Monday, February 29, 2016

Understanding Italians

Big News!  The circus came to town!  Starbucks has just decided to put a coffee bar in Milano.   Well, okay, not so big news, this huge corporation, making millions of dollars, are only putting in one bar.  Just one.  Not a big expenditure this plunge into Italian coffee world.  Not much of a risk!  Only one?  What gives?!
     The opening is rumored to be February 1.
My Personal Choice
Back when Starbucks was deciding to move abroad the corporate big shot
 made the smart decision to avoid Italy like a case of herpes.  He saw that coffee is a lifestyle here.  Italians treat coffee and coffee time much different from Americans.  They are hard core.  The prices that Starbucks will ask will not be accepted.  The size of drinks will not be accepted.  The sugary blends they pass off to sugar hungry Americans will not be accepted.  A Starbucks bar will be accepted by Italians like heavy dead wind, and frequented only by tourists from abroad or Americano wannabes.

Italian Coffee Bars Sell Beer and Wine
As far as the strategic approach that Starbucks uses, forcing other coffee bars out of business, this will not work here.  There are already too many coffee bars and these coffee bars have loyal customers.  Customers who arrive, order, throw the tiny cup of coffee down like medicine and leave.  Customers who most usually do not sit, hang out, read a book or communicate on their ipads.  Seriously, in my nearby city of Padova, a huge university town, it is really hard to find a coffee bar with wifi.  People just do not go to a bar and do internet.  It’s a different lifestyle.  

Italians do not seek a coffee bar that matches their economic status, it’s not the furnishings, or the decor, and as for location, what matters is that it is close to their workplace, or home.  Convenience matters in all cases.  Many bars here are just a step up from a hole in the wall.  Tiny tables with shaky chairs are the rule here.  The bakery goods are delivered mostly to them all by the same local baker.  You won’t find donuts or huge muffins in a bar here.
Please, Oh Please, Will some open a donut shop!

I might buy one of those, but Italians will leave them to die on the shelf.   My bar tried selling donuts, they did not sell. They do not know what long johns are. (I am missing this right now...badly.)

    I believe that the jury is already out on this bar in Milano and if they go further and open one in Padova or Venice I will look in the window and see two or three people with their giant lattes, and a lot of empty seats.  While on the other three corners of the street it will be the usual in and out of hurried people taking their shots of coffee, saying “ciao” to the barista on their way out.

                       It will be interesting to watch how things develop.

Replica of the statue of David in Firenze

Friday, February 26, 2016

Salami, Toilets, Roman Soldiers And More

Getting Along With Others

   I write about food.  I like to cook.  I like to find the history in food making.  But, it’s not all about food.  Living abroad in Italy has afforded me a better view into the window of the world.   A lot of times I am able to  discover interesting and humorous trends and customs that have evolved through history.

A Shock To Sit Down
It’s a real jolt to the mind to discover the  communal toilets of Ephesus in Turkey.   My mind just cannot imagine Paul, from the bible, sitting there next to 8 or 9 strangers.  But then it caused me to think back to my father and his story of never having indoor plumbing until he joined the U.S. Navy.   He always added little snippets about the hurried trips through the snow during the night, using old catalogs for toilet paper and some sort of mention about dried corn cobs.  I can appreciate my home’s small yet fully equipped and not so public bathroom.

   Those nippy and sometimes biting cold Ephesian marble seats would be warmed ahead of time by slaves for their owners.  Look carefully, the stone seats are worn and polished from all those soft derrieres.

Do It Yourself Service
In the past as an educator I had to supplement my income during the summer by painting houses.  My Kelly Moore paint dealer provided the exact color through a computerized colorizing system.  This photo, taken in Istanbul shows you the Turkish colorizing system which consists of big bags of paint powder, located conveniently outside the door. You evidentally mix your own with the addition of water.  Good luck on the end result!  This did make for a nice photo, however.  Wandering around a city, instead of hitching a ride on the tour bus, sometimes makes for a good morning.  You see regular people working hard to survive and have a good life.  You realize that we are all together in this world.

