Friday, December 19, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The train originates from Milan, so it was sitting in the station well in advance of departure time. I bought my ticket, said goodbye to Valentina, and climbed aboard. This time I knew to look for my reserved seat. When I went to Bologna, I didn’t have a reserved (prenotato) spot, so I had settled in to an empty spot only to skitter out of it one stop later to let the person holding the correct ticket sit. I spent that ride on a jump seat in the corridor, which was acceptable for two hours, but not for eight to Rome!
Another woman boarded the same carriage as me, and we made our way in the dark to the same box. She said something to me that I didn’t catch, so I just smiled and settled into seat number 63. She pulled out a massive camera and started taking pictures of the platform out the window. I wanted to talk to her, ask her about photography, reveal that I was a kindred soul, but nervousness about speaking Italian kept me silent. I had that internal battle: Get over yourself! Who cares if you aren’t fluent; just speak! For all I knew, she spoke excellent English. That wasn’t uncommon, and her mannerism suggested education.
She put her camera away.
It was very cold on the train, and dark. I hoped that once the time for departure came, some heat would come on. I settled into my winter layers and watched the steam swirl out of my mouth into the box. The only light was from the platform outside.
Finally something fell into place and it was the right time to talk.
“Dove vai?” I asked. “A Roma?”
-Yes, to Rome.
-I usually don’t take this train. I usually take a faster one. I don’t like this one because it’s dodgy. The people are more “schifo.” There are “giapese.”
“Giapese?” I repeated, not understanding the word.
She looked at me differently then. “Non sei italiana?”
She attempted her English. “Bad person. Persons. Bad Persons.”
“Ho capito.” -I understand.
It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment to worry about taking the cheapest train, one that went overnight and took twice as long as the faster Eurostar trains. Of course anyone who had the money would avoid it. The difference to the faster train was only about 20, 25 euros. I looked out the box at watched the people passing. It was either indicative of the night gloom or the class of people, but everyone who passed had dark skin.
Italians are racist. Even my friends will explain very carefully the problems of people from Morocco, Egypt, Africa, Turkey, and so on. Some think the Africans are the worst. Others the Egyptians. There are a lot of legal and illegal immigrants here seeking profitable work or asylum from a hostile government. One coworker explained to me that since the numbers of immigrants have increased in the past years, safety has decreased. She has put iron bars over her windows for fear of robbery. Over and over I hear the words, “Be careful.” In the business English course I teach we discussed the merits versus problems of immigration. The more xenophobic of the group said that immigration was bad, caused problems, and should be more restricted. The middle road said that people should be able to come work for only a brief time before taking the ideas they’ve learned back to their own countries. The most liberal said that immigrants were acceptable because they filled the job gap, taking the jobs that educated Italians didn’t want. The opening topic had asked, “Does immigration help Italy learn new things that will help the country in a more global world?” Not one in the class caught the idea that immigrants might actually bring something of value, something unattainable in any other way, to the country. Immigrants are either to be tolerated or restricted, never embraced.
The scary thing is, I find myself adopting their attitude a little bit. Not much—I am not reverting to a more primitive mindset—but as I learned in Romania, sometimes these stereotypes are based in merit. (How sad I was to discover that the large majority of gypsies actually are thieves, beggars, and terrible trespassers of human rights.) And if the darker skinned people are generally of lower class and ostracized by broader society, are not those the very people who turn to less respectable behavior, either to get what they lack or as a self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s a sad fact of life that our natural instinct is to stereotype, a vestigial reflex from the days when the world was significantly more dangerous than it is today and such generalization saved lives. For example, when one lion has an appetite, it’s best to assume that all that race are voracious man-eaters. If one man of ------- nationality heckles me so much that I have to run away in fear, isn’t the safest thing to assume that anyone from the same culture may feel the same prerogative? Oh, this is a huge topic that I cannot enter into too deeply here… On the other hand, I love the chance to listen to all the African languages that one can hear on the metro, or Italian spoken with that chocolate-song African accent.
Back to the narrative. The hour grew closer to departure and people started to enter the train. The Italian girl and I talked about her photography; that is, she talked and I listened, with a few halting questions. She is trying to break into the Milanese art world, though I didn’t have the language to ask about her success so far or how she went about it. The conversation turned to art and the respective benefits of Renaissance versus Modern art. Soon our box was full, and it turned out that she didn’t have the prenotazione, so the ticket-holder booted her from the seat and she left to find a different location. She looked at me wistfully as she left.
“Ciao.” Her voice carried a tone in that one word that said: “Well, it was a nice idea while it lasted. Now we both have to brave the schifos on this train without the tiny safe friendship we have found in each other.”
“Ciao.” I wished it had occurred to me to say, “Mi dispiace,” which translates as “I’m sorry” but really means “It displeases me.” English speakers tend to overuse the phrase in cases where an Italian would say a form of “Excuse me” instead. Judging from the TV and movies I watch, “mi dispiace” is hardly used.
I intentionally did not look to determine the skin tone of my new cabinmates nor let their maleness bother me. There was one other woman, presumably Italian, asleep in the far corner, but without her I might have been tempted to change seats. I used to not be so nervous about these matters, but a few events of late have made me more cautious.
No matter. I arrived safely (and dry-mouthed) in Rome just as the sun was coming up the next morning. Sleeping on a train is a lot like sleeping on a plane: nearly impossible. A train is worse, however, for although the legroom is severely restricted in both cases, in a plane you face only the back of the next chair instead of the legs of the opposite person. I’m sure I kicked the man across the compartment from me. More than once, most likely.
I checked in at the Hostel, and could see immediately that it didn’t hold a candle to the one in Florence, but there was potential. No one was about at that hour in the morning, so I chose a bed and then planned my route for the day. Off I went on my adventure, alone.
It was raining.
Maybe I can blame my malcontent on the rain or the shoddy sleep from the night before, but in truth I think I must blame it on loneliness. The novelty of travel has worn off. I am always lonely. Being lonely during the week used to be okay because I had the weekends and travel! exploration! to fulfill me, but the fiasco of Modena and Bologna went a long way in exhausting that energy in me. Here I was in Rome, the city of cities, the one that is on everyone’s list, the epicenter of the world as it once stood, and I completely lacked interest. I wandered towards the first destination on my map and took a detour when the Coliseum rose up on my left. The Coliseum! The ancient Roman Forums! How sad it made my heart to see the ruins as just more ruins, a few stones left bound together by slowly disintegrating mortar. The stone carvings on the grand arches melted off in the rain, ever so slowly, as they have been melting off for the last two thousand years.
I pretended, hoping that I could fool myself into a spark of happiness. Usually it works this way. I wasn’t sad, nor depressed, nor UNhappy, particularly, just not… happy. Not as excited as I would like to be when in Rome. After a few pounding rain showers had drenched me, the waterproofing on my skicoat was starting to fail and the puddles crept up my pant legs, I went back to the hostel. It was only about three thirty, but I was done. Maybe after a nap, some dry clothes, and curling up in the hostel, I would meet some fellow travelers (please please please, I begged) and be refreshed to paint the town at night.
The hostel didn’t fail me. On the common shelf I found a Jasper Fforde, the author recently recommended to me by Stuart in Florence. It was tucked in right next to Rob Bell’s Purple Elvis. Small world, this. I tucked into the book and a margarine roll packed from home with equal appetite, curled up in a chair in the front hallway, there not being a common room.
A Swedish guy checked in during the afternoon, and I smiled with hope and friendliness, but he merely mumbled “Hi” and then locked himself into his room. As the afternoon progressed, however, people started to congregate. Eventually I entered into conversation with the deskie, his friend, and another guy who was a brand new deskie in the lodge. Two Aussies also checked in, but then they left just the two of them, so my optimism of also including them was dashed.
The new deskie was from Manchester, and I could barely understand him when he talked. At first I had difficulty placing his brogue because it sounded to my untuned ear sometimes Australian, sometimes Irish, Welsh, and so on. If he were one of my students, I would be correcting him every few words. He was a right lad at that, and the more his adventures unfolded, the less I thought of him. A wanderer, like me, whose travels have taken him to Spain and even the same city in Romania where I lived, Timisoara. I thought he was late twenties, but soon he revealed to be the same age as me, within a few months. He described life in Oldham, his home near Manchester. The second most violent city in Great Britain, after some backwater in Scotland, he thought. Impossible to go to a night in the pub without engaging in a brutal street fight at the end of it. Beer was only served in plastic because the glass kept getting smashed into people’s faces.
“I would never go whiv a girl from me’ome town,” he said. “Because every one of ‘em ‘as ‘ad ten a me friends’ cocks in ‘er mouff.”
“I would never go whiv a foreign girl,” he said. “Because it’s no’ right, you know? I mean, when you’re layin’ in bed af’er, wha’ ‘o you say?”
“I’m no’ racist,” he said. “But—”
—and for the next three hours I had to listen to his bigotry as he delineated which people have less value and why. My pleas to change the subject only diverted him for a few minutes at a time.
