Go to content Go to navigation Go to search

Eyeless in Frisco

■ 26 January 2015 by James Martin

I am currently listening to the audio version of Amarcord: Marcella Remembers.

I am not reading it. Reading, you see, sloshes the vitreous of the eye as the animated eyeball scoots back and forth over the words, a vitreous martini shaker of sorts.

You see, a couple of weeks ago my right eye abruptly began ignoring the scene before me. The contents pouring into my brain burst into an array of spinning color, half-moons of yellow fringed in red, followed by a milkiness flooded with black swirls like the escape path of a squid.

The doctor peered in, reciting the gruesome details in a sort of code, a rat-a-tat of words to her assistant. One of the words was “hemorrhage.”

Finally, she turned off her searing light and spoke softly to me. “When one passes the age of 60, it is common for the vitreous of the eye to dry up, tugging at the tiny veins and the edges of the retina. The veins break, causing the floaters you see.”

Then surgery. As you age, things slowly begin to shut down. This was my first catastrophic failure. The surgeon would go in, vacuum up the dried bits of blood and tack the retina back on with a laser. Then a gas bubble would be injected to hold the retina in place while it healed.

Thus I am a prisoner in San Francisco. I cannot go up a hill or the bubble would get too big. I cannot fly until the bubble dissipates completely. Thus the lack of updates here.

If you are squeamish, I’m going to assume you’ve stopped reading already, because the surgery, for which I was awake, was quite something.

I could see with amazing clarity what was going on inside my eye. No longer was light being shaped by an imperfect lens, passed through a bit of cataract before passing through to the retina for processing. I was seeing directly inside my body, inside the very organ the surgeon was saving. I saw her vacuum up the black swirls, the squid in reverse, I heard the hum of the laser tacking down the retina, the amplified twitter of my pulsing heart always in the background. A fantastic voyage, one you couldn’t take just a few years ago, when eventual blindness was the lone prognosis.

Today is the first day I can raise my head after four days of bowing down, paying homage to the gods of good health and trying to keep that blasted bubble backed into the retina, helping to hold it in place while it heals. It feels good.

The bubble prevents me from seeing much more than blobs of light; it’s like looking through the frosted glass of a dirty martini.

Martha puts drops in my eye every few hours. Marcella provides the entertainment that keeps the hours flowing. I can’t wait to get cooking again. I can’t wait to tell you of a different adventure.

Eyeless in Frisco originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jan 26, 2015, © James Martin.

Filed in: |

Riding the Train? Validate Your Ticket!

■ 18 September 2013 by James Martin

We had a great day yesterday exploring the Riviera town of Genova Nervi. The day climaxed, like it always does, with the great, wooly tourist herd stacked six deep at La Spezia Centrale, the transfer station to the Tourist Pilgrimage Spot You Must Not Miss, Le Cinque Terre.

See, It goes like this: you get on the early morning train sleepily. The car you choose is almost empty. It clacks along happily until La Spezia. Then Wham! It is suddenly packed with sandal-wearers.

I scan the crowd. Which ones have e-mailed me asking where they could go because they wanted to avoid touristy spots at all costs?

Nevermind. All of them are likely to have had tickets. Many even validated them.

Why are you talking about this validation thing, you old coot?

Ok, so we’re returning to Tuscany from our quiet and tourist-free visit to any of the other Italian Riviera cities and again, the train fills to the gills with tourists. We are surrounded by Germans with iPhones. Just before La Spezia, the conductor asks to see their tickets. He casually turns one over.

A frown creases his forehead. He begins to speak English, the default languages used in situations like this, as in when you’re going to read someone foreign the riot act or complain that their dog has peed on your shoe.

“You have not validated your ticket,” he says gravely. “There is a fine. It is 50 euro. You must pay now.”

“Can’t we just run in and validate it in the next station?” a young and beautiful blonde woman asks. You could almost hear the batting of eyelashes.

“Yes, I know the Renoir that has been stolen has been found inside my backpack. May I just return it and avoid the mess of being booked into your very nice (I’m sure) prison?”

“No, you must pay the fine. The next station, does, however, have a police station…”

Since the “I’ll just validate my ticket on my time” strategy was a bust, the woman who held the first ticket without a validation stamp tried strategy number two. It did not work either.

“She can cry as much as she wants, what do I care?” said the conductor to the few stranglers in our now almost empty car as it pulled out of the station.

Why Validation?

