Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chinese Food Bolognese

When I was growing up, Sunday night was Chinese restaurant night. We kept the tradition temporarily alive last night as we headed over to Nuova Cina Ristorante (New China) a couple blocks from our apartment. It really looked strange to see “China” and “Ristorante” sharing a sign. By the way, the Cina is not a typo. To get the “ch” sound in Italian you put a C before an e or i. Adding an h gives it a K sound. So there you go, a mini-lesson in Italian pronunciation.

The restaurant looked exactly like a Chinese restaurant back in the states with shiny Chinese landscapes rendered in various colored foils. The menu confused us for awhile. Half of it was devoted to various types of ravioli and spaghetti. Since we chose this place in order to take a break from those items I have to say we were a little disappointed. Not to worry though. I spotted Sweet and Sour chicken which I haven’t eaten since probably 1965, and as I ordered it memories of Pekin House in Chicago enveloped me. I wish I could have gotten a drink with an umbrella in it, but that did not appear on the menu. (At the Pekin House my grandmother would have ordered a “Whiskey Sour but not Too Sour.”) Bill opted for Chicken with Peanuts. Boris really wanted a stir-fried noodle dish, but when we didn’t see anything like that on the menu I tried to explain to the waitress that in the United States we often ordered “lo mein” in Chinese restaurants when we wanted noodles. Well, I don’t know what reaction I was expecting. I guess I was hoping that by saying “lo mein” I would impress her with our amazing Chinese food expertize. Maybe she would give me a special wink or whip out a special menu for Those in the Know. In reality all I got was a blank stare. So we took our chances (or let Boris take his chances) and ordered Spaghetti with Vegetables and Pork for Boris. We avoided but were intriged by the Spaghetti al Riso, spaghetti with rice. Could that actually mean spaghetti and rice mixed together ? Well, when I saw various plates being brought out to other customers it dawned on me that Spaghetti al Riso were rice noodles. Aha ! The light dawned ! So, spaghetti was just an all-purpose word for noodles and ravioli was the term for dumplings ! It all made so much sense ! Boris’s spaghetti was comprised of “glass noodles” and looked pretty much like something we would order in a Chinese restaurant at home.

Our food was reassuringly slow in coming which suggested that they were actually cooking it instead of nuking it. Everything was pretty good and pretty cheap. It wasn’t especially memorable, but as my mother used to say, “Not every meal can be a gem.”

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Everything Looks So Italian !

Before I visited Italy the first time twenty years ago, I had the idea that it would look like the United States, maybe with some international traffic signs thrown in for variety’s sake. I imagined that each city would have a very authentic, very picturesque Italian section but would otherwise look like northern Virginia with a higher speed limit. No doubt I got this idea of Europe in general and Italy in particular from the time we went on vacation to New Glarus when I was in high school. In case you didn’t know, New Glarus is the Switzerland of Wisconsin. In fact it was such an authentically Swiss experience as I recall, that there was actually one block on the main street where the personnel working at the diner, the donut shop and the hardware store dressed in dirndls and lederhosen. That was some trip. Boy did I ever feel like we should have packed our passports !

With that vacation as my frame of reference, you can probably appreciate my surprise and delight when I discovered that everywhere I went in Italy looked, well, Italian. I still get a kick out of this. The other day I was walking down the street and on the ground in front of me was a bug—an Italian bug. I bent to examine it and much to my delight found that it really didn’t look any bug I’ve seen at home. It was kind of like an oversized lady-bug, without the spots and it was bright red. Oh I know not everything here is unique. The grass we walked on today looked just like the grass back home. But sometimes I am so overwhelmed at how uniquely Italian my surroundings are that I just want to say, "Stop ! Stop ! You're killing me !"

If I had to specify one main difference between being here in Bologna and being home it is the sheer amount of visual detail. I don’t know of any other way to say it. For example, there is a porticoed building on Via San Stefano which is punctuated by portraits from Roman mythology. I think that the satyr in the photo is quite dashing In addition to the many reliefs, numbering about twenty, each of the columns' capitols is sculpted with a different design. My guess is that these designs carry on the theme of the sculpted portraits. You might think that a building of such visual interest would show up in a guidebook, but it doesn’t. It is just one of innumerable fascinating buildings that you can discover throughout the city.

