Saturday, October 29, 2005

what do we do for fun in Bologna?

late-night dress-up with Stefano and Marta.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


I'm learning to play the accordion. It's fantastic. Putting on Edith Piaf records and trying to play along.

Bologna art scene

My recent planning for visitors has resulted in a collection of pamphlets for events, music, etc. around town that has me excited about being here again and feeling more secure about my niche. "Did you know so-and-so is playing at il Covo next week?" I can ask my friends, very satisfied with myself.

A few evenings ago Marta introduced me to a friend of hers who wanted to see a spettacolo at RAUM, an art space near Via del Pratello, where we go to the osterie and bars frequented by students and their dogs and assorted gritty types who hang out with students and dogs. (see random heat-induced observations/delusions on my old blog about shady characters and dogs: the panca bestia phenomenon)
Some highlights of the performance art piece of the evening: an actor exploding lightbulbs in a microwave, iceskating costumes, lots of moving around heavy equipment cases for no apparent reason, a Roman gladiator, rollerskates with hexagonal wheels, a monologue delivered at 50,000 decibels, video feed of the running of the Olympic torch. I quite enjoyed the playfulness of it, the surprises. But I was dismayed to see so many straight faces. Come on people, even the artists are laughing. Trying so hard to make some complicated meaning as if anyone screaming at you in an iceskating costume should be taken very seriously.

Lightbulbs in a microwave are pretty spectacular. DO NOT try it at home. I had to do some breathing exercises to not be too freaked out to enjoy it (oh god, they're going to set the whole place on fire, oh, we're being poisoned by exploded lightbulb fumes, uh-oh, we'll be trampled if something happens), but when I calmed down and stopped jumping everytime a bulb popped - like popcorn! - it was really cool.

In retrospect, I'm wondering what happened with the girl there with her cat on a leash. I can't imagine cats taking to the evening's events too calmly. I didn't see it being peeled off the ceiling, so I suppose all's well.

slow blogging phase

sorry loyal readers. between some technical difficulties and blog-fatigue, I've just not been posting.

an observation: if there's anything worse than living through renovations in your home, it's living through your upstairs neighbor's renovations. the first few times buckets of rubble passed the kitchen window on a cable it was funny, the surprise of seeing anything besides the offices across the alley amusing over a first sip of morning coffee. The umpteen millionth time, I'm wondering whether they'd come bang on the door if I try to dump my kitchen rubbish in the buckets on their way down. What could I send them for a good laugh? Tempting.

my favorite part is the hammering that's producing the rubble. Even though this building is fairly modern, it's of that Italian construction type - walls a foot thick of heavy materials - concrete and plaster and stone. Marble floors. Steam heat. All of which add up to echoes. Not for everyday noises, but when something strikes a wall, or floor, or radiator, the whole wing of the building reverberates. So starting at 7am (not an ungodly hour but a tad early for construction) we hear tap tap tap tap tap tap tap-taptap tap. Reluctantly wake up and have biscotti and caffe latte to the sounds of the Poles screaming up to the sixth floor from the ground, and hope, pray, that it's worse for the owners of apartment ---.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Bologna vignettes

Stefano sent me home the other night with a pomegranate from his garden. "It's good luck to have one in the house" he said. Marta and I had wandered down into the garden from his balcony to see what a disaster it had become. I'd never seen a pomegranate tree before. And Stefano pulled down a branch and pressed this underripe pomegranate into my hand, "for good luck".

A menu the other day offered "tortellini in brodo (in broth), as God commanded".

The street cleaners are passing. Loud enough to wake me at their customary 2am time. Every night the whirring machines pass at 2am, several times to cover the breadth of the street. This city has a mania for street cleaning. Riding home late at night on a bicycle on wet streets, I am reminded that I should be in bed, the streetcleaners will be disappointed if I'm not there to awaken.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

