Friday, November 30, 2007

Trading post cards for boarding passes

For Thanksgiving this year, I ate no turkey and watched no American football. There were no pumpkin pies cooling in my kitchen, no traditional Quaker hymns sung across generations. I did receive a gift beyond worth when my parents and brother came to visit for a week. We spent our time together in Tuscany, mostly in Florence with a day-trip to Siena. We rambled and ambled, wined and dined, raptured at art and city and captured moments on film. To avoid gluttony of reading and writing, I will try to describe the vacation in installments. Hey, it worked for Dickens and Matthiessen, right?

The Uffizi. A grand palace with an overwhelming collection of art. Countless Adoration of the Magi; innumerable Madonnas, including Madonna of the Pomegranate, the Long-necked Madonna, and a dark 15th century portrait that reminds me now of Munch, found by museum representatives at a flea market in Milan in 2002. I learned about the martyrdoms of various saints: Sebastian killed by arrows, Florian thrown from a bridge with a millstone chained to his neck. Many of the Masters are there: Caravaggio, Botticelli, Raphael, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Titian, Dürer... Having now traveled a bit in Italy, I recognize its plants, architecture, and landforms in Renaissance art: who knew that Bethlehem looked just like the Tuscan countryside? At night, the city sparkles along the river and the dome of the cathedral still boggles the mind despite the shadows.

The Accademia. We lucked out and, with the combination of a slower tourist season and an afternoon rainstorm, walked right in without waiting in line. The pen-and-marker graffiti along the wall lining the sidewalk attest to the expectant purgatory of visitors past. The small museum has one room of amazing paintings and another exhibition area of musical instruments from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. However, the gallery’s main attraction is Michelangelo’s David, and rightly so. A few unfinished sculptures precede the David and show some of Michelangelo’s process and genius. The 17-foot tall David is... Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo's contemporary and biographer, said: "Whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or other times, by no matter what craftsman." The stone seems more alive than some people I’ve known. I had to remind myself of optical illusions when I saw his chest swell with breath. With tired feet and a curious mind, I was happy to sit and stare for a long time. To think that Michelangelo completed the sculpture by the time he was thirty...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dancing in the dark

Last night I went to church. There were over 11,000 congregants, eight deacons, and one high priest. By the end of the service, I could have spoken in tongues. If I still had my voice. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tore through Milan’s Datch Forum like a steam train running full-head downhill and I willingly went along for the ride.

[photo source: popmatters]

Until last night, I had never seen Bruce Springsteen live. When the show went on sale back in September, my friend David and I tried in vain to buy tickets. Hope does spring eternal - through a series of fortuitous turns, we found ourselves grinning like fools walking onto the floor of the Datch Forum for last night’s show.

I have heard from friends and read reviews of Springsteen's legendary energy. Backed by a drummer, two keyboardists, a violin/fiddle/guitarist/vocalist, a bassist, two vocalists/guitarists, and one mean saxophone player, Bruce lived up to his reputation. Most of the songs were from their new album, Magic, which I have not yet heard. I could not sing along, but as with attending mass in Latin or other unknown languages, I could still participate in the rites and rituals, feel the reverence. The concert was 2 ½ hours of chanting and shaking and hand waving and singing. Without rest, even between songs – a quick drum change from cymbal and high hat to kick bass snare overdrive – in the few moments of transition while the band wrapped up the previous song, Bruce would douse himself with a carwash sponge soaking in a bucket by the drummer’s feet, shake his head snorting like a horse at the gate, and charge 1 2 3 4 into the next song’s beat over the decrescendo of force. Centrifugal and centripetal.

Some will scoff and say dismissive things of Bruce. Others will bristle at the comparison of a rock concert to a religious experience. What I know is this: never have I seen a band and crowd so earnestly, unselfconsciously in sync about the joy of music. I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A rose by any other name

The magpie is back, outside my window, walking with exaggerated strides and short hops. From the spotty lawn, she pulls seeds? worms? Her black head and shoulders look like an executioner’s hood and the flash of blue on her wings is captivating.

