Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Italian journal -- 2018 (Part I)

July 21, 2018
On board the plane to Rome. Leo says, “This is life in the air.”

July 22, 2018
We arrived in Rome today and we’ve already visited the Pantheon, my favorite building in Italy (Mike's, too). I asked Leo if it was now his favorite building in Italy, too. Wisely, he held off on commenting, having only arrived two hours ago.

Our hotel is tucked inside the walls of the city, by the Villa Borghese.

A proposito: at the park around the Villa, our visit morphs into a one-of-a-kind, laugh-filled afternoon tooling around the sprawling property in a "rickshaw bike." It looks – vaguely – like a rickshaw but has bike wheels. And feels as though it is about to tip over every second!
I am awake now at 3:30 a.m. Probably partly an oversight, as far as the sleep aids I chose, but also the Italian motor within has been awoken and won’t shut down! Walking + streetlife + errands + vistas + the lingua di Dante. That’s too potent a combination for a simple sleep aid to conquer.

In Rome, seeing things I’ve never seen before, despite myriad visits and even a summer spent tutoring spoiled Roman noble children.

Take, again, the Villa Borghese and the magnificent park that surrounds it, which includes an overlook in Piazza Bucarest of the city, bursting with cupolas of every size. Oh this exists? Oh, okay.

Plus Via Veneto. I remember being there maybe once. How fancy! Home to the American Embassy, well whaddaya know. Even Palatine Hill – sure I’d visited before but so much of it appeared thoroughly new to my eye. Is that Rome's magic?

In the taxi ride from the airport, I saw a sign for Via Merulana, from the Gadda book (The one with the title that begins "Quer pasticciaccio"). First time visitor!
In Florence now: we are staying on Via del Campuccio, in Santo Spirito, a stone’s throw from my old apartment on Via dei Serragli. The key for the door: to open, place the logo down and turn clockwise a quarter turn. Va bene. I’ll try.

Leo says, “Mommy, what’s your favorite vowel?”


(I've learned to have answers for any question he asks, even if I have to stall first with, "Oh that's a good question.")

He agrees. “Me, too. ‘E’ is in my name and the word love and there are two in your name.”

July 25, 2018
Scoperta: Piazza Torquato Tasso has a playground. And a small soccer field. The piazza is also home to Il Tranvai (where Floriano took me many moons ago). Leo and I walk onto the mini soccer field where we find a 6-year-old Florentine boy who’s more than happy to kick around the soccer ball (courtesy of the Della Roccas -- see below).

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Souvenir shrine, or what I bought in Italy

My favorite post-Italian trip ritual (outside of crying and lamenting my exile) is to lay out my souvenir haul on a table and arrange the items for a “group photo.” Yep, a group photo of my souvenirs. It’s essentially a tiny, secular shrine to all the things I love about Italy. Probably sounds sad!

Odd thing is that in my post-trip melancholy, I find that seeing the little bits and pieces of Italy I’ve cobbled together to bring back gives me a tiny jolt. Right now, in particular, a steady bolt of vacation memory euphoria comes my way every time I catch sight of a small ceramic wine carafe decorated with an image of grapes that we bought in Vieste, in Puglia’s Gargano peninsula. Essentially my life depends in this moment on its beauty, on how lucky I feel that I persuaded Mike we could fit it into the suitcase.

Also a set of "Buongiorno" coffee cups. The “O” at the end is actually a little picture of the sun! Dying over here right now from the Mediterranean madness for quaint and picturesque.

And a beautiful picture of Florence – is it an engraving? Not sure how to describe it. And many many other things, including books, of course (Rossella Milone’s Cattiva AND a book of poetry Edith Bruck gave me as a gift and finally Sciascia’s book about the Aldo Moro kidnapping); magazines, the weekly puzzle magazine Italians are crazy for (not the only weekly puzzle book for sale at the giornalaio, if you can believe it! Not even close); a Florence coloring book of important paintings from the Uffizi (for Leo, though I can attest it will satisfy big colorers, too), plus two baby bottles of wine from Puglia (which is to say bottles of wine that are small, not baby bottles you might give to a baby) and a quartino wine carafe, like you get in a trattoria.

Putting the two wine carafes aside, the items I prize most whenever I return from Italy are inevitably made of paper. The books, the magazines, the Florentine paper. I even bought a roll of paper with the Florentine giglio to line dresser drawers and kitchen shelves. And I am not even thinking of all the little receipts and business cards and brochures I tucked into my purse and which followed me home. As they did last year; the bag of receipts from Torino is still sitting in my closet. If I were to look at them, I would find -- like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs -- a trail of the places I visited.

So there you have it – my souvenir group photo. Holding onto the trip by gazing at my shrine.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

An Italophile prepares for a trip to Italy

I'm not thinking about monuments -- except the Pantheon, my favorite building in Italy -- nor am I likely to visit many museums.

I am instead, as an Italophile preparing for a trip to Italy this summer, thinking about ciambelline -- see the name of this blog! -- and where I will be eating them and how to find the largest, freshest ones at each stop along my route.