vocabolario / vocabulary

I'm at a fun stage of speaking a foreign language in which people think I'm really brilliant. It's come from months of practice and of having all the rules of how to translate a word from English to Italian without ever having seen or heard it in Italian before. It's fairly simple to recognize how to change an ending like -ly on an adverb to -mente, or -ity to -ita' on a noun, but to do it rapidly in conversation without breaking your pace is great. Another important trick is to reacognize which English words probably come from Latin roots and extrapolate what the most likely Italian word would be.
Marta came into my room the other day to show me a concinella, a ladybug, she'd found in her room. My response was "Oh cute, why don't you put it on our plants in the window, they're piene di afidi, full of aphids. She sort of cocked her head and laughed, but I didn't think much of it and turned back to work contented that the little ladybug would get fat eating up all my aphids.
Later she recounted the story to friends, "How on earth do you know the Italian word for those bugs?". "I just guessed."
Same goes for conspiracy, restitution, tactile, recontextualization, obstacle, all from conversations in the past day.
Alvise said of my vocabulary, it is much larger than what I normally use in conversation, but that I occasionally insert these words into phrases that just aren't quite mine yet. The usage is correct, but I sound like someone who has read more widely than they've experienced spoken language.
Va bene. In the meantime, I'll keep talking.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Vivienne Westwood killed my dog and other weird tales

Nellie arrived Thursday and left this afternoon, a far too brief visit but one that we packed enough activity into to zonk me out for the rest of today. Thursday night we were out for aperitivi before we went to dinner (at Fantoni, where we ate very well for absurdly little money). At the outdoor tables there was only one spot free alongside some young men who were in conversation, ocaisonally producing pocket dictionaries. When we sat, I could hear heavy German and Spanish accents, but they spoke to each other in Italian.
Eventually we all chatted, leading to this story from the German:

"My boyfriend studies fashion design with Vivienne Westwood. I've met her a couple of times but I really don't like her. I think she killed my dog.
I stopped into a cafe one time where my boyfriend was meeting her. I wanted to pick him up at the end of their meeting. Vivienne Westwood petted my dog for a few minutes, but then turned to me and announced, "Your dog is ugly." And then three days later it died. It was thirteen years old already, but I still think she killed it."

At Fantoni we had very tasty plates of pasta, bucatini with pancetta, saffron, and scamorza, and tortelloni with rounds of cipolotti and culatello, house wine, coffee, an excellent slice of cake speckled with amaretti crumbs and chocalate chunks.

Friday was our tourist day. We climbed the Asinelli tower (around 100m and 500 steps) to look out over a hazy Bologna. Legend is that if you go up before you graduate college, you'll never graduate. On our way down, we passed and congratulated a young woman wearing her ribboned laurel wreath, just having officially graduated. We wandered through the sette chiese, saw the piazze of the center of town, the Montagnola market, tried real mortadella with pistacchios, saw Neptune's statue and the secret underground rivers... We also made special stops for Nellie at the two best gelaterie in town, on Via Castiglione where we had ricotta-carmelized fig, dark chocolate, and pinenut praline flavors; after dinner at Gelatauro Nellie had the pumpkin cinnamon and pistacchio while I grossed her out with pear and taleggio sorbet. Stinky cheese ground in with sweet pears, mmmm. At another cheap, lovely trattoria I had roast guinea fowl, while my companions had big plates of tortellini. Then live jazz.

So today, exhausted, we wound up the adventures with a little shopping and fat piadine at a stand near my house. Fat grilled breads filled with chicory and parmesan or gorgonzola and grilled zucchini. I put Nellie on a train and went home to nap.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Some gems from recent emails

I'd like to congratulate myself for having some of the greatest friends in the world.

Per esempio, some email volleys that began with my satirizing a saccharine email from a colleague about a history department apple-picking outing (my version was whoremongering in Chinatown. now, reattach the jaw to the face, Mom, it's a joke). prompted:

Since we're sharing, this today from my favorite british rag, the
SQUIRRELS are getting hooked on crack cocaine ? hidden
by addicts in gardens.They are digging up the stashes
and eating the mega-addictive drug, which comes in
small chunks.
Crack squirrels are a recognised problem in America.
They are common in parks used by addicts in New York
and Washington DC.
They have been known to attack park visitors in their
search for a fix.

TO which THERESA replies:
oh, the crack squirrels. i can relate. we have a meth rooster in the
basement of our building, a couple of chicken whores, and
occassionally, we get visits from a methadone racoon on the fire

Nellie arrives later today to bring our household up to five occupants. From my usual one. I'm so excited I'm jittering like a crack-addicted squirrel.

I'll happily take credit if anyone wants to formally record the etymology of this phrase.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Yesterday a weeknight dinner at home turned into an improvised musical serata.

