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A sad summer

I’ve not written in ages. I’m sorry about that. It’s been a very rough couple of months and for a while all I wanted to do was sleep.

In June I went to the States to help my siblings move my mother out of her apartment and into assisted living. While I was there, my dog Morgan suddenly fell prey to a neurological disease. He was dead within 24 hours. Four days later, Mom passed away. Although she had been ill for some time, her death was sudden and shocking. Because she died during 4th of July weekend, various of the nephews and nieces were home and we were all with her at the end — my brother via an open phone line from California.

My mother was an amazing and wonderful person and I thought maybe you’d like  to know a little something about her.  This is what I shared at her funeral.

My mother was a knockout.

About eight years ago, Mom asked me to write her obituary. I don’t think she was being morbid or particularly planning ahead. I think she was just interested in what I might have to say. I carried around her CV for years, asked her probing questions about her childhood and thought a lot about how to capture her life in 500 words. But I couldn’t do it. Until this week when I did do it.

I think the reason it was so difficult – besides the obvious reluctance anyone might have envisioning the passing of a beloved parent – was that I couldn’t really believe that Mom would ever stop being. When she was 13 years old, my mother went swimming in Lake Nemabhin in Wisconsin with two friends. It was an overcast day but not raining. Out of nowhere came a lightning bolt, which hit the three girls, killing one of them – Lois – and knocking the other two – my mom and her friend Fern – unconscious. Fortunately, my grandfather and another man were nearby and were able to carry them to safety before they drowned. We heard this story many times when we were small (it’s the reason no Raymond will go in swimming if there is rain in the forecast) and it always seemed quite amazing to us that our mother had been saved when her friend had not. It made her seem almost magical. Another reason that I delayed writing the obituary was my fervent belief that there was still plenty of time. After all, Mom came from a very durable family: my grandmother died at 102; my great-grandmother at 103.

We’ve received many wonderful messages in the week since Mom died. People remember her as kind, loving and loyal. We certainly remember her that way. Lisa once said that she had never once heard Mom say anything negative about anyone. That was Mom. Never critical, never sarcastic. How many people can you say that about? And people were drawn to her generous, non-judgmental nature. When I was growing up, the kitchen at 605 Winsford Road was the place where all of our friends gathered to recap the evening’s activities, make endless grilled cheese sandwiches, play cards and generally just hang out. Mom had a special way of making everybody feel welcome without being intrusive, especially important when we reached our teenage years.

Happy Mummy.

Mom did all the things that great mothers and grandmothers do. Endless readings of ‘Are You My Mother?’ and ‘Goodnight Moon.’ Marathon Christmas cookie baking sessions. Countless arts and crafts projects. When David was 11, he was confined to bed for several months with what the doctors at the time thought was rheumatic fever. For some reason, he became obsessed with roller derby. Mom patiently watched game after game with him and, when he was up to it, took him to see the Roller Derby Gals when they came to Philly. Mom helped Doug and Lisa set up every place they ever lived in. This included painting their first apartment on Pine Street and landscaping their first house in Berwyn, which entailed planting eight large azalea bushes in the pouring rain. When Lisa caught chicken pox from Peter, who was a toddler, she moved into my parents’ house with him and baby Alex and Mom nursed all three of them back to health. She slept over and did the night feedings when Elizabeth was overwhelmed by newborn twin babies. Of a somewhat less serious nature – although it did feel like life and death to me at the time – I was invited to the senior prom during my freshman year in college and it was a pretty big deal. Mom and I discussed my prom dress options at length and I concluded that I had nothing to wear and that it was going to be a disaster.  The next day, Mom showed up at my dorm room unannounced, with an armful of dresses for me to try on. I was to choose my favourite and she would return the rest to the store.