When he lived in Spain he made his money as a meathead. He went to apartments filled with squatters and threatened to bash their heads in if they didn’t vacate the premises. For this he collected fat commissions from the owners and real estate agents who could rerent the property with the deadbeats gone. When he lived in Romania he had all his drinks paid for him by his pickpocket friends who thought nothing of dropping stolen cash on a house round. His rich local girlfriend footed the rest of the bill, but he left her and the country because, as he said, “It never works ou’, you know?”
A lad, a cad, a chav.
He started talking about something (I hardly knew what; I was trying not to listen because I could feel that his words were poison). “It don’ bovver me none,” he says. “It don’ bovver me.”
Ha! Just like the chavs on YouTube. “I ain’t bovvered,” they say. So at the end of the day I was culturally enriched afterall. I hav’ met me a right well chav. (Don’t call him that to his face though, for heaven’s sake.)
“All me relatives ha’ been inside,” he said, and he drops enough hints about his past that I don’t care to ask or piece together the gaps. Clearly he is in trouble, and in debt, but not to the government, to friends. He’s running from ex-girlfriends smattered across the continent and creditors who prefer smashing his face in to charging higher interest rates.
Most recently he was vivisected by a meat cleaver.
“The bloke who di’ me in with the cleaver were black,” he said. “But I don’ hol’ it against all black people. I got me lotsa black friends a’home.”
He moved to Rome for no reason accept to escape whatever he wanted to escape in Manchester. After two days he’s decided he doesn’t like Rome and the next day he’s going back to Spain to see if he can start up his meathead job again.
“Goo’ money in it, ain’t there tho? An’ bloody fun.”
I think he’s so used to charming girls (he was built like Daniel Craig) that he had no idea the expanse of the grimace I was making inside. Only my starvation for people of any sort, especially native English speakers, even his sort of busted English, made me tolerate him at all. We went back to the hostel and found the Australians playing cards in the hall. We all shared a few beers. Italian beers are all 66cl (that is, a deuce) and Birra Moretti is not half bad. The Australians were young, part of a large party of classmates all spread out across the continent, weaving their ways back and forth where the wind blew them. They invited me to join them and several more friends coming into town the next day for a wild night on the town. It sounded great to me. Perfect. Anything to avoid spending a night alone and bored in the hostel.
When the cute Australian with the tongue piercing started discussing drug cocktails with the Manchester chav, which eventually turned to a debate on the best methods by which to sell cocaine, I knew I was out of my element. Fortunately no one actually had any chemicals in their possession, or I might have lost my party to the white lady instead of simply the fatigue of three in the morning after three, no four, pints of beer.
Thank goodness the chav didn’t come on any stronger. Not because I might have acquiesced, but because I didn’t want to make things complicated. When his conversation started drifting towards the merits of one-night stands in his home town, I saw my avenue.
“Funny,” I said. “My friends at home don’t do that. We don’t sleep with a person just for one time. It’s not how we roll, I guess.”
“Pi’y,” he said. “I miss it. Just ki’ing.” He used that one a lot: just kidding. As if that absolved him for the unsavory fact he’d just revealed about himself. As a preface, “I’m not racist, but…” and the siffix, “just kidding.” All his bases were covered (but none of mine, thank you very much. It’s not how I roll.)
Within a few seconds, “You must be tired.”
“Yup. Good night.” There was no question he was getting nothing and the night was over.
…to be continued…
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Saturday, December 6, 2008
except for the sun setting at about 330, and the conspicuous absences of mountains or snow, the city is pretty much perfect.
today we discovered camden market, where you can find any trendy aesthetic your little heart could desire. well, there was a conspicuous absence of steampunk, but in a few years, i'm sure that will have filtered in as well. black leather and silver studs, baby doll brit, hippie goddess, asian kawaii, you name it. i could have spent hundreds of pounds, but, as i have not chosen an aesthetic subculture to adopt as my all-around identity, i didn't know where to start. i left without spending anything (well, 80p for a coffee). i was hoping to find a new bag, as my current GR-tastic one is starting to lose zipper teeth, but to no avail. the crafting hipster movement was also rather under represented.
erik leiser's film last night, imagination, was a wonderful exploration into the psyche of twin, pre-adolescent girls who let their imaginative and spiritual exisitences control their physiological existence. though i am by no means an animation or puppetry buff, my stomach reacted with little thrills at the aesthetics of the film. furthermore, his exhibit of recent holographic work explored some of the same themes - linking infinity with deity, mystery, and exploration. his newest piece shows exciting promise as he moves toward a more organic sensibility and his holographic skill improves. both the screening and the exhibition were at Goldsmiths, University of London, which is apparently famous for birthing the ever-entertaining Damien Hirst.
i am lucky to count him as a friend. thanks, erik.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Friday, November 21, 2008
The night was that perfect temperature where it’s cold but not too cold. It felt like the wind was blowing warmer air into the night, but Federico tells me it’s going to snow. Tomorrow night we are going to the Chinese restaurant and wouldn’t it be perfect if it were snowing. I chatter along in Italian, pausing now and then to let Valentina help me with vocabulary. I know my grammar is awful, and I use that to my advantage in telling bizarre jokes. The jokes don’t have to be funny, but because I am clearly poking fun at my own ineptitude, everyone enjoys the comedic relief.
The area around Corso Sempione was built during the same time as the park and the aquarium, during that wonderful late-Victoria era that I love so much. The houses drip with an art nouveau sensibility—square and tall and with tall, narrow windows. The period has been associated with a stiff collar and stiff upper lip, but in the details of these houses we can see the truth of the aesthetic. The ornate window irons are not so formal and symmetrical as the Elizabethan, or even early Victorian, periods. Today we insist that ornamentation like this is formal, stodgy even, but there was a time when oriental rugs harkened to lush opium dens and hedonistic harems rather than our grandmother’s parlor. The patterns are inspired by leaves and vines, wrought into man-made materials, as if the wild lustfulness of nature could be captured in the windows and ushered into the house.
The Victorians planted aspens throughout their cities, planted rolling parks in the midst of their new industrial centers and populated them with quaking trees. Aspens may be planted in rows, but they nevertheless grow in a twisted dance. Their leaves may look like plate gold, but they twist and spin and show all their colors, colors which are reflected in the speckled smooth bark of their trunks.
Last weekend I went to Bologna and in the park were fantastic ferocious statues from the same period. There were two of lions and their prey. One showed the lion, his phallic tail stretching straight up behind him, snarling over the great body of a bull beneath him. The other showed a lion (phallic tail long-since broken away) battling a serpent with evil teeth over the victory of a massive mountain goat. Half the snake’s head had crumbled, but a full set of iron teeth remained. The other two statues were of busty mermaids in sensual, homoerotic (can we use that word for women?) poses, looking like stone representations straight from a Mucha painting. Their hair swirled around their nipples and the fullness of their flesh. Everything was pockmarked and vaguely green with a pervasive fungal life form.
In Parco Sempione is the Aquarium, built in 1906, with the hippo’s head spouting water into a tiled pool with poi fish and lily pads. The decorative tile around the perimeter of the building echoes the sensibility of the posh neighborhood it was built for.
I eat up the ornamentation, I who usually snub my nose at formal decoration. But the details here reveal whimsy. The artistry and revelry, which we now assume the Victorians brutally repressed, is revealed at every corner. Here, for example, is a fence in which every rung ends at a different height in a fantastical curlicue. Here is a white box of a mansion with a fantastic balcony busting with great drooping plants like it’s a portal to a tropical world. Even the lower level sports marvelous germanium plants—that red blossom that I once associated with domesticity, thanks mostly to New England watercolors, but now I see as a wild red-headed vixen in the midst of a grey city.
If I were in Grand Rapids, I would host a party. Art Nouveau Party, I would call it.
“Come celebrate those twenty years (give or take a decade on either end) from 1890-1910. Come dressed as your favorite buxom Greek goddess (if Mucha is your preference) or as your friendly Victorian couple on holiday (if Talouse Latrec is more your style). Come as Sarah Bernhardt or Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Come as a Baudelaire adventurer, eagerly conquering in the name of England, God, or Science. Come as a Bohemian, emerging from the darker alleyways of Paris or Prague. Come celebrate that, for the first time in human history, we have money to spend. Come pour green into your drink, whatever it may be, and pretend it’s absinthe. Come commune with those people who pretend to be sober at work and keep their private lives hidden behind tall, thin, iron-barred windows. Come and make merry, for tonight the show must go on.”
That’s what I would say.
We drove away from the neighborhood of dreams and on through the city. The last beautiful thing I saw out my window was the porticoed Italian mansion with Michelangelo’s great horse rearing on copper legs in front.
Then we passed the stadium, which looks like a monument to communist-era architecture. An unwitting monument, the type that thinks it protests cement soviet blocs by using cement to make turrets instead. Great round, striped turrets that were either parking garages or nothing at all except a pitiful post-modern attempt at design.
“When was this built?” I asked.
“The early nineties, I think.”