Back home, I am so-so with flora and fauna identification, an area I would like to improve. I felt most knowledgeable in the montane zone of Colorado where I worked for a few seasons, though the relative symplicity of the ecosystem there made it easier to learn than the crowded temperate forests of southern New England.

Here in northern Italy, I’m most often unknowing when it comes to the natural world. I have plenty of opportunities to see plants and animals that invite investigation, especially on my runs out along the Via dei Mulini, about which I have written before. Long elegant herons are justifiably skittish and leave off whenever I approach within 100 meters. Nutria, large riparian rats, are hunted systematically by farmers during the fall, after the corn and hay have all been take in; an invasive species, they are unwelcome and left dead on the sides of the road. During this season, I have also seen the men wandering the fields, usually with baskets and dogs, searching for mushrooms.

The European magpie I knew by name. It was not the bird baked into a pie, though that “Sing a Song of Sixpence” nursery rhyme, like many others, has an interesting back story – this one with pirates! Arrrr! The magpie, as I found in my research, is common throughout European folklore and is often associated with unhappiness and trouble. Occhio!

The list of plants and animals to look into grows. I will never be the Thoreau, Abbey, or Muir of Codogno, but perhaps I can take part in the ancient practice of naming the world around us.

A poem on names and the light inside the named.

34. ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Walking on the edge of winter

Today, walking back from the grocery store with a full red pack like a mountain peddler, I smelled woodsmoke and saw a palm tree. I normally consider these things to be of different worlds, but I was wrong. It is growing colder here, with nighttime temperatures dipping just below freezing, and I have heard rumors of snow. Apparently it does not get cold enough here to prevent palm trees from growing. I have also seen some succulents, like jade, and caught hints of fragrant plants that I cannot name, reminding me of California.

Just a short walk from our apartment, one can leave the small town behind and find the sky open up across scattered farms here on the flat plain of the Po Valley. Here are some photographs I took a few weeks ago, on a particularly breath-taking day. A distillation of fall.

Following that one-lane road path leads after two miles to Mulazzana, a collection of 6 or 7 houses with no stores and a church I have never seen open. Beyond that, it is almost another two miles before one reaches the village of Camairago. I do not know how many miles I have run and biked along that road, but I am familiar with its turns, stretches, trees, the irrigation ditches that line it. Recently, as the weather has cooled and the rains have cleared the hazy air, distant mountains that were formerly invisible have come into view: the Ligurian Apennines to the south and the snow-draped Bergamo Alps to the north.

A poem from a man of the mountains.

by Gary Snyder

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
straying planets,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
Dragging saddles—
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.

Monday, November 19, 2007

On steel horses we ride

On Friday night, I attended the Bicycle Film Festival in Milan. An international festival, it may be coming soon to a city near you. Occhio! If you like bicycles and bike culture, you will find it right up your alley. I heartily enjoyed the black hoodie sweatshirt and rolled pant scene, guys with scraggily beards and thick frame glasses, girls with beautiful fixed gear bikes and small-brim bike caps. Good movies, too. This was a crowd favorite: a group of Oakland kids waxing ridiculous about their tricked out “scraper bikes.”

Wendell Berry, one of my favorites, writes beautifully, thoughtfully, and passionately how we can improve the health of our families, communities, and the natural world all around us. Those who have read his essay “Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer” will agree that the bicycle fits many of the criteria he uses for technological innovation:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

I love bicycles. I love riding them, looking at and photographing them, reading, writing, and talking about them, extolling their numerous virtues. I am more and more convinced that the bicycle is one of the best technological advances we have made (the knife, the bowl, the pencil, the printing press, the camera, the surfboard, the ski, and musical instruments are also excellent, among others). As I've mentioned before, Italy, while not on par with Denmark or the Netherlands in bike culture, is definitely more bike-friendly than the United States. I am frequently impressed by the feats of balance (two people on the same bike is a common site), style, and function that Italians manage a bici. Riding in the rain? No problem. Here are some other photos I have taken over the past few months of le biciclete italiane.

