighborhood, and looking around the room, I found little to distinguish the people from those that would have frequented the “Ethel Merman Sing-a-long” at my grandmother’s condominium. I guess what I mean by that is they were well dressed in elaborately textured sweaters with shiny jewelry and there was lots of burgundy-dyed hair. Not a blue jeans crowd and not a "Gray is Beautiful" crowd either.

The singer was wonderful, I thought. She performed sections of various operas, prefacing each with a synopsis, and even talking a bit about the style of the composition. When she sang certain arias it was obvious that everyone in the room knew them and she encouraged them to sing along, which they did, although nobody took her up on her invitation to get up and dance. Since the weather was nice, the back door was open. A handsome old gentleman was watching from outside, holding a poodle in his arms. He had probably noticed the sign prohibiting dogs. The singer invited him to find a seat inside, but he demurred. Instead he stood out there holding his dog and dancing with it in time to the music. Sometimes I think the main reason for writing this blog is just so I will always remember moments like that.

The real stunner of the Villa Mazzacorati is the Teatro 1763, a theatre designed by the family for their personal use. There are very few such private theatres still in existence anywhere in the world and this one has been immaculately restored. It is highly, (perhaps frantically would be the better word), ornamented with landscapes, decorative motifs and 24 nude plaster figures arrayed around the room. Altough they look like supports for the two levels of balconies, the figures are actually decorative in function, giving this highly Baroque interior an Old West bordello look.
We had been trying to make it over to the theatre on a Thursday for the free weekly guided tour and I finally did. I was hoping to meet Bill and Boris there, but they were no-shows so I had the tour all to myself. The woman who spoke with me was a volunteer and quite expert; like her counterparts at Monticello and historical sites everywhere that depend on the unpaid worker, she appeared to be a mainstay of the Villa Mazzacorati organization. Although she had a book full of notes I don’t think she consulted it once. She explained that the home had been used only in the summer and that other wealthy families were invited to see and participate in theatrical productions. It sounded very Jane Austin-like to me as I imagined the family rummaging through table-cloths and bits of brocade to create costumes for their latest melodrama. How many romances began as the amateur actors emoted to one another, I wondered. “My Heart Was Racine.” Such a good Harlequin Romance title, don’t you think ?

My tour-guide was just hitting her stride, explaining that the classical figure/brackets were often decorated with flowers and garland, when a group of young people, well-dressed and earnest, entered the theatre. It seemed that they were preparing for that evening’s concert featuring a soprano opera singer from Japan. She was there as well, looking the space over, casing the joint, if that’s not too crude a way to describe the way this graceful woman practiced her scales in various locations in the room. Of course it’s very important for an opera singer to have sufficient time to prepare for a concert. I, however, couldn’t help but feel sympathy for my tour guide. After all, she had set aside an afternoon to enlighten visitors and now all this hustle and bustle was intruding. So, when a series of soprano trills broke into her description of the theatre’s restoration, no one was sorrier than I. Oh, my worthy guide valiantly tried to hide her irritation by saying, “Now you can see how perfect the accoustics are !” but I could tell she was not entirely pleased. And so it went. She would launch into a description of the family’s background and the singer would interrupt with an arpeggio. Soon people began running back and forth with lights, sheet music, stools and delicious-looking hors d’oeuvres. I suggested that maybe we should end our tour but she wouldn’t hear of it. Her Show Must Go On ! So, we went outside and looked at the columns and the gracefully curving wings of the building. When we went back inside the pianist had joined the singer and it became pretty tricky to insert little snippets of information between his bass notes and the singer’s high notes. “Well, if it’s too difficult, maybe we should stop now…”I offered. But no. The tour-guide was not to be turned back. A tour I wanted; a tour I would have. She took me through the side entrance and showed me how the family would have entered the stage, going directly from their private living quarters to the balcony. This was very interesting. Finally, the guide must have felt secure in the fact that she had given me a comprehensive tour and we wrapped things up.

Last night we went to the theatre for a concert of Emilian music by a quartet of accomplished musicians. I was disappointed that my tour guide wasn’t among the audience members. I think she would have liked to know I brought the whole family back to the theatre. The program was made up of folk songs celebrating the fall season. Not surprisingly there were several songs celebrating the grape harvest and the ensuing enjoyment of the product. It’s amazing how an accomplished musician can actually hiccup in perfect harmony. While we enjoyed the concert, it must be said that the surroundings were a bit formal for the music which would have been heard centuries ago in taverns or under a tree. The well-dressed audience was very quiet except for applauding at the end of each song. What was really needed for the raucous music was a lot of foot-stomping and hand-clapping. But maybe that would have caused the plaster figures to come tumbling down upon us.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Personal Shopping

Here is a sign from a clothing store in Bologna: “Aquistando 2 camicie, riceverai in omaggio una sciarpa.” This can be translated as “Buy 2 shirts, receive a free scarf as a gift,” but I prefer to translate the second part in a more literal way: “receive in homage a scarf.” I do love that. In fact, from now on when I get my free sandwich back in the United States, after purchasing ten as a select member of the Padow’s Sandwich Club, I am going to say, “I accept your homage. I'll have the tuna fish.”