Of course. I had guessed a few years earlier, before the fall of the wall, but the early nineties were the same. The cement of cities was upheld as gritty reality. That proletariat, industrial glorification is so communist in origin, yet there we were as “free western countries” promoting the exact same aesthetic. It makes me shudder as much as the green-tinted glass, brick and exposed metal beam omnipresent CAD-program aesthetic of today. In 2002, my high school was featured in an architectural magazine for it’s cutting-edge design. The library which faces the entrance drive is reminiscent of a lantern shape, green oxidized exposed metal making up the bone structure for the large glass windows and ligaments of brick. By the time I left college in 2008, every new bank, hospital and office park in Grand Rapids utilized the exact same idea. Puke.
Since arriving in Italy I have visited my first Ikea. This experience would be almost exactly the same anywhere in the world, but I had to come to Italy to finally discover the joy of mass-produced homeware fashion. At least here is something we can’t blame on the Americans. The Swedes are to blame, although we can always point to Ford or McDonalds as the originators of the cookie cutter model that has been applied so ubiquitously. Many thoughts (probably not original ones) ran through my head as I followed the school of shoppers through the store’s current. Is Ikea bad? Is it wrong to have our aesthetic handed to us on a plate? I found myself attracted to many things in that store. Was I attracted because Ikea has hit on the common current aesthetic and now offers it to us at affordable prices? Or has Ikea in fact /created/ this aesthetic, which has pilfered into my brain because it’s on tv and in my friends’ houses? If Ikea didn’t create it, then some other designer did. Is there a problem with that? Is a designer for Ikea no less an artist? Must everyone create their own living aesthetic instead of picking and choosing from those offered commercially? Is it even possible to live outside of a commercial identity?
As I said, these aren’t original questions, but there they were in my head. I have an itch when it comes to aesthetic tyranny. We can’t escape it. What the stores tell us to like, we like. At least those chains like Ikea, Pottery Barn or Anthropologie (oooh, I love their aesthetic) have an intentional aesthetic. At least there is recognition of the artistry of life. What’s worse is the tyranny of aesthetic that we experience every day without even being aware: the color and font choices in advertisements, for example, affect how we think and view the world. Advertisements, at their core, are intended to manipulate. Thus, for the last 100 years (since the period I have already exalted), our social aesthetic has been moved forward primarily by manipulation, sometimes really shitty manipulation at that.
I suppose that for this reason, someone has argued that the impressionists were truly the only artists unaffected by manipulation. Prior to that, it was religious purposes. Afterwards, it was the bas-cultural trends. I’m sure I don’t agree with this at all, but whatever. It’s something to think about.
After the bar in Milan we drove to Andrea’s house and watched Kung Fu Panda. I think there must have been a drug in my Long Island Iced Tea, because I felt sloshy-headed yet somehow hyper-attuned to everything. The daoist philosophy shining in the movie was reassuring, even if it was a cartoon.
As I’m applying for internships and jobs back in the States, I find a lot of solace in stoicism. By non-resistance, my path will take its natural course. By trusting in God, I know that He will bring me to the right place. By working hard to follow every opportunity that seems good, not getting too attached to any particular one, and leaving decision-making until the time when decisions must be made, I can balance fierce excitement about my potential futures with calm reassurance that what will be will be.
And all these thoughts thanks to an Iced Tea. I wonder what the Indian liquor would have done?
My current favorite appetizer: Artichoke tapenade and Monte Veronese cheese on bread accompanied by Green olives (hold the pimento) and Italian red wine.
My current favorite fruit: Artisan pear served with a butter syrup.
My current favorite city in Italy: Florence. Not very original, I know, but I simply had so much fun there. And it was beautiful. And I felt such a strong artistic spirit there, something that is just… missing… in Milan. Turin is in second place, by the way. The Slow Food movement has captured my attention – especially when enjoyed in the city that founded Martini, solid chocolate, the chocolate-hazelnut combo, and (drum roll please) TicTacs.
My current favorite pastime: trying to make other people jealous, apparently. My cousin called me out on this – but then consented me bragging rights since I am, afterall, living in Italy. I mean, why am I here if not to earn bragging rights, vero? Ok, so this would all be worth it even if Facebook and blogs didn’t exist, even if I could tell nobody about my experiences, ever; but spreading the joy of my current experience sure helps. ^_^
I think I want to go to a disco on Friday. I was going to go to Rome this weekend, but Valy and I rearranged my schedule so that I can go to the English Dinner on Saturday and Rome some other weekend. That’s the last major city to check off my list. There are still a lot of places I would like to see and explore, of course, but I simply /have/ to see Rome.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
2. Explain to everyone three times that pumpkin pie is indeed a sweet and cannot be served as a main course.
3. Buy zucca from the store. “Zucca” is the translation of “pumpkin,” so even though it’s a different shape (and green on the outside), assume it will come out just fine. Don’t expect to find it in a can.
4. Removed the seeds from the quartered zucca. Try not to fling them all over your apartment in the process.
5. Boil or bake the zucca until the flesh comes off the skin easily. Remove the skin when cool enough to handle.
6. Puree the cooked zucca with a fork until it is a uniform, smooth consistency. Set aside.
7. They don’t sell pie crust in Italy, so you must make it from flour and margarine. Find a recipe online and follow it as best as you can. It’s surprisingly easy, and fun to get your hands into.
8. Put the finished dough into the fridge. Spend an hour picking pie dough bits off the rug. Next time don’t let it be quite so much fun.
9. The next day, you are ready to make the pie. You will need: zucca puree, pie dough, pie pan, sugar, egg, evaporated milk, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice.
10. Set the oven to 400 degrees F. This is probably 215 degrees Celsius.
11. Roll out the pie dough. If you don’t have a rolling pin, a wine bottle (preferably empty) works fine. Use plenty of flour to keep it from sticking. Sneak tastes of the dough.
12. There are no pie pans in Italy with angled sides. A torte or cake pan with 90 degree sides will suffice. Carefully transfer the crust to the pan and flatten it down. Using your thumb, flute the edges attractively.
13. Mix the filling.
14. There’s no evaporated milk in Italy. You can make it by preparing powdered milk using fresh milk instead of water. If you don’t know this, thicken some cream with flour and let it simmer a while until it gets to roughly the right consistency. Do this ahead of time so it is cool when you are ready to make the pie.
15. There’s no allspice or powdered ginger either. Substitute cloves. Don’t worry if you have to grind the cloves yourself; just pick out the largest pieces and use the finer ones in your mix.
16. Relish the chance to grate fresh nutmeg instead of using stale powder from a shaker.
17. Stir everything into the zucca and then pour it into the crust.
18. Bake 15 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350 degrees F (175C?) for another 45-60 minutes.
19. Serve chilled. Don’t worry if the crust flops; that’s because there wasn’t an angled pie pan. Don’t worry if it comes out a rather nuclear greenish-orangeish-yellowish color; it will still taste delicious.
20. Explain to everyone three times that no, this is not pumpkin cake. Because it has a crust, we call it pie.
21. Note that it does not pair well with Tiramisu.
22. Enjoy! Happy Halloween!
Friday, November 14, 2008
Last weekend I went to Florence. It was a fantastic trip: excellent to get out of the rain into some sunshine, met some fun people, saw some of the most beautiful (and famous) art on earth. Did some sketching and thinking and overall it was very refreshing. Envigorating, even.
(Recently I’ve had several conversations about the merits of creating new words or spellings to better suit the meaning. Can you find the “error” in the last paragraph?)
Getting to and from Florence was a bit of an adventure, but that story will have to wait for another day.
The next day my sister arrived from London to visit me. Hooray! Of course, on that day there was a TRANSPORTATION STRIKE (sciopero) all over Italy. Karen arrived at the Central Train Station at 11, and I finally arrived three hours later (after walking, biking, bussing, and hitchhiking to get there!) at two, even though I left my house at 9:30. Then we had to walk halfway across the city to get to a working Metro station to take us home. So our first day was cut a little short.
Nevertheless! The next day the transportation was back on line, and we were off to Torino for a day of Food Tourism (thanks Mom and Dad!).
A Slow Food feast, a day of sightseeing, and an authentic apperativo later, we were back on the train to Rho.
The next day we saw Milan. I was excited about getting up to the top of Il Duomo, where we went together as girls, but it was raining too hard to make the 10 Euro investment worth it. Bummer. Instead we wandered past La Scala opera house and to Castello Sforzesco. A Florentine man gave us his museum tickets, so we checked out the gallery of antique instruments. And also we went to the Aquarium.
I assume there are pictures, but all on Karen’s camera, because the batteries I bought at the euro store (yes, just like a dollar store) didn’t work even for one minute.
Today I am off to Modena and then on to Bologna for some more food tourism.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
She groaned and turned over, snuggling under the covers for an extra twenty minutes snooze. It was no use. Her mind refused to sleep any longer even as her body refused to get out of bed. Her mind traveled out of the bedroom into the kitchen, where it mentally prepared the coffee pot and lit the stove. Her body wistfully longed for someone to bring her coffee in bed.