And I'm picturing myself walking the streets, almost obsessively, as a way to reclaim my adopted country. (I won't be happy unless I walk all day.) I'm thinking about window-boxes full of flowers and all of the other small workaday jewels I hope will pass before my eyes when I touch down in Italy.

I am thinking about my own private itinerary, especially in Florence: lingering under the window of our old apartment near Santa Croce in Florence; visiting Bar Simone across from the turbine plant where I worked; stopping by piazza della Repubblica because I had to thread my way under its arch and across its lovely cobblestones so many evenings on my way home when I lived in Florence; making a beeline for Costa San Giorgio and via Erta Canina and all the other hilly streets on the Oltrarno where one can get a good walk and a stunning view all at once.

Also: Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio, where I did my produce shopping, making sure to walk through Piazza dei Ciompi on the way (in the hopes the antiques market is still there). Also: any place where Italian words will be on display. So bookstores -- but also grocery stores. Plus, the sandwich shops along Via della Vigna Nuova, and the Arco di San Pierino where druggies used to prowl but now tourists consult maps on their iPhones.

I'm fantasizing about the beach towns in Puglia I'll visit for the part of the trip down South. I know that will be the most languorous leg of the trip, and I am already imagining the Pugliese wine (Nero di Troia, Aglianico, Primitivo, ecc) I'll be consuming along with bruschetta and spaghetti allo scoglio from beachside cafes as good as what you'd find in a city.

In other words, I am making a mental list of my must-sees, and more often than not they consist of tiny corners of Florence (and to a lesser extent Rome and Puglia) where I feel I can best breathe in the Italian way of life.

I'm also thinking about about what I will buy. What mementos will follow me home and insinuate themselves among my belongings, serving as little bursts of Italophilia in my daily life.

Well, I'll buy books, it goes without saying (thinking of perhaps shipping a crate home, in fact -- no joke. The literary translator's indulgence?).

Also, coffee, of course (Caffe Kimbo and other Southern Italian brands that are a bit hard to find in the States). Saffron, Italian breakfast cookies (if for no other reason than to distribute them to Starbucks for a teaching moment). Also maybe a new coffee canister. And another darling red and green "mokina" coffee maker, like this one.
And magazines of all kinds (including the political weeklies, maybe a cooking mag, and the world's most beautiful travel magazine: Bell'Italia). Plus postcards, brochures, stationery. Papery vehicles of Italian artistry, in other words (particularly vibrant in Florence where the decorative arts were much prized during the Renaissance).

I also fantasize about conversations I will have in Italian when I arrive. (Hey I'm old -- this is how I get my jollies! Too much wine and I am not jolly the next day). Conversations with friends, conversations with baristas (soccer will come up) and fruit vendors and the taxi cab driver (che casino!) and the signora waiting for the bus who's worried there might be a sciopero (labor strike).

And what I do to prepare for this onslaught of conversation and kibbitzing is listen to podcasts and watch movies and of course read Italian. Though I've found in recent years it's best, before embarking on a trip to Italy, if I consult newspapers, magazines and web sites rather than bury myself in, say, D'Annunzio. What are Italians talking about now? That's what I want to know. That's the talk soup I want to slip into once I arrive (even if it includes the name Salvini).

Here are some books I'm reading:

Lezioni di Tenebra, Helena Janeczek (who just won the Premio Strega!)
Non ora, non qui, Erri de Luca 

I'm also listening to podcasts, including this one.

Here's a movie I watched to gear up, with the amazing Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher:

Last but not least, a song from my personal, ready-get-set-Italy soundtrack (used in a film I want to see so badly, Il Nome del Figlio, with Alessandro Gassman).



Monday, February 19, 2018

Ho vinto! PEN-Heim translation grant news

I swear I rarely have the privilege of saying "I won" but I can truly say I have won a grant to continue work on a translation of an important Italian book that I desperately want to bring to the English-speaking world.

The award is the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature, part of the prestigious PEN-Heim Translation Grant program (given by PEN America, which is probably the most important literary organization in the US, and one that is on the front lines, fighting for writers' freedom to express themselves without fear or repercussions all over the world).

And the book is Mariateresa Di Lascia's 1995 novel, Passaggio in Ombra (working title: "A Walk in the Shadows"), which won Italy's top literary award, the Premio Strega.

You can read about the other wonderful projects that won PEN translation grants here.

Long live Italian literature -- particularly literature by women authors!


Friday, February 02, 2018

Post-Italy trip journal ('bits' journals)

It's been a long time since I've published part of my journal and an equally long time since I put out a call for the "bits" journal. It's the diary where you jot down little observations, thoughts, bits of inspiration. Who has one they want to share? Here's a slice from mine, at the moment last year when I had just returned from my trip to Italy:

May 24, 2017
Arrived last night alle 6 from Torino/Milano/Fir trip…and even though I only went to bed at 9, I woke up a mere six hours later and couldn’t go back to sleep not because of jet lag or my internal body clock or anything like that but because I couldn’t turn off the Italian conversation and thought generator in my mind! It’s 3 a.m. and I’m thinking of one more thing I want to tell Giovanni and an idea to share with Irene, and thoughts about collaborations with Luca and bits of conversations held during my delightful trip to Torino, Firenze and Milano. I’m walking down streets in these three stupendous cities and commenting as I go….in Italian, of course, sempre in Italian, or some weird mix of Italian and English.