The ease with which we bump into interesting places has actually created a little bit of conflict with Boris. Everyday he wants to know what the plan for the day is. I guess he wasn’t paying attention when I told everybody I knew, and some total strangers too, that there is NO PLAN. What we really want to say to Boris is, “Well we plan to wander aimlessly until we get hungry. Then we’ll have a snack and strike off down a street we haven’t walked on before and then we’ll stop for a capuccino.” Surprisingly, this does not sound like a fun day to a ten-year old so we try to come up with little projects, or as I think of them, “faux projects.” Like tomorrow he’s going to go buy orange juice for breakfast. That should provide a wonderful opportunity for him to use the first-person conditional form of volere: vorrei, “I would like…” when he asks for it at the store. Plus we’re out of orange juice. Bill and Boris have also gone on sketching expeditions, picking out various architectural details. The other day Bill read that if you take the underpass below Via Ugo Bassi, one of the major thoroughfares of the city, you can see the remains of a Roman road. So that’s another little project for us. And you can buy cake around there.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I Survived Gardaland !

Boris has willingly gone along with Bill’s and my compulsion to visit every church and intriguing little courtyard in Bologna. He has been patient in restaurants and hasn’t complained too much about living in a country without ranch dressing. I kept all this in the forefront of my mind when we visited Italy’s answer to Busch Gardens: Gardaland. Yes, Gardaland. Not Terra di Garda. We stayed in the town of Peschiera del Garda, a two-hour train ride from Bologna. It is not the most beautiful part of Lake Garda but has a wonderful historical area where our hotel, the Hotel Bell'Arrivo was located. We were given a corner room with the best view we have probably ever had from a hotel, looking out onto the lake and the canal.

On our second day we took the Free Bus to Gardaland, just five minutes drive from the station. Once inside the park, we encountered a very large castle and several strolling “characters” dressed in medieval style. One of these was playing trumpet, and believe me, it really added to the sensation of stepping back into the Middle Ages when he played his rendition of “YMCA.”

The park mascot is Prezzemolo, (parsley in Italian), a multi-colored Barney-like dinosaur. (In fact now that I've seen multi-colored Prezzemelo in celluloid and plush, Barney, by comparison embodies the cool of James Dean.) Prezzemolo is EVERYWHERE. If you want to bring one of him home with you, you can go into the gift shop and buy a small, medium or large one. There are about ten thousand of them on the shelves, which is actually kind of scary. Perhaps you would rather have a tee-shirt. Well, you can have Prezzemolo on a tee-shirt. Looking for a tee-shirt with something a little different ? How about Prezzemolo on a beaded tee-shirt ? It's pretty much Prezzi (if I may be so bold as to give him a nickname) or nothing in the apparel department. I would say that the teen and preteen demographic is underserved. Unfortunately for Boris, there were no articles of clothing with rollercoaster imagery so he wound up with a Prezzemolo hat, and you know what? …once you get it away from the other 9,999 Prezzemoli it isn’t bad-looking.

Because it was so late in the season and everyone is back in school, there were absolutely no lines. Boris was able to go on every rollercoaster, inverting and looping to his heart’s content. As far as differences between this park and an American one, I would have to say that the environment, the sculpted set-pieces were amazing in their detail and workmanship. You’d have to think that if Bernini were alive today he wouldn’t be designing fountains in Rome, he’d be the head sculptor at Gardaland, creating the Atlantis environment as shown here. I really loved this. It made me feel like I was in one of those epics with Victor Mature. I kept saying things to Bill like, “Hercules, you may have the strength of 1000 men but I will vanquish you with a flutter of my eyelashes.” Fortunately everyone around us was speaking German and hopefully didn’t understand me. Or if they did, I’ll never see them again anyway.

Everywhere there were these wonderful environments that framed various rollercoaster and spinning apparati. One resembled a Cambodian temple, another was vaguely Turkish (or maybe that was the snack bar) and a huge Space Station commanded a few of the whole park. Because Gardaland isn’t divided into “lands” a la Disney and Busch, you’d get these improbable juxtapositions: the Space Station looking down on Atlantis, for instance. It all made me think of the original Star Trek, the ones where they’d land on a planet ruled by women resembling the Bond Girls.