From now on I will prepare the coffee pot the night before, she said to herself. It will make it easier to get out of bed if all I have to do is light the stove.
She opened one eye and peered at the grey window. Yesterday had been lovely; all autumn sunshine and midday heat. She’d been startled—and immediately pleased—to notice some tiny red strawberries appear in the grass outside her building. The unusual October sunshine had stimulated a last ditch effort at bearing fruit.
Thinking of the strawberries finally gave her enough stimulus to throw back the covers and emerge from bed. It was such tiny pleasures that got her through every day, the constant intentional effort to notice small details and relish them. She relished her morning schedule. Clean out yesterday’s coffee grounds, fill the espresso pot and light the stove, go make the bed while the coffee percs, slice some cheese and spread some honey on toast to make breakfast. After breakfast, tidy the flat. She kept her small apartment very clean. There wasn’t much to clutter it, all her belongings having come with her in a suitcase. The last owner, who apparently had moved out in a hurry, had left behind a few items—two candles, a half-dead plant, and a ceramic cross. Julianne made use of these small things, enjoying their strangeness just as she enjoyed the familiarity of everything else she owned. She put the cross over the window in her bedroom and was working to nurse the little plant back to life.
She moved its pot to the balcony and cast a critical eye at the sky. Not much sunlight to be had today, she said to the herb, but soak up as much as you can. She talked to things a lot, and to herself. When she thought about it, she wasn’t sure if she said her thoughts out loud or only with the voice inside her head. There wasn’t much difference when she was by herself anyway. Either way, a steady one-sided conversation kept her company as she moved through her day.
A high-pitched, grating buzzer erupted into her silent monologue. Julianne’s heart almost burst with the startle. Every time, she thought. It gets me every time. I must ask her to knock.
It was the doorbell, and at the door stood her first pupil of the day, clutching her notebook nervously in the hall. The English lesson commenced.
After a rather torturous explanation of why there was only one way to say the year 1342, even though there were two ways to read the number 1,342, the pair of them paused to digest and breathe before continuing on. In the few weeks since Julianne had arrived and started teaching English lessons, she had learned how to speak very slowly and clearly, using simple words and scanning her pupils’ faces, constantly checking for comprehension. A single flicker of blank eyes was enough warning to make her redirect her words, slow down further, and often use simple gestures or diagrams to clarify her meaning. This pupil, however, was particularly frustrating in that she would sit through an entire explanation, repeating certain phrases as if to signify understanding, and then at the end, draw a puzzled face.
“Pleese, I have not understand.”
Dull students of a foreign language insist on consistency. They want all rules to apply all the time. They want every peculiar irregularity to have an explanation. When they have learned one way to express an idea, they have no flexibility in receiving another way. A student learns to answer the question, “How are you?” with, “Fine, thanks, and you?” and will answer thus promptly every time. Any divergence from this pattern causes consternation to the dull student and can inhibit him or her from absorbing anything else for the entire lesson. So Julianne quickly learned never to say nice things such as “How’s it going?” and “Oh, pretty good, for the most part,” or “And how are you doing today?”.
Finally she was able to convey that the year 1342 was simply thirteen-hundred-forty-two and never one-thousand-three-hundred-forty-two simply because it was that way and stop.
“And stop.” the pupil repeated. “It’s peculiar. Fear-teen-ferty-too.”
So they paused to breathe. Julianne cracked her neck by twisting it quickly to the left and the right, a simple pleasure that allowed a surreptitious glance at the clock across the room. Only fifteen more minutes.
“Are you superstitious?” the pupil asked. Julianne eyed her, wondering how the large word had slipped into her vocabulary.
“Yes.” The woman nodded at a string of hot peppers drying in the kitchen.
“No,” she said with a forced chuckle in her voice. “Those are for cooking.” A hint of blankness. “Eating.” The fresh peppers were only sold in half-kilogram packages, which Julianne would take all winter to eat, so she had strung them up like she saw in the movies, hoping they would dry and also make her kitchen look authentic.
“Are you superstitious?”
“Ah, no. Just, sometimes, with the catt. The blacka catt. If I going, wiff car, and blacka catt goes like dis, I stop and a change my way.” She gestured to show a cat crossing the street in front of her. “I make a different way. It’s, ah, not, lookee.”
“Lucky,” the teacher gently corrected.
The hour ended and Julianne prodded the pupil out the door.
“Have a nice weekend.”
The pupil paused a long time. Julianne could see her start and stop several times and wondered what she was trying to say. Her mouth gaped like a fish.
Finally, “The same also you.”
“The same to you.”
“Ah, si, the same to you.” They practiced this phrase every week, but for some reason it refused to stick in the dull student’s mind.
Julianne shut the door and released her breath all in one go. She went back to the balcony for no particular reason other than to see if the grey showed any signs of letting up. It did not, although now it shone with an allover brightness that suggested there was a sun behind its curtain. She leaned over the balcony railing and looked into the yard.
The yard was just a patch of scrub that had grown up where it was untended by the gardener. Julianne looked into it intently, hoping to catch sight of the black cat that frequented there. She liked to watch the cat. She felt a distinct fraternity with him, like they both viewed the world in the same way. Of course the cat knew, as she did, that the yard was only weeds, but nevertheless he explored it with an air of mystery and self-importance as if it were truly a territory to be conquered. She imagined that he, like herself, built up a meaningful existence by giving simple details utmost attention. A cat, after all, could certainly appreciate simple pleasures, like an afternoon sunbath or a romp in the deepest jungle of the apartment yard.
The cat wasn’t there.
It was about twenty minutes until her next lesson. Julianne went back inside her apartment and tidied some invisible dust. The flat was noisy; it was always noisy with the sounds of a thin-walled building. Bumps and thuds and screeches made the background to her daily chores. Sometimes it sounded like someone was knocking on her wall or even her door. When she first moved there she had looked out into the empty hallway a few times, just to make sure there really wasn’t anyone there. Occasionally the sounds grew so loud as to drown out the music she played to keep herself company or the sound of the television at night. This latter occurrence frustrated her to no end. She hated not being able to hear the dialogue on the TV, even when she couldn’t understand the language.
She rarely heard her neighbors, however. Now that she stopped to think about it, she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard voices from another apartment. Occasionally the sound of a TV turned up too loudly—only for a minute until the volume was adjusted—or a key in a neighboring door at night, or footsteps ahead of her on the stairwell. She never heard their actual voices. Or saw them, for that matter. Only by these almost inhuman sounds did she know they were there, and by other things like the elevator changing floor or mail in the box having been removed. It was a solitary existence, but she didn’t mind. Her students kept her company, plus a few friends to see on the weekends.
Her next student arrived, one who (thankfully) spoke English rather well, and only wanted an hour of conversation to keep up his fluency rather than a perfunctory lesson. The first few weeks of their acquaintance having passed, the easiest hours were finished. They had covered all the introductory topics, like where he was from, where he worked, what he liked to do in his free time, about his family, and so on. Julianne didn’t want the discussions to go stagnant, both because she herself didn’t want to be bored, and also because she was afraid she might lose a customer if he felt the practice irrelevant. Last week she had asked him to explain the political system of his country. He managed to learn some new vocabulary and she had learned some political small talk, but in the end he decided politics were too unpleasant a subject. This week she wanted something lively but nevertheless practical.
It occurred to her that it was the day before Halloween. This was a perfect conversation starter, as she could share stories about her home country’s culture and then use it as a springboard to talk about something dear to his countrymen—superstitions.
She was pleased that their discussion flowed easily and naturally. She interrupted every few minutes to help him express a sentiment he found challenging, reshuffle complicated auxiliary verbs, or correct pronunciation, but for the most part they just talked.
“No, we don’t celebrate the Halloween here. Ah, sometimes in the discos. It’s becoming more common, but as a business, not because the tradition.”
“I see. It’s an excuse to have a party, to make more money.”
“Yes, the money. The business. I went in one last year, but it was mostly for younger. The Halloween is for younger, like twenty.”
“Halloween is a big time for superstitions. Are you superstitious?”
“Me, no, for me it is a not so big a problem. Not compared to, say, my parents or grandparents. There are a few things I don’t like. Salt like this on the table—no no.” He mimed a salt shaker tipping over and then waggled his finger.
“And, for me, the blacka cat. Many people know this. If we see a blacka cat cross our way, we take a different way.” His gestures strangely mimicked Julianne’s other pupil. His accent was not so strong, but he had the familiar difficulty with words ending in consonants and tended to add an open-mouthed vowel to his words. “To crossa the path is notta lucky.”
“Unlucky,” Julianne offered.
“Yes, unlucky. Do you find the blacka cat unlucky?”
“I had a black cat when I was a child, and I loved it very much, so how could I find a black cat unlucky? For me it is not a problem.” She silently reprimanded herself for falling into the linguistic traps of the non-native speakers. No one she knew back in the states would say, “For me it is not a problem.”
“Tell me, youra cat, was it all black? Or did it have some white somewhere?”
“Yes, it had a little tiny patch of white here, under its chin.”
“Ah, you see. Not all black. Not so unlucky.”
