■ May 21, 08:00 AM by James Martin
“The most rain in 200 years,” he said, glancing up at the sky.
And then there was the water rushing past the bridge. Usually it’s barely a trickle this time of year. Now it’s got some serious whitewater to it at times.
Lots of water has consequences. Good and bad consequences I suppose. It makes your pictures look bad. Well, not really bad, but it looks like you put your picture in Photoshop and cranked up the green like an addict cranks up the crank.
But really, the view below is the view you get when you take the narrow little road from Fivizzano to Comano. You’re almost to Comano, the Castle tower at Castello is about to come into view. There’s a space to pull off, pretty much the first one you’d dare use. Then this:
See what I mean? Oh, yeah the lens had a smudge the size of Kansas on it, but what you see is pretty much the new growth green, scoured by constant rain until it’s polished like the silvery ball embedded in a pretty girl’s tongue.
We’re looking at the edge of the Tosco Emiliano National Park. It’s pretty country all around.
And if you noticed the picture way at the top, you’ll notice snow. It’s late May. What’s that doing there?
Odd year, innit?
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ May 14, 12:48 PM by James Martin
La Spezia always surprises. It’s not that anybody goes there who isn’t just changing trains to go to the Cinque Terre. But it’s an awful nice town, with good restaurants and a nice daily covered (but not too much) market.
In any case, we spent the morning shopping. Then we decided to sit down and have a coffee. We found a bar with an old man playing clarinet in front of it. He played with grace and ease. He played songs like Benny Goodman might play.
I will not tell you the name of the bar because the coffee was horrible. That’s surprise numero uno. I mean, you can almost always get a good coffee in Italy. Sometimes you get a “just ok” coffee. But a tiny cup of bitter sludge you almost never come across. I wondered how the place could stay in business.
In any case, while this guy, whose name by the way is Stingaciu Alexandru, is like one of those Indian snake charmers with his clarinet. Soon a guy comes round the corner with dancing shoes on. No kidding, he dances. By himself. Then, along comes a big guy, a guy who dwarfs him. You can see the dwarfage in the bad picture up there I think. I took it with my iPod. It is not a Hasselblad.
Then He starts dancing. I mean, when have you seen such a thing in the US? Men do not do that. Women! Oh, my yes. But men? A pair of them? Not a chance. (I mean, you might see that in San Francisco, but they’d be dancing with each other. These guys were dancing with no one in particular. Ok, so the dancing is a sort of rhythmic if not spastic shuffling. But still.)
Then the big guy starts singing. He is less proud of his singing than his dancing. (Suprise!) He is crooning away but you can hardly tell. The guy next to him might have heard him better because he heads into the bar.
He orders a “cafe correto”. That’s (usually) a shot of espresso and a few drops of liquor. He asks for Sambuca. Ah, my fave. She pours. And pours. The cup is full. He drinks it. From afar and with the wind blowing in the opposite direction he smells like a fennel distillery.
And now you know the secret of getting a good coffee at a bad coffee bar.
But Stingaciu Alexandru is quite something with his clarinet. He interacts with babies in carriages without skipping a beat. Benny Goodman, eat your heart out; you could be on a street in Italy surrounded by a couple of old guys shuffling to and fro, one who is three sheets to the wind on account of the coffee and the other who thinks he is Dean Martin—if only you were alive.
But in the end there is sadness. No women throw themselves at this dynamic duo. No one claps when the music stops. Even the babies seem oblivious to the man with the horn.
So we buy his CD. It cost 10 Euros. We are listening to it now. Nice.
■ Mar 28, 08:48 AM by James Martin
After winter I fret coming home to the Lunigiana. What could the bad weather (especially bad this winter) have done to the house this time? How many cracked roof tiles might there be? Is the little inline water meter busted yet again from freezing up, like it was last year and the year before that? Will the internet work? The pellet stove?
Everything looked, well, very va bene when I pushed open the door, dropped the luggage, and checked the internet. Yep, everything was fine. I have mail.
