Friday, April 28, 2006

Journalists, both Italian and foreign, have written for decades about the problems of Italian democracy and corruption in the bel paese. It is difficult to approach the subject without lapsing into accounts that seem plagarized from a supermarket paperback thriller. To illustrate how deeply disturbing the present political situation is, let me present some of the facts about the man who may decide the fate of the incoming government: Giulio Andreotti.

Andreotti is currently a senator for life, a seven-time prime minister, a career politician who has held a number of parliamentary and ministerial positions since 1944. In the early 1990’s, when a series of corruption trials brought down his Christian Democratic party, he was implicated in ties between the Mafia and the party. In 1990, he admitted to the Italian parliament that since WWII there had been a secret NATO and CIA-backed paramilitary force, the Gladio, involved in clandestine anti-communist operations and implicated in terrorist actions in the so-called anni di piombo, the years of lead of the 1970’s and 80’s when Italy was rocked by bombings, assassinations and an attempted military coup – none of which have never been conclusively explained nor the perpetrators punished. He justified his knowledge of and previous silence about this organization under his rule as necessary to block the Italian communists from being elected to executive power.

In 2002, Andreotti was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in prison for the 1979 murder of Mino Pecorelli, a journalist who had written about his ties to the Mafia. The following year he was acquitted in a retrial marred by thefts of evidence from the prosecutor’s office and dismissal of testimonies by Mafia witnesses who were later allowed to give related testimony in other convictions. Subsequently tried for “mafia association”, he was acquitted on the technicalities that a) such a crime did not exist prior to 1982 and b) the statute of limitations had passed for his criminal associations. The court noted however, that Andreotti had shown a “genuine, lasting and friendly disposition towards mafiosi”*.

Andreotti is now running for the position of President of the Republic, a move that would, if he wins, destabilize Prodi’s center-left coalition and open the way for either political chaos and deadlock or new elections. This is, of course what Berlusconi has in mind. He continues to deny that Prodi won the elections, that they were rigged.

An underreported tidbit on Berlusconi and election rigging – it was his legislation that decriminalized election fraud in Italy. I wish I were making this up. As Tobias Jones, author of The Dark Heart of Italy writes, “When a government issues laws that decriminalize the forgery of election signatures (guilt now brings a small fine instead of a maximum four years in prison), there’s something very wrong afoot.” (p 262).

Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples of evasions of justice by Italy’s most powerful men. This, as Tobias Jones has well argued, is a part of an extensive pattern of incomplete investigations, unsolved murders and unpunished terrorism, of conspiracies and criminal organizations tied to politicians and of the dirtiest of corruption legislated down to minor infractions.

I’m anxiously waiting, hoping to see the transfer of power to Prodi’s government run as smoothly as possible, not because I am enamored of Prodi (though I do admit my political sympathies are with the left) but because the negation of the election results by non-elected forces would mean Italian “democracy” is not worthy of the name.

UPDATE: Franco Marini, running against Andreotti, just came up 2 votes short in the Parliamentary elections for President, Andreotti trailed not far behind but not close enough to take the position. This means there will be another round of voting, in which Marini will most likely win. The xenophobic Lega Nord deputies, in Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, are not voting for Andreotti because he represents everything they objected to in the corrupt Christian Democrats (the Lega came onto the scene in the wake of the 1990's collapse of traditional parties, see my post Strange bedfellows)

*Quoted by Tony Barber, “Andreotti brought back from the Political Graveyard”. The Financial Times: April 24, 2006

tech meltdown, revisited

with all my work backed up, all my files tucked away safely in some remote corner of the internet, I was feeling more secure about system crashes. until my laptop started delivering low level electric shocks to my fingers and wrists. it's not as if I'm computing while sitting in a puddle wearing gold lamé pants, just ordinary everyday laptop use. I wonder how good the customer service department in Italy is -- what wonders of call center hold music and shipping wrangling are in store for me this afternoon?!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Easter vacation photos

Easter lunch with the R. family. Excuse the charming use of the cellular during the family foto by my beau, it's an exceedingly Italian habit.

