Friday, 28 August 2015

Fig Off

Tucked away for the summer in a small Tuscan village, it is tempting to ignore the tragic or frustrating news that goes on in the rest of the world and focus on what is an important subject in Italy: food.

A visit to the local market, where everyone looks in your basket to see what you might be cooking that day, can bring about unexpected instruction on what you should do with your items. 

I bought some salami (Milano type, though this might cause a discussion at the deli counter), and was asked if I was going to eat it with figs. Side note: figs are in season now, though there is some concern that the green fig trees are producing more than the purple trees. Not so, others will argue. The purple trees are more abundantly fruited!

Back to my, I said, I liked figs with prosciutto. "NO!," I was admonished, "Salami e' piu buoni con fichi!!" (Salami is better with figs). This started a discussion in the deli line. There was a clear line drawn between those who preferred salami and those who liked prosciutto. Prosciutto (but only San Daniele!) edged out the salami people. 
"Il sapore di salami e' troppo forte con fichi!" (the salami flavor is too strong with figs) they declared.

I suppose I should have been thinking of more serious things, but I was intrigued by the vehemence with which the salami vs. prosciutto people held their respective grounds on which one was better with figs.

So I decided to have a fig off at home. All the family and friends are gone now, so the only judges would be John and me.

We approached the task seriously. We had purple figs and green ones. We had thinly sliced Milano salami and equally thin slices of prosciutto (San Daniele, of course).

Our preference: prosciutto, but the salami-fig combination was pretty good, too. 

We encourage you to have a fig off of your own and see what you think. Buon appetito!

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Story Tellers

Why do people lie about themselves? Why does anyone think they have to embellish an already accomplished life by making up stories? 

I'm thinking about Brian Williams, the formerly respected NBC News anchorman, who lied about having been in a helicopter under attack in a war zone when he had not. Many of his other reporting stories have now come into question. His senseless lies have negated his life's work. "All journalists lie," a friend who should know told me. 

As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton claimed to have landed in an area under enemy fire when videos definitively proved she had not. As in Williams' case, it was explained away as a faulty memory.

Then there is Vice President Joe Biden, who makes occasional forays into story land, most recently when he claimed to know Somali cabdrivers in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, when in fact there are none. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this embellishment and say he confused Ethiopians or Pakistanis for Somalis. 

I'm treading into controversial territory when I bring up Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal portrayed in American Sniper. Apparently he killed 160 of the enemy during four tours in Iraq, making him the deadliest sniper in US history. He was a warrior's warrior. He was called "The Legend" by his fellow Seals. When he returned to the USA, he continued to feed that reputation by telling unverifiable stories about taking out bad guys in Texas. However, his claim of beating up Jesse Ventura was verifiably a lie. Ventura sued and won a huge financial settlement. The question arises: did Kyle lie about what happened in Iraq as well?

When I was a freshman in high school, I knew a girl who lied constantly about things that were easily refutable.  She claimed her father was a psychiatrist. He wasn't. She told people she lived in a better neighborhood than she did. She lied about her grades. She presented her family as a perfect one, when I knew she had to deal with many problems, including a father who drank too much.   We were both army brats so we lost touch, but I have often wondered how life turned out for her. She clearly disliked herself and her life. She lied to create the person she wanted to be.

Maybe that is the answer to why people lie about themselves. They aren't satisfied with who they are or what they have legitimately achieved, or haven't, in life. Maybe lying makes them like themselves more. Perhaps they don't even realize they are doing it anymore. Their lies, or embellishments to the truth, have become their reality. 

To lighten up a bit:  I've often lied about my height and weight. I would like to be taller and slimmer, but no amount of lying about it has made it my reality. 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Music We Choose

"Why on earth do you have that song in your playlist?"

Do you get asked that question, too?  

When iPods first came out, my husband, an original skeptic of the device, but later a rabid enthusiast, uploaded every song on every CD we had on it, without editing. I protested this promiscuity of music.

If anything ever happened to you, I asked, how would I know what songs really meant something to you?  He pondered this and edited his playlist down to 800-1000. He called it his "funeral mix." 