My View During Breakfast (cam)
I explained to a policewoman at the entrance to the Grand Bazaar that we had been seeing her every morning on the web cam provided by the Turkish government.  She was shocked to know that there was a camera where she stands every morning, and looking up at it immediately began to straighten her hair.  My comment to her was that she was a good ambassador for Turkey and that she should wave a big “hello” to all her fans.  I am sure she was not understanding my sense of humor.  Some things just get lost in translation.

   Its true that American palates are becoming more sophisticated. Recently there have been a few articles on the internet concerning what America calls parmessan cheese.   (They cannot use the true name, parmigiano, on the label).  Apparently some food industry whistleblower has revealed to the public that when Americans buy parmessan in those plastic green containers,  they are also buying wood products and other fillers along with the so called parmessan cheese.  This is so American!  Pulling the wool over Americans eyes and mouths is not a good thing.  I think of Flint, Michigan!
   Italians are having a good laugh.  Italians know parmigiano, they would be banging on the doors of the Roman Senate if this happened here.   This kind of thing is serious business.
   Where I live in the Veneto the cheese makers make a similar product called Grana Padano.  They do not want nor are allowed to call it Parmigiano (a  cheese from Parma), and American makers cannot use the word parmigiano, so they change it around and label it  Parmessan.   Next time you are in Safeway or Walmart check the label.  You will see those changed letters.
Rows and Rows of Wheels
Grana Padano has a look and taste that is just a bit different than Parmigiano.  You can shop for Grana and Parmigiano having different lengths of ageing.  Older is better, harder and more expensive.  You can see in the foto a factory warehouse near Parma where cheese is stored.  Those wheels are as big as a tire on a car which gives you an idea of the value.  Each wheel is worth a lot of money and lately some makers are selling to investors stock in the wheels as the banks are not giving loans as easily.  I must mention that during a earthquake a few years ago, a huge majority of these wheels fell off the shelf, were damaged and the cheese industry took a big hit.  We customers, reaped the benefits of too much cheese suddenly on the market and it was sold at a greatly reduced rate for awhile.  Cheese starts to age right after the wheel is opened and so they had to move it quickly.   (The smell in the ageing room is heavenly)

I  Always Have Trouble Choosing
Providing plenty of stubborn belly fat, but not yet ruled out by nutritionists,  and found prominently on every good Italian’s shopping list are hand made salamis.  The first time you walk into a salami shop you are struck by the walloping number of different types, all hanging, or sitting on shelves, and  piled on tables.  You will see fat ones, long ones, stubby ones, lean ones, and ones that are strung together on heavy string.   Salamis from the South are my preference as they have a bit of spicy chili flavor to them but unfortunately nothing that would come close to even a hint of tabasco.  Northern Italians do not have a palate that appreciates heat.  But in this area you can find salamis made with truffles, mushrooms, and other tasty additives.  
   Before making an acquisition customers can field test the goods by simply asking for a small taste.  This allows the shop owner a chance to evoke sonnets and elegies about the product, its origin, maker and age, even how the animal was kept.   

Some Great Concerts In Verona's Arena In Summer
 A striking impression for any tourist visiting the arena in Verona will be the two fellows who look a lot like Joe Garigiola and Yogi Berra, but are dressed to look like Roman soldiers.  (If you know those guys you're in my boat)  Clearly out to relieve your hard earned dollars if you want  a souvenir foto with them, they will take a sword out and run it across your neck in mock execution.   Myself being a cheap local, I take their foto from a distance.  If you hang around them long enough you can catch them pausing to satisfy their craving for a good smoke while using their cell phones.  Oh,  go ahead and make a good gesture of a few euros!  It will make a good foto and a windy story back home.  I am thinking those costumes must be itchy and cold in the winter and it is a heck of a way to make a living nowadays.  