Termoli, the Paese vecchio

Castello Svevo

trabucchi, fishing nets perched out over the water outside the old city walls.


the Adriatic

Termolese zuppa di pesce

lunch at casa R. how many species of sea creatures can one eat at one sitting?

Notice the ratio of priests to laypersons in this foto. The priest of the house is M's brother, the parish priest, plus a Brasilian priest. My response to Don N's question about my religious background was met with, "Protestant? Hey, that's ok, some of my best friends are Protestants."

Easter, several courses and several bottles of wine into the meal

the R family compound in the Molisian countryside, where we stayed most of the time

tech implosion

I've been recovering from a technological nightmare -- the simultaneous breakdown of my laptop and cellphone, which left me digitally Hellen-Kellerized -- deaf, blind and dumb. I seem to be back to normal, but I'm a little shaken and compulsively backing up everything I've ever written. I'm planning to head out to buy an external hard drive for my precious dissertation files later today.

All this has me wondering whether the convenience of having all of my vital information shared between a laptop and smartphone both running Microsoft operating systems is really wise.

Those of you interested in multiple backups, ie. on a server, hard disk, CDs and external storage elsewhere on the planet in case disaster strikes locally (stolen laptops, fires, Chernobyl revisited, etc.) might check out They offer free 25G with the catch -- you'll have to pay to download your files in excess of 100MB/month. (I'm a grad student, not a computer genius, so weigh my endorsement accordingly.)

Monday, April 24, 2006

back in the blogosphere

I am alive and well in Bologna, getting all the post-vacation laundry hung out to dry and restocking the fridge. Dear readers, you have many photos and stories in store for you. Tonight, however, I'm going to finish settling in, read the mail, pay the bills, and gather my thoughts, which for the past couple weeks have been spurting out in quick jots in my notebook.

For now, have a look at the blog of Beppe Grillo, a comic genius and also perhaps one of the most illuminating writers/speakers in Italy today: (in English)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

final post before vacation...

Prodi has claimed victory! Viva il Mortadellone! (the big mortadella, aka bologna). So the coglioni have won after all. After Berlusconi used that ugly word (coglioni) to insult the leftwing voters, they proudly coopted the insult to proclaim their allegiance to Prodi. "I too am a dickhead" (roughly translated).

But there are still votes to count - things may turn ugly.

spring break Termoli!

I take a train tomorrow morning to Termoli, down south on the Adriatic coast. My research is at a dead end for the moment (something about the landlord changing locks, not distributing keys at the archives, my documents are locked away) so I'm taking off a little early for Easter. M's family has invited me - they're curious about this American girlfriend and I'm curious about these Molisiani, the aunts that only speak dialect, the uncles who make sausages and grow olives, the brother in training for the priesthood...
who knows what the week holds. I've been instructed to bring both beachwear and a skiing jacket since there's still snow in the Gran Sasso and the days are warm enough at the beach for bikinis. I'll have to remember the names or the hundred or so relatives, including the 5 sons of nonna R, who have been described to me as identical short pot-bellied jovial types.

I'll describe it all when we get back. Until then, go out and rent "Io non ho paura"/"I'm not scared". One of the best films I've seen in months, and I watch lots. I watched it tonight to distract myself from the recurring Bush-Gore nightmare of election returns here. Prodi's won, no Berlusconi, no Prodi, no... I just succumbed to temptation to check on last time tonight, the numbers are at 50.51% Unione-Prodi / 48.97% CDL-Berlusconi for the Camera dei deputati (house) 49.11% / 50.03% in the senate. A @#(*&%ing mess. We'll see what new numbers they've guesstimated tomorrow morning.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

that's why I call me Miss Adventure

Sunday gardening: the pomegranate tree is looking terrible. No one has cared for it for years and it was a tangle of dead branches, suckers and new shoots, several fruits from last year still rotting on their stems. I intervened to clean it up, without fully understanding the personality of this particularly ornery plant.