The girls and I understood the inclusions of Dion and the Belmonts (he loved them as a teenager), Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Rolling Thunder, the Beatles (he brought them to the attention of his West Point classmates, most of whom were still listening to the Lettermen), Barry White ("take off your brassiere my dear," from Love Serenade is hard to top for lyrics), and Van Morrison, just to name a few. We weren't prepared for Cher's "Dark Lady," though. He endured merciless teasing while claiming not to know it was on the mix. Maybe not, but that song will forever be associated with him. 

A slight digression:  Several years ago we were playing charades with the girls. He protested that it was unfair to use Prince's "When Doves Cry," in the song category  because he didn't know it. We attacked him for being a poor sport and not keeping up with current music. Whenever he hears it now, he lets us know that he recognizes the song. It's in his "funeral mix."

Back to playlist choices. How do we make them?  We know that music, like a scent, has the ability to transport us to another time or place. My own playlist, which has often been ridiculed by my daughters, husband, and son-in-law (and maybe you, after reading them) includes:

"Night Moves," Bob Seger (reminds me of certain high school nights).
"Gostosa," Jorge Ben Jor  (Brazil memories)
"An Evening in Roma" and "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons" Dean Martin (remind my of my late Aunt Doris and Uncle Ralph).
"Serenata Rap,"  Jovanotti (my daughter Nina and I set up her dorm room while listening to it).
"Sinnerman," Nina Simone (a rainy night in Cairns, Australia).
"Runaway,"  Jefferson  Starship (old boyfriend).
"Let's Be Friends," Bruce Springsteen (I like to swim to it in Italy).
"And I Love Her So," Perry Como (reminds me of my late Aunt Marian, who loved him).
"Bend Down Low," Bob Marley (my daughter Alyssa likes it).
"Beach House," Motherfeather  (Alyssa's friends recorded it).
"You Dropped a Bomb on Me,"  The Gap Band (weddings in Pittsburgh and dancing with my cousins)
"Pink Houses," John Mellencamp (inaugural concert on the Mall for Obama, when people were still excited about the election).
"Arrivederci a Questa Sera," Lucio Battisti (first discovered him with this song).
"Samba Pa Ti," Santana (thrilling guitar).

You get the idea.  It is eclectic for sure, ranging from old crooners to New York popcock rock (Motherfeather, and that's their description of what they do), but every song has a meaning for me. Perhaps it is limiting to do it this way because there are no new song discoveries. On the other hand, we have Pandora radio for that. So when one of my family members asks how on earth I could have such a song on my playlist, I usually have an answer. Except for the inclusion of "Why Not Me?" by the Judds.  I haven't come up with a good reason for that one. 

Saturday, 30 August 2014

To Bidet or Not to Bidet

...that was the question in 1995, when we restored a two hundred year old farmhouse in Tuscany.

We are serial renovators with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, so the issue loomed large in our discussions for a time. The house had never had indoor plumbing.  British friends, who were pioneers in restoring old houses in the area, had installed them but advised us against it: "It's just one more potential plumbing problem you don't need, and it takes up valuable space."  That made sense to us.

We set off to find the perfect toilets, wall-mounted (easy to clean under), in just the right shape. We found a good selection available in local shops. We noticed that every toilet was sold with a matching bidet. When we told the shopkeeper we only wanted the toilets, she looked at us strangely. She conferred with a colleague. They both looked at us as if there was something rotten not only in Denmark (I had to keep the Hamlet thing going here), but right there in their negozio (store), and it was us.

We babbled that we showered every day, so we didn't think bidets were necessary for our home. They agreed to sell us the toilets without bidets, but I don't think they understood or approved.

My husband moved on to other concerns, like the right color of grout between the stones on the patio, but I was still pondering the bidet question. 

Some surmise that the bidet never became popular in the United States or Britain because they were considered unseemly, even gross. Allied soldiers during World Wars I and II encountered them with foreign prostitutes, who used them to freshen up between clients. Thus the nickname "whore's bath." 

I asked people who had them if they found them useful. One friend said she used hers for soaking her feet. Another said it was a good place to store magazines in the bathroom. One said her cat loved to curl up in the cool porcelain. 