We spent six hours there and then successfully persuaded Boris that it was time to leave. I hope when he looks back on Gardaland, the major event of his life, he’ll stop a moment to remember the little things: the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Grand Canal.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Paper Windows

As most of you know, the artwork that I do--at least when I used to do artwork which seems like a long time ago--was made of folded and cut paper. Naturally I had to get pictures of a couple stores in Bologna that use paper to create some fantastic window decorations. The one at the right was one of several all in white.

These are from the windows of


Maybe I should bring my portfolio over to Urban Outfitters when we get home. !

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gastronomically Yours

Before we left for Italy I was talking with a friend about our plans for our time here. I admitted to being tired of making art, not even sure I wanted to set foot in a museum. I really had not idea how I would spend my time. My friend answered, “Oh well. You have your food.” So, I guess I’m known as a foodie, which is fine, but now I can’t get this strange picture out of my head of me sitting at a table heaped with comestibles which I greedily hug to me, a tableau vivant of gluttony. How appropriate ( and how calculated !) was our ending up in a city that is known as La Grassa—the fat. Yes, Bologna is one of the world’s great food cities, one of the centers also of the Slow Food movement.

There is no lack of food markets in Bologna. They’re everywhere. The other day we were leaving the Piazza Maggiore in the center of town, where the cathedral, Basilica Petronio is located. Turning down a narrow street we discovered it was lined with tiny vegetable, meat and fish shops as well as bakeries selling breads, cakes and pasta. To give you an idea of how surprising this was to me, imagine strolling in the center of a large American city , maybe Times Square in New York or the Loop in Chicago, and being able to do all your ordinary food-shopping right there at not one, but twenty shops. I’m not talking about shops of the Dean & DeLuca variety, although many of these shops could put that foodtique to shame, but “regular” places. A huge part of why this works in Bologna is that its residents are used to picking up groceries for a day or two and bringing them home on the bus. (At this writing I think a small grocery store is set to open near Charlottesville's downtown mall. I'll be interested to know if people can get used to the idea of a grocery store without a parking lot.)

In restaurants and shops we have been amazed at the wide range of pastas, many of which we haven’t seen in the states. There are tortellini, stuffed pasta, which are about the size of a penny.. A slightly larger version is tortelloni. Then there are the quadretti which are tiny, and I do mean tiny squares of pasta. The squares are about the size of a molecule. These, I learned, are meant to be put into broth for a few minutes.

The other day we went out to eat (not something we do very often because restaurants are quite expensive) and I ordered something that I think was called ballonzini. These were shaped like tortelloni but each one was about the size of a tennis ball. I found this pasta to be quite endearing; they would be the sort I would end up with after making two or three of the small tortellini. I would just throw up my hands and speed up the whole process by making them huge. Anyway they were filled to overflowing with a ricotta and ham filling that was very nice. The sauce was butter mushroom and I counted three types of mushroom. Yesterday Bill had a really nice pumpkin ravioli which had a sauce I'd never tasted before. It was mainly balsamic vinegar. The sauce was amazing, almost the consistency of honey and definitely on the sweet side (probably from added sugar). It reminded me of a Chinese barbecue sauce. Boris and I kept dipping into it with our bread, although I think we left a little bit for Bill. All of our pasta dishes have been very rich, as you can tell. I really think Bill and I need to come up with a strategy between us where we order one pasta dish and a salad (these tend to be quite large). As it was, we asked for boxes to take home our leftovers. I am pretty sure that this isn’t “done,” but it seemed a crime to leave it.

Speaking of “done” things, judging from mentions in guidebooks, it seems like everybody now knows that to order a cappuccino after 11:00 am is to give one away as a a tourist (like that guidebook and parachute-sized map spread out on the table wouldn’t do that anyway). John Grisham, in his Bologna travelogue/mystery, The Broker also goes on about this at some length. The explanation seems to be that having milk late in the day is bad for the digestion, but if that’s the case, I don’t understand why it is permissible to order caffe macchiato—espresso with steamed milk.