Did you know pomegranates have thorns?

I've only just returned inside to google pomegranate trees. Nothing I've turned up suggests that pomegranate thorns provoke unpleasant irritation, swelling and itching. They do. And they pierce right through gardening gloves.

Dora, the household puppy, who enjoys helping me in the garden, just tried to plant one of S.'s shoes. She has not yet unearthed any plants, but has trampled my primroses to death and has excavated several large holes that she enjoys digging in frantically while barking at herself, then runs repeated circles around the oleander growling, then returns to digging. Her mother is a truffle hunter, Dora just digs and crunches up snails that she finds.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

more Italian politics

Check out the Guardian's newsblog on silvio's latest antics. Prodi, aka "The Professor", on the other hand, comes off as an affable, thoughtful man, grandfatherly.

Really. Who votes for Berlusconi? I don't understand conservatives -- how do the intelligent ones team up with the religious freaks, xenophobes and racists, war mongerers (not to mention profiteers), fascists, homophobes and other assorted unsavory types? How does a thoughtful person overlook a "baby-boiler" comment for the promise (illusory) of lower taxes? Shame on you.

Addendum: don't miss the comments at the bottom of the Guardian post. uncensored commentary hilarity. Also, the Guardian offers the best analysis of Italian politics available in English, for those interested.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

in eating news...

From the NY Times
Families With Full Plates, Sitting Down to Dinner

It may come as no surprise, given my interest in everything edible, that my family had a strictly enforced family dinnertime. Replete with "no-thank-you" helpings of undesired foods and a draconian clean plates policy. I challenge the findings that family meals make children smarter, given my experiences with "konks" on the head as punishment for sassy refusals to eat. I was much smarter before said konks. In fact, I knew everything (hence the sass).

[I know my dad reads this, it's my job to give him a hard time]

But I wouldn't be half as interesting without the lessons learned with my family at dinner. As much as I hated being ordered to, "Get me a three by five card!", the diagrams my dad drew on his three by five cards to explain how things work, his thinking out loud with my mom about plans for the farm, their answers to the questions my brothers and I asked all form part of my weirdly encyclopedic knowledge. Our family meals fed curiosity.

it's not easy being green

I've been following the story of Julie Powell, a fellow blogger who has just won the new Blooker prize for a book based on her blog, "What Could Happen?". Unfortunately, the part of her blog that was published is no longer online (duh, SELL the book not give it away). So I can't figure out what the hype is about. What I see on her site are postings of the most banal type, "Oh dear, I'm a crappy blogger but I've been moving...". So what's all the hype about?

What has me jealous is the fact that the blog was purportedly about her culinary adventures - attempting to master the classic recipes of Julia Child (c. 1960). Great premise. And the whole story has me excited about the possibilities of food writing from a very personal perspective. But still, where's my publisher? What can I do to win such a prize?

As far as literary matters go, I recommend Mark Kurlansky's Salt to ayone who hasn't read it. I do love his books. I've been giving a lot of thought to my favorite nonfiction works; I never expected to become such a nonfiction fan, but there it is.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

a Miss Adventure press clipping

unfortunately, I can't post a link to my most recent appearance in a fairly important newspaper without giving away my real identity. oh, you sneaky internet stalkers have ruined the fun for the rest of us.