The shopping experience in Italy is quite a bit different here than in the United States because normally you are patronizing very small, Mom and Pop stores (and restaurants for that matter). What this means is that you are never anonymous. You always say hello and goodbye. Also, no sooner is your toe across the threshold then somebody will approach you, asking if you need help. This can seem rather off-putting if you aren’t used to it. I normally say, "sto guardando” (I’m looking), which seems acceptable.

Sometimes the more personal nature of stores in Italy gets a little too personal. I am thinking of the farmacia (pharmacy). The first difference to notice is that there is very little self-service in pharmacies. For any purchase of any sort of medicine, even over-the-counter remedies, you need to stand in line and speak to somebody behind the counter. (I have even needed to approach the counter to get Kleenex !) There are no secrets here. Constipation ? Diarrhea ? Halitosis (I just threw that in for nostalgia’s sake even though I haven’t heard it mentioned in about thirty years). For all these garden variety annoyances as well as the filling of prescriptions you need to speak to the pharmacist or pharmacist’s assistant. Although I am not Catholic I cannot help but think that going to the pharmacist here is a bit like going to confession; in both cases one has to reveal failings of one kind or another. There have to be hundreds of pharmacies in the city. Seemingly they appear on every other block. I think the reason there are so many is so that you don’t have to patronize the same one too many times. I have nightmares about going into the pharmacy near our apartment and hearing one of the staff say in a loud voice, “So how’s your constipation ?” for all and sundry to hear.

I am kind of confused when I go into the pharmacy because everybody looks so official with their white labcoats, but they don’t wear nametags. What are their qualifications I wonder ? And why is the woman who just counselled me on acid reflux medicine now advising somebody about under-eye moisturizer ? Don’t you think that’s a little confusing ? It would be like your dentist all of a sudden helping you pick a lipstick color.

Brand-name medicines do not exist in Italy. I have had to buy heartburn medicine during our time here, and on each occasion I’ve been given a different product. The names of the medicines sound like somebody just grabbed chemical names at random from the periodic table and strung them together. It makes me nostalgic for Tums…so easy to spell. It has also been difficult for Bill to find a substitute for Excedrin. The combination of aspirin, caffeine and acetametophin just doesn’t exist. He has had to cobble together two or three medicines, paying double what we pay at home. So, my advice to travelers is to bring whatever medicines they think they are going to need for the duration of their stay—prescription and over the counter. Our mistake was figuring that we’d be able to find over-the-counter equivalents here, but that really hasn’t been the case.

Since we have been spending our time in the historical areas of the city we haven’t been encountering too many big box discount stores, although they do exist. Instead, we have been marvelling at the highly specific nature of the stores in the city proper. My favorite is the cartoleria. This would be analogous to an office supply store-- if you were shopping for office supplies in 1965. Here you will find a wonderful selection of pens, art supplies, notebooks and gift wrap. Speaking for myself, and possibly for most of us who dwell in the twenty-first century, I generally go to office supply stores for printer paper or printer cartridges—things I never find in a cartoleria. Bill and I joked that there’s probably a cartridgeria somewhere, and darn if I didn’t come across just such a store today. It was about the size of an elevator and simply full of printer cartridges and printer cables and the like. (Actually I don’t think it was called a cartridgeria, but that was pretty much what it was.) My guess is that if you need a pen though, you’ll have to stop off at the caroleria across the street. Or if you find yourself on Via Farini, you could always go to the Casa della Penna. I'll bet you've figured out the translation: House of the Pen. You'd better get there quickly though. Before they sell it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trying to Find Ravenna

Grandma Ruth in Yellowstone...and Ravenna ?

Ravenna is only one hour and twenty minutes from Bologna by train. If it had its own license plate its motto would be “Great Mosaics, ” to borrow from Idaho’s “Great Potatoes.” And they are the best. The mosaics I mean. For most of us any hands-on mosaic experience took place at summer camp. As lame as most of our efforts were in this regard, at least it gave us a vague sense of the process involved. In fact, the first words out of my mouth upon seeing the mosaics at the Basilica San Vitale were, “Wow ! That’s got to be 100,000 ashtrays worth of tiles !” Seriously though, they are a sight to behold and everyone should see them at least once in their lives.