Today is Saturday and I am very proud of myself for getting to the market near our house before it closes. Last week we all made the assumption—a wrong one—that the supermarket was open Sundays. Luckily the pizzeria was open.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Long Night

One of the nice things about living in another country for a few months is that you get to see the little, out-of-the-way places where few tourists go. Like our little foray last night to the Emergency Room or Pronto Soccorso. I am on the mend, but over the past several days I was experiencing abdominal pain that finally got too severe for over-the-counter remedies. As we were driven in the middle of the night via ambulance to the hospital, I, ever the conscientious home-schooling mom, thought to myself that this too might prove to be an educational experience for Boris. And if not, well at least he got to ride in an ambulance.

Italian proved to be a necessity in almost every phase of our six-hour stay. Several of the doctors and nurses could speak English but were very self-conscious about doing so. So, I highly recommend that everyone travelling abroad have a decent pocket-dictionary or phrase book for these kind of situations. I’ve been studying Italian for twenty years, so I do pretty well but medical terms just never came up during any of my educational experiences. One more thing: bring your passport to the hospital.

The night was rather a blur except for the all-to-vivid fear I had that the doctors would find something serious enough to send us back to the States. It looks like it was a severe bladder infection and the intravenous antibiotics helped almost immediately. I got something of an insight into the public healthcare system. For one thing, we did not get a bill, although perhaps one will show up in our mailbox. Certainly nobody asked about our ability to pay. The emergency room was divided into separate little buildings, and I was ferried between several doctors by ambulance, the rides lasting all of two minutes. The progress was slow but steady. I will say that the doctors spent much more time than I’m used to and one nurse in particular was very kind; she set Boris up in a bed in the recovery room so he could sleep for a couple of hours. All-in-all I think I had consults with three separate doctors. They never introduced themselves, so although I knew that one was a gynecologist I never really understood the expertise of the other two. The person that finally discharged me from the hospital was also a doctor, rather than a clerical person. You could hardly call the process streamlined. By the last hour I thought we would never be done. Fortunately Bill brought the card game Quiddler which has turned out to be a favorite of all of ours. Suddenly, (during a game that I was winning) they called my name, I went into the office and had my IV removed. I left with a bunch of papers which will provide me with my most challenging Italian reading practice yet.

As many of you know, I am not a patient person. That’s Bill’s job. So this was a real trial for me. But even as I was lamenting my ospedale soggiorno, thinking I was appearing in a newly discovered work of Dante (Pronto Soccorso Purgatorio perhaps ?) I had to admit that I was feeling lots better than I had six hours before. We had left our house at 1 in the morning. When we left the hospital to hail a cab it was 7:30. We all went back to bed. Boris was sure he wouldn’t sleep, but he did so before any of us. We awoke afternoon. It’s 3:30 now and the boys are on a sketching expedition in centro and I’ll try to meet up with them. I’m looking forward to a nice afternoon.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Continual Process

The other day we were sitting in Piazza San Stefano, a quiet, auto-free space in front of a network of medieval churches. The buildings on either side of the church were centuries newer—17th or 18th century, mere babies. The detail in these buildings could keep the eye busy for hours. We wondered who the portraits were that were arrayed under the cornice and as we did so, had to resign ourselves to the sad fact that a building like this could never, would never be built again.

Which brings me to a brief discussion of the movie Death Becomes Her. It came out almost twenty years ago and starred Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis with Hair. Since only about five people actually saw this movie I don’t think you’ll consider me tiresome if I outline the plot. Meryl and Goldie, quite by accident, (isn’t it always by accident in these cases ?) discover an elixir that gives them eternal life. Unfortunately, this isn’t the same thing as eternal youth so their bodies wear out and their limbs tend to come off when they throw each other down the stairs. ( You'd think that having eternal life together would create a sort of bond, but they can't stand each other). Bruce Willis is a plastic surgeon and also married to one of them and due to his profession he is continually “on call” to repair damage to them. (It was a totally forgettable movie, not especially funny except for a dig by a witty reviewer who surmised that there must have been one heck of a fight between Meryl and Goldie to decide which of them got to be the blonde).