Regional train tickets in Italy are good for a period of time. You can use them whenever you want within that time (currently a month). When you’re ready to ride, you run your ticket through a stamper that essentially says, “Look, I’m using up this ticket right now and I’m leaving a mark that will tell one and all who observe my ticket that it is no longer valid for another trip.”

Bitching and moaning—or crying—used to work on the small lines where it wasn’t obvious that making a spectacle of a tourist would do any good. Italy is in need of cash. It no longer works folks, save your tears.

If you don’t have a clue of what I’m talking about and are hot to take the train on your next trip to Italy and don’t want to spend 50 euro on a 5 euro train ride, see: How to Read and Validate Italian Train Tickets

Looking for more tips for a trouble-free experience on your Italy Vacation? Download the mobile app for iPad or iPhone: Italy Travel Tips & Hints - Sutro Media | Android

Riding the Train? Validate Your Ticket! originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Sep 18, 2013, © James Martin.

Filed in: |


■ 24 August 2013 by James Martin

pesto, orecchiette con pesto

It’s summer. There’s nothing better than pesto.

Pesto is Ligurian. Why? Around Genoa the basil is best, they tell me. The olive oil is spectacular in Liguria. It all comes together in a simple and quite memorable dish.

They make it thus:

I just whiz it all up in a hand blender: a big handful of basil leaves, a garlic clove (two if they’re small), pine nuts if I have them on hand, and enough oil that it makes the right consistency. It always seems to me to need salt. The grated cheese I add later.

Of course, this is not how it’s done. Everyone in Italy will shake a finger at you and give that little “tsk” sound they do so well. You need a nonna. You ask of her, “Pesto? Pranzo?” and she wraps her bony little fingers around that big, stone mortar with the phallic pestle and drags it off the top shelf. She puts everything into the mortar and pounds it gently for quite some time—until it gets all creamy green.

Then she starts making the pasta. From scratch. Soon you will eat.

If you’re an American, of course, you skip the very first step because your nonna’s meds don’t allow her the strength to lift the hand blender, much less a 60 pound stone morar and pestle.

So you commit the sin of using a machine that whacks mercilessly on the ingredients and carry on from there.

It turns out good.

Not everyone makes it thus. The Coral fishers from Pegli near Genoa who founded Carloforte on the Sardinian Isola di San Pietro in the 18th century add tomatoes to the dish—and sometimes tuna. It’s what was plentiful on the island.

And here’s a cooking tip. Make a pesto from parsley. Then, when you want a very quick pasta sauce, you just saute some tomatoes, then, when the pasta is about ready, add however big a dollop of the pesto as you might like. Quick and dirty pasta Americana. Add anchovies and hot peppers, maybe some black olives.

Or go all out and make it with mint. Or even make a wild version that famous Elizabeth Minchilli made at Easter one time: fave + spring pesto {orecchiette}

Go wild with pesto. Just don’t tell an Italian.

Pesto originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Aug 24, 2013, © James Martin.

Filed in: |

Verona at Night

■ 20 May 2013 by James Martin

vini picture, wine store, veronaI was just going through my Verona pictures the other day. That got me to remembering how much I like Verona. It certainly has one of the most beautiful historic centers in Italy.

I was thinking, “it’s a shame people are induced to come to Verona on the premise that they must see a balcony very dubiously attributed to the family that gave life to a character in a play nobody has read since high school.

Yes, our emotional attachment to deep, yet forbidden love, is strong. But c’mon, is a glance at the platform upon which lovers were alleged to have wrung out their tormented souls together worth a couple of euros? That’s what the city of Verona is thinking of charging you to have a peek at said balcony. “Euro one, euro two, where art thou?” you might be asking soon.

Go to Verona. See a real play. Revive your spiritual self. And wander the city at night, too. The beauty doesn’t cease when the sun goes down. In fact, it get’s better!

verona bar night picture

Usually, I don’t post pictures with scaffolding in them. But look, it doesn’t matter. Here, everything works. Imagine being immersed in this beautiful and historic setting, perhaps imbibing one of the Veneto’s specialties, a glass of shockingly good vino.

verona bar night picture

Everyone knows that there are some great painted houses in Verona’s famous market square, piazza delle erbe, a market since Roman times. But at night you can see them with ominous shadows and without glare, and you can see the shutters open just a bit to let the cool night air in after a warm day.

