Monday, July 10, 2017

Mixed feelings

Last night was our last in Italy, and I'm surprised and a bit worried by how mixed my feelings are about going back to California.
A post-prandial passeggiata in Fiumicino

 Of course I will be happy to see all my friends, to play music again and exercise in the pool and go to my meetings and to zumba, to wear something besides the same four or five outfits I've been living in for two months, to be able to sleep in a cool room without running the air conditioner all night.

But I also feel very sad to be leaving Italy and the untethered existence I've enjoyed here. I don't know how much this is because of Italy's many charms in particular, and how much because I've been doing what people in the 12-step world call "a geographic"--that is, running away from what's difficult rather than dealing with it.

For example, I've been keeping up with the political news from home, thanks to the internet. It seems even more like a "House of Cards" knock-off miniseries when seen from this distance. But I've made zero effort to acquaint myself with Italian politics, and I've mostly avoided talking about such issues with any of my new Italian friends.

One evening, after a few drinks at the Circolo in Montagano, our friend Claudio asked us, "So, what do you think about Mr. Trump?" This was the first time politics had come up during our time there, and we started reflexively exclaiming how ashamed of and horrified by our president we are. But it turned out Claudio and Maria did not possess that same reflex.

"We think he's pretty good," Claudio said, with a smile. And I saw that he liked Trump so much he didn't even realize he ought to be defensive about it. I began pointing out how wrong he was--another reflex--and Maria answered that at least Trump was doing something about "the foreigners." She didn't mean "foreigners" like us, of course, but people with darker skins and no Italian grandparents.

Luckily my daughter, who obviously holds her liquor better than I do, nudged me in the ribs and said brightly, "Let's talk about something else!" Because we like Claudio and Maria a lot and, in the few days we had left in Montagano, nothing good was going to come of fighting about issues that have been ruining friendships all over the United States.

Back home, in my real life, I'm not sure I'd be able to let this go. I also suspect I'd feel judgmental about a lot of other things about my Italian friends' political, religious, and nutritional beliefs. But here in Italy I'm allowed--I've allowed myself--to be a lot more relaxed about things than I am at home. I can't decide if that's a step forward or a moral collapse.

Among the other things I've let go of--temporarily, I trust--are practicing the violin (I left the instrument in New York six weeks ago), tracking my WeightWatchers points, daily meditation, and most of my exercise regimen. I'm not looking forward to the work I'll have to do to get my fingers, my waistline, and my spiritual life back into shape, but still I'm pleased that I've managed to enjoy myself so thoroughly during this trip while feeling surprisingly little guilt about setting aside my rather compulsive routines.

(Well, some of them. I've gotten pretty compulsive about DuoLingo and about this blog...)

It is also true that I feel attached to Italy in a deeper way than I have to other places  I've traveled to. Partly it's the prospect of citizenship and of becoming more deeply acquainted with my grandfather's history and my father's, too. Partly it's beginning the process of learning the language, which is another kind of connection.

I'm glad we're not buying a house here. I'm not tempted by the idea of living in Italy full time--I am too American and too old to be transplanted. But I do love it here, more than I ever have before. And it's not only the food.

Just the way Italians say "Allora" makes me happy. It's a kind of filler word that means, as far as I can tell, "Well, then..." or "So..." People use it to signal a change in conversational direction, as in, "We've chitchatted for a few minutes, now what would you like to buy?" But the way Italian works, the double L has to be stretched a bit, to show that there are two Ls there, and the way Italians work, the word is said musically, as a kind of falling sixth--AHLL-llorrrra, with a little trill on the R. No matter who is saying "Allora"--a grumpy old waiter, a blowsy shopkeeper, a young hotel clerk with tattoos up and down his arms--it sounds like music. It sounds like a caress.

I am glad, mostly, to be going home. But I can't wait to come back.

Some complaints about the food

Before I abandon Italy and this blog, there are a few things I'd like to complain about. No one likes Italian food more than I do, at least no one who's not Italian-born. My grandmother always said I nursed better after my mother had a spaghetti dinner, and pasta has remained my favorite comfort food ever since. Prosciutto, Parmesan, tomato sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, basil, oregano, vegetables sott'olio--I love them all.
Another minute or two in boiling water would have made these even better.