Upon alighting from the train I noticed how quiet the station was when compared to the bustle of activity at Bologna’s. The first thing we did was go in search of a tourist office and a map. The tourist office, it turns out, is about a ten-minute walk from the station. I don’t have a problem with walking per se, but Ravenna is a rather difficult city in which to get one’s bearings, with lots of curving streets and faded street signs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the tourist office and the free maps at the station ? Or maybe we’re all supposed to earn those free maps by taking five or six wrong turns first.

At some point during the last ten years or so a law must have gone into effect decreeing that every town and city of a certain size have a Benetton, a Feltrinelli bookstore and a Max Mara upscale clothing boutique. Apparently the law requires that these shops be located in the historical pedestrian area. Oh, how I look forward to reflecting on our trip to Italy, paging through our photographs and reminiscing: “Oh there’s that orange cashmere sweater from the Benetton in Padova ! Remember? I think I liked it just a little bit better than the sage green turtleneck sweater we saw at the Benetton in Venice. Or maybe I’m confusing it with the olive green cowl-neck we almost bought at the Benetton in Ravenna.” Misty, water-color memories.
So, to get to the unique parts of these cities one is required to run the gauntlet of chain stores. Yes, it isn't only the United States that is replete with those. Finally, we reached the Piazza del Popolo which is easily the most welcoming, prettiest area of the city. There’s a civic building with a clock tower and charming medieval architecture. A few steps away is an indoor market housing all manner of grocers and butchers. Unlike markets in many places which have makeshift, utilitarian exteriors, Ravenna's is substantial with a late-nineteenth century appearance that seemed Parisian to me.

After a quick coffee we went in search of the Basilica San Vitale. It really should not be hard to find a Basilica. A building of that stature is generally conspicuous. And yet, we were continually confused by signs that would point us in one direction and then leave us marooned on the spot where they had directed us. From now on I am going to call this phenomenon Sign Betrayal. We were counting on you, sign with the dome graphic, and you just up and left us ! Of course, when exploring an unfamiliar place you eventually eliminate all the wrong turns and find your way. Basilica San Vitale was wonderful and it was empty, which is amazing to me. I think it is no exaggeration to say that it is the Sistine Chapel of mosaics. The stylized Byzantine figures were wonderful but I was even more fascinated by the decorative motifs, some of which were complicated enough to have stepped out of an Escher print.

For awhile, strange as it may seem when you visit this unassuming city now, Ravenna was the center of the world. It was the center of the Holy Roman Empire and later the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Viewing the mosaics one can well imagine that its inhabitants must have felt they were living in a golden, timeless city. And yet the Ravenna of today is strangely empty and not in a good way. There are streets where buildings of anemic yellow and vanilla just seem to go on forever, monotonous, narrow and vacant. These are streets that practically dare you to walk down them, so forbidding do they appear.

It says a lot about a city—and not good things-- if it takes a half-hour to find someplace decent for lunch. Finally, we found a pizza self-service restaurant. After the food was ready, we took it to a back room furnished with urban hip chairs and nice tables. And yet, everything was wrong. The calzone tasted like something from a high school cafeteria and the dining area was virtually a museum of failed aspirations. There was a raised area, presumably a stage for music. It was now occupied by a cabinet of some sort. There was a bank of three computers and above them a mural with the words Internet Center. The computers looked out-of-date, weren’t being used and weren’t turned on. The walls were blank except for two art prints the size of sheets of notebook paper, too small to see. They flanked a Vietato Fumare (do not smoke) sign. So much for creating an arty ambience.

After lunch we made our way to a couple more churches beginning with Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, It has an amazing sequence of figures on either side of a long wide nave. As I looked at the faces of the women I was interested to discover that each was unique; my preconception of Byzantine art has always been that the individuality of the figures was submerged, but the more I looked, the more it seemed that each of the figures could have been a portrait. And not only that. I kept coming back to one who looked strangely familiar and then realized that she bore a striking resemblence to my grandmother. I have placed her photo next to the one from of the mosaic, so you can be the judge. Just remember, she usually wasn’t so squinty.

Our last stop was the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe which is reachable by city bus. After passing supermarkets , car dealerships and housing developments we finally saw a church of impressive dimensions in the middle of a field. Since my last visit twenty years ago a hotel has been built on the grounds of the church. I don’t mean that the hotel is merely near the church; I mean that it practically shares an entrance. If you’re not careful you may wind up registering for a room instead of buying an entrance ticket for the mosaics.

The mosaics were, not surprisingly, beautiful with vividly rendered animals and trees of an individuality that was fascinating. Leaving the church, we faced a cold steady rain. We ran to a nearby bus stop located in a flat empty area where the outlying town of Classe just gives out. Luckily the bus arrived in minutes.

I was glad to leave Ravenna. There’s a worn out quality about it that has something to do with the depressing new buildings, the abundance of graffiti and the aggressiveness of the panhandlers and street vendors. There is so much beauty here if you look for it but not a lot of simple enjoyment. Maybe the grim, wet weather has colored my view of the place.

