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!

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

www.ilcasaledinonnalina

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

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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.

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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.

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

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I love these girls. They are so fierce.

I love these girls. They are so fierce.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Italy and World War I

I’ve not posted in a very long time and I am sorry about that. I just needed a little break. But now I’m back and, to celebrate, we’re going to have another history lesson! Oh boy oh boy.

Last year, World War I was much in the news on account of it being 100 years since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist set off a chain of threats and mobilization orders that led to the outbreak of war in August 1914. Italy’s involvement in World War I is a pretty interesting story and, as in Germany, it laid the groundwork for what was to come a generation later.

But let’s back up a bit. In 1882, Italy joined the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Each of the three countries promised to help each other in the event of an attack by a great power or, in the case of Germany and Italy, by France, which I don’t really understand because France was a great power. At least until it turned into a nation of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Anyway, when the war started Italy said to the other two, “Hey, we ‘support’ you but we’re not going to war because the Alliance is a defensive pact and you guys started this mess.” What was really going on was that Italy was holding out to see which side would give her the most stuff for coming on board with them. By stuff, I mean territory, and by territory I mean Trieste, Istria, Dalmatia and Zara, all Austrian possessions inhabited by ethnic Italians (making it unlikely that Alliance would support Italy’s thirst for lebensraum, a concept that became known as spazio vitale under Fascism). The Triple Entente (England, France and Russia) wanted Italy in the war so that they could open up a third front, spreading the Central Powers more thinly.

Growing Italian nationalism and expansionist aspirations fanned the flames of pro-war sentiment, helped along by lots of impassioned speeches from people like Gabriele D’Annunzio. I recently started reading a biography of D’Annunzio and man, that guy was nuts. As it happens, one of my very first posts on this blog was about D’Annunzio. Here it is if you’d care to have a look. I’ll wait right here. Or if you’d rather not, here’s the short version: D’Annunzio was a novelist, playwright, poet, aviator and sailor, war hero, narcissist, drug addict, orator and debt-evader. He was short, ugly, bald and skinny with extremely bad teeth but that didn’t stop him from being a notorious womanizer, apparently driving more than one of his rejected paramours to attempt suicide.

D'Annunzio looking dapper.

D’Annunzio looking dapper.

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And in his army outfit.

In April, 1915, Italian customs officers at the Italian-Austrian border suffered casualties when they got into a fight with Austrian soldiers who were trying to burn down a nearby bridge. Her honour besmirched, D’Annunzio leapt into action and started giving lots of haranguing speeches urging Italy to enter the war. Here’s a bit of one of them: “The cannon roars. The earth smokes…blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow…We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.” Meanwhile, Mussolini was engaging in similar theatrics in his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, which he established with French money after he was kicked out of the Socialist Party for preaching war.

Italy signed the secret Treaty of London with the Triple Entente (which promised her everything she wanted) and declared war on her former allies on 23 May 1915. Always one to exaggerate, D’Annunzio ended up serving in the army, the navy and the air force, at one point losing an eye in a plane crash (but even that didn’t slow him down for long).

Italy was not at all prepared for large-scale warfare. The country was not yet industrialized and it only had enough equipment for about half of the 1.2 million soldiers that were recruited to fight. Luigi Cadorna, who hailed from the Upstairs Vegetarian’s ancestral home of Pallanza on Lago Maggiore, was the chief of staff of the Italian army when Italy entered the war. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster. During the course of the war the haughty and autocratic Cadorna dismissed over 200 officers, and ordered the execution of any officers whose units retreated. About 750 soldiers were executed for one reason or another under his leadership.

Luigi Cadorna

Luigi Cadorna

Over the next two years, Cadorna’s troops engaged Austro-Hungarian troops in 12 battles along the Isonzo River on the Italian-Austrian border. They made very little ground: the terrain was snowy and mountainous and the river prone to flooding. The last battle — at Caporetto in October 1917 — was a total rout thanks to the intervention of German reinforcements with some fancy new battle tactics. French and British troops had to come rescue what was left of the Italian army. The one-sided battle resulted in 10 000 Italian soldiers being killed, 30 000 wounded and 265 00 captured. Cadorna — who had been on vacation for most of October and fled to Padua during the battle — was given the sack. Bouncing back quickly, he was named the Italian representative to the Allied Supreme War Council in Versailles and awarded the title of Field Marshal (Maresciallo d’Italia) in 1924 after Mussolini came to power. That was apparently a very big deal.

