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Oh Sarzana! The Acoustic Guitar Meeting

■ 1 June 2014 by James Martin


Sunday afternoon, a free day in the schedule of the Sarzana Acoustic Guitar Meeting, couldn’t have been a better day to wander the towers and turrets of Sarzanello Castle, listening to Guitar and Mandolin experts tickle those strings.

And the music trumped the weather.

I don’t know why I’ve put off going. It’s one of the best festivals I’ve attended. In every nook and corner folks played. They didn’t interfere with each other and the sound quality in the castle was fabulous.

We’d just grabbed some free seats to see the end of Elsa Martin set. I knew I had to get some video. (She often sings in Fruilian dialect; that’s why you can’t understand it.) We are now proud owners of her latest CD: vERsO.

Then we came upon a stage set up in one of the castle towers, and were lucky enough to snag two front row seats in the tight little corner. There were four to a row, 6 rows deep. That’s it. Then, as if mom nature thought we wanted some privacy, a pigeon let loose and covered the poor folks in the adjacent seats—leaving enough of its multicolored offings to give us sole survivor access to the first two rows. How lucky.

Roberto Bettelli

Then came the touchy Roberto Battelli and his solo guitar (what fingers!), shown working above, and finally, guitar-less, Mauro Manicardi featuring “Gli Scariolanti”. Enjoy the video, it seems to have worked out well, considering it was done with my handheld Sony NEX-7.

Oh Sarzana! The Acoustic Guitar Meeting originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jun 01, 2014, © James Martin.

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Travel Light, Computerwise

■ 28 February 2014 by James Martin

I am past the age when a 13 inch laptop screen is readable. Luckily, large screens are relatively cheap. But what’s an expat to do about the computer end of the deal?

intel nuc pictureI have a computer that measures 4” by 4” by 2”. It’s NUC. It’s over there on the right. I5 processor, 8GB Ram, 120 mb solid state drive. Ubuntu Studio, which has all the editing I need for photos, sound and video—and it’s all free software.

I’m having fun with a computer that takes about 5 seconds to boot, is easy to update, and is relatively sturdy. I tested this sturdiness thing on our drive to Palm Springs recently. I was unpacking the car when the original box, which I used to store the NUC for travel, decided to open in my hands and the unit dropped about 3 feet onto the asphalt of the parking lot. Ooops.

Didn’t even ding the case.

Expats who travel between countries take note. For about $500 I have a darned powerful computer loaded with software I can travel with easier than carrying a laptop. As long as there’s a monitor, as there is at my Lunigiana love nest, I can just plug and play. Any television with HDMI input will do as well.


Travel Light, Computerwise originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Feb 28, 2014, © James Martin.

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A Monastery for the Upcoming Dark Ages: the UnMonastery

■ 10 December 2013 by James Martin

I was hot on the trail of the news that Matera, one of my favorite cities in Italy, especially during the time of the Festa della Madonna Bruna, is on the short list of candidates for City of Culture in 2019. They’ve already started bulking up with culturally intriguing ideas in the city of the Sassi.

One of those ideas made my brain work overtime (it usually lopes along, exciting its synapses at random intervals, like firecrackers set off in a dark cave). I listened to Ben Vickers describe the UnMonastery in a provocative video.

One of those firecrackers went off in my cave/head when Mr. Vickers said they should have called their project the ReMonastery. I liked that idea quite a bit. When the unfettered financial overlords of doom compete their rape of Democracy there will be yet another of those dark ages. People with passion, people with a sense of the social contract, people with faith will gather in spiritually charged spaces abandoned by people who’ve gone to grovel for work in cities. They will represent a collective knowledge of what has gone before. They will be charged with codifying and saving it, and will return value to the community with what Monasteries have always done, making beer, providing health care for all with natural medicine, and feeding the poor, among other things.

The great migration from the rural to the cities has already occurred, leaving a mass of empty houses and unused land. It is time for such monasteries to be born from this financial scorched earth, a beam of light in the rural emptiness of the new Dark Age.

In any case, a skeleton crew has gathered to become the brain-unit of the UnMonastery, the think tank that is not like the think tanks who try to make you hate swarthy people by convoluted logic, or who try to convince you that you have not yet given all you can to the rich.

Here’s what they’re working on (a list stolen from the website linked above):

I’m excited about this project. It’s like religion used to be before it was decided that a short, selective misreading of the book of Leviticus was essence of Christianity.

Anyway, I sign off in giddiness. Check them out. Heck, go live there if you’re committed to such a project.

A Monastery for the Upcoming Dark Ages: the UnMonastery originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Dec 10, 2013, © James Martin.