“Well, but, it was a very tiny patch, only a few hairs, really. From a distance you couldn’t tell at all. We always had to lock her up on Halloween.”
He put his hands up and shrugged in a movement that said, it’s not my fault, it’s the way things are, and also, it is just as I have said.
After her last pupil left Julianne turned the key to lock the door. She always remembered Mr. Grossi’s face when she did so, because every time he came to check on her he would sing in his lilting English, “Lock the door, it’s safer.” He was a cautious man and had insisted that she acquire the proper documentation to enter the country. She had been perfectly happy to work illegally for a few months since everyone—everyone except Mr. Grossi—told her that the authorities wouldn’t say boo to a nice American girl teaching a few English lessons to pay for her groceries. Nevertheless he had procured the paperwork for her despite the additional bureaucratic hoops to jump through, not to mention expense. His weekly visits were always punctuated by practical gifts for the apartment (the coffee percolator, for example) and questions about her health and how she was enjoying her stay. He looked at her with long, slow stares that struck Julianne as worried and somehow sad.
He must have a daughter somewhere, she decided. Probably estranged.
She didn’t mind his concern, because after all, no one else was looking after her. She took his advice and always locked the door.
She turned back to tidy the apartment yet again. She looked carefully at her peppers and clicked her tongue with disappointment to see that they had gone moldy. She would have to find a different way to dry them. She took the chain down and threw it away.
The afternoon hint at brightness dissolved into an even more permanent-looking grey. Julianne brought her plant inside. There was still no sign of the cat in the yard.
She decided it was late enough to justify cooking some dinner, so she busied herself with the solitary preparations. As her pasta boiled, she thought about the party her friend was hosting the next day. Her friend had visited California that summer and was eager to share her newfound cultural wisdom by initiating all her friends into Halloween. Of course she had invited Julianne, her one authentic foreign friend. Julianne was more than happy to accept the invitation, even though she was sure the night would be rather awkward. She even determined to fashion some kind of costume for the event. A new space film had premiered that month and the girl thought that an astronaut costume would be just right. She could fasten a cardboard control panel to her front and cover a backpack with tinfoil for her space pack.
After dinner and cleaning up from dinner she went to retrieve her backpack from storage. The storage unit was in the basement of the building. She had to go outside to access the basement door. She slipped on a sweater since the air looked so dreadfully cold (it was just starting to get really dark) and made sure she had the right keys. The door to the basement had a different key from the building’s main door. The storage unit opened with the same key, which meant she could access any of the units belonging to any of the other residents once inside. Julianne was the kind of person who believed that all storage spaces were like the attics of children’s stories—full of treasures waiting to be discovered. It thrilled her to think she could enter someone else’s bin if she wanted.
She brought the trash with her to the collection area outside. The rotten peppers would quickly smell up her kitchen. When she walked outside she looked for the strawberries that had brightened her previous day. She wondered if any of the other residents had noticed them. She hoped so, because otherwise she wanted to pick them and bring them upstairs to look at inside her apartment. The strawberries were gone, which disappointed Julianne very much. Her whole heart dropped a little when she saw that in fact the entire yard had been mowed down to colorless stubble.
Ridiculous gardener, she thought. Probably on a schedule. Twice a season he mows, regardless of whether there are little red berries trying to eke out an existence in the failing autumn light.
Then, with a characteristically feline flash of movement, the cat Julianne liked to watch from her balcony leapt out from behind the corner of the building.
“There you are!” she said. She had never seen the cat up close. She saw that he was completely, utterly black without a single white or silver or brown hair. He didn’t look at all like her childhood pet. He had a more pointed face and was much, much bigger, an unusually large cat. He stared at her with large yellow eyes that were almost unnerving. Julianne didn’t like to be unnerved by cats, since in general she liked them so much.
“What do you think of the mowing? Are you disappointed to lose your romping ground?”
The cat yawned, revealing the ridged roof of its mouth, the long pink tongue, and two exquisitely yellow eye teeth. Julianne had never seen such yellow teeth. She began to feel rather unpleasant about this cat. As if to challenge her fears, at that moment the cat marched directly across the path in front of her and sat on the other side in the grass clippings left behind by the gardener. Julianne felt a chill run down both arms, but almost immediately she shrugged it aside. It most certainly came from the grey evening settling in around her.
“Well aren’t you a big pain? Trying to scare me. Can’t be done.” She crossed right over the path made by the cat and continued on her way to the basement door. The big cat didn’t move, not even turning its head to watch her pass.
The apartment building was not especially old but the construction lacked something in quality. It had been built during a time of rapid development when the city was racing to catch up with its neighbors and government inspectors could easily be persuaded to overlook certain rough edges. The electricity in the basement happened to be one such edge. The stairwell light flickered.
When her things had gone into the bin, Mr. Grossi had carried them down for her and she had stood watch at the top of the stairs to flip the light switch if it happened to go off completely. Therefore she did not know exactly which was her bin. She switched the light on and off a few times until the connection seemed solid and the light didn’t flicker. Then she descended the stairs into the bowels of the building.
The ceiling was very low. Julianne had to duck her head to avoid cross beams, exposed pipes, and an overwhelming veil of spiderwebs. She had to step around various boxes that had been stacked haphazardly on the floor. A quick glance inside one showed that the boxes were full of glass jars, the kind used for canning or preserving animal specimen. The air had a stagnant and unusual smell. It reminded her of, well, she couldn’t quite place it. If it wasn’t so cold, the aroma might have been oppressive enough to trigger an acute claustrophobia.
Most of the doors lining the central space had padlocks, which thwarted her idea of exploring everybody else’s things. She wondered if she herself should install a padlock, but her space only held her empty suitcases, so it seemed silly. She tried to remember which box was hers. Mr. Grossi had explained to her the direction, but she had only half paid attention.
There were two doors without padlocks. One on the left and one on the right.
Before Julianne chose a door, the flickering light went off completely, leaving her in total darkness, that kind of darkness that can only be found underground on a grey day in the fall when one is by herself in a strange new place. She had the strange sense of being inside a refrigerator.
Julianne knew that within each box was another light. If she could reach a door, open it, and find the switch, she would be able to see again. The left door was closest, she remembered. She took a tentative step towards it, then another, feeling with her feet for any boxes in her way. She tried not to imagine the spiders that were hiding in the ceiling beams coming out more boldly in the darkness. She tried not to sense movement in the blackness, tried not to think of the absence of light moving like ink. She took a step and fell into a stack of boxes, sending a shower of dust into her eyes.
At that moment the light flooded back on with a pinging sound. Julianne was looking straight into the face of a horrifying cat. She screamed. The cat was not alive. It was dead and dried out and grotesque, a mummy. The skin had shriveled into the bones. The black fur had fallen away in chunks, exposing the shape of ribs and spine underneath. The skin around the face had tightened and pulled back from the mouth, showing off the pointed yellow teeth underneath in a terrible grimace.
Julianne pulled away so quickly she smacked her head on a beam behind her. As soon as the initial surge of adrenaline calmed, however, she took stock. She wasn’t sure, on reflection, if she had screamed aloud or only in her head. Either way—and she looked again just to make sure—it was only a cat, poor thing, that had somehow gotten trapped down there and died. Something in the refrigerator-like air quality had created just the condition for it to desiccate instead of rot. Disgusting, but nothing to fear.
With some effort her breathing returned to normal, slow breaths. She hoped her heart would follow suit. It occurred to her, briefly, that maybe this was her bad luck. She had never asked just why it was unlucky to cross the path of a black cat. Now she wished she had.
She fixed her attention on the door. Open it, get the backpack, and get out of there. Next time she needed to come down she would wait for Mr. Grossi. The key inserted easily into the lock, though it turned with some difficulty. The overhead light pinged off again, but now it didn’t matter. She opened the door, and a wave of smell poured out at her. It was the same smell as the rest of the basement, and very difficult to describe. Dusty, and somewhat animal, but not as pungent or alive as most animal smells. Musky. There was a faint hint of something sickeningly sweet.
In the fraction of a moment before she flipped the light switch, she hoped her suitcases had not absorbed the foul odor. Then the box filled with yellow light.
There was no question that Julianne’s scream was very much out loud.
She had made a mistake, a terrible, horrible, fatal mistake. The box on the left had presented itself as more convenient in that moment, but the box on the right held her suitcases, and she should have made the extra steps, even in the dark, even at the cost of a spider bite or a whack on the head. How desperately she wished she had chosen differently. The box on the left was dreadfully wrong.
A human face stared out at her. A human face with sunken, evaporated eyes, skin stretched and cracked, teeth bared in a carnivorous grin, hairs like so much wiry string still clinging to the skull. The mummified woman sat on a chair, and on the floor next to it sat her partner, slumped slightly to lean against it. His face was brown where the elasticity had recoiled his skin into ridges. His head tipped back but the jaw hung down, making a gaping black hole. Spiderwebs draped across the clothes which swallowed their shrunken forms. Bony hands protruded from the sleeves. The fingers were long, too long, like there was no hand but only fingers attached to an arm which disappeared into the clothes.