In other how badly do you have to screw up before there are repercussions news, our old pal Pietro Badoglio also led forces at Caporetto. Although he wasn’t found guilty of anything by the military commission that examined him after the war, he did  get himself promoted to positions in the army that allowed him to change all the documents finding him at fault. Sound familiar Silvio? Badoglio was named Chief of Staff of the army in 1925 and became Marshall of Italy in 1926. He employed chemical warfare during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. He’s also the guy that was named Prime Minister in July 1943 when Mussolini was fired by the Fascist Council and who ran away to Pescara with the Italian King, Vittorio Emmanuele, when the Germans entered Rome in September of the same year. Jerk.

Pietro Badoglio

Pietro Badoglio. If you ask me, these guys all look pretty much the same.

Anyway, getting back to Caporetto. The retreat brought massive shame and humiliation to Italians. To make matters worse, Italy received few of the territories she had been promised in the Treaty of London, British and French leaders feeling she had not really pulled her weight in the war. That seems a bit unfair: by the end of the war, 600,000 Italians were dead, 950,000 were wounded and 250,000 were crippled for life. Mortified and heavily in debt, Italy was primed for the rise of Mussolini, who soon came along promising to restore Italy to glory and rebuild the Roman Empire of yore.

At long last #Reina/Torrimpietra

Here’s a yarn with a nice backstory so I’ll start with that. Many years ago, not long after I moved to Rome, I got a call from a couple of new friends asking if I wanted to go for a drive in the country, maybe grab some lunch. It was Sunday, obvs I agreed and off we went. We drove about 40 minutes in some direction or other (southwest as I later learned) and happened upon a little restaurant hidden in a valley surrounded by woods and agriculture. There was some sort of medieval castle next door and a load of old men playing bocce in the square.  (There’s also, as it turns out, a cantina downwind selling eponymous wine, honey and pasta made from farro). Aside: I hoped to impress the non-bocce enthusiasts amongst you with some skinny on how the game is played — to me it just looks like a bunch of beardies throwing balls at another ball — but I couldn’t be bothered to read all of the millions of pages that the Interwebs devote to the subject. Suffice it to say that bocce dates back to the Ancient Romans, who played with coconuts brought back from Africa, and — this tidbit alone is worth the price of admission — according to legend, Sir Frances Drake refused to defend England against the Spanish Armada until he finished his bocce game. He proclaimed, “First we finish the game, then we’ll deal with the Armada.” Hee.

Getting back to the backstory: as I remember it, the day was perfect; dogs and cats snaked their way around the outdoor tables, searching for handouts; the food was simple and delicious; lunch lasted for hours. It was — as a colleague was to remark much later — like being in an olive oil commercial. Afterwards, I drove back to Rome with my friends and fell into my normal routine, which, believe me is nothing like being in an olive oil commercial. I thought about the restaurant often, but since none of us had paid any attention to how we got there, we had no idea how to get back.

Some years later, I was sitting in my office when a colleague rushed in, overwrought. By that time my job had moved from central Rome to Maccarese, an agricultural estate on the sea. “I have just found the most amazing restaurant,” he cried. “It’s in the middle of nowhere and it is everything you imagined Italy could be.” Another expatriate craving the perfect Italian experience, needless to say. We went there the next day and, you can probably guess what I found. Yup. It was my olive oil commercial. It hadn’t changed a bit.

This is what the restaurant looks like if you get there early (or, in our case, stay late).

This is what Trattoria da Maurizio looks like if you get there early or stay late.