Feel free to make a comment below by clicking on the little pencil on the right.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

This Fantastic Weekend In Venice

Caped Crusaders of Folk Music

This weekend we were rewarded by hearing some old Italian musicians squeezing their accordions and playing some Veneto  folk tunes.  We watched as these two accordionists, old geezers my age, were accompanied by a  large group of blacked caped men, some in masks,  belting out song after song as they strolled along the calli (street in Venice).  Their folk tunes seemed to be  known to many bystanders who then proceeded to join in with the capesters.
cymbals adds some rhythm
Decked out in long black capes, called tabarros, the group centered itself in the middle of the Campo San Bartolomeo (Venetian piazzas are called campos).  Singing with gestures of hands in the air, and some smiling like a prankster, they proceeded to entertain themselves and everyone else.  There were several guitarists amidst the  singers and one fellow with a face of concentration playing a drum which made me think Brazilian rather than Italian.  His on the beat deep “umph” sound, produced a rhythm that helped produce more energy as everyone belted out songs with the emotion of Luciano Pavarotti.
The blue masked man was a real ham.

This group carried two banner flags showing the name, “Congrega del Tabarro”, (The group of the capes) and these Venetians were carrying on a long held tradition.  Their enchanting tunes with predictable melodies attracted an increasingly large audience.  It is refreshing to see folk music surviving in this region.  There must be a special place in heaven for these preservers of folk music. 

 Venice is always full of surprises, you just have to be lucky to be there at the right time.  This weekend, was one of those fortunate days.  Only luck brought us to run head on with this happy concert only because we were headed to our favorite restaurant hidden deep inside this neighborhood. 

This restaurant, Il Milion,  we discovered over a year ago.  It is hidden by travelling through several small porticos going further away from busy  Campo San Bartolomeo.  Surrounded by other small restaurants and a bar there would be plenty of competition but the give-away was viewing the locals who go there for a calm meal away from the tourists, one prepared with a hard-core belief in sticking to the Venetian Cuisine.  It’s strictly a mom and pop restaurant with mom serving and husband cooking.   I believe that Carlo Petrini, slow food founder, would give it two thumbs up.

Spaghetti Alle Cipolle
A favorite dish that is always prepared to perfection is their spaghetti with braised onions and black pepper.  Melding the special cheese that he uses to become so seductively smooth in blending it with the pasta  makes such an ravishing flavor.   I chose tagliolini with artichokes, and although it was excellent my preference remains to be the spaghetti alla cipolle, (onions).
All Americans should notice that the serving you find here is not a PILE of food.  Shown here is a normal serving.

Another choice could be the liver and onions, called Fegato alla Veneziana.  Coming from an American home where my mother forced everyone to eat liver and onions at least once a month, I was originally not a fan.  However, some years ago, I attempted to try the Venetian way of preparation and was delighted to find I had found something new that I could appreciate.   Il Milion knows how to cook Veneto!  I want to encourage anyone visiting Venice to not just see the historical places but taste something historical,  Fegato alla Veneziana.
Peaceful Setting

After such a fine pranzo (lunch) we wandered the calli, crossed bridges and wandered towards St. Marks where we saw far fewer tourists than we would find in the Spring and Summer. 
Hoping For Some Business
February is actually a good month to visit Venice.  We’ve been there when it snowed, when the wind from the north blew and when the sun decided to show itself.  The weather this weekend was almost warm and the sun made nice colors on the water.  We stopped to watch the traffic jams of gondolas with their gondoliers. 
Duck Your Head!
We noticed that the Africans have become more bold in selling their knock off purses.  We rode the vaporetto in both directions, and in the evening we returned to St. Marks to see the lights.
Late Night Visit to St. Marks
  I have included some photos of our visit.  After 7 years of living in the Veneto I still enjoy a short visit.  To me it is like Disneyland with real buildings, history,  and, great food.
The Colors of Venezia
Thanks for reading my blog, and please feel free to click on the pencil below and leave a comment.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Old American Guy Souvenirs

When I was a little kid I would bug my father for money to buy souvenirs.  I was driven to bring something home, an acquisition that showed “I was there”, while my father was driven to keep my hands out of his pockets.  This is when I would hear his voice explaining once again to me that all that stuff was made in “Japan” and completely worthless.  Nowadays it seems that all the souvenir stuff found in shops around the world is made in China.  Here, Venetian souvenir shops have things produced in China, and many of the shop owners here are Chinese.  These are popular by tourists thinking they were made in Italy.