So why am I bringing this movie up ? Because it reminds me of Italy. Every local government must employ hundreds of Bruce Willises to repair one fading building after another-- cleaning, patching, shoring up, realizing that there is always a next one. Growing up in Chicago, where new buildings are always going up, way up, (often taking the place of lovely older buildings) I find this a strange state of affairs. Architecture here is so much more a question of maintenance than of construction. I picture a group of Council members (or whatever you would call the group that oversees the physical well-being of the buildings.) I imagine them peering through monitors that connect to hidden cameras trained on every quarter of the city. How fretful they must be as they try to keep up with damage incurred by pollution, weather and time…not to mention people. One Council member turns to the other and says, “Did you see the way that kid Boris was rubbing his chocolatey hands all over the stucco ? Those fingerprints aren’t going to come off anytime soon !"

Saturday we visited the nearby city of Modena which is lovely. The Duomo is a fine example of the Romanesque with engaging, even funny sculptural details on walls and capitals. The fa├žade was partially in restauro (under restoration) and because of this, some of the walls were covered with protective cloth (canvas ?) Like many such contrivances, this one’s cloth covering was silkscreened with an exact full-sized photograph of the wall which it was hiding. So we were able to gaze upon the rhythm of the walls arches and its elegantly proportioned pilasters except that they weren’t real. How to react to this ? I have to say that when I see these faux building covers I feel like I do when speaking with a person who has spinach in his teeth. I try not to see it and yet it’s there.

In the larger cities and even the middle-sized ones, there is so much restoration work going on that I feel a little guilty. I want to go up to somebody in charge and say, “Really, I wish you wouldn’t put yourself to so much trouble for us. Honestly, you should see the mess I have waiting for me at home.”

Heard on the Via

photo by Boris

A group of college woman (probably from the Johns Hopkins program based in Bologna) are walking away from the McDonald's that's near the Neptune fountain.

One says, "I'm not one of those Americans who come to Italy and heads for the McDonald's !"

Seems to me that she is and she did.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Language for Real Life

Have you ever taken one of those “get your feet wet” foreign language courses? I’m not talking about the ones with the rather off-putting designations, French 101, Spanish 202. No, the courses I’m thinking of have welcoming titles like “Parliamo l’Italiano !” (exclamation point obligatory) and “ Toujours France!” After one session you come away with the basics for rudimentary conversation: “How are you ?”, “I’ve been better” and “The pen of my Aunt is on the table.” Armed with these sentences, you feel that fluency is within your grasp. Now I have serious issues with this approach. It lulls one into a false sense of competence. Only heartbreak can ensue once you travel abroad and encounter complex life situations. Just like home, people will answer you according to their whim, not according to your script.

To correct this shortcoming, I bring you the This Ain’t No Marshmallow Italian Language School. The school motto will be: “Life is tough and so is the subjunctive tense” which I’m hoping to incorporate into a school song. How will the classes be taught ? Well, there will be a series of practical exams based on real-life situations. No sense living in the clouds watching one’s Aunt’s pen floating by while you blithely discuss the weather. This is Real Life. Naturally these exams will be derived from our own experiences here in Bologna:

1. Purchase a cell phone and calling plan. This was a tricky one. I don’t understand the basics of phone plans in any language so even if my salesman had spoken to me in English it wouldn’t have helped much. We went into the Vodaphone Store on Ugo Basso near Piazza Maggiore, after a meal at McDonald’s (yielding to pressure from Boris). I explained that we needed the phone for three months and wanted the cheapest one I could get. Resigned to the fact that he would not be able to sell me a Blackberry, the salesman sold me the bottom-of-the-line. So far so good. Then I had to buy what is called a “SIM card,” a tiny metal card that goes into the phone. I think I bought 20 Euros of minutes but the price of those minutes would seem to range between 20 cents and 2 dollars depending on where you are calling. Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d been given a price list of countries and charges per minute ? Well, that didn’t happen. Still, if I’m not mistaken, we can make unlimited calls to Croatia.