I guess if a visitor stayed long enough s/he would find the real Ravenna. It would include the historical sites and the dispirited modern zones. The visitor would also want to take into account the schools where the fabrication and restoration of mosaics are taught. In a way, we left too soon, but I couldn’t wait to go back to Bologna. I just kept thinking about the strange pizzeria where we'd eaten lunch. It stood as a sorry relic of the owner’s aspirations. Designed to celebrate culture and food, it now seemed more like a bus station diner. The restaurant seemed appropriate to Ravenna: once an Empire and now a half-day field trip.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bologna Books and More

Here’s how you know that Bologna is a city for foodies. You go into the Libreria Ambasciatore , a book store/food palace, and just inside the entrance somebody is selling whole truffles. No, not the chocolate kind—those would be on the third floor. These are the kind that pigs dig up. Most of the ground floor of the store was redolent of the musky musty aroma. It really is unlike anything else. The cheapest I saw cost 30 Euros, and it was about two-thirds the size of a golf ball. In addition I would have had to spend another 10 Euros for a truffle slicer. Do you think I should have popped for that ? Perhaps you're thinking, “Well, you never know when you’ll need a truffle slicer” and I guess that’s true. It might come in handy if I ever need to make slices of American Cheese even thinner. Somehow I don't see a lot of truffles in my future.

It has been very interesting to browse through the cookbook section of the bookshops in Bologna. One thing that stands out is the paucity of all-purpose cookbooks. I have asked several people here, good Italian cooks all of them, whether there is an Italian counterpart to The Joy of Cooking. There really isn’t. Cooking is learned from family and the cookbooks that people prefer are those that specialize in a certain region, usually the region where they are from. Of course there are plenty of books available here about the Emilia-Romagna region. Liguria also shows up for its seafood and I see sections ranging from Puglia to the Veneto. If there are cookbooks from other countries they must be very thin on the ground. I see a few scattered here and there but nothing like what we would be used to in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the specificity of the cookbooks is but a reflection of the narrow focus of foods sold in the shops. One day Bill went to Simoni, pasta shop extraordinaire and committed the faux pas of asking for meat ravioli. No such thing around here ! It’s tortellini or tortelloni thank you very much ! Interestingly, Ferrara which is just half an hour from here boasts its own stuffed pasta called called cappellacci, meaning “small hats.” If I could examine them side-by-side I could probably tell the difference between cappellacci and tortellini, but since one is in Bologna and the other is in Ferrara it’s a little inconvenient to do so.

Back to the subject of books. ( Why do I keep gravitating toward the subject of food ?) My friend Bella has mentioned that she put my blog on twitter (I'm not sure what that means to be perfectly frank. It's good, right?) to let her friends in publishing know about my site as they prepare for a Book Fair here in Bologna in the Spring. To that end, if any visitors still feel they haven’t had enough of books after the fair, the Sala Borsa is definitely an amazing place to see. Really, it’s worth a visit even for the “casual reader,” which I guess would be most of us. The Sala Borsa, steps from the Neptune Fountain, was formerly the stock exchange. It has a beautiful open atrium with two levels of balconies above. The intricately painted ceiling has obviously been carefully restored. Now the space houses a public library, a children’s library, an urban design center and a gallery of temporary exhibitions. There is also an impressive collection of Italian and international newspapers and magazines. On the first floor is a lively caffe selling sandwiches, pastries and alcoholic beverages in addition to the expected roster of espresso drinks. Is it any wonder that I’m always coming back to food in this blog ?

This library/media center is everything one would hope for in the reuse of a historical space. Haven’t we all seen gorgeous architectural renderings of revamped civic spaces and redesigned parks? Often the result falls far short of the idea. In this case, it’s hard to see how the Sala Borsa could be any better than it is. Plus it's just so darned hip. It's as though the coolest people you know all got together and reinvented the concept of the library. I can just picture them saying, "Why not have a bar ? And with a waitstaff too ? And let's get some upholstered designer chairs that you can rotate when you need a desk for your laptop. This isn't going to be your nonno's library !"

I wanted to be sure to mention the Sala Borsa because we passed it on many occasions before we took the initiative of going inside. It isn’t always mentioned in the guidebooks and because of the abundance of college students coming and going I just assumed it was part of the University. Luckily Bill can never intentionally pass up a courtyard without checking it out so we all benefited from his wandering ways.