The restaurant is called Trattoria da Maurizio. It’s located in a tiny town called Torrimpietra. The aforementioned castle — as I learned during subsequent visits — dates to the 13th Century. Apparently there was also once a fortress built in ye olde Roman times.  Not sure why that was — the sea is close by, but not that close. Back then, my office was only a few minutes away and we went there whenever we could afford to take a nice long lunch — not an everyday thing in Italy I assure you.  Usually a nice long lunch coincided with a birthday or some other occasion that was particularly worthy of note, e.g. summer.

Aside #2: In September 1943, the Germans having occupied Rome and the towns to the south, some SS forces were camping out near Palidoro — the next town over from Torrimpietra — in an old Italian military installation. I also heard a story that those guys were staying in the castle at Torrimpietra and they used to get drunk and ride their motorcycles up and down the stairs and shoot at the birds on the frescoed ceilings. Anyway, on 22 September, these knuckleheads were poking around in a box of abandoned munitions, which blew up in their faces, killing one German and wounding another two. They immediately rounded up 22 random locals and got ready to carry out the reprisals of which the Germans were so fond.  They demanded the cooperation of the local branch of the military police or carabinieri, which was located at Torrimpietra and under the temporary command of 22-year old Naples-born Salvo d’Aquisito. That’s him below.

Salvo d'Aquisito

Salvo d’Aquisito

BTW, has anyone noticed how many 22s there are in this story? 22 September; 22 locals; Salvo was 22. Coincidence? Anyway, Salvo stood up to the Germans, insisting that the explosion had been an accident and trying to persuade them to let the prisoners go. The Germans roughed him up and tore his uniform, which is pretty much the worst thing you can do to a carabiniere. Especially these days when the carabinieri uniforms are designed by Valentino — true story. Next the Germans made the prisoners dig a big mass grave for themselves. Just in the nick of time, Salvo ‘confessed’ to the crime. He was executed and the prisoners were set free. Today, Salvo is celebrated as a big carabinieri icon. The young hero was posthumously awarded the Golden Medal of Military Valour. He was buried in the church of Santa Chiara in Naples, alongside the odd Neapolitan king and the brains of St. Louis of Toulouse. There have been movies, stamps and apparently Salvo just lacks a few miracles before he is named the first World War II soldier saint.

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Salvo’s stamp – 1975.

A few weeks ago the Upstairs Vegetarian suggested a day out in the country and off to Da Maurizio we went. I’d not been there in about four years. We had a lovely lunch.

What's for lunch?

What looks good?

Bruschetta, three ways.

Bruschetta, three ways.

Spaghetti with porcini mushrooms for the U.V.

Spaghetti with porcini mushrooms for the U.V.

Maurizio's wife is Cuban and makes this delicious been dish with pancetta.

Maurizio’s wife is Cuban and makes this delicious bean dish with pancetta.

Scamorza, aka melted cheese for the U.V. I believe that I ordered a hunk o'meat for myself but apparently was distracted from taking a photo by what came next...

Scamorza, alias melted cheese, for the U.V. I feel sure that I ordered a hunk o’meat for myself but apparently I was distracted from taking a photo by what came next…

So, you ask, what did come next? That would be Ms. Reina Jaymes (alt spelling, Rayna). I should preface all of this by saying that the Upstairs Vegetarian has been angsting and kvetching about getting a dog for ages. I have been in favor of the plan, mindful as I am that the Morgster could use a bit more canine company to help overcome his conviction that, much like Pinocchio, he is a real boy. Yes, I know that he spends endless hours in the dog park but most of that is spent preening around the grown ups, looking for strokes and treats. I have sent her dozens of photos and adoptions pleas over the past year culled from the many many dog shelter sites that I somehow subscribe to but she’s never paid much attention. She insisted that she was looking for a Dog of Destiny who would appear at just the right time, in just the right way, ringing the doorbell and crying “Mama.” I don’t really believe in that sort of nonsense. But then, just as our lunch was drawing to a close, we looked over at the next table and there she was. The world’s cutest tiny puppy. And she was looking for a home. Destiny Dog.

The Morgster meets his new BFF.

The Morgster meets his new BFF.