One of the best things about Italian cooking is the way they overcook vegetables until they're soft and silky and every bit of their flavor is released. So I don't get why they insist on undercooking their pasta. Yes, yes, I know, the right way to cook pasta is supposed to be al dente. But if Italians are smart enough to know that green beans taste better when they're not still crispy, why don't they see that the same is true of spaghetti?

I understand that macaroni isn't any good once it's gone all mushy, like Chef Boy-Ar-Dee from a can. But surely there's a sweet spot somewhere between that and the unpleasantly crunchy tagliarini and penne I'm served every time I come to Italy. I hesitate to say that 60 million Italians might be wrong about anything, particularly pasta. But my mouth says that, on this point at least, they are.

My other grievance is about the shortage of interesting vegetable dishes on Italian menus. Danny and I always chortle when we see American articles and cookbooks that picture Italian cuisine as a few pasta and meat dishes surrounded by photogentic piles of beautiful vegetables. The reality, in most of the restaurants we've eaten at, at least, is that vegetable offerings rarely extend much beyond an insalata mista made up mostly of iceberg lettuce, some boiled green beans (which are pretty good once they're doused in olive oil), and verdura grigliata, which at this time of year means grilled zucchini and eggplant.

 Few things are tastier than vegetables roasted with garlic and olive oil until their edges caramelize and their substance softens into sweet creaminess. (See comments above about the deliciousness of overcooking.) But what we've been served, from one end of Italy to the other, is nearly raw slices of these vegetables cooked just long enough to earn some stripes from the grill, but with barely any flavor except for a saving splash of oil.

There are dozens, probably hundreds, of delicious Italian vegetable recipes--the chicory I've discussed earlier in this blog is just one example--but Italians who go to restaurants, or who run them, don't seem very interested. That's a shame.

"Also for celiacs"
We've been horrified to see that the crusade against gluten has spread to Italy--Italy, where wheat bread and wheat pasta are daily staples. All kinds of products (fruit juice, canned tomatoes) are labeled "senza glutine," and some of the more "modern" restaurants offer "senza glutine" versions of their dishes.
Italian gluten phobia seems particularly puzzling, given that many Italians still haven't gotten the memo about the dangers of smoking and tanning. I suspect the sudden anxiety about gluten is not unrelated to the fact that we've also noticed a lot more Coca Cola and french fries and big American-sized backsides in Italy than we used to see.

Eating more vegetables might be a better way to fight the spread of American-style flab than substituting rice and tapioca flour for durum wheat. Vegetables aren't going to get more popular, though, unless Italians start serving vegetable dishes that taste less like something your mother is making you eat as punishment, and more like a part of the meal that's almost as delicious as the (fully cooked) pasta.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Bari bits and bobs

One of our outings during our brief stay in delightful Bari was to the local fortress, the Castello Normanno-Svevo, which was originally built by the Normans in the 12th century and over the subsequent 900 years was destroyed, rebuilt, and repurposed by a series of conquerors and rulers. It's an impressive pile, even though there's not much left inside.

Most of it has been turned into exhibition space.We saw a big multimedia show about the tenor Tito Schipa, whom we hadn't heard of before. He was born in Lecce and was active in the U.S. in the 1930s and '40s. He had a lovely voice. The exhibition indicated that this aria from Massenet's Werther was Schipa's signature performance. He certainly gives it plenty of oomph.

The best part of the exhibition was the discussion of his very active romantic life. His first love, his childhood sweetheart, was so disheartened by his infidelities that she joined a convent and adopted ot only a nun's habit but very severe spectacles. It struck me as amusing that she devoted the rest of her life to the fight against rabies.

Even better was the castle's display of plaster casts of sculptures from different churches in the area. Usually these things are too high up or too far behind velvet ropes to be seen clearly; this was a chance to look at them close up. Here are a couple of nice griffins devouring, respectively, a snake and a fish.

This 13th-century Madonna from Barletta was my favorite. Usually the Virgo Lactans looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but whoever carved this version obviously knew what it's like when the baby gets his first teeth. Ouch!

The other notable tourist site in Bari is the cathedral devoted to San Nicola, whom we know as Santa Claus.

The cathedral's front pillars rest on two bulls, which seems symbolically appropriate when you learn more about the San Nicola racket.

