Saturday, January 26, 2019

Choices and Challenges

2018:  a year of choices and challenges. Challenges that currently are keeping me from getting this post out any sooner than one whole month into 2019.
And in this post, a lot of sentences that begin with 'and.'
After I compiled all of this, I realized that I did a lot! And it's not even all represented here, actually.
I'm sorry I became too busy to post more entries, and I swear that I'll get better this year.
You know I'm talking to myself as well you, right? And to my laptop hard drive, which is chock full of photos I took for this blog and haven't yet used.

So for now, some highlights:

In an effort to take the car out more often, some day trips outside of Rome. Ostia Antica, the working man's Pompeii. I dragged a group of jet-lagged students around this place on my last trip with them to Rome a number of years ago. It's way better when you've had some quality sleep!

We also visited Etruscan sites like Cerveteri, with its numerous earth mound tombs.

I made a friend. Handsome fella, this one.

 We visited Tarquinia, which also has an archaeological site comprised of many subterranean Etruscan tombs. Many are painted.  

The quality of the images is what it is; all of these frescos are underground and therefore artificially lit. 
But they are still wondrous.  Mostly banqueting scenes, envisioning the deceased as alive and partying hard.

And when we weren't traveling out of town in the car, we took it around Rome's streets, in search of better grocery and pet supply stores. 
And we stumbled upon things like this:

I had only ever read about this magnificent vantage point of St. Peter's dome - from a parking lot! - but did not know exactly where it was. We turned a corner, mindfully navigating our way to find a pet store, and boom! 

We also spent a lot of time exploring on foot.

The non-Catholic cemetery of Rome is well worth the visit.

Took a few trips out to some slightly remote places in Rome to find Fascist art (p.s. there's plenty still around)

And weather events! Snow in January - for the first time in 6 years.

A late evening hailstorm.   All that eerily glowing white stuff on the ground?  It's cherry-sized ice pellets, floating on ponding water outside my apartment.  The hail fell for over 15 minutes.

Oh, and learning:

At Eataly - and you big city residents in the States as well as Europe will know about the place, as there are numerous versions of it in NY, Chicago, etc - you can shop for authentic Italian foodstuffs, craft beer, wine and kitchenware.  They hold themed festivals to celebrate certain kinds of food and beverages. They also devote the top floor of their multi-floored building in Rome - where the largest of the Eatalies is - to cooking classes. So for our wedding anniversary, we took a class on Spanish cooking.  
Why not?
We made octopus salad, paella and a crema de Catalana dessert.

For our 10th wedding anniversary, we went to Venice.  And I found that I could easily hire a photographer for an hour. 

Everything about this is nice, even when you notice that there is a woman ogling us from her window (at about 2 o'clock position).

Yeah yeah, we dressed sort of alike.

We mostly had a good time, for two otherwise awkward nerds.

And this one sits on his desk at work now.  
Because he needs to remember that I'm grateful for our being here.

Wrapped up another Fall term with a good bunch of people from a university in Pennsylvania. This is the third of my 'Annual Borghese Gallery Last Day' group selfies.  Note: get the tallest person to handle selfie-taking.
I love doing this job. Truly.

                                            We traveled to Sicily for my birthday. 

What a magical place.

I had work in an exhibition at Temple University, Rome's 'Tiny Biennale'
Nothing submitted can be larger than 8cm x 8cm.

Saw the longest canal bridge in the world on a boat trip thru the Loire Valley during a heat wave this past summer:

The Spouse - shimmying up ladders to tie up the boat as we went through canal locks.

His reward: seeing France's love of nuclear power as we wound our way through the countryside.  Drove a boat for the first time (thanks for the tutorials, Barb).

And I went to Bergen, Norway, for a conference where I presented my role playing game for college classes, entitled Bomb the Church. 

I'm told by a couple of Norwegians that while the rest of Norway is mildly proud of being Norway, Bergen is EXTRA proud of Bergen.

And above: in my role playing game, the Tavern Owner leapt up on a chair to say: hey! less debating, more DRINKING!

The sun came out for about 5 minutes while I was there.  It is a beautiful, clean and safe place. So expensive, though! 

And here is the only shot I can take of what is a fascinating and truly educational experience that I've been privileged to take part in for the last two years: the Advanced Placement 'reading' in June.  I'm happy to report that I'll be doing it again this coming June, too. Well over 50 studio art readers evaluate student portfolios from all over the country. 
The picture here is of us plus tons of more readers for other subjects, all in a convention center in Salt Lake City, headed out on our last day.
The crowd of us is enormous.  And we are not the only 'reading' site conducting this important work during the same time frame. 