Five minutes later, the U.V. had a new puppy and Morgan had a new best friend. Finding the right name took a bit of doing. But the U.V. finally settled on Rayna Jaymes, named after the main character on her favourite TV show, Nashville. Only it’s spelled  Reina, which means ‘queen’ in Spanish, so as to be maximally confusing. Rayna Jaymes, in case you don’t know, is played by the magical Ms. Connie Britton, who played Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights and whose hair has its own blog. So there you go. Stay tuned for many doggy adventures to come.

Introducing Ms Rayna (spelled Reina) Jaymes!

Introducing Ms Rayna (spelled Reina) Jaymes!

The bandwagon

Italians take a very long time to jump on the bandwagon of any fad sweeping other nations. But when they do jump — and they always do — they jump hard and all at once. It’s like there’s a memo that goes out:

Dear Italians

Take all of your savings and open an electronic gambling and bingo parlor. Do it now. It doesn’t matter if there are two or three on the same block. The demand is there. We promise.

Signed

The Bandwagon Gods

And then a few months later:

Dear Italians

Sorry about the electronic gambling and bingo parlor thing. We really thought that would take off. No matter. Now we want you to put all of those empty storefronts to good use by opening up electric cigarette stores. Do it now. This is going to be great.

Signed

The Bandwagon Gods

For years there were only a handful of Irish pubs in all of Rome. And then, overnight, there were hundreds. Rome recently discovered sushi about 30 years after the rest of the (non-Japanese) world and BAM! Now there’s a sushi bar on every street corner and you can even buy it in the supermarket (which also didn’t really exist a decade ago. Today there are four supermarkets less than five minutes from my house).

So what makes Italians such late (but enthusiastic) adapters? (BTW, this doesn’t really seem to apply to fashion). No idea, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it has to do with the economy, which has forced many people — especially young people — out of their comfort zone of caution and has made them willing to take more risks than their parents ever did. Youth unemployment is nearly 44% here so when a bandwagon shows up, everyone jumps on without thinking about the dangers of opening up an electric cigarette store when everyone else is doing the same thing at the same time. That’s how the youth do. It’s a theory. Even if I’m wrong, it’s probably about the economy. It’s always about the economy.

The reason I bring all this up is that I noticed something recently that surprised me. I used to work at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — better known as FAO (pronounced FOW). FAO’s headquarters is in Rome, right across the street from the Circus Maximus. And, since I know you are longing for your Mussolini fact of the day, I’ll add that the HQ building was optimistically constructed by Il Duce to house his Ministry of the Colonies (in 1937 it was renamed the Ministry of Italian Africa). After WWII, the Italian government leased it to FAO for 1 lira per year. FAO employs nearly 3 700 staff, a little over half of whom are based in Rome. The international staff hail from all over the world plus there are interns and consultants and people constantly coming in for meetings. You get the picture: big melting pot.

Despite the existence of thousands of international mouths to feed, Viale Aventino (where FAO is located) has always been wanting in the restaurant department. The restaurants range from good (Taverna Cestia, a classic Trattoria Romana. I used to live next door and I ate here every Sunday night for years.) to Meh (Da Rino) to bad (La Viletta dal 1940). And, with the exception of a halfway decent Asian place (Court Delicati), there was nothing non-Italian to be had for love nor money (a condition that was mostly true for all of Rome until relatively recently). Not anymore.

Sorry this is so boring. It's August and al of the restaurants were closed!

Sorry this is such a boring photo. It’s vacation time and all of the restaurants were closed when I was nosing around. The restaurant is good though.

Over the past couple of years, in rapid succession, Viale Aventino has seen the opening of a greek diner, a French eatery, a burger joint, a Japanese place, a Mexican restaurant (which quickly closed and is set to reopen soon as something else. I’m hoping Thai), a couple of high-end sandwich joints, a cute Italian bistro with a tasting menu, a fancy gelateria (celery ice cream, anyone?) and probably some other stuff that I’m forgetting about. I’ve tried the gelateria (two thumbs up), the Greek (very good) and the Japanese (excellent sushi and I am still dreaming about the spicy eggplant). I’ll let you know about the rest in due course. Sorry I have no photos of food. Here’s a dog instead. IMG_0725