Mom’s gentleness and generosity belied her determination and persistence, traits that were very evident in her approach to her many community activities. Trained as a nurse, when her old boss at Presbyterian Hospital called her up, she was happy to volunteer at the Free Clinic run by the Young Great Society in Mantua, at the time one of the most crime-ridden areas in Philadelphia. Dave and Elizabeth were still quite small and remember spending time in the waiting room on days when they didn’t have school. Not everyone thought that this was how a Main Line housewife and her small children should be spending their time and there was some critical talk but that did not even slow her down. We all remember proudly going to peace rallies and Earth Day marches with our mother as little kids. Later, Mom was determined to pursue her BA, which she did, first at Villanova, later transferring to Rosemont College. She had four kids at home when she started school and we could get pretty whiny about the time she was spending with her study group – Dad too – but she persevered. We were all immensely proud when she graduated magna cum laude in 1979, the same year I graduated from Princeton.

As Chair of the Ludington Library Board of Trustees, she led a campaign to raise about US$ 2 million for a new 9 000-square foot library addition. I was living at home at the time and worked with her on the campaign. I remember her making call after call, and taking meeting after meeting, bound and determined to reach the fundraising goal, which she in fact surpassed. A Shipley Board Member for many years, Mom chaired the committee that oversaw the construction of the West Middle School, which opened in 1993. Fascinated by genealogy, Mom was a long-time member and an officer of the Colonial Dames of America. She received the Colonial Dames’ National Roll of Honour Award in recognition of her services. Mom served as a Trustee of the McLean Contributionship for decades, attending her last Board meeting just ten days before her death, when she could barely walk. She was very involved in the community life at Dunwoody, even after the death of our father in 2014.

Mom in Rome.

My mother was heartbroken when Dad died. They were married for 61 years and shared an incredible bond. We all spent months begging her to visit me in Rome, thinking the distraction would do her good. I wanted her to come for at least three months; she finally agreed to three weeks. It was a challenging trip. Mom was already having problems with her breathing and had to travel with oxygen. The first week she sat on my couch reading ‘On Being Mortal,’ Atul Gawande’s book about living with serious illness and approaching death. It’s a wonderful and important book but not really the thing for a recent widow to be reading. I tried to tempt Mom with all kinds of beautiful food and museum visits and trips to hill towns but she really wasn’t interested. She missed her husband and her cat Phebe. Finally, I introduced her to the mother of a close friend, a long-time widow. They sat on the terrace and talked for hours at a time. That seems to have helped a lot and we went on to have a lovely visit, exploring Italian gardens and villages with a couple of dogs and her new friend Cristina in tow.

Mom was profoundly dedicated to her family and to her community and I like to think that, despite her sadness, she could have found new projects and causes to adopt if it had not been for the litany of terrible illnesses that interrupted her life. But it was a long life and a good life. She will be profoundly missed.

Mom and me

My little Morgster (thanks Sherri)

As far as Morgan is concerned, anyone who has ever read this blog knows how totally devoted I was to that little rascal. He was the love of my life. But don’t tell that to Phryne, the puppy I picked up at the pound in mid-August, unable to be without a dog for more than six weeks. Phryne is lovely: obedient and sweet, calm and loving — the opposite of Morgan actually. He was a challenge. But I miss him every day.

Morgan’s favourite spot was atop a picnic table surveying his realm.

Introducing Phryne, the Portuguese Podengo.

 

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Angelo

This is Angelo. thumb_img_2793_1024I don’t know if that is his real name or if he ever really had a name at all. Not that it matters.

Angelo was a stray dog who lived in Sangineto, a town in Calabria. Sangineto doesn’t seem to have much going for it. If you Google the town, all that comes up is a one-sentence Wikipedia entry and 3 000 news stories about Angelo. Last June, four teenage boys tortured Angelo with hammers, hanged him from a tree and beat him to death with clubs and shovels. They filmed it all and posted the film on Facebook.

It has been my experience that Italians tend to see things as either black or white, bypassing entirely the shades of grey. For example, Italians are never neutral about dogs. They either love them or they hate (more correctly, fear) them. Around here, the predominant feeling is love. That’s because I live across the street from Villa Pamphili, Rome’s largest public park and exactly where you would want to live if you owned a dog. The off-leash dog area is just up the hill and Morgan likes to sit on the windowsill watching his little dog friends run around and whining at me to take him out to play already. So pretty much everyone you meet in the park or on the street is a big fan of the canine persuasion (the exception being the teenage girls who think it’s cute and sexy to squeal about their fear of dogs when there are boys around, which is super pathetic, especially since my dog is approximately the size of a toaster).