For an interesting examination of the power and efficiency of bicycles, I recommend these excerpts from Ivan Illich, published in 1978 and even more salient today.

If you are looking for some inspiration on world traveling, or if you would like to read about an amazing adventure from your arm chair, I can recommend checking out Heinz Stücke, “the Bike Man.”

The parting words I leave to Queen.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Let my steeple snow!

Language students are frequently reminded to notice cognates. But as with the Ides of March, beware the false cognates! One student studying in Chile, as urban legend has it, was taken to the hospital after a series of fractured conversations with her host family. She wanted to say, “Yes, I’m sorry. I feel so embarrassed.” Embarazada, right? In Spanish, embarazada is pregnant. Not embarrassed. Occhio!

Besides hospital visits, there are of course many reasons to learn another language. Ordering in a restaurant or discussing food can also be fraught with danger. Mark relates a story of his first summer here in Italy when responded to a question about his favorite recent meal by saying that he had really enjoyed i cappellini. “Really?” “Yes, i cappellini were very tasty.” Now, capellini is angel hair pasta but maybe only in the United States? And yes, the two ps make a difference in Italian. Mark’s friends soon informed him that he had been extolling the gustatory virtues of “cute little hats.” Maybe they were just pulling his gambe...

Living in a country where English is mostly an amateur sport, I have had ample time to consider language. As many of you know, I taught in an English/Spanish bilingual classroom in New York City for two years. Through that experience and my graduate studies, I learned more than I want to remember about BICS v. CALP, comprehensible input, Krashen’s theories on the stages of second language acquisition and the psychology of affective filters, and... Sorry, the dormant grad student in me took hold of the keyboard there for a moment.

Recently I have been curious about focusing on my own Italian language development. Through self-examination I thought perhaps light could dawn on Marblehead, to use an old New England saw. I turned to an old stand-by, the Student Oral Language Observation Matrix (SOLOM), which assesses five categories: Comprehension, Fluency, Pronunciation, Vocabulary, and Grammar. The matrix is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 signifies “has no proficiency” and 5 means “approaches native fluency.”

To improve the accuracy of the test, I tried to approximate lifelike testing conditions. I installed a speaker on the wall that occasionally spit loud gibberish. I taped some of my artwork and a recent spelling test by the window. I instructed my roommate to throw erasers at me. For breakfast I ate three pounds of Twizzlers. After the test, I decided that I rate a high 2 or low 3. I scored especially well on Comprehension, not surprisingly as this area is usually the first to develop.

My Vocabulary is okay, given the number of cognates from English and Spanish. But there is certainly room for improvement. I give you Example #1, translated from the Italian, in the case for “This guy often doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

My Italian friend and I were talking in a bar.
Me: “Look at those Jews over there.”
Friend: “Excuse me?”
M: “Yeah, those two Jews over there are crazy, huh?”
F: “Ummm... What do you mean?”
M: “Look at them. They’re talking loudly, gesturing wildly, making a scene. [Snort] Jews.”
F: “What?!”
M: “Those two Jews. Yikes. That’s embarrassing.”
F: “......... No. Not Jews – drunks. They’re drunks.”
M: “Uh... right. Drunks. Thanks.”

Obviously in English this would be an egregious offense. In my defense, however, the words are close in Italian. You be the judge: ebraico – Jewish; ubriaco – drunk. A related note: this “Italian Friend,” who speaks English well, had thought for years that the Beatles had been singing, “Hey, Jew, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better...” The Chosen People are everywhere!

For more fun with words, I recommend a site I found through friend Bleeding Espresso. Free Rice - a vocabulary game that rewards achievement with donations to the United Nations World Food Program.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wascally wabbits and other unearthed gems

Italian television, a strange and wondrous place, continues to amaze, astonish, and entertain. My new favorite show is Bugs Bunny dubbed – “Ehhhhh - Che succede, amico?” The other night, Mark and I saw what seemed to be a giant group talent/variety show pitting two groups of mostly buxom and scantily clad women against each other: le bianche e le nere. The white women versus the black women. And no, I’m not talking about uniform colors. Interessante...