All this burned itself into Julianne’s mind in the fraction of an instant it took her eyes to snap to focus in the sudden light.
She abandoned her suitcases and fled. Like a nightmare, her progress through the basement felt hopelessly slow because of the boxes and beams and pipes and webs. She almost put her hand on the cat that had frightened her first, and her whole body recoiled as if she had actually touched it, actually felt the clumps of fur still clinging to the hardened flesh.
She didn’t bother to hit the stairwell switch. The light continued to flicker on and off at will. Her hands shook at the outer building door as she tried to turn the key in the lock. She fell up the stairs two at a time, for the first time not worried that loud footsteps would disturb someone else in the building. There was no one to disturb. Her heart pumped blood to her legs and to her lungs but seemed to bypass her brain, which had fixed on the sight of the couple in the storage bin. Like a record player, the needle was stuck, and she kept skipping back to the same freeze-frame moment where their hollow eyes and hollow mouths stared at her, grinned at her, invited her to join them with their long fingers.
She flew into her flat. The air was oppressive. The smell had followed her. She needed air, fresh air, even the grey foggy air from the October evening would do. She threw open her bedroom window, and in that quick, rash action, the ceramic cross left by the previous resident toppled from its perch on the window sill, fell tumbling out the window, and shattered on the cement walkway four stories below.
As Julianne looked at it, head hanging out the window over the ground below, it occurred to her sinking heart that the cross was the last good luck charm she had in her apartment, the last thing keeping anything out there at bay. Now she was alone.
She turned to face the empty room. The old sounds had started up again. The shriek of water pipes in the wall sounded human, almost but not quite, like something that once was, loud enough to drown out her pounding heart. And at the door was the persistent sound of knocking.
copyright 2008 EOliver.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Ingredients: What you already have in your flat. Broccoli.
1. Mince the onions. To mince is to chop as small as possible. As you ball your eyes out, regret the conspicuous absence of a food processor.
2. Put the minced onion in a pot over low heat with a small amount of olive oil. If you happen to add vinegar by mistake because your cute containers for oil and vinegar look exactly the same, nevermind because the vinegar taste will evaporate.
3. Meanwhile, mince the garlic and add it to the onion. Every kitchen on a budget must stock onions and garlic, as these provide a base of flavor for everything.
4. Cut the stalk (ie stem) off the broccoli and mince it as well. Add it to the pot. If you have a second stalk of broccoli, you must also mince and add it, no matter that your hand is getting sore from all the mincing. You are on a budget, so you must not let anything go to waste. You need those vitamins!
5. Once everything is in the pot, add a generous dose of salt, some pepper, and enough water to cover the vegetables. Let simmer until everything gets nice and mushy.
6. This will take a while, so now is the perfect time of open your delicious bottle of wine. Wine? you say, But I thought I was on a budget? Well, yes, but while in Italy there is a rule that you must drink Italian wine as often as possible. And we MUST follow the rules. Besides, at only two or three euros a bottle, even a girl on a budget can afford to treat herself now and then.
7. Stir the pot frequently. Add more water is necessary. Marvel a the delightful chartreuse color it’s turning. DON’T think about that reminds you of a drink you once had with a boy you once knew.
8. When the vegetables are sufficiently mushy, chop the crown (dark green tasty part) of the broccoli and add. You can try to mash the veggies first to get a smoother consistency, but this doesn’t work very well, gets rather messy, and as such, isn’t recommended.
9. Add half a box or less of “panne per cucinare” (cream for cooking) which is, as far as you can tell, milkfat in a 200mL tetrapack. You just added about 26grams of fat, but you don’t care, because when you’re on a diet, you need all the calories you can get. If you happen to have an open container of milk you are trying to use up, add some to the pot. Otherwise, water is sufficient.
10. If the soup is too think for your taste, add 1tablespoon of flour to some cold water or milk, whisk till dissolved, and pour into the soup.
11. Bring the soup to a boil and it’s finished. Top with parmesan cheese (no cheddar in Italy, cowboy). Pour yourself another glass of wine (Hey, they’re small). And… Buon Appetito!
Friday, October 24, 2008
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Monday, October 13, 2008
In celebration, here is a random mushroom link. These guys know their stuff. I'd never heard of Reishi mushrooms before. Their site not only offers links to their store but also growing techniques (including starter kits) and a wealth of articles about medicinal uses of fungi.
On the mushroom note, the other day I was in a mall and there was a big stand advertising "E Tiempo di Funghi!" Time for mushrooms, indeed, and there were flats of the most beautiful chanterelles I'd ever seen, as well as button mushrooms that looked as white as the moon. How I wished I had my camera so I could share the lovely image! I hope to find more mushrooms at the market downtown soon enough...
I felt a little bit of a headache spreading slowly across my shoulders, a persistent strain that was becoming common to my afternoons. It didn’t have all the tense pressure of a caffeine headache, but I thought a cup of tea might help. Give the caffeine time to settle into my deepest muscle fibers before going to the afternoon preschool class.
Caffeine is a fierce lover. Starting the morning with a cup of coffee is, as I often explained to my non-addict friends, the simplest way to ensure a good day. With caffeine I was alert, pleasant-tempered, ready to face any challenge. All coffee-drinkers know the other side of that coin, however, and collectively we shudder with fear at a day without the drug.
It was during my last year of college that I started drinking daily coffee. Initially I could overcome morning grogginess without it, especially since I usually didn’t have my first cup till almost noon. That meant I could be distracted from procuring coffee. At that time I was still a novice. I didn’t yet think of myself as a coffee-drinker, had not yet accepted the title for myself, and as yet did not always act as a responsible coffee-drinker will act: eyes on the goal.
Within a few hours of the coffee deadline, however, my body would remind me of its need. At first I could ignore a mild headache scratching at my cranium. I could push through to focus on my work. Soon enough though it would be full-on tenseness gripping my neck and shoulders, a foul temperament, and a pounding jackhammer on both temples at once. It was like a bald eagle was attached to my trapezoidals, talons dug into my nerves, screeching inside of me and out to whomever stood in my way. I had a coffee pot in my office, which was a blessing because by the time the caffeine withdrawal symptoms hit that badly, I didn’t have the gumption to drag myself to the café in the next building.
I had a twelve-thirty Spanish class during my last semester, and if I didn’t get my coffee before that class, I had an hour-long introduction to the perils of hell instead of merely a language lesson. Walking back to my office after that class felt like walking inside a snare drum, my vision skewed and even the ground underneath me warped. I only hoped that I wouldn’t pass anyone I knew who wanted to talk. Even smiling at a friend as we hurried our different directions could cause new waves of pain to crash along the sandy grit of my face.
Within minutes of finally getting the bitter brown elixir into my system, I could feel the pain evaporate, my mood lighten, and the good ole’ gung-ho return. The fierce eagle shrank away to nothing, the snare drum went off to bother someone else. I was happy! I was a new woman! I could conquer the world!
Sometimes I think I subconsciously ignored the oncoming symptoms just so I could experience their alleviation. It worked like magic.
At some point along the way things shifted to be a little scary. I don’t know when it happened, but I slowly came to realize it after several dangerous encounters.
It came to be that without coffee, even before warning bells of pain dancing across the back of my eyes told me that caffeine levels were dropping, I would lose my ability to focus. At first it was laughable, like finding myself staring at a book title trying to figure out what it said. It became quite annoying, a bruise to my pride, when it affected my ability to hold intelligent conversation. I could sit there, hanging on every word, struggling to piece the sounds together into intelligible sentence structures. Complex topics, like religion or anything academic, were lost on me without coffee as stimulus. I became to question, was my intellect dependent on a drink? Surely there was a time when I didn’t need to be caffeinated to have an opinion. But there I would stand, mouth agape, struggling to form coherent phrases about topics I knew, knew, I had opinions on.
It became a problem when it affected my driving. I nearly killed myself, and worse, several friends, because the absence of a certain chemical prevented my brain from making proper decisions and snap judgments. In my caffeine-free fog, I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t concentrating on the road.
Of course, this all happened at the same time that I was suffering from Mono, and I could also feel the effects of the disease on making my thinking processes sluggish, so maybe that can be the scapegoat and the name of coffee can be cleared. Nevertheless, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision while driving a car full of friends encouraged me to finally take the last step and insist, come high tide or scurvy, on my first cup of the morning. Every morning.
So of course I’d already had my cup— espresso, to be precise, as there in my Italian flat I only had an espresso pot—but that was in the morning. It had become afternoon, the day sucked away in an English lesson and housework avoided by reading Yann Martel. There were three more English lessons to come later in the day, so a caffeine jumpstart seemed like a good idea.
Trying to stay on the conservative side, I chose to make myself a cup of tea. The last thing I needed was to need (understand me, need) a second cup every day. I liked being able to rely on a second, afternoon cup as a boost when necessary and had no desire to up the ante on my addiction. Tea could substitute as a small recharge: a burst of sugar to get me over the hump and an injection of caffeine (only half as much as a cup of coffee, I righteously reminded myself) to get me through the lessons for the rest of the day.