By way of a PS. Today I bought a Zingarelli dizionario, which I guess would be the Italian version of Webster. Although I bought the smaller version it promises to add a good five pounds to the weight of my suitcase. In addition to the usual definitions there are many pages of illustrations accompanied by appropriate vocabulary. We can assume that the subjects for the diagrams might shed some light on areas of importance in Italy. After an initial browse I have come across a half page with illustrations and names of cheeses (all of them Italian), and an entire page of desserts.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Grocery Store Revelations

In my last post I wrote about the “next stage” of being a tourist and the things you find out after being in a place for awhile. Here’s another instance of that. Normally we do most of our shopping at an all-purpose grocery store called the COOP (pronounced like the “coop” in cooper), but every once in awhile I’ll stop at a small shop that sells a little of this, a little of that: sausage, cheese, various canned goods. Since the owner has to slice everything by hand it takes awhile to get served. It’s a good place to go to get practice listening to Italian, but you have to be in the mood to hang around there for a good twenty minutes.

The other customers were a woman in her seventies and two young woman who were police officers. They looked very official in a swinging sixties sort of way with white vinyl holsters holding their pistols. I think they just go around the city issuing parking tickets, but their ensembles always make me think of Diana Rigg in the Avengers. Anyway, the woman did what a lot of people do when they find themselves in social situations with police officers. She started talking about crime and things that were bothering her in the city. At a certain point she starting listing all the minorities who have recently moved into Bologna. She started with the Africans from Tunisia, and made her way through to the Chinese, Philipinos and Romanians. For good measure she threw in the Jews. As many of you know I do have a Certificate of Participation now from an Italian language school, so I have been honing my comprehension abilities. It wasn’t just that the woman made sweeping generalizations about each group. She took things a step further by describing pros and cons of each. It sounded almost like somebody going through the lineup of a baseball team and listing each player’s strengths and weaknesses. As she made her general statements about the influx of foreigners(not a good thing in her opinion) I interupted her flow and said I was an American at which point she did a kind of switcheroo and talked about how racist Americans were. This was about ten seconds after her denigration of various groups. Yep she was a slick one all right. I have to hand it to her though, she did try to bring me into the discussion by badmouthing Jews—surely even an American could get behind that. I told her I was Jewish. There are about 100 Jews left in Bologna and the former Jewish ghetto forms a parallel city just minutes from the University. For various reasons, including getting sent to concentration camps, there aren’t many Jews left in the city. So, I figured I might be the first actual Jew this woman had ever seen and I thought maybe she’d like to take a good look at me.

Well, the upside was she didn’t seem to want to take me out and shoot me. Nor did the policewomen although they were obviously equipped to do so with their groovy holsters. But the really disturbing part wasn’t so much the ravings of this particular woman, but the nodding of heads by the two policewoman. Yes, they were quite ready to blame every problem that Bologna faces on foreigners. And they were young, which is especially upsetting. We passed on to other subjects like travel and the weather. Everyone made their purchases and wished everyone else a nice day. ( They usually just say arrivederci. There really isn’t an Italian version of “have a nice day.”)

So there you are then. A part of Italy that doesn’t make it into Fodor’s. Part of the fallout from learning a language well enough to understand the people around you. For me, it’s hard to view this submerged hostility at the same time as the beauty. It’s like that optical illusion of two profiles that interlock with a silhouette of a table lamp; you can see one image or the other but not both. And that’s where I find myself right now, at times astonished by the beauty of this city and at other times deeply saddened by the ugliness.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Different Degrees of Tourism

"The Good Doors"

I have been very fortunate to have lived in Italy for extended periods not once, but twice. Each of these stays, the one in Florence twenty years ago and the one at present in Bologna, have been very significant parts of my life. They have differed from one another in many ways. Florence is very different from Bologna and my life’s circumstances are very different now than they were then. Twenty years ago I was single and just turning thirty. Now I am married with a ten-year-old son and I’m hoping that people reading this won’t take the trouble to do the math regarding my age.

One thing I’ve noticed on both visits is the way staying in a place for months instead of days reveals new things about it; sometimes good things and sometimes downright ugly. Right now I’ll write about a pleasant episode. Something happened recently in Bologna that revealed the not-so-nice side of the city (don’t worry family and friends, nothing dangerous !) but I’ll save that for another time.

When I came to Florence in 1988 I travelled with my mother for the first couple weeks before she returned home and I settled down in the deceptively rural nearby outskirts of Florence. It’s always easy for me to remember the year because the Olympics were being televised from Korea in caffes and hotel lobbies everywhere we went. We were surprised at the variety of events that we saw, events rarely seen in the coverage from the United States. There seemed to be an infinite variety of games involving balls being bounced off walls and who knew there were so many different horseback riding events ?