Also interesting is that I just finished watching Game 4 of the World Series on Italian television. Yes, the Red Sox still won, the Colorado fans waving white towels still looked like they were conceding surrender, the victory still felt different from 2004, and Papelbon is still crazy good and crazy just. That it is now mid-November and this game was played... 2 ½ weeks ago is odd enough, but the video editing by the Italian TV channel was really outstanding. And by outstanding I mean bizarre. So they skipped a few innings, wanting to condense the game, fine. But missing Bobby Kielty’s homer only to show him descending the dugout steps? During a pitching change for Colorado, they cut to a blimp shot of the night stadium and next to Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox playing leftfield? The bottom of the ninth, three final outs left for Colorado, and... they... showed... two of them? Who was editing this? Edward Scissorhands? Buñuel? Mr. Ed?

On our non-cable TV, there are three channels in a row – 14, 15, and 16 – that are identical. There are at least two other matching pairs between 1 and 30, which is as high as our TV goes. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing a game of electronic media: “Yes, yes, I know. The pope was talking on that other religious channel too... but which one?!” The local access channels that we get seem to focus primarily on karaoke and variations thereof. Call in dedication request karaoke anyone? As previously mentioned, Walker, Texas Ranger is often at home on Italian TV.

Easily the most bizarre aspect of Italian TV I have seen is what appears to be the rug channel. Yes, the rug channel. Any time I have passed it, there is a well-coiffed man in a suit and tie sitting on rugs, pointing out the qualities of rugs, standing next to hanging rugs, talking about rugs. I think he is selling the rugs – beautiful Persians, interesting abstract Modern geometric designs, etc. – but I am not sure. I have never seen anyone else on the channel, and I’m beginning to wonder if the host is in solitary confinement in a rug warehouse... with a cameraman. Maybe there is a rug fascination that has swept Italy but somehow missed our apartment. We do not have a single rug.

An additional note: in bocca al lupo to the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams at PS 161 in West Harlem! Both teams are in 1st place in the NY SCORES program going into the last games tomorrow – forza! Dai! Dai!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Islands in the Stream, Part III

The last installment of Mordecai's essay...


Pius II’s efforts towards the creation of a utopia in the hills of Tuscany are often glossed over by historians of theology, the Crusades, and the political foundations of modern Europe. It has particular resonance for historians of sport, however, and there is a growing body of research on Pius the Sportsman. Some grants have been awarded in support of further studies of Pius II’s practice of falconry, for example, but, given the prevalence of that activity during the early Renaissance period, more adventurous historians have set their sights elsewhere.

While the evidence is scant, some historians are beginning to assert that Pius II was an ardent practitioner of a much-practiced yet oft-maligned sport: Wiffle Ball. Yes, Wiffle Ball – a variation on baseball that is played using a lightweight, perforated plastic ball, almost invariably white in color, and an invariably yellow plastic bat. Groundbreaking historians in this field, including Hampton, Grieves, et al., now claim that Pius II’s fascination for and dedication to the sport of Wiffle Ball were so great that he designed the central piazza of Pienza to be a Pantheon for its dedicants.

Centuries later, a group of us made good on Pius’ promise to Wiffle athletes. On our recent trip to Tuscany, we played Wiffle Ball in Pienza’s historic central piazza. Crazy, yes, but true. We found many pieces of Pius II’s grand Wiffle Ball stadium still in place and were frequently surprised by the overarching beauty of his plan. The locker room/dugout along the wall of one abutting palace, replete with hooks for jackets. The batting practice cage alongside the ancient well. Infield/outfield practice from the lip of the central door. A perfectly placed circle bricked into the very pattern of the piazza from which the pitcher could serve up Wiffle junk.