Still others insisted they could not live without one, that "of course" they used it daily.  An Italian friend confided, "People will say they use it every day, but I think they do not!" Another friend found them "sexist and insulting to women," though they aren't restricted to one gender.  I was eventually persuaded they were a good thing to have around, just in case.

By the time we renovated an apartment in London in 2001, I was totally in the bidet camp. We had to have one. In our twelve years of living there, I found it came in handy for soaking delicate pieces of laundry and foot baths.

Fast forward to the present, and we are once again renovating a house, this time in Washington. Bidets do indeed take up space, but now they seem necessary to me (my husband would not agree with this).  Since I have discreetly indicated that I rarely used it for its intended purpose, you may ask why I insisted we have one in the new house. My answer: you never know.

Pressed by the space problem, and arguing over whether it was really necessary to have one, we discovered something that took no space at all: the Toto washlet.

Invented by the fastidious Japanese, it attaches to your toilet seat and is operated by remote control (you can choose whether to activate it or not). When activated, it lights up when you walk into the bathroom, as if to say, "Well, hello there!" It allows you to choose a warm or cool seat. You have a choice of water temperatures and directional sprays. Finally, there is a blow dryer, also heat regulated. They are standard in Japanese homes and hotels. Friends who traveled in Japan raved about them.

Compared to the traditional bidet, it is convenient and easy to use. You stay in one place rather than shuffling from one spot to another with your pants down around your ankles.  It is the bidet you actually use!  The downside:  you can't store your magazines in it.

Note:  This trend may be catching on. COSTCO was selling washlets recently, at a great price. There were only two left on the shelf.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Horse's Head

While watching Richard Martinez, the grieving father of a young man gunned down senselessly by mentally ill Elliott Roger,  I was reminded of a clip I saw of a distraught widow in Sicily some years ago.  Rosaria Schifani's husband Vito, a policeman, was escorting anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone when their vehicles were blown up in a Mafia hit.  Paolo Borsellino, Falcone's good friend and fellow judge, was killed fifty seven days later.

In an emotional speech at her husband's funeral, Rosaria tearfully said she could forgive the men of the Mafia for what they had done if only they had the courage to change.  "Please change, there has been too much suffering, too much blood," she pleaded, "but you don't want to change."

Fast forward to Richard Martinez saying he does not want any sympathy calls from members of Congress. He wants them to do something constructive.  He blames his son's death on "craven, unresponsive politicians and the NRA."

Ask yourself this:  is the NRA really different from the Mafia? Their methods may not include blowing up cars, but in their stubborn and intractable fight against any kind of gun control in this country, they might as well be gunning down victims Mafia-style.

They have a stranglehold on Congress.  They may not put a horse's head in anyone's bed, a tactic used in the film The Godfather Part I, but what they do is intimidate the politician who even considers voting for any kind of gun control.  They will find and fund other candidates to run against him or her, make media buys to denigrate him or her as un-American because they want to "take away your Constitutional rights!"  It makes no difference that the Second Amendment was written when weapons were muskets, not semi-automatic or assault weapons. Gun ownership is an American right!

This dogma reached a new low when Joe the Plumber, not someone I would normally quote, sent a letter to the grief-stricken parents of the latest tragedy saying "your dead kids don't trump my Constitutional rights." 

In polls taken before the latest Congressional vote on gun control,  an overwhelming number of Americans (91%), including many gun owners, favored at least background checks on gun sales.  Congress is supposed to vote the way their constituents tell them to. Why then did Congress vote down any form of gun control?  Is this a democracy or not?

The NRA is not unique in holding a sledgehammer over members of Congress, but this post is about them and their irresponsible behavior in the wake of constant mass shootings in our country. We hardly blink anymore.

"It's a mental health issue," say gun advocates.  Yes, there are sick people and sometimes they fall between the cracks. Sometimes they don't.  Elliott Roger was a disturbed kid, others had noticed, yet he was still able to legally purchase semi-automatic weapons.  Might background checks have made a difference?

From a recent New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik: 

"Because every other modern country has suffered from the same kinds of killings, from the same kinds of sick kids, and every other country has changed its laws to stop them from happening again, and in every other country it hasn't happened again."