The first week in Florence was warm with the golden light you see in the autumn on the days it isn’t raining. Naturally we spent a lot of time around the Duomo, a striped marble monster of a building. Since I was established in my apartment and my mother was staying in a hotel on the Arno we would arrange to meet every morning at the baptistry adjacent to the Duomo. We always met by the “Good Doors,” the ones designed by Ghiberti. I have to say that having visited Florence on this trip I spent a good deal of time waiting to get into the Duomo and I had the opportunity to look at the doors of the Duomo itself. They are quite good. In fact in any other circumstance we would probably be putting asterisks in our guidebooks to remind ourselves to see them. Of course the problem is, they are twenty feet away from really really great doors, like maybe the best doors in history. I always feel sorry for the anonymous Duomo door artist (or artists). Here was his chance for immortality but NOOOO, Ghiberti the genius had to steal all the limelight. Of course I do not begrudge Ghiberti his acclaim, what with launching Renaissance art and all. He’s entitled. Only do have a look at the Duomo’s doors too when you visit.

I seem to have gotten a little off my subject which really had to do with the shops on the street that encircles the Duomo. Of course there were stores specializing in leather, others with tiny replicas of the Duomo and still others with postcards and tee-shirts. The store that intrigued us the most was a narrow shop that sold tarnished iron goods; things like oil lamps and candelabras. In my memory almost all the items were hanging from hooks. It wasn’t clear whether the objects were actually antiques but they certainly looked old and each was one-of-a-kind. My mother was especially attracted to a little oil lamp. Its price was in that tough middle area where it was affordable yet more than she wanted to spend, so she decided not to buy it. As the week passed it was obvious to me that she regretted not buying it so after she’d left Florence I went back to the shop and made the purchase. The owner, an elderly fellow, got it down from the ceiling with a metal hook and then wrapped it carefully in paper. I left the shop in triumph and held onto the oil lamp until I gave it to my mother months later, much to her delight and surprise. The funny part, and a direct consequence of living in a place for several months, was that when I returned to the shop a couple weeks later a new “old” oil lamp was back on its hook, hanging exactly where the other one had been. Apparently the kindly owner had a back room somewhere with boxes of the stuff but he only put out one at a time. The guy really knew how to market his merchandise ! The last thing I wanted to find out was where the items were actually from. Of course if I’d just passed a couple days in Florence I never would have discovered the ruse, but I have to say I got a kick out of the incident and it wasn’t as though I had been cheated out of thousands of dollars.

So, that’s the kind of thing that can happen when you stay beyond the honeymoon period in a place. This probably doesn’t hold true in, say, Cleveland, but in Italy which is so much a confection of our own fantasies you have to expect that a bit of reality will eventually surface. Of course when Bill, Boris and I visited the Duomo last month I looked for that shop. I must have circled the perimeter three times and I never found it. There was a sophisticated-looking book shop and a designer leather shop I didn’t remember from before. My guess is that one of these shops took over the space. This was a disappointment of course. I wanted to see if the Great-grand son of the oil lamp was hanging there.

My mother died almost two years ago, which is difficult to believe. In the aftermath my brother patiently tracked down that oil lamp and sent it to me. It was one among many curios that my mother collected during her travels. To me it’s a record of a very particular place and time and it tells a great story.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Day at the Museum

Today was a rainy day so we went to one of the museums we had been saving for just such an occasion: the Museo del Patrimonio Industriale. I don’t know about you, but whenever I see “Industrial” in the name of a museum I picture an exhibition with train engines and various turbines, or even a full-sized coal mine like they have in Chicago. The fact that the museum was housed in a huge palazzo—huge even by palazzo standards—with double-doors flanked by gargantuan sculpted muscle men increased my sense of expectation. They could probably fit an airplane in there !

My optimism decreased quite quickly when we entered a room full of glass display tables housing teeny objects. I thought it was the gift shop. It was actually the museum. My expectations of seeing a Ferrari or even an impressive pulley system pretty much melted away as I found myself looking at an entire display case of keys. When we tired of those we passed on to the collection of weights and measures, and escutcheons—those decorative metal gizmos that frame keyholes. We were also treated to what is perhaps the hugest bellows in existence, probably about three feet in length. When we came across it I was ready to tell the guard, “In Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry they have a real submarine that you can get inside of—but this is nice too,” but I resolved instead to appreciate the bellows for the essence of its bellowsness. Sometimes being an artist is very handy. When all else fails you can fall back on the visual qualities of your surroundings. In the next room, for no reason that I could think of, there was a large marionette theater with perhaps thirty puppets. Boris was very excited about this so I told him that the theater was the reason we wanted to come in the first place…as a surprise for him !

By the time we got to the scissors display Bill was pretty much convinced that the museum was established by everyone in Bologna getting rid of their junk. And perhaps that’s true, but I have to say that after the initial disappointment, the museum guard won me over. He led us to a contraption that was clearly a press of some sort and explained that it was used to make coins. I think a little molten metal might have helped his presentation but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Without any warning the museum morphed into an art gallery. What a dirty trick to play on Boris. Suddenly we were in a room full of Annunciations, San Sebastions and other scenes of martyrdom. Things got better when we came across the most impressive exhibit in the place-- a beautifully painted carriage. It just showed up unexpectedly in the last room.