Walking home, thinking about the artichokes I’d cleaned and left in the fridge in lemon juice and water, I had a great idea of what to do with them. I remembered reading a recipe from Chez Panisse in which shavings of raw artichoke hearts and fennel were tossed with olive oil, lemon, and garnished with shaved parmesan. The question was then – how to use that idea of combined flavors to make a more substantial main course. So I stopped off at the market and picked up a fennel bulb, chicken thighs, and a bottle of Nebbiolo (for drinking).
I halved the chicken thighs (3 enormous ones), salt and peppered, and browned them well in olive oil, skin side down first so that it got nicely crisped and cooked some of the fat out. The chicken doesn’t have to be cooked entirely through, but getting the outsides browned is important for the flavor. Removed the chicken to a plate and drained the excess fat from the pan, then added 6 chopped artichokes.
The artichokes were little ones, not quite babies, but on the small side. I’d stripped them of all the tough outer leaves, more or less removing all green; aggressively peeled and trimmed the bases and stems; then quartered them and removed the chokes. For this dish, I left the quartered blossoms intact and chopped the stems.
I let the artichokes sauté a minute on their own, then added the fennel, chopped coarsely, and a chopped onion. I sweated all these ingredients over a high flame until they were starting to brown, then lowered the heat to medium and nested the chicken in the vegetables, grabbed a lemon half that was sitting on the counter and squeezed it over the pan, added about a half cup of water, then generously poured some white wine we had in the fridge in as well. Covered the pan to let the flavors meld and to let everything finish cooking. Chopped fennel fronds and added them as an herb. I checked every few minutes to stir, control the amount of liquid, taste (it needed several doses of salt and wine, I thought, though at the end I felt perhaps I’d overdone the wine a tiny bit). Finally, I uncovered the pan when the artichokes were cooked and reduced the liquid in the pan to nil.
This was excellent!
Some possible variations: add black olives, use different liquids (squeezing in an orange would be interesting, though I’d do that without the artichokes I think – reminiscent of a fennel orange salad), use other meats like rabbit or duck or sausage or a combination, start the vegetables off with pancetta and use red wine…. The basic method isn’t anything special, but offers interesting possibilities for combining ingredients.

Marta and I sat and enjoyed this at a very leisurely pace, talking and laughing; when her sister and friend came back from what was supposed to be a trip to the movies, “Bolognesi deficienti!…cretini…maleducati…”. They couldn’t find the cinema and couldn’t get intelligible directions from anyone they met. They quieted down and polished off huge portions of the braised chicken and artichokes, finishing the remaining ¾ and wiping the pan clean with bread. Then they got giggly. Then Marta and I got giggly. Then Marta’s friend Stefano came and entertained us further.

Marta’s sister Giulia is studying piano at an important conservatory – conversation turned to music and after some convincing, Marta brought out the accordion to play for us. Then out came the bongos to accompany. Then another drum from a corner of my room. Then improvised percussion on pots and pans, tin cans and keys, spoons, sticks and CD covers. Needless to say, we made a tremendous racket in the kitchen until 11pm, when Marta wisely insisted we stop for the sake of neighbors. Instead of stopping, we took our new band to Piazza Maggiore, where you’ll often find kids or gypsies or drunken troupes of merry-makers on musical romps. The procession there, armed with our makeshift percussion section, was more fun than I’ve had playing music in ages. We marched through narrow streets and under porticoes, to encouraging cheers from the windows above or to clucks of disapproving little widows, stomping on metal plates in the sidewalk to punctuate our beats, banging on street signs, inciting spontaneous singing by passersby. We played briefly at Piazza Maggiore, then regrouped to march to another friend’s house where all the inhabitants are musicians. They have a keyboard and guitars and another kitchen full of potential instruments, which we incorporated, to the dismay of their neighbors. We played without intervention for an hour or so, until the lady across the street caught someone’s eye and we quieted down a minute to hear her. “You all are wonderful…” she began, and knowing that a “but” was coming we all interjected “OH! Grazie, signora!” and recommenced a afro-cuban jazz piece we were enjoying. But eventually she did get us to close the windows and mute the drums, promising free plates of tortellini to us if we stopped by the address she shouted out the window.

We finally, around 1:30 am, calmed down to listen to the resident and guest pianists play Ravel and Bach. They played musical chairs, trading off one person playing a movement of a piece, then another person the next. It’s marvelous to hear great musicians even if they’re messing around jamming on the Tetris themesong while I play a tin can with a spoon. Well worth the lost sleep.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

what a world it is...

