Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tin roof on a hot catwalk

It is fashion week in Milan. My friend Carmen works for Jil Sander, an international design house on the high end of the spectrum. The Jil Sander fashion show was yesterday. Carmen had invited Mark. Mark is busier than the antacid supplier for Red Sox Nation with his job. Ergo, I went to a my first fashion show yesterday, in Milan at the height of fashion week no less. And as if that wasn’t enough fashion, I continued to gorge myself on fashion all day.

Even before the fashion show began, it was clear to me that I was no longer in Kansas. The security in black suits, stylish facial hair, and radio earpieces. An American woman in a bright pink wrap/shawl/sack making faces like a guppy on stilts. Lots of ankle boots, knee boots, cowboy boots, shiny pointy shoes, big skyscraper heels, sleek black loafers – all of them surely more expensive than my Adidas. As for the models, they were uniformly tall, thin, ethereal, and young, much younger than I expected and young enough that I felt uncomfortable watching them stream by wearing see-through clothing. Most had piercing eyes, jutting chins, and long hair stirred by a breeze that seems only to affect the preternaturally tall and striking. Watching the audience was as good if not better than watching the squeamish-inducing parade of teens in sheer and absurdist clothing. I use clothing here in the broadest sense of the term as some outfits were closer to elaborately folded napkins, cheesecloth made from birds of paradise, dress-size illumination bags for propane lanterns – who could ever wear such things on the street? In many places such a person could get harassed as a clown without a permit. Some appeared to have fallen from spider webs woven of diaphanous spools. Their faces reminded me of elves and aliens I have seen. I obviously know very little about fashion.

[After reading my uneducated review, perhaps you would care to see what the NY Times reporter thought.]

After the show, I had the pleasure of hanging around afterwards with the company’s employees as they came back down to earth, some investors, a few models, the hairdressers, and others associated with the show. Word on the terrace was that the show had been a great success. The important people had liked it, and everyone could relax a bit. The prosecco and finger sandwiches were plentiful. My sense of dislocation was also great - isn't that the castle? Where am I? Who am I?

To continue unspooling the fashion thread, Carmen and I spent the afternoon shopping. For me, this activity usually involves the transaction of goods and money or credit and is to be spoken of with a mix of trepidation and guilty disdain. Out on the town in Milan, I was reminded that shopping can be free and eye-opening. Carmen did not find the definitive dress for her friend’s wedding, but she was once again an excellent guide. While I would probably need to mow one lawn every 37 seconds without stopping to eat or sleep for the next 12 years to pay for the clothes I tried on, I enjoyed the game of trying on expensive outfits. Domenico acted as Virgil and led me expertly through the experience.

As a cherry on top of the ridiculous day, Mark, Carmen, and I strolled over to a party hosted by Marie Claire UK at Mozart’s former house. More prosecco, beautiful fashionable people, expensive artwork, jaw-dropping setting. Pretty standard really. This is the way I roll now that I live in bel paese. [Mile grazie, Carmen, Mark, e Domenico.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

One of the guys

Recently, a group of teammates parted ways at the end of another season. So close. Maybe next time. Wait till next year. The last two weeks of the season had been difficult physically and mentally; losing three out of four is never enjoyable. There was talk of possible retirements. But the team had gone out winners, roaring back from a deep hole to win the last game in dramatic fashion. The team walked off the field to the bus and the waiting off-season without a post-game stretch, much to the consternation of the trainer. Aching but smiling.

This scenario can and does transpire all across the athletic map, year in and year out. What made this story unique was the way the leading actors and supporting characters included me in the unfolding. As the season ended, Mark and his teammates welcomed me as an adjunct professor among an academy of lovable oddballs. Practice. Outings to Park Club (at least another post unto itself). The last two games: Codogno at Bollate.

I rode the bus with the team. I helped with outfield practice. I sat the bench and ate sunflower seeds. I warmed up the left fielder before the start of each defensive half-inning. I rode the wave of energy through highs and lows; I was in the wave of energy cheering the guys on and berating the ump in English baseball chatter, much to everyone’s entertainment.