On our way out, the museum guard showed us a painting of a Madonna and Child and explained that the artist had been a student of Giotto. I don’t really know if he meant "student" in the sense that the two artists were in the same room together, or in the sense that I am a student of Picasso because I was born later and my 6th grade art teacher Miss Katzourakos (“all you have to do is say cat, zoo, ray, kiss” is how she clarified her name on the first day of class) had us all make cubist masks. In any event, the guard and I looked at the painting and decided that, yes, there were similarities in the way the faces were depicted. It must be said that Giotto’s technique was a whole lot better, but on the other hand that’s to be expected. By way of compensation we didn’t have to reserve tickets in advance for a fifteen minute visit as we had to do for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

I forgot to mention that like the majority of museums in Bologna, this one was free of charge. As an added bonus we got to take a peek at the second floor of the Palazzo. It is just amazing that a family could have ever built it for their own private use—and they weren’t even ruling a country.

Right now Bologna is facing budget problems like every other municipality in the world. They are trying to save money on schools, and apparently they aren’t putting a lot of effort into the graffiti problem. I wonder what will happen to other public services like the accessible and easy-to-understand bus system. And I wonder how long the city’s museums can remain free of charge. As things stand I am enjoying this feature a lot. Today for example I stopped by the Morandi museum and looked at half a dozen paintings. Admission was free so I didn’t feel pressured to see everything. And besides, I really just stopped in to use the restroom.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Local Italian-style

Near our apartment is the Mercatino Chiesa Nuova, an indoor market with perhaps a dozen stalls which sell fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses and various other things. There's even a stall with a large inventory of hard candy if you like that sort of thing. Outside of the building are goods for sale which seem to change from day to day. One day there was a table with piles of stainless dinner-ware, pots and pans. It was gone the next day. You can usually count on somebody selling shirts of a jersey material bearing sequins and odd slogans. (How odd ? How about “Ethnic Passion” for starters ? A good name for a cocktail in my opinion.)

Standing before a market stall in which gigantic pears, plums, and clementines are practically tumbling off the tables, it’s hard not to be seduced. Fresh, seasonal produce you think. And yet it’s November and they’re selling plums. Hmmm. (Incidentally the weather in Bologna is very similar to northern Virginia or the southern midwest. Not exactly southern California). So, what’s happening is that food is coming in from all over the world. China is a big exporter for instance. Of course in such a picturesque market setting it’s easy to think everything was dug up from the ground or picked from a tree that very morning. Not that the imported food is bad, but it isn't going to fulfill the requirements of somebody intent on eating locally.

To make absolutely sure you are buying local you can shop in places that have a Chilometri Zero sign on the door. This indicates that the produce or cheese or salume (cured hams like prosciutto and all and sundry) originate in Bologna or the very near vicinity. I happened to see this sign the other day in a shop, but I didn’t realize that the term was such a common one until I read an article outlining plans to put a Chilometri Zero restaurant in a disused villa. The writer of the article didn't even bother to explain what that meant.

An especially easy way to buy local is to look to the wineshops or simply the wine department of any grocery store. In our local supermarket there are five banks of shelves well-stocked with a variety of red and white wine. They have just about any wine you could want…as long as it’s from the Emilia-Romagna region (the region which contains Bologna). There is quite a bit of wine made from sangiovese, the grape made famous by the Chianti region. The Emilia-Romagna version is lighter and slightly fruitier, thinner tasting. The same goes for the Merlot. It’s fair to say that the wines from this area are drinkable and go well with food; they just aren’t very memorable. The same goes for pignoletto , a white wine that is gaining recognition. It is frizzante, being fizzy rather than bubbly like a champagne and dry. It’s what wine guides might charitably call “a good quaffer.”

The other night we stopped at the intriguing, quaint sort of wine bar you always hope to find but usually don’t, or you find it in the morning when it’s closed and then forget to write down the address for another occasion. Happily, on this particular evening our timing was perfect. Olindo Faccioli is a tiny place a few blocks north of via Ugo Bassi, on via Altabella. Although minutes from a bustling city center area Faccioli is on a quiet secluded street with little traffic. It has been in business since 1924 although it did change locations rather recently: in 1934. The interior had floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves full of wine bottles. The shelves together with the bar which cut the narrow room in half made me think of an apothecary shop. When I noticed a pastel portrait of the owner I told him it was a good likeness. The portrait turned out to be his father. The two men were as identical in appearance as in vocation. The son's sommelier certificate was proudly displayed ( and believe me it looked a lot more impressive than my Italian Language Certificate of Participation).