Saint Nicholas is much revered by Russians as well as Italians, so all the cathedral's signs having to do with him are in Cyrillic as well as Italian and English. He looks unpleasantly surprised to find himself such a celebrity.

The cathedral houses the saint's bones, or at least some portion of them; another church in Venice also claims to have his remains. The church contends that a sweet-smelling liquid exudes from the saint's bones. (One Catholic site dubbed him the "Secrete Santa.") This exudate is called "manna" and it purportedly brings good fortune and heals various ailments. Every year on May 9 the Bari cathedral harvests the manna while taking the saint's image on a procession around town. And because this is the Catholic church we're talking about, they sell this precious substance at the cathedral gift shop. 

A Catholic web site I turned to for information says that the saint produces only about 50 milliliters of manna per year, but I saw a lot of bottles of the stuff for sale in the store. The little ones on the upper left are only 3 euros each; the decorated bottles go for as much as 70. Presumably the bottles are filled with holy water or blessed oil, with just a drop of the precious manna mixed in. But  of course that doesn't mean the stuff won't work.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Fashion notes

Bras. Italian women aren't ashamed of their brassieres. They wear backless dresses that highlight the bra stretching across their not quite naked backs. They wear regular bras under racing-back shirts, so that their bra straps are boldly visible. Hell, they wear standard bras under strapless sun dresses, and not bras with those clear plastic straps, either. They wear bras under one-shoulder shirts, insouciantly displaying a bra strap on the bare side.  I find this shocking but admirable. I should note that whatever's showing always looks new and clean, and often colorful, which underscores that this is not sloppiness but a deliberate fashion choice.

American unisex foot
Shoes. When my sandals broke early in this trip and I bought myself a new pair in the men's department at Globo, I was pleased that, to my California eye, they didn't look anything like the clunky sandals that most men in America wear. In Berkeley, where men and women both wear Keen's most of the time, these would easily pass as women's wear.

Out on the street in Italy, however, especially here in the South, people often glance at my feet when I wear them, and l realize that these sandals are indeed big and clunky compared to the emphatically feminine shoes most Italian women wear.

Italian emphatically female feet
Even grannies who trudge around in glorified house slippers choose slippers with a little heel and a dainty front across their bunions. Younger women often wear high platforms or towering heels when they're dressed up (which they often are), and even for casual occasions they put on delicate little sandals embellished with flower cut-outs or shiny trim. Even teens who wear sneakers with their baby-doll dresses usually choose glistening gold or silver high-tops or Converse covered in studs or sequins. In this as in other respects, Italian women are really into drag. To them I must look like one of those crazy old women who shuffle around in a housedress and their dead husband's wingtips.

Postscript: Immediately after writing this, I went out and saw streams of young teenage girls wearing very short skirts or short shorts with very plain canvas sneakers. Maybe they're rebelling. Or maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.

Men's haircuts. Short hair is popular with men here, just as in the States. But a subset of young men in their late teens and early twenties are sporting what I guess you'd call extreme fades. To my eye these styles are even more comical than the Hitler haircuts you see on some young Americans. If people my age think such hairdos are ridiculous, it's no wonder that the young folks are adopting them.

I've been wary of taking photos of these young Italians, since the hairdos seem to correlate to a certain amount of rowdiness. I did manage to get this rather fuzzy shot of three of them cruising the park tonight.

Then as luck would have it, a handsome young exemplar sat down right next to us at the restaurant tonight, giving me the opportunity to sneak this snapshot.

He was with a very attractive young woman with long hair and very glamorous shoes.

Beautiful Bari

Our stately progress from the south of Italy toward Rome brought us to Bari on Thursday, July 6, for a three-day stay. Bari is a port city that I gather had a bad reputation in the past for crime and related port-city problems, and we did see a cafe along the water that calls itself the Titti Twister.
Other than that, I haven't seen any evidence of bad behavior. There's not even much litter.

In fact, Bari is pretty gorgeous. We're staying in the medieval quarter, and it is delightful in a pre-tourist sort of way.

There are a few stores selling crummy souvenirs, but mostly this is a place where people live, Italian people.

The streets in the old section of town are closed to traffic except for bikes and scooters, and everyone does business on the street. The fruit vendor sets out his wares, cafes serve drinks on the sidewalk, a lady sells french fries out her kitchen door.