2. Answer an ad for a used child’s bike for sale. Tell the seller that you don’t actually want to buy the bike but would like to rent it for three months for half the selling price. You agree to return the bike to the seller at the end of that period. Explain to the seller that this is a really great deal for him because he can sell the bike and also pocket a rental payment. OK—I had a little help with this because Giuseppe, our landlord’s son, sent me a link to an online ad. When I called, the seller was actually amenable to this arrangement. The hard part was getting there and figuring out how to transport the bike. He told me that he was located on Via Bentivoglio. We took a bus to il centro and a taxi from there. Once we got there, we could not find the right apartment building. Good thing I’d completed exam question #1 and had my telefonino with me. When I called the seller I found out that we’d made the ridiculous mistake of confusing Via Bentivoglio with Via Bentivogli ! I'll bet this mixup never happens ! Oh, and it was Giuseppe Bentivogli—not the other Bentivogli. By this time our taxi had left but I phoned for another using the business card our driver had given to us. And here’s an amazing thing—the SAME taxi driver came back for us ! In all my 51 years on earth I have never once had a Taxi Driver Repeat, and Bologna is quite large (population 400,000), so I really do think that this was an amazing coincidence. So, there we were, driving through beautiful arcaded streets toward our quarry. When we finally reached the correct address, Alessandro, the seller, was waiting for us. The bike was perfetto. We called yet another taxi, this time requesting one large enough to transport the bike back to our apartment. Right now Boris and Bill are at the park putting the bike (la bici) through its paces while I enjoy some peace and quiet. We spent $30 on the bike and $45 on cabs. But the story ? Priceless.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

We Are Ensconced

I am happy to report that our apartment in Bologna is very comfortable and actually looks better than it did on the website because the landlord has purchased new furniture for the bedrooms. The day we arrived from Rome was, like the five days before it, clear, warm and cloudless. The cab driver drove through streets lined with stucco homes and shops, most of them painted in shades of pink and peach. We were a little early to meet our landlord and so we and our bags were deposited beside the gate of our building-to-be. There we waited for a very long ten minutes hoping this wasn’t a question of crossed signals or an out-and-out scam.
We were of course thrilled when our landlord’s son Giuseppe showed up. I had one very tense moment when he explained that our apartment was on the floor below the first floor. Of course in the United States this would mean the basement. I was picturing a dank dark apartment and felt absolutely sick with the realization that I had never, in all my fact-finding, asked what floor the apartment was on. Let this be a lesson to you, dear reader ! When renting, find out what floor your apartment is on! As it turned out, we are on the ground floor, or rather a couple steps up from ground level. I had forgotten that in Europe the first floor is our second floor. What a relief !

Giuseppe was extremely patient and kind, explaining the intricacies of the heating system, the location of kitchen implements, linens, etc. What took the longest to explain was the system of garbage disposal. On virtually every street are a row of large dumpsters to which residents have access anytime they want. The good thing about that is you will never find yourself running after the garbage truck because you forgot it was your Day. The bad thing is that warm weather brings out that very persistent unpleasant odor you experience riding behind a garbage truck. Either we’re getting used to it or the slightly cooler weather makes the smell less of a problem. Bolognese are very serious about recycling and there are various bins for plastics, glass, “unsorted” and “organic.” I’m waiting for Giuseppe to bring us a key for this last one. I guess not just anyone is allowed to toss their chicken bones into the dumpster.

The street is very quiet and seems very settled with families and older people. There is a sizeable market with individual vendors selling cheese, meat and vegetables. The supermarket down the street is open all day—no closing in the middle of the day—but it has a sterile, off-putting atmosphere. There are caffes, newstands, bakeries and a few restaurants--really everything we need. A park has provided Boris with playmates. Boys of all nationalities really need one phrase: “Do you want to play ?” or in this case,“vuoi giocare ?” And those magic words, along with an arsenal of gestures, get him into pick-up games of soccer, il calcio.

A little while ago Boris was very excited to find out that we have an “old-fashioned” stereo. That is to say, it has a cassette player. Just another testament to Italy’s reverence for history.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Boy of Few Words

Here is Boris looking down on the Colosseum and finally his favorite word "awesome" has found a worthy object. A few weeks ago he had had an awesome ice cream at Cold Stone and his new Sketcher shoes were totally awesome too, but I couldn't help but wonder if that ubiquitous adjective shouldn't be saved for something a little more momentous. (My triple-word score in Scrabble which combined axe and equip was pretty awesome. If you do the math I think you'll agree). And then we were at the Colosseum and there was that word coming out of my son's mouth again only this time none of us could think of any other word to use.