The lights shone bright on our field. Tickets were scalped to disbelieving neophyte fans for free – we were putting on a show and inviting all of Tuscany, even the papal ghosts, to join us. Except for when the municipal police rolled by: some of us scattered like high schoolers caught loitering in a midnight parking lot; one of us waddled off with the Wiffle Ball bat running the length of his leg. Our official photographer documented the scene. We laughed at the spettacolo and improbability of it all: Wiffle Ball in the House that Piccolomini Built for Wiffle Ball. A fitting sequel to the Lake Como Cup of 2006.

[For a fuller treatment of Pius II’s fascination with American sports invented, allegedly, after his death, I encourage you to read Jackson Checo’s thorough and impeccably researched examination of the subject, Piccolomini: The First Suburban Teenager?]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Islands in the Stream, Part II

Mordecai's essay continued...


The Leibnitz party thought they had found their parcel of the Promised Land, but the island proved barren despite their efforts. Within a fortnight it became clear that it was not even, in fact, a true island, as the spring Proxigean tides soon inundated the small space, leaving but a speck of damp sand “the size of a rolltop desk (Adão, ed., 1957).” By that point, the party was over, and Leibnitz was the only remaining guest.

One of the last to depart, Maggie Oswald, claimed, in her interview with the New Bedford Daily Register, that Leibnitz was attempting to construct “a platform of some sort, from any which flotsam and jetsam and the like that happened by. I saw a lobster pot he had, and a shipping palette, an empty rum barrel from a pirate ship I think, a big bone maybe from a moose, a split plank flower box... I don’t know. It didn’t look real stable (Adão, ed., 1957).” Colorful as this description may be, Ms. Oswald’s report was certainly influenced by the severity of the ordeal she had just endured and unfortunately could not be verified.

Any attempts to corroborate her story of Leibnitz’s unusual tower were thwarted when, within a few days, an unseasonal hurricane swept up the North Atlantic coast. While meteorological records from the period indicate a low-force storm (Davis & Davis, 1922), by the time the weather had cleared, Leibnitz, the accordion, the two sheep, any platform, and the first ten feet below sea level of the island had disappeared. At the University of Maine at Orono-hosted symposium “Is Any Man an Island?: A Discussion on the Hermeneutics of Ill-Fated Utopian Expeditions of the 19th Century,” Dutch researcher Jan-Mendelt Van Wristler commented, “It is doubtful Leibnitz survived.” Indeed. Another arrow shot at the moon that fell well short.

Whether or not Leibnitz knew of Pope Pius II (1405-1464) is a subject of some debate among utopian historians. However, they both held la città ideale of More and Plato in high esteem: Leibnitz played out his tragedy along the Massachusetts coast; Pius II used the Tuscan countryside as his palette. What is generally agreed upon is that Pius II was “born Enea Silvio Piccolomini in1405. [He] was Pope from August 19, 1458 until his death in 1464. Pius II was born at Corsignano in the Sienese territory of a noble but decayed family. His longest and most enduring work is the story of his life, Commentaries, which is the only autobiography ever written by a reigning Pope.”

Strongly influenced by the humanists of his day, Pius II set out to resculpt his hometown, and this aspect of his papacy is of special interest to historians of urban design. Corsignano, later renamed Pienza in honor of its most famous son, became the first formidable exercise in city planning in post-plague Europe. The town still retains most of the fruits of his labor and was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1996.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Islands in the Stream, Part I

On my recent trip to Tuscany, I traveled with my roommate Mark and a collection of characters associated with his baseball team. We also spent some time with an acquaintance of mine from New York, Mordecai Johnson, who is a visiting adjunct professor at the University of Bologna. He asked if he could contribute some historical perspective to my blog, and I readily agreed. Because of the length of Mordecai’s essay, I have separated it into three installments.


The desire for utopia has engendered many attempts at the ideal community. Plato’s Republic and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia are justly the most famous literary antecedents. In Massachusetts of the 17th century, the Puritans believed they were establishing a “city upon a hill” that might serve as a beacon to the world. Many sought a counter-example to the increasingly teeming cities of the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century. Within this last category, the story of Arnold Leibnitz provides an especially telling example. While peculiar, the story is by no means unique; the Leibnitz party and a trove of other foolhardy experiments share a common result: failure.