As I’ve mentioned, I stopped playing organized baseball at 13, when pitchers threw only fastballs and changeups and there were not always outfield fences to aim over. I have had the pleasure over the years to see Mark continue to play baseball at many levels, in diverse places – for our high school, on Cape Cod, in college, around Boston, and now Italy. He is good and many of the “skilled practitioner practicing his art” clichés apply: the way he gathers a ground ball during infield practice; the momentum-building leg kick that repeats and repeats with each pitch; the slow pendulum of his bat as he sets himself in the batter’s box.

Against Bollate, the last game of the season, losing 5-0 with the opposing pitcher, a Venezuelan fireballer, working on a no-hitter through five innings, the manager called on Mark. They walked slowly together to the mound, Mark’s stage.

I wish I could say that Mark shut down the vaunted offense of Bollate, striking out 15 batters over 4 2/3 innings. I cannot. Or I could, but I would be lying (and as many will remember, if you tell one lie, it leads to another; you tell two lies and, whoa, you’re in trouble, brother). In this case, the truth is not far from the fiction. Mark threw peas; the team’s bats came alive; and Codogno stormed back to win. Mark gritted through a Rolaids bottom of the ninth, getting a final ground-ball out with the go-ahead run left stranded on second base. In the excitement of the moment, I carried myself away and walked down the line with the team, shaking hands with the Bollate players. Good game.

As so often has been the case, I have been lucky to end up among such people as the Codogno Jaguars. People honk and wave at me as they drive by; others insist on buying me a drink. Players share inside jokes. The groundskeeper knows my name and thinks I’m a great softball player (of which fiction I will not be dissuading him). It is nice to be included. Warm up the stove.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chitty? Is that you?

La vita continues to take interesting turns.

Italian TV is interesting for more reasons than I can possibly enumerate let alone count in one post. We can look at commercials, per esempio. One of my favorites is a series featuring three men stranded on a desert island, doing deserted-on-a-desert-island-type things like making phones out of tin cans and string. I'm a sucker for tin can phones. Many Italian commercials make me go hmmm. For example, Vera, a company owned by Nestle, advertises their bottled water using a song made famous by Dick Van Dyke...

Today I was thrown a curveball when I found out that I had been signed up for a softball tournament. Does this kind of thing happen to anyone else? My team is the Bad News Bears mashed with Cocoon. In Italian, of course. A few of the players used to play for the baseball team here, but that was in the era of the phonograph. We even have the Babe Ruth of Codogno baseball, il bambino himself: Bob. Yes, Bob. I watched the first few innings from the bench, then I got the call up. "You've pitched before?" asked our make-shift coach, perhaps thinking that all Americans are born with a glove on their non-throwing hands and spikes on their feet. "Uh. Sure. Years ago," I answered. Maybe in middle school gym class? "Great. Start warming up. You're going in next inning."

Heavy metal poured from the sound system; beads of cold sweat trickled down our opponents' necks; time froze as I strode to the mound. I unleashed a barrage of fireballs and mowed down the batters like so many dandelions, fluttering in the breeze... Not exactly, but it was fun to hear the crowd of 17 cheering my name, to see little kids posting the score on the manual scoreboard perched above center field, to cheer incoherently with the chain-smoking grandmother sitting next to me on the bench. No one asked for my autograph and the kids posted way too many donuts for our side, but la nonna played center for a few innings and I went home laughing. Game #2 is next Sunday. I'll be working on my slurve all week.

Oh, and I was almost eaten alive by a dog the size and color of a polar bear.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dove? Come? Perché?

There are connections in poetry quite independent of time, or rather of chronological time. I see these independent connections as little surprising electricities that shock the mind whenever we allow the mind the space to be shocked by small, stabbing connections. - Brendan Kennelly

Where are you going to live? What will you be doing? How will you earn your living?

Before I left the United States, many asked me why I was going; now that I’m here in Italy, many ask what I am doing. Friends and family have suggested, implored, and/or demanded that I: collect recipes; investigate ruins, museums, travel routes; write a book; photograph baseball stadiums and fruit stands; find a wife; learn Italian; join the Freemasons; escape the hustle and bustle; buy a custom-made bicycle; recommend cheeses, wines, prosciutto, pizza toppings; create international guest accommodation opportunities; and, neither least nor last, live life for once. That’s all fine and good, but what am I looking for?