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Passatelli in Brodo and Roberto

■ 3 November 2013 by James Martin

We all rave about the food in Italy. Yeah, it’s good. But it’s not just the food. Feasting with Italians is a whole ‘nuther thing.

We were learning art with Irma Fiorentini. It happened that we were learning it at the right time. On Friday Irma’s main squeeze Roberto would be coming from the big city as he usually does on weekends. He would cook us a meal. That’s Roberto over there on the left, squeezing the passatelli into the brodo. Note that he is smiling.

To say that Roberto had a passion for cooking would be a severe understatement. Roberto cooked with a head-on giddiness you might see in a child upon receiving the best Christmas present there ever was. He was in his element—and his element made him very happy indeed. And if you don’t believe happiness rubs off on nearby onlookers clinging to a wine glass in one hand and a cell phone camera in the other you’re sadly mistaken.

Food is unlikely to be cooked well without a cook’s joy to sauce it. Drudge makes sludge.

passatelli pictureSo there is Roberto, squeezing little breadcrumb and cheese earthworms out of his ancient press into broth while we sip and egg him on. Passatelli in brodo, another peasant dish of the Emilia Romagna. Simple, tasty, life affirming. Bread crumbs, parmigiano, eggs, nutmeg, lemon zest. Squeeze. Done.

Like a good story, the meal had structure. Courses, from the Passatelli in Brodo to the salmon with three sauces, to the dessert flowed and cavorted with Robert’s wine selections. And the story, as so many of them do, had a twist, it looped back upon itself at the exciting conclusion, when Roberto constructed the Mont Blanc, or, um, Monte Bianco.

Like the first course, brown earthworms of spiced chocolate and chestnut made up the flanks, and whipped cream capped the whole deal.

As in real life, as with the storms that brought the snow. a bit of unsettled weather accompanied the topping. The mixer sent puffy pellets of half-whipped cream through the air, interrupted only by Roberto’s sweater.

It was not a disaster. It was a cause for more laughter, a beautiful celebration of the food that had given joy to poor people for hundreds of years before ending up on our plates—and we found it when we weren’t expecting it, a juicy bonus.

It’s not just about the raw materials, in art as it is in cooking. Remember that if you remember nothing else.

Passatelli in Brodo and Roberto originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Nov 03, 2013, © James Martin.

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Carcasses on the Autostrada!

■ 27 October 2013 by James Martin

emilia romagna landscape picture

I am sorry about the title. I should have saved it for Halloween.

And the picture? It’s pretty much the reason we spent two hours motionless on the autostrada tarmac between Monzuno and Florence. Yes, we skidded to a halt behind a whole bunch of stopped vehicles about ten minutes after the mayhem had occurred.

Let’s back up a bit. It was one of those fine, sunny mornings that makes you smile when you hit the road. Blue skies, sun, warmth, and when you look down from the side window of your leased car upon the lower valleys, thick fog like puffy lamb fleece fills them. It looks like you could just jump out the window of the speedy little diesel and the fluffiness of all that fog would wrap you up and let you down on the valley floor soft as a snowflake upon a mitten. Little fantasy islands pop up in the fog now and again, so as you ride along and you see a compelling one you tell the driver, “Stop! I gotta take a picture!”

And she does, finally finding a pull-off point in front of yapping dogs threatening to tear our necks to shreds if they were to escape the flimsy fence that separates our aortas from their menacing incisors.

The problem is that the fog is not near the pull-off point. So as not to waste any more time and to save face, I point the camera toward some trees and click. Done. Hackle-raising yaps, signs of doggy blood lust, fade softly into the distance as we drive away. We’ve allowed maybe 15 glorious minutes to flutter by.

Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is about 5 minutes too long.

In any case, because of stupid light interaction with trees and fog, we are now survivors of one of those long, long waits after one of those humongous truck crashes on the Italian autostrade you might come across when you’re looking for the weather on the television but they break in to tell you of the big truck crash while you wait intently for the temperature in Rimini to appear on the screen.

But this is not the end of the story. In America we might break out the sandwiches while waiting for the emergency vehicles. Some people would lay on their horns and annoy everyone.

So what do Italians do? Well, they get out, scramble up the hill adjacent to the autostrada, and discover things. When one of them hollers down, “hey there’s a beautiful chestnut grove up here!” then Italians rush to action. Bags come out of parked cars. People scramble up the hill like the tsunami is chasing them down. Old men poke the ground with sticks. It’s bedlam in Chestnut land.

Soon an entire busload of Japanese tourists join in the fun. I’m thinking, “what the devil are people sleeping in hotels going to do with endless bags of chestnuts?”

As I’m thinking this, an Italian mumbles that someone ought to remind the fer’ners that you need to cook the darn things.