An Australian friend cuts to the chase:  "You can't regulate the behavior of nutters, but you can make guns hard to get."

To the NRA:  there has been too much suffering, too much blood. Please change. To Congress: Please listen to your constituents.

Note:  You can read more about the Falcone-Borsellino murders in my post  "An Offer They Refused," (8/24/09).  My statistics indicate it is one of my most read postings!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

A Tuscan Easter

On this day before Easter, kitchens in parts of Italy, including Tuscany, are filled with the aroma of brodetto Pasquale, a special soup that traditionally begins the Easter meal. The grocer in our little town told us it is an ancient custom to take the broth to church to be blessed before serving it.

It is a simple recipe, using your favorite broth, and adding raw eggs, carefully, so they don't curdle, at the end, just before ladling it into bowls.

The Easter Bunny does not make an appearance here, nor have I heard of egg hunts or Easter parades, but like everywhere else, it is customary to eat eggs, signifying new life. Giant hollow chocolate eggs, colorfully wrapped, are displayed in every grocery and coffee bar in town. The tradition is to smash them open on Easter Sunday and find prizes inside. The Perugina eggs are especially delectable.

Rabbit is commonly found in the Tuscan kitchen, but not usually for Easter. Roasted lamb is the traditional dish, served with spinach. We are told that agnello (lamb) is not as popular as it used to be, particularly among the young, so one might also find roasted pollo (chicken) or maiale (pork). Because it is not possible to talk about food in Italy without someone nearby offering an opinion, another customer in the grocery told us that carciofi (artichokes) and asparagi are also often served. 

For dolci (dessert), one must eat a colomba, a confection that is more like bread than cake, and shaped like a dove, from whence comes its name. We also like it for breakfast with a frothy cappuccino, which is our own tradition.

Easter customs and foods vary in the different regions of Italy, but everywhere it is a celebration of spring and the foods of the new season.

“Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi," is the Italian saying which translates as, "Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want."

We're spending ours with friends this year. Happy Easter, Buona Pasqua, Happy Spring to all.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Passionate Kisses

You settle in to watch a movie. There is undeniable chemistry between two people on the screen. You are wondering where the attraction will lead, and you usually don't have long to wait. 

It progresses as follows: smoldering glances, sometimes sarcastic, clever dialogue, and then BOOM, an apartment door crashes open as the couple who just met burst into the room, kissing, groping, and ripping each other's clothes off in an unbridled display of passion as they bang into furniture, walk backwards, swirl around corners, all while keeping their lips locked on each other. They fall onto the bed, sofa, floor, table, or wherever, as the camera lovingly works its way along their nude, always perfect, often tattooed, bodies. The camera lingers on thrusting buttocks and faces contorted in ecstasy.

Any one with living loins will find this scenario titillating the first twenty or thirty times, but then, well, it starts to get a little old.  When you can anticipate how every passionate scene is going to go, when you roll your eyes as the door slams open, when you think to yourself "here we go again," then maybe these scenes are in danger of becoming hackneyed, formulaic.

These images may also set up unrealistic expectations for real couples getting to know each other.  Is there something wrong with the guy if he prefers a subtler approach, if the girl would rather undress slowly instead of tearing her blouse off? What if the first encounter is a little shy, maybe awkward?  Is there something wrong with them if their passion doesn't knock doors off their hinges?

Sometimes what is not seen, but imagined, is more romantic, while still getting the point across.

In honor of Valentine's Day, here are some films, or scenes from them, that illustrate this:

Sophia Loren and Cary Grant dancing to "Almost in Your Arms," in  Houseboat.

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant saying goodnight in To Catch a Thief.

Apollonia and Michael in The Godfather, Part I.

Anne Archer and Tommy Lee Jones dancing to "Time Slips Away" in Man of the House.

The dance scenes between Patrick Swayze (Johnny) and Jennifer Grey (Baby) in Dirty Dancing.

The Franco Zefferelli version of Romeo and Juliet.

Armand Assante and the character of Maria in The Mambo Kings.

James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Enough Said.

Spoiler alert: There are no broken door hinges, or even a tattoo.

Happy Valentine's Day.