Poetry, as always, among other things.

Robert Frost, from Lawrence, Massachusetts, hard by the side of my hometown wrote a poem that has been on my mind of late. While the leaves are beginning to yellow and I am on a path less traveled by, I have been thinking instead of “Into My Own.”

“Only more sure of all I thought was true.”

Bici vecchia. I am more sure than before of writing and bicycles. Writing this blog is a start. Bicycles, as I started to describe earlier, are a central aspect of Italian life and a crowning technological achievement. I just returned from a ride to the town library on my 1/10 horsepower steel horse. If I drank gasoline, I could travel at a rate of 1,400 miles to the gallon. As Wendell Berry noted so eloquently, bicycles and other human-powered technologies ultimately run on solar energy. My panels this morning were an apple and a chocolate brioche (unfortunately not as good as one from Zabar’s). While easy to forget, the plants we eat grow from the earth thanks to the sun and the animals we eat in turn eat plants and other animals. [I’ll leave aside discussions of industrial farms.] There can be poetry in self-locomotion and simplicity.

Eric Bende, in his wonderful book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, describes simple joys available when technology is selectively avoided. He writes, “In true leisure there is mastery. If the enemy of self-direction was passion and impulse, its ally was quiet repose, mindfulness, perceptivity. Yet the act of reflection transcended the rational; it followed a course that could not be entirely foreseen, yielding conclusions that could not be reached if too deliberately pursued.”

Both Berry and Bende traffic in “little surprising electricities” that reveal deeper, unsurprising connections. Like a pair of shoes that fit well right out of the box, their words are new and familiar at the same time. Less can be more. Questions can be more valuable than answers. I can relax without feeling lazy. While I am living a privileged life that would be impossible to extrapolate for large numbers of people, the lotus that I am eating can be shared. Bike to Work day? (or week or month or?) R-E-A-D-A-B-O-O-K of poetry instead of watching the TV? Allowing ourselves to be shocked?

My current situation, our current situation, requires new ways of thinking and looking. A once and future theme: change and balance. Wu wei. Man zou. Gelassenheit.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

La bici

"There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Mole, The Wind in the Willows

A few words on the title of this blog, bici vecchia. Old bike. Those who have visited Italy know that, like many places around the world, the bicycle has a much more central place in society here than it does in the United States. If we can judge the scale of popularity based on coverage in La Gazzetta, Italy’s all-sports daily newspaper, cycling here ranks just behind motor sports in 3rd place for popularity, ahead of basketball, track and field, rugby, hurling, caber tossing, and of course baseball. While thinking ahead to living here, I looked forward to riding la bici as much as anything else. Luckily for Mark, the irascible groundskeeper for his team lent him an old, rusted, beat-up piece of junk. Which is to say, the perfect bici. Luckily for me, Mark works in Milan and leaves the bicycle for me.

La bici is small – my knees almost hit the handlebar when I pedal. The seat is too low and probably unadjustable. These two factors make it difficult for me to pedal very efficiently – think of riding a stationary bike while reclining in a La-Z-Boy. Yesterday, for example, I had trouble making progress into a modest headwind. La bici is old – my sources say it may have been used by la Resistenza during World War II. One of the brake cables flops in the wind, unattached and unhelpful in any way other than aesthetic (late 1930s insect is what we’re going for). The front tire light, a bottle dynamo, works more like a strobe powered by the gyrations of a sloth [for those with an mechanical/engineering bent (JCH), here is a technical comparison of various dynamo lights].

It was love at first sight.

While I have no qualm with Mole, I would offer that simply messing around on bici is at least half so much worth doing as messing about in boats. Especially around here where lanes and roads and trails and paths lead out into the country, through small towns and villages, past neatly rowed corn fields and tree farms, along irrigation ditches flush with frogs and grasses bowing with the current. Yesterday was a grand day to mess about on bici and I explored some new areas, farther afield than I had gone before: Cornovecchio, Caselnuovo, Chiesiolo, Reghinera, and Cavacurta – towns too small in some cases to support even a single store or cafe, let alone traffic lights or a library. The day was as clear as it has been since I arrived, thanks to recent rains and the onset of early fall’s crisp days and cool nights. I could see high ridgelines on two horizons – mountains and hills calling to be rambled.