To give you an idea how important drinking local wine is, when the owner was listing the wines available by the glass he specified the ones nella zona, in our zone or area. Then almost as an afterthought he mentioned a couple of wines outside the zone. By outside he meant Tuscany which couldn't possibly be more than two hours away. The wine list for bottles had one page each for every area of Italy: Puglia, Veneto, Tuscany, Friulia, etc. As for wines outside the country, there were possibly eight wines listed for all of France. Can you imagine ? I wonder if Italians travelling in France are surprised to learn that the French dabble in wine-making. And American wines ? I haven’t seen one anywhere since we’ve arrived.

One thing I have been very curious about is the tortellini and where it comes from. Every restaurant serves it and there are a lot of restaurants in bologna. If a restaurant has, say, twenty tables with two seatings for lunch, and two for dinner, the manual labor involved to make all that stuffed pasta is absolutely mind-boggling, to say nothing of the space required in a restaurant kitchen. And there’s rarely just one tortellini on the menu. You usually have a choice of two or three. Where could it all come from? Well, according to our neighbor, there are Bolognese women of a certain age who work at home producing all the tortellini that is served in all the restaurants. I get this image of cozy kitchens all over the city where these women are working. Is it like an assembly line I wonder? Or perhaps it is a more casual setting with casual conversations going on as the tortellini engine roars, providing sustenance for Bologna's insatiable eaters.

As for ourselves, when we’re in the mood for fresh pasta or pastry, we walk down the street to Simoni. All the while that we’re deciding between the ricotta-filled tortellini and the pumpkin-filled tortelloni we can look beyond the counter to the work tables in the back. There we see women rolling out dough or putting trays in ovens. Do I know the origin of the flour ? Do I know if the ricotta is made from Emilia-Romagna cows ? Well, no. I have no idea how local any of it is, to be honest. But I know it’s fresh. And good. Very very good.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Of Grammar and Graffiti

Yesterday was the last day of my weeklong Italian language class. As usual during the mid-morning break, the various classes all convened at a caffe down the street. It’s one of the nice things about the school and the one at which I most excelled. At that point we were presented with certificates showing that we had completed the course. I now have a Certificate of Participation from the Madrelingua Scuola. Now aren’t you impressed ? I got up in the caffe and made a thank-you speech: "Thank you teachers and colleagues. You don’t win a Certificate of Participation all by yourself. I would like to thank the driver of Bus 13 for conveying me to school. Thank you to the chair and table in the classroom for enabling me to be comfortable once I showed up and last but not least, special shout-outs go to the laws of physics which provided me with the mass and surface area I needed to take up space in the room. ” Well, I didn’t actually make this speech but I wish I had. I mean a certificate for showing up ? How lame is that ? Unfortunately the word for "participation” in Italian looks pretty much like English except for a spare z and e. So this diploma, complete with my name in calligraphy, will be impressive to nobody.

This week I negotiated the vast waters of the intermediate level of Italian. These are the waters in which the majority of students tread once they get past the basics. There they struggle for quite some time as it is quite a long swim to reach the shores of Advanced level. Anyway, I studied the past and present congiuntivo, the subjunctive. There is very little to compare it to in English, but it is essentially used for sentences in which doubt is expressed. So, this week I learned about the many shades of doubt. There’s present tense doubt as in: “It seems to me that one of your earlobes is bigger than the other.” There’s past-tense doubt: “Yesterday when we dined at the trattoria it seemed to me that it would be a mistake to ask for ketchup with the veal.” The subjunctive is also used for hypothetical statements : “If people would manage to get their trash into the dumpsters it would not be so obvious that Friday is fish night.” And finally there is the subjunctive reserved for the impossible: “If the city of Bologna were to clean up its rampant graffitti, the perpetrators would see the error of their ways and never deface the buildings again.”

Which brings me to a painful subject. The graffiti in Bologna is everywhere and it is heartbreaking. We have been in a lot of cities during our stay, including Rome. Bologna has the worst graffiti problem we have seen anywhere. This isn't Street Art we're talking about, although I am sure I would hate that too. What we see around here is somebody who feels compelled to write his (or her, let’s be fair) initials on the wall of a gorgeous sixteenth century porticoed building. It isn't a lot of writing--just a couple initials--but just enough to bring about some instant ugliness. The poverty of expression is as depressing as the frequency. Here we have these buildings with lovingly carved capitals on the column and bas reliefs. Some of the facades and ceilings beneath the porticoes are painted with decorative motifs. Who can say how long something like this took the craftsmen whose names we’ll never know ? On my way to school I see a group of workmen restoring some massive columns, essentially sculpting the missing bits with plaster compounds. I see that it has taken them weeks—and that’s just to make repairs. It is mindboggling that somebody would damage the results with pathetic scrawls: a couple of initials, maybe bit of profanity. In some neighborhoods there is a six- foot wide band of graffiti, from the ground to a height convenient for the miscreants, which extends across five or six buildings in succession. If only they would just pee on the walls instead…but I suppose they’re doing that too.