I cannot recommend highly enough Down by Law, a film by Jim Jarmusch c. 1986. Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni star. Do you need to know anything more? Watch it, you'll thank me.

and a lovely sentiment from friend and colleague Alex:

what a world it is
-- in which highly marginal wannabe intellectuals like
us get to traverse the globe! italy better treat you
right. otherwise i'll meet it at the bike rack after
school and kick its ass.

Monday, October 10, 2005

casa mia e casa di tutti (my house is everybody's house)

Marta coined a word tonight that I think is brilliant. I was telling her about my blog, that most of my readers are my relatives - parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents - and she was suprised. Grandparents? She said it's great that I have cybernonni.


We have a full house right now. Marta arrived with fiance Gabriele in tow, he left today a few hours after her little sister and friend appeared on our doorstep. Thursday Nellie arrives, and Friday the little ones take off. They're 19 - the realization that I've got ten years on them makes me a little self-conscious about my age. At some point this week I'm supposed to make dinner for Enrico, Gabriele P ------ (Letizia's older brother), and Jean from Marseilles. Gabriele doesn't eat now that his girlfriend is studying in London, so Enrico has been procuring invitations for him for meals at friends'. In this case, Enrico decided he'd better come along (I've cooked him a nice veal chop one time before - I think that may have something to do with it). Additionally, I've promised a dinner to Marta and Alvise. And then, some charming Americans studying Italian literature here invited me to play cards one night.

Up until all this I've been a shut-in for weeks, alone in the house - back injury, cold, depressed. Now we're swarming, peoples everywhere and a crowded dinner table. Do I sound like I'm complaining? I couldn't be happier than at dinner cooking for five or six instead of my solitary vigils by televisionscreen light.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

some things that make me happy

1. finding stories about myself on other people's blogs.

2. the blush on grapes and plums - yeast that grows there naturally just being beautiful and waiting to turn them into wine.

3. whole milk yogurt with chestnut honey and pistachios. this could send me into ecstatic fits of dancing and speaking in tongues. there's a good reason "the Land of Milk and Honey" is the classic referrent to plenty, goodness, contentment.

4. talking to the old man slicing porchetta at a display where the whole roast pig has been propped up at the supermarket deli counter. not a piglet or a little yearling piggy, but a hog, crisped about the same color as the ladies coming out of the tanning salons. about the same texture too. hog's ears are perked, snout forward. I'm an unabashed carnivore of the "show me the grisly truth, I'm not afraid of where my food comes from" variety, but this was weirdly closer to taxodermy than food presentation. the point was, being urged to "try it, try it, it's delicious" made my afternoon.

5. sufjan stevens' albums. actually, they tend to make me cry, but I'm very happy that he makes music.

6. bicycles. I rode for the first time - in traffic - sidesaddle on the bar while my friend pedalled yesterday. it's sweet to ride cheek to cheek.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

livin high on the hog

over my morning coffee I was puzzled to see the office building across the way darkened and empty. I checked the time, to make sure I hadn't played one of those tricks on myself where I think it's 8:30 but it's really 6:30. I checked the date, to see if today was indeed a weekday. then I remembered that it's San Petronio day - the patron saint of Bologna's feast day. I don't know why, but it makes me inordinately happy that no one is working on the festa di S. Petronio.

which means trying to accomplish anything today is probably pointless. though we'll see -- I'm so accustomed to Rome, perhaps a little distance from the Vatican gives us a reprieve from the total shutdowns on feast days.

I'm off to see what's going on in the center of town. maybe there are some fun things, special foods or traditions for today. at the very least I can peek into the Basilica di San Petronio.

In other news, Alessandra Mussolini was in town the other day, stumping against electoral reforms that would deprive tiny parties like her neofascists of proportional representation. I saw her on tv, bottle-blond and heavy featured, with a handful of followers. Italian politics are stranger than fiction - last week the Unione party headquarters were occupied by far left protesters in rainbow balaclavas. the met with party leaders and left without incident. contrast with ------- University administration, where I've been threatened with arrest during several demonstrations - none of which involved rainbow balaclavas or camping in offices. but they're just looking out for my best interests.

my back is better. we have gorgeous fall weather here. I have a fatty slice of porchetta in the fridge with an inch-thick border of melty hogfat and the skin still crisp. all's right with the world.