Angelo’s torture and death sparked enormous outrage among dog lovers throughout Italy. There were demonstrations all over the country (including, to its credit, in Sangineto). This breathed new life into the national campaign against animal abuse of which Angelo became the symbol. The campaign’s major issue has been the relatively moderate penalty (as compared to other European countries) for animal abuse: 3-18 months imprisonment or a 5 000 – 30 000 Euro fine. The campaigners are trying to get that changed before Angelo’s lowlife scumbag murderers face their day in court on 27 April. thumb_img_2794_1024

Donors and sponsors. The Gandhi quote reads 'The civilization of a people can be measured by the way they treat their animals.'

Donors and sponsors. The Gandhi quote reads ‘The civilization of a people can be measured by the way they treat their animals.’

Morgan at Largo Ravizza doing what he do. I tried to get him to pose next to Angelo but that was a non-starter.

Morgan at Largo Ravizza doing what he do. I tried to get him to pose next to Angelo but that was a non-starter.

In Rome, the cultural association La Vela d’Oro raised the money for a bronze statue in Angelo’s memory. The artist is Alessandro Di Cola. Someone had an old photo of Angelo and he worked from that. Isn’t it lovely? They erected the statue in the mini dog park in Largo Ravizza down the street (the statue occupies about 25% of the park!) complete with a little ceremony (and the municipality’s blessing) in late January. Those papers you see by the statue tell Angelo’s story from various angles (in some cases from his own perspective, which is weird: “Oh! Here come some boys. Maybe they want to play with me!”). There are also messages and photos directed to other dear, departed pups. It’s very sweet and touching and heartbreaking. I must say that the Italian tendency to be operatic and over the top can be trying at times (e.g. during disputes over who is next in line at the post office) but, when applied to their animals, it is super endearing.

Angelo and the cherry blossoms.

Angelo and the cherry blossoms.

 

La Renardière

Whenever I am in the Circo Massimo area, which I often am because of work and also because my bank is there, I try to make it around lunchtime so I can keep up to date with the globalization of the Viale Aventino restaurant scene. I have written about this before. In a few short years, this major artery — overlooked by the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — has gone from hosting a decent Asian, a fly-by-night Mexican and a handful of so-so (and one very good) Italian places to being festooned with restaurants featuring cuisine from Japan, Greece, Mexico, China/Singapore, the US of A and France as well as a couple of high end sandwich places. I’ve been working my way through the newer additions over the past year and the other day it was the turn of France.thumb_IMG_0903_1024

I love French food. Probably because I love cheese and French cheese is the best, whether in its natural state or melted over something else. My chief rule for being a popular and in demand cook: fry it, melt cheese on it or dip it in chocolate and it’ll be a winner, no matter what it is. The Italians have a mad ordinance about not mixing cheese and fish in the same dish. Believe you me, I would not have made it through grad school without the help of the humble tuna melt and I’ll warrant the French would thumb their nose at the no cheese and fish rule themselves, e.g. to partake in mussels in a blue cheese broth spiked with white wine and garlic. Oh yum.

La Renardière (the fox’s den) is a friendly little bistro with about ten tables that features traditional French dishes (the owner is from the Champagne region). Here are some of the things on the menu: Quiche Loraine, escargot, oysters, raclette (melted cheese, yay!), onion soup with melted cheese (yay!), steak frites, steak tartare, coq au vin, plates of cheese and pates and various crepes and omelettes. The dessert menu includes the usual suspects: chocolate mousse, tarte tatin (spellcheck turned that into taste satin!), floating island and coffee with four mini desserts.thumb_IMG_0902_1024