But, hmmmm, there’s a breaker blown. What could that be? Everything seemed to work. It was noon. I had no need to try the overhead lights.
But, you know, overlook something and it’s sure to bite you in the ass.
So…conundrum. The breaker kept…breaking—for no apparent reason.
So we called on Armando. Can he find us an electrician?
Of course he can. Our neighbors are like Supermen. Even the women. We didn’t even have time to go out for lunch; Luigi the electrical guy would be here pronto.
While we were waiting, Martha started checking some old clothing in the spare bedroom. She found water under a box of shoes. I looked under the bed. The wood flooring was spotted, like it had rained under there. The bed itself was dry.
We looked at the ceiling. There were telltale signs of wetness. I got a ladder to investigate. There was a thin line of rust making a squiggly little line down the ceiling light fixture, discoloring the opaque glass bowl that diffuses the light.
I slipped my finger over the lip of the bowl. It was cold. You could have kept goldfish in that bowl. Or maybe a couple trout to be simmered later in Vernaccia. The bowl was filled to the brim with rain water.
So we needed the roof guy. What do we do? Ask Armando. He’ll find one.
Coming right up!
Between the time we arrived around noon and before losing daylight we had acquired 6 new roof tiles and isolated the electrical problem so Luigi wouldn’t have to deal with it—but he arrives anyway because we didn’t have time to call him off. The whole deal, new roof tiles and all, costs us 15 Euro. To top it off, Armando gives Martha a big bottle of wine. Welcome home.
Italy is broken they say. Hey, you try getting an electrician and roofer on a moment’s notice in the “recovered” US.
Armando should give up his superman cape and become Prime Minister. He’s a natural. Things would get fixed. There’d be a pollo in every pot—an air chilled and tasty one, too, like they insist upon in Italy.
Popular These Days
■ Jan 18, 10:07 AM by James Martin
Ok, everybody’s heard of the precipitous rise of gas (benzina) or diesel (gasolio or…diesel) prices in Europe, especially in Italy. A lot of the price is in road taxes, of course, but that doesn’t make the price at the pumps any easier to take.
After pornography, attitudes about fuel prices are quite revealing; we bitch and moan about either, and understand neither. We talk of the “miracle of the market” and then want the government to do something about the market prices.
I’m going to give it to you straight: the free market works in amazing ways if you let it. I’m also going to tell you that I don’t feel the pinch in gas prices at all when I’m in Italy.
How can this be? Do people give me free gas because I’m a travel writer? I wish they did, but nah.
Let’s just look at the facts here. A current gallon of diesel fuel in Italy is about 6.375 Euros per gallon. That’s about $8.52 per gallon, over twice what gas costs in the good ‘ol US of A. I always lease a diesel car when I’m in Italy because the fuel is (slightly) cheaper and the gas mileage is usually higher with a diesel car, so that’s why I’m giving you those prices.
Just for fun, to further break the price down, the price of the fuel excluding taxes is 5.27 Euros per gallon, or $7.02 a gallon.
Ok, then, so why doesn’t this extremely high price make me worry?
Because the car I’m leasing this year gets 69 miles to the gallon of diesel fuel. Some, in fact, report a number of 83. The car is the 4th generation Renault Clio. It generates 90 hp, more than enough to get you by.
So I pay twice as much for fuel and I have a car that gets twice the gas mileage. A wash! Besides, there’s ample public transportation if I need it. Some taxes do very nice things for the public good.
So here’s the thing. No matter how high you think the gas is, Americans are way more concerned about cup holders in cars than fuel economy. Yes, it’s true. Only recently has economy made the top ten list for car choice criteria. Cup holders rule. Gotta put that big gulp somewhere!
But you see if you really care about gas mileage, car companies would be forced to make more efficient cars. That’s what’s happened in Europe. Alfa Romeo and Porsche have made pocket rockets that get over 80 mpg. But, like our physiques, we like big, fat, inefficient cars because of the unfounded belief that they are safer.
So, the price of gas in the US has not hit a point where people stop driving. If it did, the industry would scramble to right itself and make more efficient cars.