Now that I am way past that ignorant stage of  youth, what does an old American tourist like me bring home to Italy from a short trip to England?   My main strategic approach to shopping abroad has two items always on my list.  This  is limited only to what I can carry back in a small carry-on.  (No liquids, etc.)  My list began with  a quest to find food items not found in Italy.   Great Britain has one item I can never pass up— Cheddar Cheese.  (I do all the cooking in our home.)  Being raised in  New Mexico and Colorado,  I endeavor to build a taco and top it with sharp yellow cheese, and then stuff my enchiladas with Cheddar cheese.  If one finds this Cheddar Italy it is terribly expensive, While in Great Britain I stock up.  

With my backpack filled with cheese I head for a very large music store that has shelves packed with piano music of all levels of ability.  The pathetic piano shop in Padova, near where I live, is a tiny shop with music at a  difficulty which is beyond my capability.  Therefore,  Manchester is a gold mine that  I know from a previous visit several years ago . I was excited to have another chance to search for more playable books of pop, jazz, and classical.    With so much music on the shelves it  becomes tedious work, but worth the  several hours of looking to find something suitable.

With those goals met now it was time to enjoy the sights.  First up was the John Rylands Library, a very old historical Victorian library,  which was actually considered to be used in the Harry Potter Movies as their school library.  Unfortunately Manchester’s library was not chosen, but you can see why they were a top choice.  The place looks old, smells old, and feels old.  They  still use the old victorian toilets.   They also have on display some of the earliest printed books in existence, manuscript collections and an old still functioning  printing press.
I pulled up a chair and just sat in the middle of the reading room and thought about the people who built this place and the people who came here to learn.  Having access to libraries at the time it was built helped grow the middle class by offering knowledge.  The stained glass and the staircases and the architecture do give you a bit of a spooky feeling.   ……Vampires, and chains in the night come to mind.  

The second day I took a train to Liverpool with my main objective to see where the Beatles performed during their very beginning stages.  Group after group, mostly men, posed for photos outside the Cavern, the famous pub/stage that is still open for business.  Just across the street is Lennon’s Bar, where John Lennon evidentially hung out. 
The rest of Liverpool to me seems like one humongous shopping mall so I headed to the waterfront,  where there was one large schooner and several large boats.  The scenery had a nice contrast of modern structures and much older ones.  Otherwise there was not much action, as most Liverpudlians were at the stadium for the big game.  How about that for a name?

Because my knee is still healing I took a taxi back to the Lime Street Train Station and the driver dropped me off at a popular pub, the Crown.  One inside, the plates of food that went by to other tables convinced me that I was in the right place.  But it was not just the food, take a look at the ceiling.  I find this quite amazing, a lost art, nowadays.

In another pub back in Manchester I enjoyed watching the local fans viewing a soccer game, they lifted their heads in a one for all all for one spirit, and in loud and boisterous voices sang their patriotic team song along with the tv crowd.  Their emotionally charged hands waved, as if on stage, and raising glasses of dark beer, they cheered their team on towards victory.  
The next day, America would be watching the Super Bowl and singing the National Anthem with Lady Gaga (I guess it was her, no Super Bowl on tv here). 

We are not so unalike, all residents of a smaller world.  And the souvenirs can be a lot  more fun.
Lamb Stew, Specialty of England

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Man Who Loves Food

Pheasant For Dinner
Meet my Italian friend Sergio.  You see a man who has experienced a hard life but can still find a smile.  At first he seems a complicated man, until you know something about him.  He has faced many challenges, and through a strong will he overcame them all.  I sat one day during pranzo (lunch) at his home while his wife hand rolled pasta to make a northern Italian lasagna, called pasticcio.  It was amazing to see her roll the entire slab of pasta on her thin rolling pin and then release it with a backward roll.  

When you first see Sergio you might think he is not Italian.  He is quite tall and slender.    He has a lean but  slightly muscular body for an old guy.  He smiles when he is confused or cannot hear and then he just breaks out in a smile.  He dresses casually and often wears his hunting vest (he is an excellent marksman with a shotgun).  