I often feel like Tolkien and his Inklings companions, who used to go on walks into the English countryside, stopping at pubs for refreshment and finding their way home in time for dinner. Given the intervening, globe-shrinking years and the vagaries of British/metric conversion, I sipped not a pint of Bass but instead 33 mL of a fine German weissbier. A fine substitute.

My next exploration? Perhaps Pizzighettone, past Maleo and across the River Adda. Still ‘round the corner there may wait a new road or a secret gate...

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Twisting time is here

Tossing and turning, turning and tossing – I couldn’t sleep at all last night. Whether it was mosquitos, anticipation of an upcoming friends’ visit, sympathy pains for all the teachers and students starting today, or a related built-in inability of my body to sleep well Labor Day evening, Bobby Lewis certainly sang my tune. He took the song to #1 on the Billboard charts in 1961; I took the song literally and missed my exit for the land of Lincoln, Blincoln, and Nod.

To all those teachers out there, waiting for the coffee shop to open, triple-checking your teeth and your tie and your hair, wondering where the summer went and where the school year will go, straightening the desks for the 14th time, reading your roster for the 2,000th time, remembering that the students are nervous too, reminding yourself that they’re only kids, gulping as your stomach flipflops and flopflips, hoping that it’s a good year... I am thinking of you. I hope you find strength in numbers, in the sound of your own voice, in the familiar electricity of beginnings, in your students’ curiosities. They were most likely tossing and turning last night, too, in anticipation of today, the beginning of the show. You will be their magician. As the sky begins to lighten here, I know at least this one thing for sure: You will amaze them all. Even yourself.

To all the students out there, go easy on your teachers. They’re human, too.

To all you non-teachers out there, remember that, despite their numbers, teachers are like endangered species: fragile, often misunderstood, sometimes forgotten by the government. You can help in more ways than one. Donors Choose is one place to start. And hugs are always an option.

Monday, September 3, 2007

They eat horses, don't they?

For better or worse, I will never be the Alexis de Tocqueville of 21st century Italy. I think better because I really like electric refrigeration and don’t much care for wigs. Nevertheless, I shall find it necessary from time to time to try to put into words some of the observations I have made of Italy and Italians. This is more than a cottage industry and many already do it quite well.

Beppe Severgnini, an Italian journalist who spent many years in England and the US, has written a small collection of books on the subject, including La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind. He writes, “Italy is far from hellish. It’s got too much style. Neither is it heaven, of course, because it’s too unruly. Let’s just say that Italy is an offbeat purgatory, full of proud tormented souls each of whom is convinced he or she has a hotline to the boss. It’s the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or the course of ten minutes.”

If the following pieces of Italy were slips of paper that I could fit into a manila folder, the tab would read: Offbeat.
  • The 2001: A Space Odyssey air lock at the local post office. This contraption is closely related to the package window, familiar to residents of New York City and other safe places. That relative is common at such institutions as the pawn shop, the liquor store, and the post office. Like a magician’s puzzle box, the package window has interdependent, bullet-proof sliding doors designed to foil terrorists and to confound postal service employees and customers. Here in Codogno – and I suppose elsewhere across the Italian postal landscape – the package window has become a customer door: a glass-enclosed closet that a you must pass through to conduct business with PosteItaliane. On each end of the portal there is a glass door that opens with an appropriately space-age hushed foosh, sliding into a cavity in the wall. But here’s the rub. The door in front of you will not open until the one behind you has closed, leading to a moment of suspended disbelief, pocket existentialism – will I be left here for all to mock? Will everyone know that I am not worthy to send mail? Will the oxygen in here run out before Bruce Willis and his crack team arrive to save me? Or maybe that’s just me.
  • Italians eat horse. There I said it. As with a tongue twister, perhaps my brain will adapt to this idea through frequent repetition. I have recently learned that not only do many Italians eat horse, certain cuts and preparations are highly prized and priced.
  • This photograph needs no introduction: