International Holocaust Remembrance Day/Italian Heroes

In 2005, the UN General Assembly designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Brief aside: when I was doing the research for this story, I was struck by how many Holocaust remembrance days there actually are. Some of them relate to national history, e.g. Poland’s falls on the day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, France’s falls on the anniversary of the round-up of more than 13 000 Jews in Paris in 1942. In the US, it actually lasts over 8 days, starting on the Sunday before the Jewish observation day, known as Yom HaShoah. This is usually in April or May. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — located on the National Mall in Washington, DC (Go.) — organizes events and sends out informational materials to schools and such.

The International Day, which seems to be observed by most European countries, including Italy,  falls on the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland by the Russian army. To remind you, around 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including 960 000 Jews. Other victims included approximately 74 000 Poles, 21 000 Roma, 15 000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10 000 people of other nationalities. The Russian army found about 7 000 starving people in the camp, those who were to weak to walk; as Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, the SS evacuated the camp, forcing about 60 000 prisoners to march 30 miles to board trains for other camps. But first they destroyed four crematoria, burned written records and demolished many buildings. About 15 000 people died on the death marches.

The UN urges member states to honor Nazi victims during the remembrance days and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.  To do my part (and only 6 days late), I thought I’d tell you about three brave Italians who risked their lives to save the lives of their neighbors.

Padre Niccacci

Padre Niccacci

The first is Padre Rufino Niccacci (1911-1977). Niccacci was a Father Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of San Damiano in Assisi. The Internet does not reveal what exactly a Father Guardian is, but it must be pretty important because after the Germans invaded Rome in September 1943, the Padre protected 300 Jews taking refuge in Assisi, hiding them in 26 convents and monasteries that were under his direction. He dressed many of them as monks and nuns and taught them Catholic rituals. Others lived in parishioners’ homes and, with fake identity cards, found jobs and blended into the community. The town’s printing press, which during the day printed posters and greeting cards, printed false documents at night that were sent by courier to Jews all over Italy. Not a single refugee was captured in Assisi. No one involved in the rescue operation ever betrayed it. After the war, Niccacci established a small settlement for destitute Christian and Jewish families in Montenero, outside of Assisi, and served as a parish priest in his home town of Deruta. In April 1974, Yad Vashem — Israel’s official memorial for the victims of the Holocaust — named him as one of the Righteous among the Nations. The Righteous are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca was a former fascist who fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. But he went very sour on Mussolini. He hated Italy’s cosy relationship with Nazi Germany and the Italian race laws of 1936. Many of his friends were Jewish. During WW2, Perlasca avoided military service by working as a livestock agent supplying meat to the Italian armed services. In 1940, he was sent to Zagreb and Belgrade and travelled widely in Eastern Europe. Here, he observed the massacres of Jews, Serbs and other minorities. He was sent to Budapest where — tall and handsome — he enjoyed a busy social life until the fall of the city to Hungarian Nazis in July 1943, when he was interned as an enemy alien (because Italy was at this point on the side of the Allies). Escaping, he went to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest where he assumed he would be given asylum, having fought for Franco. He was correct: within a day, he was given a Spanish passport with a new Spanish name — Jorge.

Perlasca learned that the Spanish Consul was issuing ‘letters of protection’ to Hungarian Jews to keep them from being deported to Auschwitz. The Consulate also employed Jews as clerks, and housed them in eight apartment blocks under its control. Perlasca volunteered to help. In November 1944, with the Russians approaching Budapest, the last remaining Spanish diplomat fled the capital. But the diplomat forgot to take the embassy seal with him and Perlasca got busy stamping documents that proved that the embassy was still open and that he was the charge d’affaires. He used the seal to issue thousands of letters of protection to Hungarian Jews and organized food, medical aid and protection for the Jews in the Consulate’s apartments, which had extraterrorial conventions that gave them sovereignty. An intelligence network tipped him off so that he could fend off Nazi searches. More than once he used his false identity to throw Nazi gangs out of the houses, when they threatened to murder or deport the Jewish residents. Perlasca saved at least 5 500 Jews from the gas chambers, constantly risking his life to do so. After the war, he returned to Italy. He did not talk about his actions in Hungary to anyone, including his family. In 1987, a group of Hungarian Jews related to people he had saved finally found him, after searching for years. In 1988, Yad Vashem recognized Giorgio Perlasca as Righteous Among the Nations.

Last but not least is the story of Andrea Albisetti, the station master in Tradate (a town between Varese and Milan). One of Albisetti’s tasks was to receive the mail that came in from Rome and Milan each day. During the war, this included arrest orders for dissidents and Jews. Albisetti routinely held the envelopes containing the arrest orders against a lightbulb so that he could read the names on them. He warned the potential arrestees before the envelopes were opened by the authorities, giving them time to escape. Albisetti’s story seemed doomed to disappear in the mists of time; like Perlasca, he never talked about what he had done and although there were stories out there about the station master, no one could remember his name. It was only recently that Federico Colombo, a young educator and the president of the Tradatese Historical Society, uncovered the truth while doing research for a Holocaust commemoration ceremony. Colombo had been told the story of the station master by an old man he interviewed for a high school project. He stumbled upon similar stories twenty years later while doing his research. He put  two and two together and — finally — revealed Albisetti’s role in saving the dissidents and Jews of Tradate.

I am obsessed with my slow cooker

A slow cooker — also known as a crock pot (a trademarked name often used generically, like kleenex or xerox) — is an electric cooking pot that sits on the counter and cooks slowly. Duh. Originally developed by the Naxon Utilities Corporation of Chicago, with the delightful name Naxon Beanery All-Purpose Cooker, the pot got very popular in the 1970s, when many more women began to work outside the home (it was sadly renamed the crock pot at this point).  The pot cooks at a very low heat over a long period of time and it was popular with the career gals who could just chuck some raw meat and veg in there with a bit of liquid and come home 8 hours later to find — voila! — a lovely stew. This is how it works: a heating element heats the contents of a ceramic pot to  79–93 °C (174–199 °F). The vapor produced at this temperature condenses  on the bottom of the lid and returns to the pot as liquid. The liquid transfers heat from the pot walls to its contents and distributes the flavours.

I don’t recall why or when I became interested in the slow cooker. Maybe I happened upon a recipe that intrigued me. Maybe it’s because my Italian gas stove is hopelessly unregulatable and it’s impossible to cook things slowly — the temperature is either ‘inferno’ or ‘off.’ I didn’t grow up around a crock pot so that’s not it. And by the time I started wanting one I was already working at home where the need for a kitchen appliance that would miraculously make dinner with very little input from me was far less pressing than when I was commuting 50 kilometres to and from work every day. So that’s not it either. Whatever the reason, a couple of years ago I got interested enough to idly cast my eye about in search of a crock pot each time I visited an electronics store. Guess what? You can’t get a crock pot here. Which seems nuts because it would seem to perfectly marry the Italian love of hearty soups and stews that are simmered all day with the economic reality that is forcing more and more women to work outside the home. But no. No crock pots in Rome.

Having run out of electronics stores and my idle interest having been stoked to a by the seeming impossibility of attaining its object in situ, I turned to Amazon UK. Within three days I had the cooker in my hot little hands. It wasn’t long before I was obsessed.


Tonight’s dinner: ‘Roast’ chicken with caramelized onion gravy.

Here’s what I have made so far:

Oatmeal and amaranth porridge with fruits, nuts and almond milk: The name of this dish basically gives you the recipe. Put all of that stuff in the crock pot (minus the almond milk, which you add in the last hour) and go practice tap dancing alongside You Tube videos for 3-4 hours.  I’ve always hated oatmeal even though I know it’s supposed to be good for me. This version is a bit gloopy — I probably cooked it too long — but very tasty mixed with lemon yoghurt.

Chicken adobo with smashed sweet potatoes — Bung 2 pounds of chicken pieces into the crock pot along with a load of sliced onions, minced garlic and a couple of bay leaves. Add a cup of coconut milk and two tablespoons each of rice vinegar and soy sauce. Watch three movies on Netflix and enjoy the national dish of the Philippines.

Sauercraut and pork shoulder roast: Salt and pepper the roast and spread it with a mustard-mayo blend. Place the roast on a bed of (drained) sauercraut and go read a book and nap for 10 hours. Fantastic.

‘Roast’ chicken: Throw a few garlic cloves and a half a lemon in the cavity; squirt some lemon on the chicken and salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup water or stock to the pot. Go lie on the couch and eat bon bons for six hours. I am making this as we speak. Okay, you do miss the crunchy crackly skin you get with a real roast chicken but, on the positive side, it won’t dry out like roast chicken often does. Bonus: this chicken makes its own gravy.

Caramelized onions: Slice up four onions and throw ’em in with a stick of butter. Go to bed and sleep le sommeil des justes. Twelve hours later, wake up to an amazing smelling house and a pot of lovely, sweet onions which, although they may not pass muster with the strict letter of the law element of the foodie brigade, do NOT involve the 90 minutes of stirring, heat adjusting and peeling even more onions because you’ve burned the first batch required to caramelize onions the regular way.

Bacon jam: This one involves a bit more work because it involves browning the bacon and sautéing onions and garlic before throwing them in the crock pot with cider vinegar, maple syrup, brown sugar and black coffee and going off to watch Gordon Ramsay videos for five hours. Then you have to whiz it up in the blender. The finished product is a bit weird, but not unpleasant. C’mon, it’s bacon! It reminds me of this classic Friends ep. I think bacon jam would be great on crackers with crunchy peanut butter or maybe on a burger with cheddar cheese.


This is what bacon jam looks like when it’s cooking.

The Upstairs Vegetarian is unimpressed with the decidedly meaty nature of my experimentation. I have promised to test out some veggie thing or other at some point — apparently you can even make bread in this thing.

That bacon jam sounds good to me!

That bacon jam sounds good to me!


Ghost towns

Living in Italy as I do, when I think about a ghost town, my mind immediately goes to Pompeii. That must be a place with ghosts aplenty: in August (or possibly November) AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the thriving city of Pompeii (and nearby Herculaneum), killing its inhabitants and burying everything under tons of ash. It is estimated that anywhere between 10 000 and 25 000 residents ( or it could have been only 2 000; there’s a lot of controversy on such details) of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were killed on the spot. The towns were completely lost to the mists of time until Pompeii was unearthed by mistake in 1599 by workmen digging an underground channel to divert the river Sarno. As the story goes, the sexual nature of the paintings and frescoes observed among the ruins led Domenico Fontana, the architect called in to assess the site, to cover them up and go away. Whatever.

At any rate, proper excavations of the two towns only started about 150 years later. During digs in the mid-19th Century, archeologists hit on the idea of injecting plaster into the spaces in the ash layers left by the decomposing bodies, which allowed the recreation of the volcano’s victims. The plaster casts are truly eerie; they include families caught trying to outrun the ash and the mudslides or who are resigned to their own deaths, with their heads in their hands. Some seem to be still protecting their babies.

I feel particularly bad for the dog. Does that make me a terrible person?

I feel particularly bad for the dog. Does that make me a terrible person?

So yeah, there be ghosts there. Earlier this year, a team of experts at the Pompeii site started to conduct CAT scans on 86 of the plaster casts to try to discover more about the victim’s lives. You can read what the Upstairs Vegetarian has to say about it here.

Then there is Ostia Antica. During its heyday in ancient Roman times of yore, this was a densely populated port city, with a bustling market and forum, restaurants and bars and high-rise apartment buildings. At its height, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the population of Ostia reached a peak of about 100 000. The town was abandoned in the 9th century due to multiple invasions and sackings. Abandoned in the sense that people no longer lived there. But, as always, the carpetbaggers were very much in evidence: for centuries, the Ostia Antican buildings were stripped, their marble facades used in Roman palazzi and various cathedrals around Italy. After that, foreign visitors came searching for statues and inscriptions to grace their private collections. And then Mussolini got into the act and it was a whole thing, yada yada. I’ve gotten sidetracked. What I wanted to say is that Ostia Antica is a ghost town too, although less spooky than Pompeii, having been gently abandoned over a period of centuries (the sackings notwithstanding) as opposed to being destroyed virtually overnight by a volcano.

Visiting Ostia Antica

Visiting Ostia Antica

Which brings us to Bodie, California, a state historic park that I visited on my trip to the US last September. Bodie is 75 miles SE of Tahoe and is actually billed as a ghost town, which to my disappointment only means that it has been abandoned but contains substantial visible remains. There don’t have to be ghosts in a ghost town (although there may actually be ghosts in Bodie but more on that later).

So here’s the story. In 1859, four prospectors found a rich vein of gold in the eastern Sierras. They agreed to keep the discovery secret until the following spring, but W.S. Bodey returned ahead of time with “Black” Taylor (so called because he was half-Cherokee). Bodey froze to death in a blizzard when he was returning with supplies in November. No word on what happened to Taylor but I hope he got some gold out of that mess.

The gold rush in Bodie (named after W.S. but supposedly misspelled on the signpost) started slowly due to other big strikes in e.g. Aurora, Nevada (where Mark Twain was trying his luck). In 1876, a freak cave-in exposed a valuable body of gold and the Standard Consolidated Mining Company rushed in with equipment and lumber. Another rich strike followed in 1878 in the Bodie Mine, which, in just six weeks, shipped gold bullion worth a million dollars. Over the next 25 years, almost 10 000 tons of rich ore was extracted from the mine, yielding close to $15 million.

The schoolhouse

The schoolhouse

A rich man's house

A rich man’s home

Bodie, CA.

What’s left of Bodie, CA.

The church

The church

The boom she was on. Bodie grew rapidly, complete with boarding houses, restaurants and more than 60 saloons, brothels and dance halls (pretty impressive for a town of 8 200). Bodie had a bank, four volunteer fire companies (not nearly enough, as we shall see), a brass band (!), railroad, miners’ and mechanics’ unions, several daily newspapers and a jail. There was a Chinatown too, built to house contract labourers from Southern China. Murders, shootouts, barroom brawls, and stagecoach holdups were the norm and contributed to the legend of ‘the Bad Man of Bodie.’ I can’t find out anything about this legend except that it existed and that some little girl, on being told she was moving to Bodie, reportedly prayed: “Goodbye God! We are going to Bodie.” The Reverend F.M. Warrington described the town in 1881 as “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.” These quotes and anecdotes show up again and again in tales of Brodie, BTW, and seem to have originated with one Grant H. Smith, who wrote an article for the California Historical Society Quarterly in 1925.

The view across to some mines

The view across to the mines

Also? There was Madame Mustache. Bodie’s most celebrated personality, Madame Mustache started out as Eleanor Dumont, a pretty 20-year old Frenchwoman who established large gambling parlours in the mining camps. Extremely popular, Eleanor did quite well until she married a worthless miner who squandered her earnings and left her in the lurch. She moved around from city to city, gambling and building up her money again, including by managing a brothel. According to her obituary in the Esmeralda Herald, “Of late, what was years ago only an infantile fuzz on her upper lip, had developed into a growth of unusual proportions for a woman; hence her sobriquet—Madame Mustache.” One night while gambling in Bodie, she misjudged a play and found herself owing a lot of money. Later, she wandered outside of town and was found dead on September 8, 1879 of an overdose of morphine.

The boom wasn’t all lust and passion of course. There were savage winters, disease and mining accidents that claimed victims by falling timber, the explosion of a powder magazine, and other means. By 1881, Bodie had already begun its slow decline. The mines were depleted and mining companies went bankrupt as the miners and business owners went off in search of better opportunities. A disastrous fire struck in 1892 and destroyed a number of homes and businesses. Bodie had a brief uptick in the early 20th century when the use of cyanide to extract gold from mine refuse and electricity as a cheap source of mining power brought short-lived profits to the town. In 1932, another devastating fire, caused by a 2 ½ year old boy playing with matches, destroyed 95% of Bodie’s buildings and that was pretty much it. At that point, only six people were left in the town, five of whom would meet ignominious ends. One of the men shot his wife and, after she died, three men killed him. One can only imagine what that was all about. According to legend, the ghost of the murdered man visited the three men, shaking his fist. Soon, all three died of strange diseases. No word on what happened to the sixth person, who must have been mighty freaked out.

Bodie today

Bodie today

The last producing mine — the Lucky Boy — shut down after World War II. People left and, because there were no moving companies in the area, they only took what they could carry. The result is that many buildings are still full of the belongings that were left behind.

The things they left behind

The things they left behind

Today, Bodie is preserved in a state of what historic park people call arrested decay. Only a small part of the town survives. Interiors remain as they were left, stocked with goods. I mentioned ghosts. According to legend, the ghosts of Bodie patrol the town to guard against thieves: anyone who takes anything from Bodie is cursed. You can read letters from repentant thieves in the little museum. One thief who took a nail from Bodie wrote,  “Life since then has been a steady downward slide. It’s possible that all the unpleasant events of the past nine months are a coincidence, but just in case the Bodie curse is real I am returning the nail.”

By the way, I learned a new word while researching this story: ‘friggatriskaidekaphobiologist,’ which is a person who studies the fear of Friday the 13th. Thought you’d want to know.

The 12 Men of Christmas

That got your attention, didn’t it?

From a blogging perspective, there is a major challenge connected with being disabled (my mother’s word) and a shut-in (the Upstairs Vegetarian’s term): since you can’t do anything, there’s not much to write about. This would have been a very good excuse for not posting sooner if I had written that sentence months ago. But I’ve been out of bed/the back brace for three months now so I don’t have a good excuse. I’m nearly recovered from my accident and am about halfway through physiotherapy, a major accomplishment given the fact that it is mind-numbingly tedious. Fortunately my physiotherapists — I have two young men at my disposal — are very sweet and very concerned with my complete recovery. They are also best friends and love to chat to each other about my thing. So, I’ll be starting a session with Marco in the pool and he’ll say, “Giacomo tells me you made pork paté for your Christmas party. What is your recipe?” And Giacomo will say during the muscle manipulation/magnet bit of the therapy, “Marco tells me your dog has a Santa Claus outfit. Can I see a picture?” (See for yourselves, oh lucky readers). IMG_1280I don’t mean to gloss over the magnet therapy: attaching a magnet to an afflicted area is thought by some to improve blood flow in underlying tissues and to restore the body’s  “electromagnetic energy balance.” I am sceptical (as is the National Science Foundation) but it’s a thing in Italy (and apparently getting more credibility in the US) so I am going along with it for the moment.

I have, in fact, done stuff besides physiotherapy since getting out of bed in September. I was in California for my nephew’s wedding and did a little trip around the state afterwards. I was in Senegal. Now I’m back in Philly for the hols. I’ll be writing about that and more in the coming days/weeks but at the moment I am super distracted by a recent discovery.

The Lifetime Christmas Channel.

Do you know about this? Starting in November each year, Lifetime, a US cable channel, adds a made-for-TV Christmas movie to its line up every single day. (Apparently Hallmark, another cable channel and the maker of the soppy cards that my mom loves, does this too but let’s talk about Lifetime for the mo). The films, which feature people who should know better (Dolly Parton? NPH? Rob Lowe?), have relentlessly upbeat and fairly lazy plots and they run them together so it’s hard to tell when one film ends and the next begins. There are, however, many adverts, mostly featuring Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron wearing ball gowns and hawking perfume while floating around attached to strings. It’s all fairly surreal and also fantastic. My dream job would be to write these movies.

Here’s a recap. Ladies and Gentlemen: The 12 Men of Christmas.

Kristin Chenoweth (the pint-sized Tony and Emmy winning squeaker who starred in the beloved and short-lived Pushing Daisies and GCB) is a headstrong and competitive NYC advertising woman whose life seems perfect (on paper) until she discovers her fiancé and her boss in a bathroom stall. Furor and Gucci destruction ensues. Kristin, newly jobless and single, is next seen in rural Montana where the mayor of a town called (something like) Ketchupville has somehow heard all about her and wants her to drum up corporate interest in the town. Poor Kristin, fish out of water that she is, can only gorp when the local realtor rents her a 3-story house for $500 (less than it costs to buy a stick of gum in Manhattan). Everyone laughs when she can’t walk in the snow in her 5-inch heels and when she asks for an assistant and an office, she gets a desk and a potted plant. But she’s adorable and soon everyone in the little town loves her. With the exception of Dime Eyes from Cougar Town, who is known as the ‘George Clooney of Ketchupville.’ He thinks she’s an arrogant NY brat. Uh oh. How will this end, I wonder?12_Men_of_Christmas_poster

Commercial break. Charlize Theron floats through the air attached to a string.

Warming to Montana, Kristin decides to do a pin-up calendar featuring the men of the search and rescue team that is headquartered in Ketchupville. The team needs a helicopter to rescue the college kids that keep falling off mountains and getting buried under avalanches. Most of the townspeople are on board with the calendar, including the mayor after the squeaker convinces him that media attention will bring corporate types rushing into Ketchupville. Not on board? Dime Eyes, who is himself a search and rescuer, obvs.

Meanwhile, Kristin starts hanging out with a long-haired rescuer who tells her that Dime Eyes is a bad guy who left his fiancée at the altar. Also? Long hair keeps breaking dates with Kristin while walking down the street carrying flowers, so we’re not really sure we can trust him.  The calendar gets made but not before Dime Eyes rushes into Kristin’s office to tell her he has feelings for her despite the fact that he finds her appallingly arrogant and uppity (Dime Eyes is Lizzy Bennett in this scenario). She tells him off and the photo shoot goes forward without a hitch until — oh no! — Mr December drops out for no apparent reason. Luckily, Dime Eyes shows up for the shoot with a horse, champagne and no shirt. The day, she is saved!

A bunch more stuff happens — Dime Eyes and Kristin hook up at last! The calendar is a smash and all of corporate America wants to move to Ketchupville! Kristin gets offered a big job back in Manhattan and Dime Eyes tells her to take it! She takes the job and is sad! Then Dime Eyes falls off a mountain rescuing some dumb college kid and Kristin’s Montana gal pal calls to tell her to race back and, also, Dime Eyes didn’t leave his betrothed at the altar. She dumped him after fooling around with Long Hair the night before the wedding. Kristin hurries back to the Ketchupville Hospital where she finds Dime Eye’s bed, stripped and empty. “He’s gone,” says the heartless nurse. Of course he’s gone! But he forgot something in the room so he comes back. Yay! Happiness ensues. And then there’s a party with a Christmas tree which is, I suppose, what makes this a Christmas movie. Next, Julia Roberts floats around on some string and a young woman chauffeur who has a precocious adorable son and money problems drives around a rich old man who looks like Santa. It takes me some time to realize that a new movie has started. Most of these movies have a Santa hiding in plain sight by the way. Like ‘Where’s Waldo’ but far more visible.

I realize that this post has not brought you any useful new insights on food, Italy or, in fact, anything else (not that they ever do, I suspect). Except maybe the fact that I’m a really great recapper and that the Lifetime Christmas Channel is potentially a really great background to the holiday season — sort of like a chatty Yuletide log. Don’t pay too much attention to the details; just let it wash over you.

Happy holidays everybody and a peaceful new year.






Broke(my)back Mountain

On the second of July I broke my back. Here’s how it happened. I was in the park with The Morgster (henceforth known as ‘The Assailant’). It was about 10 am and I hadn’t had my coffee. I add these two details because, as anyone who knows me can attest, I am pretty useless before noon and quadruply so without coffee coursing through my veins. And by the way, I was looking at my phone, not paying attention to what might be transpiring around me (Kids! Let this be a lesson to you: Don’t text and walk!). What was transpiring was that Morgan spied a dog with whom he did not see eye to eye. He lunged and because he was on the leash and I wasn’t paying attention, I lost my balance and somehow ended up flying through the air and landing flat on my back in a ditch. At which point Morgan abandoned the argument with other dog and trotted over to sit down next to me like a little gentleman.

Who me? I wouldn't hurt a fly!

Who me? I wouldn’t hurt a fly!

Morgan — sorry, The Assailant — is not a large dog and this was highly embarrassing. Or it would have been  if I had been able to form one coherent thought beyond OWWWWWWWW!!!!! There was a guy hanging out nearby with his own dog and he came over right away to see if I was okay. I quite literally could not speak since the breath was completely knocked out of me. I waved my hands around a bit in an attempt to indicate that I needed a minute. Once I got my breath back I knew that there was no way that I was going to be able to get up on my own. But the nice man stayed with me for the 30 minutes and two false starts it took him to get me to my feet. He asked if I wanted him to call an ambulance but because I am an idiot and had forgotten the first law of back trauma, which anyone who has ever seen even one episode of Emergency knows by heart: don’t get up and don’t move, I insisted on walking myself home. Fortunately, home was just across the street. I’m not sure how I made it: my ears were ringing to beat the band and I could barely see for all of the stars flashing in front of my eyes. Naturally, The Assailant took this moment to have a poop. I’ll go back and pick it up later guys.

Once I got home I flopped down on the couch and passed out or fell asleep because the next thing I knew it was several hours later. The pain was almost unbearable and there was no way I was getting off that couch. I called the Upstairs Vegetarian at work and she came home right away. Then came the ambulance.

That was amusing. In walked a couple of burly fellow, not unpleasing to the eye. They tied me to a plank and then argued a bit as to how to get me downstairs (I’m on the first floor — second if you’re used to American floor counting). They decided not to risk taking the 10 stairs to the lobby and propped me up in the tiny elevator, plank and all, like a flatpack Ikea bookcase.

We went to Salvator Mundi, a private clinic which is nearby, well-known to me and air-conditioned, a key consideration given the extreme heat we’re experiencing this summer.Also, a friend of a friend works for an orthopedic surgeon there. I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t put on the siren, a very familiar sound in the streets of Rome so how come my injury didn’t make the grade? Once I got there, everything happened pretty quickly (another reason I chose the private clinic): X-ray, diagnosis, bill paying. I had broken two vertebrae: the L2 and D12 for those of you who take an interest in such things. I was to spend three weeks completely immobile in bed, after which I could be up a few hours a day as long as I sported a horrifyingly uncomfortable metal brace. If I was lucky and did as I was told, I’d be good as new in 3-4 months.

The UV buggered off to Canada for hols almost immediately but fortunately my cleaner and dog walker (who are married to each other) were able to move into her place upstairs so that they were on hand to take care of the two dogs (The Assailant and his gun moll, the UV’s dog Reina) and me. In fairness to the UV, her buggering off was planned before my fall occurred, she was only gone two weeks and she has been looking after me ever since her return.

When one faces a prolonged period of invalidism, it is only natural to fantasize about all of the things that can be accomplished once the drugs kick in and it no longer feels like you are going to die from pain every time you take a breath or move a muscle. Or at least that’s what I reckoned. Here’s what I hoped to accomplish: write at least 100 pages of my novel (didn’t Marcel Proust and Frida Kahlo get started this way?); work out my finances; figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Here’s what I actually got accomplished: watched the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black; watched all seven seasons of Parks and Recreation (Please and Thank You); read a 700 page book on Gabriele D’Annunzio; had many naps. I also got pretty good at the bed pan and managed to — sort of — keep my sense of humor. I was even able to do a bit of work by propping the computer against my knees and using an external keyboard balanced on a couple of pillows at my side. I’d claim patent pending but the setup gave me carpal tunnel so there are clearly a few kinks yet to work out.

And how was your summer?

And how was your summer?

The memory of the pain has started to fade a bit and I’m back on my feet for at least part of the day. I’m pleased it wasn’t worse, which it might have been given the fact that I am super clumsy and have the bones of a sparrow. I’m sad that I missed most of the summer but, as people have told me, no one has been going out and having fun because it’s about a million degrees outside. I haven’t noticed much remorse on the part of the dog.

The Gardens of Ninfa Hack

thumb_IMG_2028_1024My mom was here for three weeks and we had many adventures, which I’ll be telling you about in the coming days (unlikely) and months (more likely). The first thing I’ll be telling you about is our outing to the Gardens of Ninfa. According to the Upstairs Vegetarian’s big fancy newspaper, these have been called the “most romantic gardens in Italy.” I don’t dispute the sentiment but I tried to find out who first called them that and everything referred back to the same 2002 New York Times story, sometimes mistakenly claiming that the Times called Ninfa the “most beautiful gardens in the world.” My point is that the Times didn’t call them the most romantic etc. It just made the observation that they had been called that. A guy called Charles Quest-Ritson — excellent name — wrote a book called Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World but it was only published in 2009 i.e. seven years after the NYT article came out. And that’s how facts are made, my friends. Anyway, the Times story is interesting and here’s the link.