Tonight we were wandering around the main square, the Piazza Mercantile, waiting for a restaurant reservation and watching the crowd. The moon was almost full. The port and the sea are just beyond the piazza.

At the other end of the square, two women had set up a deep fryer and were selling squares of fried polenta.

The globs in the second pan are some kind of dough. We didn't try those but we did get a bag of polenta chips, sprinkled with salt. Deliziosi!

The kitchens in a lot of these old houses have a double door out onto the street, protected from flies and the gaze of passersby by a lace curtain. 
During the day you can glimpse people in there cooking, watching TV, or just hanging around. After dark they move out into the street. They sit in folding chairs and yak away for hours. I only took pictures from far away because I didn't want to be rude. 

These were all taken at around ten o'clock at night, including the one below of a group of little boys having their own confab in a stairwell.
Being Italians, and Southerners, Baresi carry on many of these conversations with dramatic gestures and raised voices, even though things always seem to be friendly. It's like being in an Italian neorealist movie--I keep expecting Anna Magnani to come hurtling out of one of those curtained doorways, wearing a slip and emoting at the top of her lungs.

Last day at the beach

In the course of our trips to the towns south of San Cataldo, we'd noticed interesting cliffs and caves along the coast. On our last day there, Wednesday, July 5, sick of churches and museums, we decided to visit these natural wonders.

Blundering around the little country roads well off the main highway, we came upon a parking lot and thence a path through pine woods and down to the cliffs overlooking a formation known as the Due Sorelle (two sisters).

In the bay across from these two big rocks were several lidos, full of people enjoying the crystal blue water.

I looked down at this scene and started feeling like a real idiot for giving up on the Adriatic so quickly. I wanted to go swimming! That feeling only intensified after we hiked around in the hot sun for a while, admiring the spectacular scenery.

An hour or so later we drove back toward San Cataldo to look at the Madonna di Rocca Vecchia (Madonna of the old fortress). She stands on a tall pillar that juts up incongruously on the edge of a rocky shore. Why she's there I haven't been able to find out. Below her are a series of natural pools and caves that had already filled up with frolicking Italians by the time we got there. The shrieking of the kids as they flapped around reminded me of crowds of seabirds clustering on rocks.
Can you see, just over the shoulder of the girl standing in the left foreground, the fellow jumping into the pool? At one point someone did a swan dive off the cliff in the background into the ocean, at the same time that someone else jumped into the pool. But it wasn't a moment I was able to capture.
Above are the remains of the old fortress on the far shore.
The rocks had a very interesting texture, almost like lace. I wonder if it's volcanic, or ancient coral, or...I have no idea.

Here's a close-up. Doesn't it look a lot like the baroque A at the beginning of my earlier blog entry about Lecce?

After our long, hot morning of hiking over rocks and sand, we decided to have lunch at San Cataldo's top-rated eatery, even though it bears the unappetizing name of Ristorante York. It's at one of the lidos along the shore, so we ate our very nice pranzo (big antipasto of all kinds of vegetables, spaghetti with mussels, tagliarini with sea urchin, fizzy pink wine) looking out at the blue sea and the deep brown sunbathers.

After that Danny was ready for a nap, but all I could think about was how nice the Adriatic looked. I decided to go back to Lido York and pay good money to sit on a beach that presumably had been cleared of concrete blocks and other dangers.

Since it was already 3:30 by time I got there, I only had to pay five euros for use of a big umbrella and a bright red lounge chair. (The full-day charge for an umbrella and two chairs is 18 euros.) I lounged in the shade and read my book ("Stiffed" by Susan Faludi, which I missed when it came out almost 20 years ago) and enjoyed the breeze and some excellent Italian-watching.

After some of the other people started going home, I got up the courage to go in the water. But my foray into the shallows was disheartening. There weren't any big pieces of anything, but the water, which looked so nice and blue at a distance, proved to be full of chips and flakes of some kind of dark brown plant matter that kept brushing against my ankles in a disconcertingly fishlike way.

I realized that this was why everyone except a few toddlers chose to get into the water by tottering out on the long blue float (more easily visible in this picture) and jumping in out there.

In situations like this I'm reminded of what a social and physical scaredy-cat I really am. I'd paid five euros, though, and I couldn't bear to leave without having a swim. So I made my way to the end of the float, praying that my daily balance exercises would keep me upright, and jumped in. Out there the water was cool and clear and really delightful. It's also very salty, so floating was easy. I paddled around and watched the sailboats and the wind-surfers and congratulated myself on finally getting a swim out of this beach vacation. I was just sorry I hadn't gotten up the nerve to do it sooner.

I didn't feel too bad, though. Going to the beach and sitting around, idling away the afternoon with a book and my own thoughts, all that was fun when I was doing it as one-time research into Italian lido culture. But I'm still enough of a spoiled brat to feel that being stuck at the beach, because your house is all of 10 minutes away, is kind of a drag. And think of all the money I saved.  

Friday, July 7, 2017

Gallipoli and Otranto

Our explorations in the vicinity of San Cataldo took us to Gallipoli, which we hadn't seen before, and Otranto, which we remembered fondly from spending a few days there during our trip to Puglia a quarter-century or so ago.
The old part of Gallipoli, the centro storico, is on an island jutting off the inside of Italy's heel into the Ionian Sea. A huge castle-cum-fortress guards the entry to the island.

This is what it looked like from the inside.

Once past the castle, you encounter a level of tourist schlock that made Orvieto look as virginally un-touristed as Montagano. Most of the visitors seemed to be Italian, but apparently they like to buy overpriced tote bags and kitschy souvenirs just like the rest of us.

There were some nifty churches, too. I was pleased to encounter Sant'Agata again, this time in an entire cathedral dedicated to her. 

Check out the detail. Her tormentor seems to be modeled on someone squeezing a lemon half over fried fish.

In the back streets, though, this is just another little Italian town. Something about this door to someone's kitchen evokes so many things I love about this country.

And even we tourists can't entirely ruin the prettiness of the town's waterfront situation.

The day we went to Otranto we eschewed the highway and took some back roads. They are still growing a lot of olives in this part of Italy, but many of the trees seem to be dying. 
Apparently an insect-spread bacteria is killing the trees, and the government isn't dealing with it very well. Millions of trees have already been cut down and burned. 

Otranto has a fortress, too. The one in Gallipoli had an exhibition of 18th-century paintings of Italy's ports. The one in Otranto had a show of Caravaggio...and his followers, we realized once we got inside and read the small print on the poster. There were all of two paintings by Caravaggio, one a dubious very early work. But some of the pictures by the Caravaggheschi were interesting, particularly the oddly contemporary portraits of apostles by Jusepe de Ribera.

The show was one indication that Otranto is now a big-league tourist destination, nothing like the funny little seaside town we'd enjoyed during our first visit long ago. The stalls selling souvenirs and the snack bars hawking hamburgers and pizza underlined the change. So did all the new hotels.

The cathedral is still there, though, and still has a sensational 12th-century mosaic floor depicting the Tree of Life.

I see my photographs seem to only show some of the gorier details. Below is Satan, on the right, gloating over one of the damned.

A day or two later Danny wrote a letter to our children about revisiting Lecce and Otranto: 

"We were last on the heel of Italy while you were at Real Adventure Camp, so around 25 years ago. We went to an old baroque town, Lecce after reading an article in The Atlantic, and had a very nice lunch at a restaurant mentioned in the article. It was a dusty little sparsely populated town. Otranto was on a beautiful bay, with two short streets of four-story hotels, a half dozen osterias and an old pre-Roman town to one side overlooking the bay. One evening we were walking in the old town and came upon an old lady sitting in the alley outside her house making orecchiette ["little ears" pasta].... The town was very quiet. And the tourists were mostly Germans.

"The roads we drove to get to these places were narrow and wound through olive groves. The highways had not been put in yet..

"Now both these places are filled with six-story apartment buildings, hundreds of hotels and restaurants and crowded with Italian tourists and souvenir stands selling refrigerator magnets and lots of other cheap ugly crap. 

"So I guess what I am saying is you can't go back. Enjoy now."

Very good advice. I'm not sorry we went back, though. I felt like I hadn't actually seen Lecce before. And although Otranto is no longer the place we remembered, I didn't mind suffering through a little bitter nostalgia in order to see that cathedral floor one more time.

Mixed feelings

Last night was our last in Italy, and I'm surprised and a bit worried by how mixed my feelings are about going back to California. A ...