Leibnitz was in many ways the archetypal aspiring utopian leader: charismatic, prematurely grey, neglectful of quotidian minutiae. With a small group of like-minded souls, Leibnitz set off from Boston in mid-March of 1857 on what was then an arduous overland journey to Provincetown, Cape Cod. Inspired by Leibnitz’s creative firebrandery, they hoped to form a utopian community apart from “the roiling mess of present society (Rosenfeld, 1975).” By early April, however, having established nothing more than poor relations with the local inhabitants, the group was run out of town. Though first-person accounts vary wildly in their depiction of the Leibnitz party’s exodus, there is a general consensus that the group was lax in paying bar tabs and maintaining personal hygiene.

Finding themselves with “but a skiff and a sack of potatoes to their collective name” (Lister, 1964), the group gathered on a dune to regroup. Eventually, after much deliberation and not a little ill will, the latter primarily directed towards the accordionist in the group, Leibnitz decided to lead the party out to a small, uninhabited island he saw just off-shore. Gesturing vociferously, he proclaimed, “There, amidst the unspoilt bosom of Nature, we shall settle and make famous our experiment (Kalantagian, 1981).”

Clamoring into the skiff, one and all with potatoes and accordion and two sheep – the reasoning being that most in the party enjoyed their tea with milk and that come fall they could “make what harvest we could from the wool of our flock” (O’Leary, 1980) - the group splashed out towards the island. They made landfall on Accordion Island, so named for completely unrelated circumstances, after over four hours of drifting caused by the group’s having neglected to bring any means of propulsion or steering and to “Poseidon’s cruel sense of humour [sic]” (Ferthen, 1917). Splashing ashore, Leibnitz fell immediately to his knees in prayer to God, Shiva, and the animist spirits of the island, it being an ecumenical endeavor...

Friday, November 9, 2007

Walking on the moon with the lights turned off

Last night I wandered through a carnival being set up in town. Here in Italy these traveling amusements are called Luna Parks, though that may be a brand name? The community of carnies is living around the corner from us and the park itself is set up just down the street. While I am certainly peripatetic, I can only imagine what a 21st century nomadic life would be like...

It was odd to walk the midway before it has opened for business, like being in school on Sunday or a ballpark in November. An amusement park with its shutters down and its plugs pulled. Flashy wheeled carts and miniature fire engines and flying horses at rest. Wooden bottles in no danger of falling boxed up. A bull roping gig set to snort steam collecting dew. Bumper cars lined up in their shawls like boats at a winter marina. Food booths linger already or still with the scent of popcorn and toasted sugar. A whirly top with flanges for seats and standing room screaming only quiet dark. All of it waiting.

Durante medio siglo
la poesía fue
el paraíso del tonto solemne
hasta que vine yo
y me instalé con mi montaña rusa.
Suban, si les parece.
Claro que yo no respondo si bajan
echando sangre por boca y narices.
- Nicanor Parra

For half a century
poetry was
the paradise of the solemn fool
until I arrived
and I settled in with my roller coaster.
Go on up, if it strikes you.
Of course I won’t respond if you come down
pouring blood from your mouth and nostrils.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The quickest way to a man's heart

Cypress trees ring the early evening sky. The air hangs with the smell of sulfur. Steam floats off down valley in the growing dark. I’m floating, boca arriba, in the thermal baths of Bagno Vignoni. In Tuscany. On cloud nine. How did I get here?

While Italians don’t really celebrate Halloween, All Saints’ Day is a national holiday. Because it fell on a Thursday this year, most Italians took one of their favorite (among many) liberties and stretched the day-off into a four-day weekend. Fare il ponte – to make the bridge. Mark and I traveled south to Pienza in Tuscany with friends from the baseball team and a few others, some of whom who have been visiting the area regularly for ten years. Mark and I agree it is one of the best ways to travel in Italy: go with Italians who know where to go, where and what and how to eat and drink, who to talk to, what to see, etc. Thanks especially to our de facto tour guides Bodo, Moris, and Panno.