I’d never been to Ninfa before. Mostly I was put off by the weird hours. It’s only open a couple of days a month during the summer. And you have to go in with a guided tour so they can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re not tromping around ruining all the romantic (or beautiful) flora and fauna. Ninfa is located about 40 miles southeast of Rome, near Sermoneta. It has a pretty wild and wooly history. The town dates back to Ye Olde Roman Days and probably got its name from a nearby temple dedicated to some water nymphs (there’s a lake on the premises). Ninfa did well in medieval times because people needed to pass by there on the way from Rome to Naples and the Ninfans charged them a huge highway tax. Pope Alexander III was crowned at Ninfa in 1159. I can’t seem to find out why but it was during one of those confusing Antipope times and he wasn’t all that welcome in Rome. Later the German Emperor Barbarossa (who was the Antipope’s big defender) came along and burned down the town because Alexander was hiding out there.

In the 13th century, Ninfa and a bunch of other towns became the fiefdoms of Onorato Caetani thanks to the intervention of his uncle, Pope Boniface VIII — a very bad guy (Boniface, that is) if you listen to Dante. Onorato put in the gardens. In 1382, two Caetanis had a big war over who should be pope and ended up destroying the town. Again. Poor Ninfa. The town was briefly repopulated during the 16th Century but that didn’t last because the Pontine Marshes, which Italy had been trying to tame since Roman times, began to encroach on the area and malaria, as they say, was rife. BTW, it was our old pal Mussolini who finally put paid to the marshes in the 1930s. But that’s another story (and a good one). I’ll tell you about it another time. The Ninfa gardens were (re)created in the 1920s by Gaetano Caetani in the English style under the guidance of his Brit mother Lady Constance Adela (Ada) Bootle-Wilbraham and — sorry Charles Quest-Ritson — if that’s not the best name you’ve ever heard I’ll eat my hat!

So here’s the hack part (see title of post). Everything is a hack these days so I thought I’d jump aboard that bandwagon. When we arrived at Ninfa in the late morning it was scorchingly hot and there were about a bazillion people ahead of us in line. I stuck Mom in a nice shady spot and queued up while the UV (who was our chauffeuse during Mom’s visit, thanks UV!) set off to get the skinny. Here it is: there is an English language tour twice a day, at 10:30 and 3:30. If you go on the English tour you can completely bypass the bazillion people in line and go sit in a nice shady spot to wait for your guide with the other nine people who know about this. Good, eh? Just don’t tell everyone or it will be ruined.

It not being anywhere near 3:30 we went off to troll for lunch. Nearby we found a fantastic spot called Il Casale di Nonna Lina. Very picturesque and brilliant food. Here’s what we ate:

Fagioli all'uccelletto (beans little bird style), with bacon and tomato sauce. Very Tuscan dish this.

Fagioli all’uccelletto (beans little bird style), with bacon and tomato sauce. Very Tuscan dish. I don’t know why it’s called this. Are the beans supposed to look like little birds? Did people used to cook birds in this manner? My favorite Campbell’s soup used to be bean and bacon. Maybe that’s why I love this dish so much. 

Lasagna with cherry tomatoes and burrata (Mom and the UV had this).

Lasagna with cherry tomatoes and buratta (Mom and the UV had this). Buratta, BTW, gets spell-checked as buritto!

An a big hairy steak with lardo casually draped over it. Obvs that was mine.

A big hairy steak with lardo casually draped over it. Obvs that was mine. I heart lardo

We finished by splitting a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

We finished by splitting a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

Cute, eh?

Cute, no?

Okay, now that I made you sit through all that historical stuff, not to mention lunch, with no further ado I present to you the most romantic (or beautiful) garden in Italy (or the world)! No waiting!

thumb_IMG_2035_1024 thumb_IMG_2038_1024 thumb_DSCN0353_1024 thumb_DSCN0360_1024 thumb_DSCN0359_1024 thumb_DSCN0358_1024thumb_IMG_2017_1024



Il Casale di Nonna Lina. Via Le Pastine 70. Doganella di Ninfa. Tel: 0773 310179.


Vedi Napoli e poi muori!

It was my birthday a few weeks back and to celebrate the Upstairs Vegetarian and I went to Naples for the day. Highly recommended. The origin of the phrase ‘vedi Napoli e poi muori‘ (see Naples and die) is unknown but it probably dates back to the 19th Century when Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. At that time, it was the largest, wealthiest and most technologically-advanced of any city in Italy and the third largest city in Europe after London and Paris. The idea behind the phrase is that once you have seen what Naples has to offer, you don’t need to see anything else. Later it came to have a more literal meaning. During World War II, Naples was bombed more than any other Italian city. There were about 200 airstrikes by Allied troops between 1940-1944 and an estimated 25 000 civilians died. These days, Naples faces an economic crisis due to record unemployment, a low birthrate, industrial decline and the out-migration of people looking for work elsewhere. None of this is helped by the fact that Naples has a tragic and enduring association with an organized crime syndicate, the Camorra.

In 2006, hero journalist Roberto Saviano shone a massive spotlight on the business dealings of the Naples mob in his genius book, Gomorrah. Then came the death threats. For nine years he has been living under police protection, changing residences every few days and traveling with seven bodyguards and two armoured cars. I cannot begin to imagine how terrible that must be.