And in Rome, met up with a former student from WAY back:
It is indescribably nice to be remembered. She and her awesome husband and I had a fine aperitivo and lots of conversation.

And, I've been a baking and cooking fool. Surprised?
It's one of my ways of being and feeling creative.

Like the rest of the foodie world, I've gotten totally into sourdough, thanks in part to my Italian teacher's gift of some of his lieveto madre over two years ago.  'Maria' is still living in the top of my tiny fridge, alongside her clones. 
I have a LOT of sourdough starter now.
I kind of like having to do something with her between feedings, so she doesn't take over the whole fridge
Below, a whole grain boule with a fancy scoring pattern.

And people...bagels ARE possible.  Bagels are back in my life again.  They're sourdough too, believe it or not, and they're easy and delicious and...oh I'm so glad that I now have reasons to visit the salmonerias here, and that Italian groceries carry capers in three sizes, as well as cream cheese.  
If you want to know which baking book I'm using for these things, just ask me. 

And with sourdough should come some cioppino - an Italian-American fish stew in a fiery tomato broth. We'd last had it in San Francisco, which is also famous for its...sourdough.  
I am big on associative thinking.

I got a hankering for bbq recently. So I used the crockpot. And mac-n-cheese is, for me, necessary with bbq. So I made that too.
And then I realized that buns are not in Italian grocery stores or bakeries.
So I made the buns (yep- SOURDOUGH) too.

Oh sure, I made garlic/rosemary focaccia with my sourdough starter

And BLUEBERRY PANCAKES (with that same sourdough starter).  Yes!

For the second Thanksgiving in a row, we went north with some good friends for mussels and fries.                                                  Last time, it was Paris.  This time, Bruges.
This is NOT a picture of that dinner.
This is a picture of my favorite Belgian meal: carbonnade.  A beef stew made with a Belgian triple ale. 
And my favorite beers on earth are here, too.  I love lambics and a sour beer called 'geuze.'

And I was fortunate enough to attend the wedding of a dear friend - in Amsterdam.

Post-wedding, we walked a part of the city with the friend of my friend, Faustina, a tour guide. If you ever go there, let me know and I'll see if I can get her to be your guide.  She's a LOT of fun (and fashionable, no?).

I've waited to post this picture below, in part because I didn't want to steal his thunder.
I had to work hard to get a photo with the happy couple, because while the wedding was a smallish affair, they are popular people with warm friends who love them like I do.

It was a lovely experience at the opera house, with two performances by a soprano, followed by a great lunch and later, dancing.  

I hope that I will always remember what the handsome, smart gentleman on the right said in his speech to the guests.  It was something like:
'Celebrations of loving unions should be reminders to us to live without fear.'

I'm certain that I am not alone in thinking: how right that is.  
How did I manage to forget to live without fear? When did that happen? 
Maybe it happens to all of us, from time to time.

Go forth into the rest of 2019, friends.  Try to live without fear. 
And I will try, too. 


Saturday, December 22, 2018

On the eve of the Eve of the...

We're coming up on the eve of the Eve, and while I am visiting family in the States right now, I am wishing that I was not missing what I think is the best time to be in Italy.  The tourist crowds die down. Locals come out and have big family gatherings at their favorite restaurants.  They shop a little more seriously than other times of the year. The weather - short daylight hours, sometimes gray and overcast, sometimes rainy - appeals to my Celtic/Viking nature.  So many streets are glowing with holiday decorations.

People really DO seem to be a bit happier.

And that is what I'd like to be, too.  

The last four months have been a rough span of time for me.  I don't want to be vague, but I'll nonetheless have to be. They weren't without some successes, but they were still quite challenging.  I'm too cynical to say that I have ever found myself deeply in a Christmas spirit, necessarily, but I am cognizant of how I've struggled more with tapping into much of any of it, this season. 

Maybe some of you can also (equally vaguely or really specifically) attest to the same problem.  

These images are here for the members of this weird club, in hopes of distracting you from the holiday blahs.  

How about a little jaunt for a short weekend in Florence? 

Color me biased, but I might like that city's holiday street lighting better than Rome's.

When we arrived at almost 9pm after our 90 minute Friday evening train ride from Rome, we checked in to our hotel, and while the desk person was explaining all the usual things about the place, she held this up and I saw that word.  I didn't book or request an upgrade, I said, thinking that I may have inadvertently made a mistake. 
Oh I know, she said.  We just upgraded you anyway.
(this never happens to me)

We got the suite???? Sweet! 
In my limited experience, only one room in a Sorrento hotel in 2012 rivals this one in size.  But nothing rivals the view from our window:


But back to the other features of our visit. 