But hey, free chestnuts. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Folks uninterested in chestnuts head off in search of coffee and return with tales of the truck. Animal carcases are spread over two lanes. A smashed hubcap suggests the presence of another car which might have scraped the side of the tunnel and bounced into the truck lane.

Then, of course, there’s the delicate matter of the undersized human bladder.

So shifts are set up. I don’t mean people organize everything. No. Heck no. This is Italy. Women gather in a gaggle and yell at the peeing men to get the hell off the hill so the women can have a go. The men wrap things up and totter down the hill. Italian men know which side the tortellini are buttered and saged on. Soon there’s a sort of clockwork thing going. Men, women grasping tissue. Men…

Then the police remove the barrier between lanes and we all get to drive our cars backwards about 150 meters down the autostrada. It’s like a race run in reverse. We are a double row of cars trying desperately to escape our fate, reversing and lunging toward our opening in a rather serpentine manner while trying not to hit each other. They should set this kinda thing up and charge for it, so much fun was had.

Eventually we wiggle out the hole onto the fast lane that’s been taken away from people going in the opposite direction. Forward is not as fun as backwards, but is faster and straighter.

Once we’re out of trouble, we start to wonder if dinner will have to be vegetarian.

Carcasses on the Autostrada! originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 27, 2013, © James Martin.

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The Lunigiana Egg Market

■ 23 October 2013 by James Martin

lunigiana eggs

The clouds were dark, the air was warm. After days of rain we decided to go for a walk to see if the streams that flow from the hills through the outskirts of our little village were swollen and nasty.

The streams were fine. We saw no fish frolicking trout-like in the shadows, however.

On the way home, the light and rhythmic crunch of gravel that accompanied us was joined by the clattering hum of a jeep.

The jeep stopped. We walked on a bit, thinking nobody stops for foreigners, then looked over.

“Would you like some eggs?” the driver asked.

“Si, si!” replied Martha, who is a connoisseur of unborn chickens still in the shell.

(I have switched the languages, of course, just for fun.)

The driver leaned out of his jeep and started laying egg after egg into Martha’s palms. He almost stopped at 4, but then remembered that his regalo had to be in odd numbers, so he gently laid the fifth egg in her hand.

“The chickens, you know, never stop laying. But nobody buys the eggs, so the price got so cheap I’d rather give them as a gift.” he said with a smile which would have brightened Broadway.

So we thanked him profusely and began walking up the hill toward our humble abode. On the way we said “buona sera” to our neighbor, the one with the yapping little dog. She asked to see the eggs. She noticed they were local.

“Where did you get them?” she inquired.

We were rather startled by the question. We didn’t steal them, dammit. But then again, we didn’t know the man who gave them to us either.

We yammered a bit while trying to think of the right Italian words and eventually told her some guy just up and gave them to us. I added, “nobody buys them, he said, so he gifted them to us.”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course, we all have our own chickens.”

And that’s why I live here. Free eggs. And they’re not poison either, like they are in the states. And they taste like they’re supposed to taste.

Oh, and neighbors who quiz you. Just to keep you on your toes.

The Lunigiana Egg Market originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 23, 2013, © James Martin.

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Sick Chicken on a Persian Carpet (Soaker Pad)

■ 18 August 2013 by James Martin

chicken package, soaker pad

It’s a month before we return to our tremor-ravaged little love nest in Northern Tuscany. That means yummy pork products will be mine for a couple of months.

It also means the return to the sanity of buying things from a real butcher instead of peering past the plastic window fixed tenaciously to a styrofoam plate and wondering what noxious odors will emerge when you slice through it with a boning knife.

I got to thinking about chicken when we went to our local “super” market. We wanted to roast up a big American treat the other day. Chicken wings. You eat them with a sporting event. They should be spicy as the dickens so you are encouraged to drink lots of beer.

The mouth makes water, doesn’t it?

All we could get (and our meat section is twice as large as our whole supermarket in Italy), were packages of five chicken wings each. That’s right, if you wanted six you were out of luck. You could buy a thousand and three packages of 5 chicken wings each if you wanted. In America it is all about scale. And sameness.

So we paid 4 American greenbacks for 5 chicken wings. 23 ounces it said on the package. Highway robbery.

I sliced through the plastic window with trepidation (and a knife). Yes, the smell was there. Nothing like a little rot before the kickoff. Don’t worry, it’s normal. In America.

But then we found that the silly little wings were sitting on a thick pad, thicker than we’d ever seen before. I mean, it seemed like the Persian Carpet of what I later found out were called “soaker pads” by some and “diapers” from others. That’s because they’re made about the same.

The soaker pads have gotten larger, thicker. You need them, we are told, because as the chicken “rests” the muscles contract and the juices get squeezed out of the thing. In other words, it’s going bad and you need to soak up the secretions. You don’t want them pooling up in the virgin Styrofoam, so the USDA and FDA allow you to put these little diapers down.