In the 1980s, the Camorra, decided to branch out into the lucrative waste management business. Instead of paying a lot of money to have the waste disposed of legally, the mobsters dumped it in the fields, rivers, wells and lakes around Naples. The dumps and waste burn-offs have been blamed for abnormal levels of cancers and other diseases among locals. Although the Italian army has been sent in several times to try to fix the problem, waste management is still a big issue for Naples. The European Court of Justice recently ruled that Italy had failed to act against the illegal dumps dotting the countryside.

Despite all of that and the tendency of the foreign press to characterize Naples as a dirty, chaotic city teeming with mustachioed mob widows and burly fellows hiding in alleyways with knives between their teeth, it’s well worth a visit. Only some of those things are true and, on the plus side, there are tons of things to see and do (and eat) and Naples is no more dangerous than any other major metropolis (I’d suggest keeping a weather eye on your wallet and leaving the car behind however).

Naples is only an hour from Rome by train so it’s a very feasible day trip. Having been there several times, I didn’t feel compelled to run around re-seeing all of the sights. There were just three things I wanted to do. Let’s bullet point!

  • Visit the National Archeological Museum
  • Eat pizza
  • Walk down the Street of the Crèches

In addition to that modest menu, we rode the art subway a couple of stops to the museum so that counts as thing number four. A while back, the municipal government started putting art installations in a number of Neapolitan metro stations. It’s pretty great. The U.V. wrote about it in her fancy newspaper a few years ago.

Mosaics by Richard Kentridge in the Toledo subway stop

Mosaics by Richard Kentridge in the Toledo subway stop


We stopped off for a coffee at the elegant Gran Caffe Gambrinus on the Piazza del Plebiscito. Gambrinus dates back to 1890 and apparently Oscar Wilde and our old pal Gabriele D’Annunzio used to hang out there when they were in town. 

The elegant Caffe Gambrinus is located in Piazza del Plebiscito.

The elegant Caffe Gambrinus is located in Piazza del Plebiscito.


San Francesco di Paola on the Pizza del Plebiscito. Springsteen did a concert on this piazza in 2013!

The National Archeological Museum, established in the 1750s, is one of the most important archeological museums in the world. It has one of the planet’s best collections of Greek and Roman antiquities, including mosaics, sculptures, gems, glass and silver, and a collection of Roman erotica from nearby Pompeii. I first came here when I was a young aspiring archeologist and it’s been one of my favourite places ever since. Unfortunately, the English language signage is as obfuscatory as ever. Why oh why don’t they ever get a native English speaker involved in translating the displays? This is from an exhibit on the life and death of Augustus: “The Augustus dead body from Nola was transferred to Rome traveling at night to avoid the heat while the day was standing in the main cities on the Appian route…the body was exposed in the most popular basilicas and temples.”

Below are some of the treats in store for you at the museum.


Here are some of the things you will find at the National Archeological Museum in Naples.

DSCN0258 DSCN0259

DSCN0250 DSCN0261

I love these girls. They are so fierce.

I love these girls. They are so fierce.


Around since ancient times, modern pizza evolved in Naples in the 18th or 19th century. It is unclear when pizzaioli started putting tomatoes on top. Legend has it that baker Raffaele Esposito baked three different pizzas for the visit of King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889. The queen’s favourite was the one featuring the colours of the Italian flag: green (basil), white (mozzarella) and red (tomato). So Raffaele named the pizza in her honour. Sadly, it’s probably not true. These days Naples is famous for its pizza, which is thicker and soggier than the Roman variety. There are oodles of great pizzarias to choose from. We went to Da Matteo, which President Clinton visited during the 1994 G7 summit in Naples. A picture of Clinton with his  mouth full is prominently displayed.

The queue outside of Da Matteo. Luckily most of these guys wanted takeaway and we only had to wait a short while.

The queue outside of Da Matteo. Luckily most of these guys wanted takeaway so we only had to wait a short while.


The U.V. digs into her Pizza Margherita.

Nativity scenes date back to the 2nd century and were popularized by St Francis in the 1200s when he created a living crèche for Christmas Mass, placing a donkey next to a manger full of hay. In wealthy 19th–century Naples, crèches (presepi in Italian) became super popular and elaborate. They evoke a dramatic scene, full of minor characters that have little to do with the Bible story. On Via San Gregorio Armeno, you can see the artisans designing entire villages, with butchers, bakers and candlestick makers all going about their daily business while the newborn Jesus sleeps nearby. We spent most of our time — as urged by our friend Elizabeth — at Ferrigno, a family business that dates back to 1836. There are loads of pictures of the current Ferrigno hanging with movie stars and being kissed by popes so I guess he’s a sort of rock star of the presepe world.

A sampling of the presepe figures on display at Ferrigno.

A sampling of the figures on display at Ferrigno.


You can spice up your nativity scene with some modern characters, including Berlusconi and his dog Dudu.

You can spice up your nativity scene with some modern characters, including Berlusconi and his step-dog Dudu.