will you settle for a spring recipe instead?
I improvised this one the other day. I had 4 euros in my pocket and was dying for asparagus, but then had no money left over for anything else. The rest of the ingredients were already in my cupboard, so I composed this risotto with some shortcuts:

asparagus risotto
Set a large pot of water on the stove to boil (always salt water after it is boiling and use more salt than you think you should). In the meantime, finely chop a small onion and slowly saute in olive oil or butter. On a back burner heat up chicken or vegetable broth, about 5-6 cups. Grate the zest of one lemon, add to the onions. When the water is boiling, blanch a bunch of fresh asparagus, cut into 1 1/2 inch sections excluding of course, the tough ends. If they seem tough, take a vegetable peeler to the root end and remove the woody parts. The asparagus should only cook about 4 minutes.
At this point, I took a shortcut and parboiled the rice (around 1 3/4 cups?) in the asparagus water until still quite al dente but softening, then drained it like pasta (for the culinarily illiterate, parboil means partially boil). For classic risotto with a creamy texture use the best Arborio (or other short-grain) rice you can find and put it directly into the sauteeing onions to toast a bit in the oil. In that case, the asparagus should be cooked less, or maybe not blanched at all. Either way, add the rice to the pan with the onions, stir to coat the rice in oil. Give this a good glug of white wine (1/2 cup maybe?). Proceed as with any risotto, stirring constantly, adding broth in small quantities as often as the rice becomes dryish. This releases starches on the outside of the rice as the grain absorbs the liquids, creating the creamy texture. About halfway through, add the asparagus. If the rice was added raw, this process should take more or less all the broth and cook for nearly 20 minutes. If you parboiled, you'll use less broth (3 cups?) and stir for around 10, depending on how al dente the rice remained. Season this up with salt and pepper and grated parmiggiano reggiano. The texture of a classic risotto is just barely pourable, my shortcut version is much denser.

If the result is bland, you either didn't follow my directions, you used lousy supermarket asparagus, you don't know how to use salt, or your tastebuds are deficient. Maybe a combination of the above.

This is a dish to show off fresh spring ingredients. You could use the same idea for fresh spring peas or other tender vegs. Mushrooms are marvelous in risotto. Improvise a little. Asparagus and shrimp? artichokes and peas? Serve as a first course, followed with fish perhaps. buon appetito

Monday, April 03, 2006

strange bedfellows

Elections are in about a week and we are all anxiously awaiting -- for a confirmation of the pessimists' messages of doom or for a celebration of victory.

Explaining the national political scene is far too difficult; I'll content myself with identifying the major players and political parties in the running (sorry for the formatting, it just won't cooperate):

1. As Premier, Berlusconi is challenged by Prodi.
2. The parties behind Berlusconi are:

Forza Italia -- Berlusconi's own cult of personality. Translates, "Go Italy!"
Alleanza Nazionale -- conservatives
UDC -- Catholic centrist
Democrati Cristiani - Nuovo PSI -- a monstrous offspring of the collapse of the republic in 1992, the Christian Democrats and the Italian Socialist Party were the strongest parties for decades, until their profound corruption brought down the entire existing party system. Today the hangers-on who are not in jail or exile are in this party. Old pals of Berlusconi, his involvement with them led to criminal investigations, now unprosecutable.
Lega Nord and Autonomist Movement-- Northern far-right xenophobes and Southern autonomists. The Lega claims an invented Celtic history to justify Northern secessionist aspirations. They've toned down their original racist rhetoric about the South in a weird alliance with Sicilian autonomists
No Euro -- these guys believe Berlusconi's claim that the Italian economy is going down the toilet because of the Euro. Weird how only Italy has this problem then.
Riformatori Liberale -- rightist libertarians
Alternativa Sociale -- Alessandra Mussolini's 'alternative'. Despite her bottle-blondness, she bears an uncanny resemblance to her grandfather. Her politics too: nationalist, neo-fascist, and otherwise farther right than the right.
Fiamma Tricolore -- unapologetically fascist