Soon the diapers will be thicker than War and Peace. That’s a book, for you whippersnappers who likely won’t see on in your lifetime. Profit will be theirs, sayeth the big crap chicken industry.

I weighed our soaker pad. 2.8 ounces. Out of the 23 ounces we were paying for, that’s a big chunk.

Anyway, I read all about soaker pads. I am now full of facts and slightly nauseated. Did you know that many chemicals can be put in soaker pads?

For example, you can put citric acid and sorbic acid together in 2 to one ratio and put it in your pad. It reduces “the microbial load of purge trapped inside soaker pads.”

Who uses “purge” as a noun?

Anyway, meat is evidently getting so expensive and the middle class so darned tapped out that evidently they are stealing meat to get by. “What?!” I hear you ask? How do you know that?

Yes, they are soaker pads spiked with RFID chips. Microwavable. Incredible.

And, of course, this is America, so there will be opposition. Yes, your chicken breast company can get a no soaker pad seal. I mean, think of it: “the top 9 companies used 6 billion soaker pads a year” and they don’t break down in the landfill.

So now you know why I’m absolutely giddy to get back to a place where soaker pads aren’t that much of an issue. They’re not an issue in America, actually, because we don’t give a damn, but still.

Oh, and because chickens are the source of so many illnesses in America we’ve decided to lay off all the inspectors and let the industrial crap chicken industry police themselves. And because they wanna speed up production and expect lots of problems with it, they’re going to soak the chickens in chlorine! Now you can spend all day in the pool and smell like a chicken! You can sign a petition against such zany antics if you want.

That’s a picture of our favorite 1/2 inch thick Persian Carpet of a soaker pad in the picture above. Don’t let it nauseate you. We have politicians and the USDA for that.

Sick Chicken on a Persian Carpet (Soaker Pad) originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Aug 18, 2013, © James Martin.

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Pigeon English

■ 4 July 2013 by James Martin

I am well aware of how I mangle the Italian language. Somehow it all works out, although sometimes different from what I expect.

I am prone to thinking that I do pretty well in an Italian market. I know the food words. So I wonder how people see me? Do they strain to make sense out of what I babble, despite my confidence that I know what a cow tongue is and how to prepare it? Are they glad when I take my change and make for the door because they are tired of listening and translating my babble into something they can sell me?

Last weekend we went to Chinatown in San Francisco. I had some great pig feet in a restaurant there. When I ordered the dish the waitress looked at me quizzically, like she didn’t understand if I was someone who understood what would be on the plate when she brought it. I had to assure her that my friend and neighbor Armando in Italy was prone to dropping off some of his preserved pig feet for my cooking pleasure.

After happily consuming the hacked-up feet in a thick, sweet, purplish-brown sauce you cut with a good stream of this red vinegar they provided, Martha and I headed over to the bird place. You see, even in San Francisco, which has a large Italian contingent, you can’t just go to a butcher shop and get a piccione or some seppie. For that you’d need to go to Chinatown. The Chinese are the last people who haven’t narrowed their diets to the extent that Americans have. Good for them.

We originally wanted a duck. But then we saw some squab. So we picked one up. It was a whole piccione just like in Italy, with its head and feet still attached. Compared to Italy and specialty butchers in the US, it was cheap.

But there was a problem. The guy minding the store kept telling us, “whole squab” while pointing at the package.

“Yeah, great.”

Then we went to pay. He pointed to the bird. “Whole squab” he said again. Or at least that’s what I thought he said. It really sounded like “ho squab” but I added the “l” sound in my head because I expected to hear it.

It stuck in my mind that he was saying this simple phrase as if I was missing something. I shrugged it off. He was hard to understand. The thickness of his accent was nearly the thickness of the sauce on my pig feet. It needed to be cut with something.

So I went home and seasoned the squab and sauteed it. Then I shoved it in the oven, just like I do in Italy.

35 minutes later I extracted it out of the oven and it looked beautiful. Or at least as beautiful as a pigeon can look without its feathers. The juices were a little pink. Well, fine, it had to be done, so I stuck it with a fork, right in the breast.

Well, I mean I stuck the fork, just not in anything much. Actually, I think the tines bent all funny like Albert Einstein’s hair. That squab was like a brick. You could have made a deconstructed Italian favorite outta it, “brick under a squab” or something.

Then it dawned on me. The man at the bird store was saying, “old squab.” I hadn’t listened. I had presumed to know.

A week later and some of it is still stuck between my teeth. I can’t wedge it out, even with my mother tongue. Dammit.

Pigeon English originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jul 04, 2013, © James Martin.

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