Cloud nine is a big place full of many wonders. I cannot hope to cover our trip adequately, especially not in one post. My best advice: go and see for yourself. Tuscany is magical and it calls to you.

First, let me start with our meals, since that was one of the central motivations for the trip. As with small vehicles, contour plowing, and wiffle ball stadiums, Tuscans do food very well. Perhaps too well. If I lived there the way we lived this weekend, I wouldn’t live very long. I would probably drown in the thermal baths, satiated on homemade pasta and locally-produced wines.

Eating with honorary locals Bodo and Moris, we were often that group at the various restaurants we visited: 7 guys, talking exuberantly, sitting for hours at a table that had been reserved weeks ago and marked with a little card, ordering the entire menu, turning heads of less-informed and un-local-tour-guide-blessed tourists, joking with the waiters, calling out to the owners on a first-name basis, laughing at each other and the rubes who thought they could merely walk up and get a table (most of the restaurants we ate at had between 5 and 10 tables; all were bursting with patrons), eating enough to sink small ships, and drinking enough wine to float ‘em back up.

Here is a sampling of what we ate. Most of it was “four stars heartily shake the hand of the chef” good. Some of it was “call the cemetery and reserve a spot because I can now die and go to heaven” good. These are of course subjective descriptors and will require further research to refine. I have tried to list them as best as possible in the order in which they would be eaten during a meal. Yes, sometimes we ate the vast majority of things on this list at one sitting. I wish I had photos of all of these dishes to share, but I was too busy eating to remember my camera.

- crostini: small pieces of bread toasted with toppings: olive spread, liver pâté, pecorino (sheep’s cheese, also known in Tuscany as cacio) with chopped nuts, pecorino al tartufo (cheese flavored with truffle , a good example of how man was not born to live on bread alone)

- bruschette: another toasted bread dish, familiar to most, addictive to many; the difference from crostini seems to be that the bread is toasted first and then topped with tomatoes and olive oil, pecorino al tartufo, ricotta and green onions

- salumi misti: mixed cuts of cured meats – salami, prosciutto, culatello (another type of prosciutto), capicola, bresaola, lardo (yes, lardo) - Tuscany, or anywhere in Italy for that matter, is not the best place to keep kosher AND sane

- salad with salsa di acciughe (anchovy sauce)

- zuppa (soup) with pane (bread), fagioli (beans), olio (olive oil), pepe (black pepper), and erba cipollina (chives, or, literally, green little onions)

- cipolle al pane: onions with bread chunks, baked in the oven in terra cotta dishes (a common technique used to perfection in Tuscany)

- pecorino fresco con pancetta: fresh sheep’s cheese (there are three general categorizations of pecorino, which I hope to cover in a future post) baked in the oven with bacon – perhaps both the tastiest and least healthy food I ate all weekend – wow.

- salsiccia alla griglia: grilled sausage

- pici: a homemade pasta special to Tuscany, rolled between the hands, long like spaghetti but thicker; with cinghiale (wild boar) ragu, with briciole (bread crumbs), with aglio and pomodori (garlic and tomatoes). I would probably eat this pasta with mulch or gravel or newspaper pulp. It is wicked good.

- tagliatelle: another homemade pasta, often served with a meat sauce

- maialino di latte: roast suckling pig, served with some of the subcutaneous layer of fat – tasty but not my favorite

- semifreddi: ice-cream-esque dessert that comes in slices like bread

- cantucci e vin santo: small almond biscotti, that may or may not be baked feathers from angel wings, and dessert wine traditional to Tuscany – I think Heaven may be a piazza where you sit all day drinking caffe, eating pecorino, reading La Repubblica, writing postcards, drinking vin santo with cantucci, watching stylish women walk by in stivali (boots).

Stay tuned for more reviews from la Bella Toscana.