I myself had the beef fondue (there was fish fondue as well, which sounds interesting). This was purely a nostalgic choice. In college, my roommates and I used to make beef fondue a lot. When one of us liked a boy we’d invite him and his roommates over for dinner so we could all check him out. The fondue was an easy but visually impressive dinner option. Wait, am I remembering this correctly? Is it possible that we had a fondue pot in college? Anyway, at La Renardière they bring a little fondue pot to your table filled with boiling peanut oil. Then your plate arrives: a pile of filet bits and five different sauces, each with a heavy cream or homemade mayonnaise base (gotta love the Frenchies for consistently throwing ze caution to ze wind on the cholesterol and waistline fronts). After you’ve cooked the meat in the boiling oil, you dip it in the sauce. Sacré bleu! Tasty and good fun! thumb_IMG_0900_1024

thumb_IMG_0898_1024Unfortunately I was on my own so I wasn’t able to try more than one main course (I draw the line at eating off the plates of total strangers). But I’ll be back. I’m excited about the coq au vin, the escargots and all that melted cheese. Not to mention the taste satin. Extra points for the real French dressing and pomegranate seeds in the tossed salad and the piping hot baguette.

La Renardière. Viale Aventino 31. Tel: 06 8778 5445. http://www.larenardiere.it

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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Celebrating the 4th of July at Villa Taverna

The Upstairs Vegetarian is a VIJ (very important journalist) and people are always inviting her to shindigs in the hope that she will write about them in her fancy newspaper. Sometimes I get to tag along as her plus one so that works out well for me. Last week, it was the 4th of July cookout at the residence of the American ambassador (which actually took place on the 3rd, but whatever). Before I get started, here are some things you might like to know about  the residence. Villa Taverna dates back to the 15th Century  although there has been stuff going on on the property much longer than that, e.g. it was owned by a monastery in the 10th Century, one pope gave it to the Jesuit German-Hungarian College in the 16th Century and another took it back in the 18th when Europe was busily suppressing the Jesuits. The German-Hungarian College is now located very near the US Embassy so that’s an interesting coincidence. The property served as a papal seminary college for awhile until it was purchased by a Milanese aristocrat in 1920. The American Embassy started renting the villa in 1933, handing it back during the war when it served as a convalescent facility for Italian soldiers. The US bought the villa in 1948. You can read more about Villa Taverna here.

A view of Villa Tavern's lovely garden

A view of Villa Tavern’s lovely garden

Now, as I said, the UV is a VIJ but there are lots of very important people in Rome apparently and when we got to the villa we were confronted with a queue that was about three blocks long. Apparently 3 000 people are invited to this party and we were about 2 8ooth in line. But the queue moved quickly and it was very entertaining to see all the Italian women teetering down the sidewalk in their very tight dresses and very high heels (it was even funnier to see them negotiate the pebble walks and grass lawns inside the villa). My favorite was a lady in her mid-sixties with pale orange hair, gigantic lips and heels so high that she must have used a stepladder to climb into them. She was concentrating incredibly hard on not falling down (which you could tell from the panic in her eyes; she couldn’t move her face due to all of the Botox). Honestly, her hair was orange — like the guy who shot all those people in the movie theatre two years ago. Remember that? That was awful.

Villa Taverna is a beautiful spot with statues, fountains and sarcophagi all over the place. There were also — more to the point — about 15 tables groaning with grub. The food was a nice combination of American and Italian styles. There was fried chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs of course (and freedom fries courtesy of McDonalds) but also pasta salads and porchetta. And about a million other things as well. For dessert there were brownies and cupcakes arranged to resemble an American flag. And there was Haagen Dazs. And popcorn.

Lining up for hamburgers

Lining up for hamburgers

The band played tunes from the Great American Songbook.

The band played tunes from the Great American Songbook — my favourite music.

Partying with 3 000 of my closest friends. The ambassador is in there somewhere too.

Partying with 3 000 of my closest friends. The ambassador is in there somewhere too.

Living room furniture on the lawn is the height of luxury. or so it seems to me.

Living room furniture on the lawn is the height of luxury. Or so it seems to me.

Now here's an interesting cultural difference. The Americans took one each of these little sugared almond bouquet things. The Italians took at least three!

Now here’s an interesting cultural observation, which I will make without further comment. The Americans took one each of these little sugared almond bouquet things. The Italians took at least three!

I thought this was cute.

As American as apple pie (and baseball)