Those two folks on the left are our best travel buddies.  And we are in my absolute favorite restaurant in all of Florence. 
So yeah, happy can happen.

Florence does some classy decorating.

And SHOCKER:  they have a fantastic Christmas market.  I'm slow to the holiday market party, clearly, as my first one was last year.  But it was in Germany, so I'd say that I did a pretty authentic first go at holiday markets.
So what are these things, my American friends might ask. 
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, temporary stalls are erected in town squares.  You can shop for schlocky tacky trinkets.  You can stop and sip mulled wine.  You can eat lots of indulgent foods and desserts while standing up in the cold, in the company of hordes of people.

Piazza Navona, which was traditionally known for its Christmas market, was not such a great market experience in the last two seasons.  A carousel. Some carnival-type games booths. Maybe a stall selling artisanal soaps or candles.  
Kinda lame.
But this year, the vendors of creche figures have returned! THIS is what the Piazza Navona market was known for:

And there they are. 

Babbo Natale - maybe hanging out for photo ops? 

But back to this market in particular.  
I have it on good authority that the real point of these markets is to eat a lot of good food and get your drink on. The shopping could be serious, or not. 
Florence's market gave us all of our requirements and then some: international foods (a person could get churros and sangria, German stollen, an Italian porchetta sandwich, a potato cake with melted cheese on top, a bratwurst on a bun, skewered chicken, doughnuts the size of my head, mulled wine, hot cider and, wait for it: mulled beer with whiskey added.  Sound a bit gross to you?  Sure, said the two guys I was traveling with. And then they tried it. And then they made plans for a second round) were plentiful and pretty authentic.
I could (and did) buy to take home: shearling gloves, any and all manner of licorice, British cheddars and bacon-wrapped wurst. There were, in fact, artisanal soaps, toys and good jewelry vendors too.
I'm sure that you're going to tell me that your favorite market is in some tiny Austrian town, and I'll say: what are the directions, because I'll go there AFTER revisiting Florence's market.  

So holiday shopping is not complete without visiting the 1930s-era candy store on my street in Rome, where many old style sweets can be found. 

Next year, my plan is to make my own panettone, as I still have Maria (my sourdough starter/'mother leavener') and stupid amounts of ambition. And see? I'm also blessed to have this candy store nearby, as they carry all the necessary candied fruits to go into the panettone (but there shall be no raisins, as raisins are sad evocations of perfectly good grapes, and disgusting in texture when heated). 

Dear America: you've been listening to Nat King Cole singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire for years...even though this kind of holiday sight is impossible for you to actually have with American chestnuts. So come to Italy and visit one of the many roasted chestnut vendors on the streets (and get a bottle of water, because while those nuts are wonderful, they will absorb every bit of moisture in your mouth). And then go back home, take a hike in the Appalachians, find an American chestnut sprout, and help revive this mighty tree. This way, Nat King Cole will sound more authentic.

Yeah, we're back in Florence here.  That beautiful church you saw backgrounding the Christmas market is Santa Croce, which for several years was closed for restoration. 
But it's finally reopened. And it's glorious.
Adjoining the church is the Pazzi chapel, designed by Brunelleschi. You enter it from one of the cloisters of Santa Croce. 

The floorplan, elevations and interior are all based on mathematically contrived harmonies. A perfectly ideal Renaissance space.

Inside St. Croce proper.  I've never seen the place without scaffolding somewhere in it.  How nice to have an unfettered view....of famous Italians' tombs and memorials!

Michelangelo is buried here.

Galileo is buried here.

Dante is memorialized here (he is actually buried in Bologna).

And finally, Machiavelli.

This tree is far better than last year's Roman Christmas tree.  For one thing, it's alive, so that's an improvement. And for another thing, Netflix ponied up the 275,000 euros it cost to bring, install and decorate the tree.  My only issue is how Netflix perpetually wrecks the otherwise nice vision with a large box faced in big video screens directly below the tree. 

You already know about this church from an earlier blog post.  Recall that it's never open, unless it's Sunday from 9am to noon (and from 10ish onward, they're holding mass, so you can't exactly walk around with a camera while that's going on).
But for some crazy reason, it was open on this weekday. So I stood just outside the front door and shot some surreptitious photos of the interior. 

That wacky Borromini, denying the full flourish, if not outright excess, of Baroque church decoration in polychrome marbles and gilding anything that sat still...and instead going for classy and pure white on white.

It was a gift.

As is this, to you. 

May you have (yes, I'm really hoping we all do) happy holidays. 

Pace, friends.