The most notable thing about Sergio is that when a plate of food sits in front of him, his head quickly drops, and like a race horse with blinders, he sees nothing else.  Nothing matters except the consumption of food, and quite quickly.   A bomb could go off, and when  the smoke clears  Sergio would still be eating.  Like a, Navy scuba diver, he just does not come up for air until the plate is clean.  

When Sergio and his wife come to my home for dinner, I always make up a lot of appetisers so that when he walks in the door he can start eating.  By the time the appetisers are finished the main dishes are served.  Even with the appetisers I have never seen food left over on his plate at the end of a meal.  

 The first time I sat at a dinner table I tried using my beginning Italian to listen to the conversations, but I had so much trouble that I was completely lost.  Finally I said, “Are you speaking Italian?”  Everyone broke out in smiles and laughed, and informed me that they feel more comfortable speaking Veneto, the regional dialect.  Older people in our area speak this language, while the younger people speak Italian which is taught in school, but many in their 30’s know Veneto well. When I use Italian, people have trouble understanding my accent as they are used to Italian with a Veneto accent (besides my imperfect usage).

 Why is Sergio on his second plate of food before anyone has finished their first?  He would make a great candidate for challenging  opponents on Man Versus Food.  I am sure he could eat most of those food divers under the table.  My curiosity finally got the best of me and I asked everyone why Sergio was such an eating machine. Why is he always so hungry?   They stopped him and asked him to tell me the reason.  Here is what I learned.

When he was a young boy, the Germans were encamped in the volcanic hills outside of Padova called Colli Euganei.    Hoping to catch partisans living in the hills they had taken over a rich person’s villa and forced the family to live elsewhere.  I also believe that they were there because Germans in Padova and Vicenza were being bombed by The Allies as they moved northwards. 

Sergio’s family, like most Italian families had no food.  You can believe that the Nazis were eating a lot better than any Italians as they just took what foods they wanted from the local economy.  There was little work for people at this point in the war, and so daily life began and ended with a search for something to eat.  Sergio, being an adventuresome kid wandered behind the buildings where the Nazi officers were billeted, and discovered that in the morning after breakfast the cooks would dump old food into the garbage cans out back.  He would hide in the bushes and wait until the coast was clear and then he would go fill his stomach and take what he could carry home. 

When the Nazis discovered his scrounging they would chase him off and if they  caught him he would receive a severe  beating.  They didn’t want any Italians getting free food, even if it was garbage.  But to Sergio, it was worth a beating to fill his stomach and  stop being hungry.  It was worth it to take food home to his family.  Not being afraid to come back to forage for food and receive a beating toughened Sergio for life. 

His father had been wounded in WWI by mustard gas and came home from WWI  not able to work, and so when Sergio was 8 years old he was forced to leave grade school and find a job in a quarry moving rocks in a wheel barrow.   I don’t know all of the jobs that he had, but working for many years as a plumber without a car, he rode a bicycle to work  50 miles, each way,  every day until he was  27.  He did not have a car until he was 33 years old, nor a telephone in his home until he was  52.   Like most Italian homes at that time one small stove in the kitchen served to heat the entire home.  

You can see by the photo of Sergio that he is a hunter.  You will find him with his dog wandering in the hills every morning during hunting season.   Off season he works with a local conservation group protecting the hills.  Being a hunter he has a special license to hunt in Italy and has two registered shotguns   One was his grandfather’s and he has his own that he uses to hunt birds in the hills.  Walking daily for at least 5 miles he burns off all the calories he consumes.  

Sergio has never been to Rome, Florence or Milano.  He never had the time for vacations, and is not too interested in the historical places in Italy.  One thing that he is interested in is watching American cowboy movies and reading books about Native Americans and their way of life.  Asked where he would like to visit in America I believe he would choose Arizona or New Mexico.  But even with a free ticket, meals and free hotel  he would not go.  Like a lot of older people, who lose the desire to travel far from home, he would pass on going.  He feels more comfortable walking the hills with his dog, visiting with his hunting friends, and eating his wife’s fine northern Italian cuisine.