And if you are taking in a play or musical event at the Roman arena, where will you go to eat, or maybe you’re early, where will you go for a drink—or a snack? Well, park yourself right in front of the arena’s Roman arches, it’s all right here:

verona bar night picture

Forget the balcony! Plan a trip to the real Verona. Don’t tell your friends and neighbors you didn’t shell out for the balcony. They’ll be heartbroken, but that’s what the play’s really about anyway.

Verona at Night originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 20, 2013, © James Martin.

Filed in: |

Nemi and Caligula's Ships

■ 22 April 2013 by James Martin

nemi, lazio, italyNemi is one of those little towns in the Castelli Romani south of Rome that warrants just a tiny mention in the guidebooks: Nemi is known for its strawberries.

So why would you go there? Obviously for the strawberries. They’re very, very good, being grown in the volcanic soils at the border of Lake Nemi and all.

Nemi is also what you might call a “cute” town. It’s cuter then the picture, which was taken on a drizzly Saturday in April. But you still might not think to go there. You’d choose the better known Castel Gandolfo, perhaps.

nemi norcheriaBut consider again Nemi. It has some underground caverns that have been made into an art gallery. Besides the strawberries, it has countless Norcherie, places you can buy salamis longer than your arm, called something like “shepherd’s sticks” in translation. Nemi has porchetta because it is near the mecca of porchetta, Ariccia.

Then there’s antiquity. Roman writer Servius began calling Lake Nemi “Speculum Dianae” or the “Mirror of Diana” and poets kept the image alive. The goddess Diana Nemorensis is seen everywhere in Nemi, including on restaurant menus.

But Nemi also has a secret. Well, it was a secret to me, even after I had visited the town. You see, that Roman you love to hate, Caligula, built some enormous boats to sit upon Lake Nemi. So large, in fact, they just about took up the whole surface of the lake.


These floating palaces were attached to the shore by chains, and bridges were built across the water to link with the ships. According to some historical accounts, Caligula’s ships were the scenes of orgies, murder, cruelty, music, and sport and he supposedly spent much of his inheritance from his Uncle Tiberius to create his Nemi Ship retreat. ~ Roman Emperior Caligula and His Legendary Lake Nemi Ships

According to the fine historical work of Kathy Warnes linked above, “the largest ship resembled one of his palaces transported to water and it featured a temple honoring Diana. Marble mosaic floors of many colors, inlaid ivory on the walls, heating and plumbing and baths were featured throughout both ships. The water flowed through pipes etched with Caligula’s name. Bronze sculptures were part of the decorations.”

But then, of course, all those orgies caught up with Caligula and the Senate decided to off the guy and burn his boats.

There were several attempts to raise the remains, which were legendary amongst the local fishermen, but only Mussolini’s draining of the lake and Guido Ucelli’s recovery of the ships actually worked. Benito put them in a concrete museum by the lake near to where the strawberries were grown and all was well—until the end of the big war, when retreating Germans were reputed to have set fire to the boats.

It’s lucky that we have pictures of them. Ucelli’s Le Navi di Nemi first was published in 1940, and shows the process he used to get the ships out of the muck.

Besides Kathy Warnes excellent article, you can read more about the Nemi Ships on the web.

Nemi and Caligula's Ships originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 22, 2013, © James Martin.

Filed in: |

How to Live in Italy - A Review

■ 10 September 2012 by James Martin

There are great piles of books on the subject of living in Italy stacked on rickety tables in every bookstore on earth (well, both of them). You may have noticed if you happen to frequent these dinosaurs. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why there’s so much demand for these kinds of books, as authors in unison bemoan the creaky and unfathomable bureaucracy, the crime against nature that comes in the form of the afternoon closure of shops (it is a basic human right to shop at all hours! Mon Dieu!) and the inevitable parking ticket or thirteen.

I have no such prejudices. I can do without peanut butter. I can shop whenever stores are open. Even the bureaucracy is effortlessly cracked; neighbor Francesca deals with it.

So it’s nice to read a series of witty essays that cast our poor Italia in an honest light without the whining over the disgraceful shopping hours or the wallet-busting practice of being forced to pay a cover charge in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Perhaps because author Rebecca Helm-Ropelato is from California where yours truly spends his non-Italian days she has been able to adapt the Golden State’s clarity of vision and a sense of what’s important in the universe. I’m sure that’s it. (Oh, no, wait, that was the 70s, when tea was tea and not part of a party, which was defined to include, as a minimum, a hot tub and, if rumors from far off Mill Valley were to be believed, peacock tail feathers. Today, well, all is lost.)