3. For Prodi, on the center left are:

L'Ulivo: in itself a coalition of:
Democratici di Sinistra -- social democrats, the right-wing of the former Italian communist party, which had a quick makeover in 1991 to become the DS and the Rifondazione Communista (the left-wing of the PCI)
La Margherita -- 'The Daisy' is vaguely center-leftist, home to former Christian Democrats, PCI, Greens
Repubblicani Europei -- teeny party of center leftists
Rosa nel pugno -- 'rose in the fist' is not, as it may at first sound, menacing. The secular social democrats / socialist-libertarians are largely pro-US, with a domestic policy based on Zapatero. Italian Zapatistas? Hands down, they have the coolest logo.
Rifondazione Comunista -- ex-PCI without renouncing the 'comunista' part. Eurocomunist and anti-globalization.
Partito dei Comunisti Italiani -- Eurocommunists who split with the rifondazione in 1998 over the rifondazione's votes bringing down Prodi's government.
Federazione Verdi -- the greens: environmentalists, consumer advocates, and pacifists
Italia dei Valori -- 'Italy of values' is moderately leftist, anti-corruption
i Socialisti -- social democrats, broke with the new socialists, who are in Berlusconi's coalition.
UDEUR -- a little populist party with 1 MP
Partito Pensionati -- centrist, single-issue: defence of retirement plans

Will Prodi's Unione turn out enough votes to topple smug hair-plugged Berlusconi? We'll see soon enough...

Saturday, April 01, 2006

a very long hiatus

1. My birthday. Highlights of past birthdays have included wearing poofy ballgowns to class, brutally defeating rivals in rugby (then going directly to celebrate still caked in mud), absurdly tall cakes, trotting around downtown Manhattan in spike heels, sunny days of soccer in the park, blizzards, triumphs, disasters, and more flowers and champagne and dinners than I can recount. Comments here on famous moments in my birthday history are welcome...

This year Via Broccaindossinian M. and I celebrated together, not on our actual birthday but last Saturday. She made the sweets and appetizers, I worked the grill and got the garden in shape for a party.

Here, of course, I have to write about the food. I had a vision of a whole piglet on a spit, roasting slowly from early morning hours into the afternoon. I also had an obsession with the idea that I could mount the wrecked bicycle in the shed in a way that it would turn the spit. It now does, more or less. I found that dismantling and remounting a bicycle is a gratifying exercise. As a lo-tech, found-object kinetic sculpture, my bicycle-spit-turner is aesthetically appealling, but as a girarrosto, sadly, it just doesn't work very well.

Mechanical considerations aside, I still had my heart set on a piglet. First, she had to be found. I visited a butcher in Via Pescherie Vecchie, the market street in the heart of Bologna, who was delighted to allow me behind the counter to see a maialino and discuss her preparation. A 9 kilo piglet would cost around 70 euros and would feed at least 15. I realized that without allies in this crusade, I'd be the one building a fire at 5 am, tending it all day, massaging my piggy with herbs and oil and salt, leaving me essentially tethered to the grill. In the end, I decided to forgo my piglet in favor of a more realistic mixed grill. A very tasty mixed grill.

This is, afterall, Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the center of the suinivore's gastronomic universe. The first person to consult for a barbecue is a trusted butcher. Mine is in Via Saragozza, a few steps outside the city walls. Finding my macellaio di fiducia has taken months, but I count the relationship as proof that I have made a place for myself in this city. And while being a foreigner is often a disadvantage in these exchanges, I've found this can easily be cancelled out by being an attractive young woman. I first dressed for the party, then went to the butcher. The conversation began, "I'm celebrating my birthday..." and from there everyone in the shop was chatting and smiling and making suggestions. Our grill had to include pork chops, ribs, sausages, calves' liver for me because I love it, and pancetta fresca. What a revalation -- pancetta fresca! Uncured, unsalted, thick fatty slices of belly grill beautifully to become crispy like bacon.

Back in Via Broccaindosso, M was assembling cakes and savory pastries, the boys were reluctantly waking up to go buy charcoal and wine and guests had already arrived. Friends continued to appear all afternoon from all over Italy. The weather was beautifully springy. The food was magnificent. I had a great time. Thanks to everyone who came.

2. The archives. Plodding away.

3. Walks and bike rides outside the city. There are elderflowers in bloom everywhere, violets in the woods, daisies covering the fields. I already have a tan.