I think I have written about this before but while I’m in the neighborhood… On 10 September 1943, two days after Italy surrendered to the Allies, partisans and Italian soldiers tried to stop the Germans from entering the city at Porta San Paolo, just down the street from FAO. There were 570 casualties. You can still see bullet marks on the facades of some of the buildings (including the place where I used to live). There’s a nice little park dedicated to the Italians who died that day. I used to take my dog there for walks and always parked my car just outside the entrance. Once I came home from a business trip to find that a homeless man had taken up residence in my Volvo. He had broken the window to get in. There was a bag of bread rolls and his clothes were neatly folded on the back seat. Fortunately he was not at home when I stopped by. I never parked there again.

Porta San Paolo, where Italian soldiers and citizens fought to keep the Germans out of Rome.

Porta San Paolo, where Italian soldiers and citizens fought to keep the Germans out of Rome.

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#augustinrome/Il Giardino

It’s August and no one is around. Well, not no one. I imagine (although I keep a healthy distance at this time of year) that central Rome is currently teeming with tourists and the folks that feed, water, lodge and tour guide them. But out here in the ‘burbs, it’s very quiet. Which I like very much. And because it’s been a weird summer, with tons of rain and not so much beastly heat (although that’s in turnaround at the moment), the park across the street is lovely and green. Villa Pamphili  in August normally resembles Oklahoma in the era of the Joad family. This year there is usually a cool breeze of an evening and not many people in the park so I’ve been enjoying hanging out there with the Morgster and a book (or if I am being totally honest, QuizUp).

Villa Pamphili on the evening of the 'super moon.'

Villa Pamphili on the evening of the ‘super moon.’

August in Rome can be really quite pleasant. Unless you have something to do. Which I did one day last week. Three somethings, to be exact. I had to make photocopies of some papers. I had to mail them to my landlord. And I had to pay a bill. None of that sounds very difficult or complicated. But we’re in Rome, where even the simplest of errands takes half a day. And it’s August. Much is closed. It used to be worse. When I first came to Italy, shops and restaurants tended to close down for the entire month of August. They take turns now and, by law, there has to be at least one restaurant, pharmacy and food shop open in every neighborhood at all times. And now there are big supermarkets all over the city and they pretty much stay open all summer. Back in the day there were only a couple of these and they were mostly outside of Rome so when your neighborhood mom and pop store closed down in August, unless you had a car, times could be very lean indeed.

First I went to the photocopy store. My printer/photocopier is broken and the repair shop is closed. The photocopy shop was also closed. So I kept walking down the big road near my house, hoping that I would eventually come across an open photocopy shop. Which I did, right next to the post office. How convenient! I did my photocopying business and moved on to the next order of business — mailing the documents and paying my bill, both of which could be accomplished at the conveniently located post office next door. Which had closed at 12:30. It was 12:32.  The sign on the door informed me that the nearest open post office was on Via Ozanam, about a 30 minute walk from my current location. Did I mention that it was 8000 degrees in the shade? And that’s what it’s like to get things done in August in Rome.IMG_0811

To fortify myself for the long journey ahead, I stopped into a restaurant that I had been very curious to try. Il Giardino is unprepossessing and even dingy from the outside (also from the inside), but I’d heard good things and it was always crowded when I walked by. Also, it was open at lunchtime, which is somewhat of a rarity around here. The place was packed with locals. I had pinzimonio and a veal chop. Pinzimonio is an antipasto dish featuring cut up fresh vegetables (in this case, carrots, celery and fennel) with a dipping sauce of olive oil, salt and fresh black pepper. So good. The veal was perfectly cooked and served with a wedge of lemon. Really simple, no pretense. I do like the fact that Italian chefs are increasingly playful and creative. But sometimes it’s nice to just go the unadorned route. Il Giardino is a family restaurant with an extensive fish and meat menu. Pizza is served a lunchtime — another rarity. The antipasto buffet includes homemade cheese.  Check it out if you are in the nabe.IMG_0809IMG_0810

Il Giardino. Via Circonvallazione Gianicolense, 119, 152 Roma, Italy
Tel: 06 535951