But I digress. As usual. How to Live in Italy is a collection of essays about the essence of living in Italy, previously published in respectable places and strung together like a string of magically twinkling Christmas tree lights to amaze us with their simplicity and colorful charm.

Allow me to regale you with a small quoted paragraph, one of my favorites, just to give you some idea of the flow of carefully-chosen words that sets this book apart from the crowd. The author is talking about friselle pugliesi, hard doughnut-like bread objects that need to be softened in water at the table before being topped with grilled vegetables.

Using the tongs, I placed the bread in the bowl of water and mentally counted off thirty seconds. Then I returned the bread to my plate, I clearly heard a clunk as it landed. So I dunked it back into the water. I waited another thirty seconds, then another. A rock would have been more porous. Hoping for some abracadabra-like magic, I ceased the soaking process. I proceeded to pile the veggies on top of the still rigid ring and began to saw away at it with my knife. In vain. Resting from my labor, I munched on the grilled eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini and fresh chopped tomatoes. They were delicious.

What happens next is entirely believable—but only if you’ve lived in Italy for a great long time.

I liked this book a lot. Its sub-title, “Essays on the charms and complications of living in paradise” is spot on. Without prejudice, the exploration of a different culture as Rebecca Helm-Ropelato approaches the complicated task is both enlightening and enjoyable.

Buy this book: How to Live in Italy: Essays on the charms and complications of living in paradise. It’s not like 6 and a half bucks is gonna kill you.

How to Live in Italy - A Review originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Sep 10, 2012, © James Martin.

Filed in: |

Rain and Rain Again - Pontremoli

■ 5 May 2012 by James Martin

Ok, I am officially sick of rain.

But, nonetheless, I persevere in bringing you the best of cultural constants. For every two people working with their witches brooms to clean up after the Saturday open air market there will be one more on hand to hold up a column. It doesn’t matter which culture you’re inside of, it’s always like this, è Sempre Così.

pontremoli in the rain picture

Rain and Rain Again - Pontremoli originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 05, 2012, © James Martin.

Filed in: |

Food and Knuckleheads

■ 21 April 2012 by James Martin

I came across an interesting graph the other day. It showed the gross amount people from around the world paid for food. It seems China has passed the US up because their country outspends our country for food. They have more people of course, and spend way less per person, but there you have it.

The big spenders, per person, turn out to be the French. This doesn’t surprise me a bit, having once picked up a whole Bresse chicken, the celebrated kind, all wrapped in plastic in a French supermarket, and almost dropping the thing when I saw the price. 23 euro for a very small chicken!

Another interesting thing is that Americans pay about the same as Italians for food. Italians pay just slightly more. But from my experience, you’re getting a much better deal here in Italy. I mean even the industrial chickens you get here are way, way, way better tasting and have better and crispier skin when you roast them, for example. But real chickens, like the ones the butcher claims are “nostrano” are cheaper than the marginally better than industrial chickens in the states.

Which brings us to this little tidbit, as part of the reasons that “The Myth of Sustainable Meat” exists in someone’s mind:

Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is at least more natural. Again, this is a dubious claim. Many farmers who raise chickens on pasture use industrial breeds that have been bred to do one thing well: fatten quickly in confinement. As a result, they can suffer painful leg injuries after several weeks of living a “natural” life pecking around a large pasture.

What kinda idiotic argument is that? I mean even Jethro who got kicked outta the second grade and then happened to get hit on the head with a rock the size of Kansas on the way home could still look up at pappy with his puppy-dog eyes and say, “Pappy, how cum dey use deez kinds chickens when theys real chickens what could walk real good?”

I mean the hatchet job argument that we’ve bred chickens that can’t walk so we are forever doomed to having chickens stuffed two million to a barn and injected with all manner of crap before being sold and therefore we have to accept that there are no alternatives to these sorry experiments in nature is absolute crap as anyone with a tenth of a brain can understand. I’ve actually seen Italian chickens walking around like they owned the place. Armando’s chickens. We haven’t made walking chickens extinct. There’s still time!

James E. McWilliams is the idiot who wrote this diatribe against common sense that was published in the NYT. You can read it but don’t pay for it, you don’t want to be encouraging such chickenshit: The Myth of Sustainable Meat.

You can see the chart of various nations and their food expenses here: China overtakes America to become the world’s largest grocery market

Food and Knuckleheads originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 21, 2012, © James Martin.

Filed in: |