I put some water in my frying pan and put it over the largest burner. I had no kettle, and found that the frying pan heated water quicker than a conventional pot. It felt a little funny, though, to cook water in a frying pan for a cup of tea. The electric fuse never worked, so I lit the stove by match and left the water on high heat. Meanwhile I guiltily stole back to Life of Pi that had already replaced the mopping and scrubbing I’d promised myself I would do. One short chapter later the water was forming tiny bubbles and was ready for my tea. I poured it carefully from the wide, flat pan into my mug and let the tea bag steep. I sliced up an apple that showed signs of getting too old (I never ate enough fruit), throwing the suspicious parts into the trash under the sink. While down there I turned off the gas nozzle, since it leaked a little bit. Once, before I knew better because I’d just moved to the apartment, I left the nozzle open all day while out and returned to the place smelling quite evil. I opened all the doors and windows and spent a good hour sitting on the couch in fear of explosion.
I heard a funny click from the stove. It clicked again. It sounded like the automatic fuse, or whatever you call that thing that clicks and lights the gas on the stove. I held down the button for the fuse (that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t) and, sure enough, it clicked again. When I released it, it kept clicking at roughly three-second intervals. Just long enough that every time I thought maybe it had stopped. I turned on the gauge for the burner, but the gas was off, so nothing happened when it clicked again. I turned off the burner.
I tried to ignore the sound. Problems tend to dissipate on their own, I told myself. I put milk and sugar in my tea, not my usual practice, but this was a midafternoon snack, so why not? I spilled a little of the beige drink, being too greedy about filling the mug up to the very top. Then, as I stirred it, I spilled a little bit more.
I kept being distracted by the clicking. I tried pushing the black fuse button repeatedly, forcefully, thinking maybe it was stuck. I banged on the element and used a knife to pull the top pieces off, but the clicking continued. I thought wistfully of my book and how this horrible disruption would never let me read it and drink my tea in peace. Confounded noise! I pulled up on the black button in a last-ditch attempt to do something. To my surprise it pulled up about three inches with my momentum, exposing the mechanics underneath and—wait three seconds, just to be sure—yes! interrupted the mechanism and stopped the fuse.
I finished slicing up my apple and prepared to take my snack to the couch where Pi and his tiger awaited me. On second thought, I decided to wipe up the spilt tea before it solidified into a sugary mess. The kitchen was, afterall, the only part of the flat I had managed to actually clean that day. I grabbed a paper towel and wiped up the area around the stove where the tea had spilled. POW!
A sharp intake of breath, a snap. Did that?—yes, it just happened. A black spray of electrical char marred the white stove top. I heard the whirr of the refrigerator settling behind me. Did I blow a fuse? A real one? The light was still on, so no, everything was still working. There was no fire. I was not hurt, it seemed. I took mental stock. Was I shocked? Electrocuted? I felt the coil of my muscles fully engaged, but their tenseness could be from internal electricity rather than external. My spinal cord was apparently in working order. I looked at the paper towel in my hand and marveled how much of it was burnt in that tiniest fraction of an instant when water met current and things went Pow. I forced my elbows and shoulders to unwind, realized that only my eyes had been moving to take in the situation, and moved my head from side to side.
Can’t clean up now, I thought, leaving the remaining water to evaporate the old-fashioned way. I chuckled internally (or maybe aloud, who can tell when you live by yourself?). And I thought I needed caffeine to jumpstart my afternoon.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
'Later, a woman stood up at the meeting… and told Mr. McCain that she could not trust Mr. Obama because he was an “Arab.”
'Mr. McCain replied: “No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.” At that, the crowd applauded.'
Hello! Big red flags!!
“Oh no, ma’am! Obama’s not an Arab. We would never let anything that horrible happen.”
Essentially, McCain was saying to the woman: “Why, you horrible racist! Thinking that because of his name or his skin color that he’s an Arab! We can look at his character and see that he is by no means an Arab. No Arab could be ‘a decent family man’ or ‘a citizen’ like Obama. No, my opponent is clearly not an Arab.” That’s right, McCain, you tell her. She shouldn’t assume by his appearance that he belongs to a disgusting, inferior race.
An Arab is not a “decent family man”? Worse, being an Arab is antithetical to being a “citizen”????? What will McCain do if he becomes president, ban all people who identify with Arabic culture from being US citizens? Blast Iraq to smithereens, because those A-rabs obviously don’t have any family values or patriotism like good ole’ white people?
After this week’s report we all know that Palin has no qualms about pushing her weight around to punish those whom she doesn’t like. Last week it was her ex-brother-in-law and his boss. Next week, will it be Arabs instead? Or vegetarians?
She has certainly lost her innocent glow. “Oh, look at me, I’m an outsider. I don’t have a history of bullying people into giving me what I want. I’m moral, unlike all you atheistic democrats.” Now we see that her slate is relatively blank merely because she has not had enough time to smear it with quid pro quo.
As for racism, it is disturbing the number of racists who support McCain. Of course, a white supremacist really has no choice but to support the only white candidate. Sucks for those people who are also misogynists…
McCain’s response to them furthers reveals his deep-seated, albeit subtle, racism. Instead of telling them off for using racial slurs or not focusing on politics, he reassures his supporters “you do not have to be scared” of a potential Obama presidency.
That’s as good as saying, “Black people are people too you know! You don’t have to be scared of all of them. Like Mr. Obama, for example. He’s one of the okay ones. He would even be able to do a comparable job as president, even though his view on the fundamental issues lacks, um, whiteness.”
All this amidst the candidate’s “abundance of caution” over not addressing Obama’s links to Reverend Jeremiah Wright. McCain wouldn’t want to say anything that might make him look racist, heaven forbid. Instead McCain says about Obama, “I will respect him.”
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Sha Na Na and the Invention of the Fifties - 'The Fifties' as we know them today are an invention of 1969, when social unrest necesitated finding a common link in nostalgia. The decade of Cold War panic and Beatniks became the Sock Hop era of family values and economic optimism. The Juvenile Delinquants of the time became Greasers - glorified white working class teens.
The End of Art - A meaty read, full of great quotes and revealing thoughts on a topic that artists love to explore. Or at least, should love to explore. Bringing religion into any discussion is a dangerous step these days, but this author masters the complex task and opens door for further exploration. His mention of religion will raise fewer red flags than his insistence that "The subjugation of art... to political ends has been one of the great spiritual tragedies of our age" (I happen to agree). But neither does he delicately poke at religion with postmodernist fear of stepping on somebody's toes.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Javier lives in Varese. Well, so far he stays in Varese in a Bed and Breakfast while looking for an apartment for himself and fellow students from Spain. But assuming he can find a suitable apartment, he will be living in Varese for the next ten months. Thus he needs the train for that city.
Valentina misunderstands and thinks that I too want to go to Varese, so she asks the ticket vendor, who sells me a ticket and a return (E7,20). The train is pulling into the station at that moment, so we run to meet it and there is no time to ask questions about how to actually get to my intended destination, Como.
No matter. I can visit with Javier longer while we ride to Varese. I look out the window at the Italian scenery, but I can’t say much about it; I won’t fault the country for not being picturesque along the train line. Javier is worried about missing the stop. It doesn’t matter to me, because I don’t care about going to Varese anyway. If we miss the stop, we can wait for a return train. If we make it to Varese, I will try to transfer to Como. If there is no route to Como, I will visit Varese with Javier and be satisfied.
At the end of the day I don’t care where I go so long as I go somewhere. It’s all new to me. It’s all Italy. If I insist on being happy, then I will be happy. I refuse to be anxious. Especially when I am with a friend. So maybe neither of us speaks Italian, but with his few words and my few words, and of course our English, we can make ourselves understood and, more importantly, understand what we need to understand. I hope.
Eventually we are in Varese. Javier is proud to tell me about his little city. I know the feeling. I want visitors to Rho very badly, not because I am lonely, but because I want to show off my little town. “My” little town that I have inhabited all of one week.
The ticket vendor gets the point across to us that we must go to the other train station in order to go to Como. Javier knows where it is, so he walks me there. The ticket vendor there says to take the bus instead of the train; it’s cheaper and is already at the station.
Ok, one bus ticket to Como (E2,80). Javier and I part ways outside the bus. We make plans to travel together. I will visit him in Varese once he has an apartment. We will go skiing with Concetta and Federica once it snows. We will go to Como together another time when he is not on the apartment hunt. Etc etc. He says that if I take this bus back to Varese that day to call him, but my plan is to go from Cono directly to Rho. Or at least, more directly.
I guess the bus will take an hour. It would be easy to be nervous on a bus through tiny Italian villas getting further and further away from the one landmark I know (the station), but along the way are frequent signs pointing to Como (30 km, 23 km, etc) and the bus always turns to follow the signs. Along the way are also perfect little Italian towns. I am happy to see them, and happy to watch the change in landscape and flora as we move North. Finally, the mountains! I can glimpse their snowy caps in the distance. I can feel my heart beating with their rhythm, even from this distance and through the cloudy bus window.