Trust the market. Not because it’s perfect, but because there’s little else worth putting your trust in these days.
How to get information on Gas and Diesel Prices in Italy and the rest of Europe
Europe’s Energy Portal has great info on prices and transportation taxes normalized to the Euro if the country isn’t using it.
Drive Alive: Fuel prices in Europe has a more condensed version of less-current prices.
Even if I’m staying in Italy, I find it much better to lease a car through the unique French Buy Back Lease program. I get a new car, great insurance, and I don’t have to fill the thing before returning it—all for nearly the price of a beat up rental car someone’s smoked in. See: Leasing a Car on Your Vacation.
■ Oct 8, 07:21 AM by James Martin
The canons have stopped their timed booming that legend has it scare the wild bore out of the corn fields and the annoying sound has been replaced, on the very same day the canons stopped, with the sharp retort of hunting rifles. As we walk back home from the bar this morning, we noticed that the streets of our little village had suddenly become lined with the flint corn that will be made into polenta. It will dry in the sun, whole in a cassetta or stripped from the ear (it’s already been dried on the stalk for several weeks), waiting for its time at the mill. The lack of rain means they’ll have to wait; the mill is water driven.
Along the way we stop to take pictures. We end up with a bag of polenta. Our neighbors had a small window of opportunity to get a tiny bit milled before the stream ran dry enough to put a kink the the process.
Enormous baskets of porcini are on display outside of restaurants. As I admired them, a man drew me aside and in a harsh whisper asked, “Beautiful, I wonder where they got them?” When I returned my famously befuddled look (which I hoped would pass for “I’m not telling” rather than “I’m an idiot tourist who wouldn’t have a clue where to look”) he told me he would be going out to get his funghi in five or six days. It was like he was telling me a secret I shouldn’t tell other people.
In fall, rural Tuscany is filled with intrigue as well as things good to eat.
■ Sep 10, 03:57 PM 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.
■ Aug 15, 12:59 PM by James Martin
I’ve always liked Julia Child, even if she didn’t particularly like Italian food. Who in his right mind wouldn’t like a woman who said “the only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook”?
One of the things I notice when I travel to Europe is the number of people there who actually cook real food they get at markets. Not only do they quickly throw harmonious things together into a pot of some sort, but they then just stuff the pot into the oven, give the knob a crank, and wait for it to cook. Easy as pie.
You notice I didn’t say, “they measure the salt in a little spoon, sliding a knife over it so that a single crystal more then a half teaspoon doesn’t get into the food to poison it and kill the waiting guests with massive cardiac arrest. Then, after mixing well, they slide the whole pot of stew carefully into the oven, kneeling to get the proper parallax-free sight lines before rotating the oven temperature dial until the little pointer exactly lines up with the 227.5 marker…”
That’s the killer. That’s how things are cooked in many households in the US. Forget the Bible, The cookbook said it, and thus it spake to my soul; I must obey! And thus the soul is rapturously full…of unnecessary drudgery.
When my mother moved into her new house, we tested the oven. It was 75 degrees Fahrenheit less than what the dial said it should be. I told my mother to just compensate by cranking the temperature up 75 degrees for everything she needed to cook until we could get it fixed.
Then she made cookies. White-livered cookies.
She said the oven didn’t work very well. I asked her if she used the higher temperature as I had suggested. She said no, the recipe called for 350, and by golly, that’s what she had to use.
Thus spake the cookbook.
That’s what I’ll remember Julia Child by on the 100th anniversary of her birth—her liberation of the kitchen and the demise of drudgery. The genius of this woman with the odd, twirpy voice was in informing us that “the best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken”, unleashing by way of her irreverent authority the authorization to have a good time cooking our food, delivered in full vibrato, a true thing of beauty. And then, in a half hour, in glorious black and white, this unlikely “chef” elegantly cobbled together a meal fit for a king.
And to this day, I still have fun cooking. What about you?
(The whack the hell out of the chicken quote comes from Bon Appétit Julia Child)
“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude” ~ Julia Child
■ May 5, 10:47 PM 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.