I count four or more languages, plus Italian, on the bus. This also puts my mind at ease. It sure is convenient to speak English, the language of common currency.
Eventually we arrive in Como, the last stop. It took and hour and twenty minutes. My first order of business is to secure the way home. Especially since it is a Sunday, and the schedules are limited, I want to make sure I don’t miss my only chance to get home. But I’m not worried, because if there isn’t a way this afternoon, I have the address of the Hostel for E14,50 a night and I can return to Milan tomorrow. Or maybe there is another bus today back to Varese and I can stay with Javier. Or catch a train from Varese to Rho.
The bus stop is at the train station. I try to decipher the posted schedule, but it’s quite complicated with strange codes and whatnot I don’t understand.
I want to ask the ticket vendor for the best route. I piece together the question in my mind. “Per andare a Rho?” I can only imagine that the grammar is atrocious, but it gets my point across. Although I can see the vendor through the curtain over the window, he does not come to help me. Obviously they want me to use the automatic ticket selling machine, but this requires that I already know where I am going. I don’t. That is, I know the “a Rho” (‘to Rho’) part, but I have no clue as to the “Per andare” (‘for going’) part. How do I get there???
An African woman starts speaking to me but soon enough it becomes evident that I have no idea what she’s saying and that I need help.
“Di dove sei?” she asks me. ‘Where are you from?’
“A Rho,” (‘To Rho’) I say, misunderstanding at first. Ah, no, I have made this mistake before. “Sono di America.”
She pauses. “You are American?” There is her beautiful African accent, like sweetened condensed milk.
“Yes,” I say, relieved. I don’t feel guilty speaking English, because Italian is also a second language for her.
“Where are you going?”
“Ah to Rho. I think that there is not a line from here to Rho. You must go to the other train station.”
That is what I suspected. “Thank you so much,” I say, using the Italian hand gestures for gratitude.
“It is nothing.”
Ok, across town to the other train station, which is the main station (or so my guidebook tells me). I tore out the three pages about Como and folded them into my purse. Now I retrieve them and use the tiny map to direct my feet to the other station.
On the way I breathe in the warm autumn sunshine. The town seems targeted for tourists, which is fine by me, because the lake is just as beautiful, the trees just as yellow, the buildings just as old, no matter how many other pairs of eyes have seem them. I’m dressed for the cooler part of the day, so in the afternoon sunshine a gelato seems like a perfect idea.
One small cone, please, half green apple and half strawberry. Oh, how perfect. There are real strawberry seeds and real bits of apple skin and real Italian flavor bursting into my mouth. Yummmmm.
Follow the map and the signs to the station. Ask again: “Per andare a Rho?” Try to make sense of the answer. I must go first to Milano Garibaldi and then change. Ok, fine. There are numbers, repeated slowly: “due, zero.”
Repeat them, just to make sure. “Due, zero?”
“Si, due, zero, otto.”
“Ah, okei – due, zero, otto. Dove sono l’orari?” ‘Ok, 2-0-8. Where are the hours (Where is the timetable)?”
For the life of me I cannot find a line “208” listed. I go back to the window.
“Non trovo la linea due-zero-otto. Per andare a Rho??”
Yes, I must go to Milano Garibaldi. But when are the hours of the train? Ahhhh, at 14:08 (Two-oh-eight). And after? 15:08. And then 16:08 and so on? Yes, yes, of course. Now I understand. And will this ticket work? Ok, thank you.
Some mental math and I think that if I take the five-oh-eight train, I will arrive in Milan with plenty of time to make the connection to Rho and arrive in time for the bus from the station to Mazzo.
Now! To exploring Como!
The city is beautiful in true Italian fashion. Meandering narrow streets, cobblestoned and lined with antique buildings. Piazzas filled with café tables and diners. Expensive shops with intriguing window displays, mostly closed (for Sunday, I assume). An impressive cathedral with only a tiny piazza before its façade, unlike the massive Piazza del Duomo in Milano. The old stone city gates and walls, outside of which stand tables with trinkets – glass jewelry, wooden cups, leather satchels, and so on. And finally, the Lake.
Everyone in the world is walking along the lake’s promenade. The Americans pretend to be European (I heard one boy comment in an absurdly Midwestern accent: “I love how the Europeans all have, like, a fashion. Americans always wear the same thing – jeans and a tee shirt.” Ugh). The Chinese teens speak Italian (As Valy tells me, all the pizzerias in Italy are now run by Chinese people). Italian children feed the ducks and swans.
My stomach is starting to twist, so out comes the crackers and jam and nutella I packed into my bag. A bench, a snack, some sunshine. I am all smiles. I feel warm and stylish (enough) in my San Fransisco jeans, my pink Benetton sweater, my dusky blue scarf.
What time is it? Four o’clock. Maybe I should have taken the four-oh-eight train instead. Oh well, too late now. Maybe I should go back the way I cam afterall, since I know that route works, at least. But no, there must be a more efficient route, even if it is via Milan. And if there is no train, I can call Federica when I arrive in Milan and stay there until the next day.
Back in the city, the evening strollers are out. It seems even on Sundays the shops open in the evening, and the streets are filling with people. The Italian sport of choice (for those who prefer crocodile to kangaroo leather, at least): window shopping. Como is a famous center of Italian silk manufacturing, but the historic silk store I want to visit is closed despite the shopping multitude.
A parade winds through town. A procession, with a section ‘Africa’ and ‘Latin America’ and I don’t know what else. Banners and robes and singing, each group in their own language. They made their way directly into the duomo. Evening mass, I suppose. The tourists took pictures. The Italians processed in a different way – only a street away, but the sound of the holy singing was drowned – to their religious house of choice. Today in Italy, the center of the Catholic world, worship is left to the foreigners and the locals shop.
As the hour comes to an end, my feet feel like I have worn holes right through them. I’ll head to the station for the train.
The train to Milano lulls me right to sleep (0 Euros; I can use the return ticket I bought that morning). If I caught it going the other way, it would take me right to Zurich. Maybe next time!
Awaken at Milano Garibaldi. Exit. Here is the train schedule. Rho, rho, rho – here it is. Ha, it’s the same train that continues to Varese. The one in the six o’clock hour doesn’t say it stops in Rho, though. What do I do now? Plus, it came on the hour, so I’ve already missed it. Is there one next hour? 17.25. No, that’s five o’clock. 19.25, here it is. Arrives Rho at 19.44. I can just make the last bus to Mazzo. No, wait, the last bus is at 18.55. Darn this twenty-four hour clock! I’m always messing it up.
I can wait over an hour for a train that goes to Rho, but then I would have to walk, unless by some stroke of bizarre fortune there is a later bus afterall. I don’t know the way, and I don’t have a map, and I don’t even know how to ask that in Italian. Following verbal directions? I would be totally lost. Maybe I should call Federica and stay in Milan. Here is a store, maybe it will sell a map.
Do you have maps? On this stand? I don’t see them. On the other side, okay. Maps maps maps. Milan, Rho. But it’s too small! I could never use this map to find my way, even if I did pay, what, 14,90 Euro! No way.
I decide to take the Metro (1 Euro). There is a bus from the stop I used before, but I will have already missed the last run, if it’s the same on Sundays as weekdays. I could risk it. I could walk from there, but I certainly don’t know the way, and I think it’s far.
Finally, here is a useable map – the map for the metro. I can actually see the roads in Rho on this one. Here is Via Amendola. If I take the Metro to the very last stop, that’s a much closer walk back to Rho. I draw the map into my little notebook, and then take a picture of it (my big brilliant idea). I can make it! I can walk.
Of course when I arrive at the stop, it’s a complete construction zone and it’s impossible to orient myself. But there was a bus stop and – thank goodness, a stroke of luck! – there is a bus coming in fifteen minutes that will take me right to my neighborhood.
When the bus comes I board it right away. The driver wants to know why I’m waiting inside the bus for the ten minutes before it departs.
I’m tired, I say. He starts talking to me more, and I must tell him I’m not Italian.
“Oh! No speak-a English,” he says to me. He shows me how to punch the ticket (0 Euro; I already had the ticket from another day when I bought one for the wrong bus). He wants to make conversation, however broken. Another passenger boards who speaks English, so we start a strange three-way conversation. The bus departs, and the English speaker wants to know more about my stay in Italy. He is a photographer, lives in Rho but has a vacation house on Lake Como. He gives me his telephone number because he wants to take me touring. (Suspicious?)
I don’t know if I should be suspect of such friendliness. If I were Kerouac, such a meeting would be the start to a complex adventure. But the bane of female existence is the necessary suspicion of all other people, especially of all males.
“Via Amendola!” the bus driver announces, stopping at the crossroads nearest my street even though there is not a bus stand there.
I descend, shouting Grazie! to both the driver and the friendly photographer, and walk the last little way back to my apartment. My feet are especially grateful for the bus. By the time I arrive home, I am ready to drop. Leftovers and a night in front of the TV. What a day!