Oh Italy, damn it, you’ve effin’ done it again! Why would I ever want to be just thinking in English, quando invece posso permettermi what I call the bifurcated mind, forever divided between the two languages. But not an orderly division but rather a wonderfully Italian brand of caos where a thought begins in English e finisce invece in italiano.

One more thing, as I am writing in my journal: CROSS OFF 'ITALIAN TRIP' from the "to do" list….Bell’e fatto!

May 25, 2017
I find myself trying to extend the lease on this burst of Italian life that has taken over me – an esprit de corps that develops when Jeanne spends a week walking miles upon miles each day through Italian cities that return the favor with delights and curiosita’ around every corner.

I feel this energy draining from me as I go back to driving everywhere, as I go back to having to connive walks out of Leo, to a city where walking is simply not the Flaneur tradition I love so much…

Can we call this the American paradox? Oh what a wonderful country, what a country of innovation and industry and possibility…but I feel so much more alive in another country (!!!). Part of the blame goes squarely to Atlanta but it ain’t like it’s the only city in America where it’s not easy to live the walking life style.

I worry even about how to go back to a life that’s so sedentary…Yesterday all I wanted to do was walk and I struggled to come up with places to walk….

My tongue still wants to form Italian words…The Italian conversation generator in my mind is still running in the background. I need to take advantage of it, perhaps to write something!

Poesia? Ce la farei? L’unica cosa che mi appare ‘facile’ che poi non lo e’. 

It bears mention that I am super thin and full of energy! Why? Well, of course, I just came back from “my spa.”

June 2, 2017

I was there, I was really there, and waking up way too early this morning, I remember – I was there, and now I am so far away, and the trip to Italy is receding in the distance and last week – when I was still there – might as well be last month. I’m back to my car-centric life, back to a life spent with so few interfaces, that IS the way I like it but somehow in Italy, I’m okay with constantly “interlocuting” with this or that other person. It seems natural. Like being in motion – being in motion in Italy feels so normal. Here, there’s just so much space to traverse before you reach a point of interest. Is it simply the “other”?

June 13, 2017
I appear to be writing a travel story for CNN – seems impossible since it will fulfill one of my writing goals for the year – and here are some of the thoughts that may or may not make it into the final version:

I’d somehow forgotten how lovely it is that in Italy the baristas talk to the customers – I mean really talk to them. It’s actually worth learning Italian for.
When I saw a barista point to multiple sizes of paper coffee cups at a bar at the Milan airport, it set off a small death somewhere inside of me. I’d never, ever seen something like that before at an Italian bar. Coffee used to come in two sizes: espresso – a little baby shot of coffee, as we all know now – or cappuccino size. Which is the size of the standard coffee cup in Italy. Period.
But some things never change. Outdoor booksellers still meticulously set up their wares, in the case of Torino, underneath the porticos. That means no rain interferes while you browse the widest and most random selection of Italian books you’ve ever seen. Ancient art books, obscure foreign political treatises, well-preserved comics, everything … They’re permanent fixtures in Italian cities – this, in a country of non-readers. Who buys the books? I don’t know and I don’t care. I like to think that in Italy some things, for better or for worse, are still done despite an assurance that the profits will be small. Very small. As I perused the books, I liked to think the booksellers knew that for a literary type like me, nothing beats glancing at titles and flipping through books outdoors, while occasionally glancing up at a bike crossing the piazza or the Renaissance church across the way….


Friday, January 19, 2018

My essay on Tabucchi's Viaggi ed altri viaggi

"It’s a travel writer’s job to enchant us with tales of lands we’ve never seen—and which we may never see. But it seems like a particular phenomenon when the travel writer is enticing you to visit a land where he, too, is a foreigner. 

"So infectious is Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi’s account of his travels in Portugal in the original Italian that one cannot wait until the book is translated into English to write a “review” of it. Not that Tabucchi sounded like a foreigner when he wrote lovingly of Portugal and of his second tongue, Portuguese. Quite the opposite. But that’s often what acolytes and converts sound like: They are more fervent than the natives."

To read the rest of this essay on Tabucchi's book of travel essays, Viaggi ed altri viaggi , please click here to visit Three Percent's web site.


Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Year in Writing -- 2017!

I began writing an annual 'Year in Writing' roundup after I discovered a piece by the writer Alexander Chee from 2014 in which he cataloged the many career milestones he'd wracked up that year. A year in review, as it were, but for writing. It looked incredibly impressive (he was the guy who came up with the Amtrak Writer-in-Residence idea) and something I wanted to do, probably because he is an extremely accomplished novelist who also publishes some fantastic travel writing! (He is).

Nonetheless I took the plunge, even though I'd never before written a post summing up the year in anything, writing or otherwise. As I wrote last year at this time, "You manage what you measure, right?"

For a long time, as I said then, I wasn't in any way measuring how much I wasn't accomplishing in the world of writing. 

But I'd say Bennington pretty much changed that. Once I enrolled in the MFA program there, I began to see possibilities -- and to use the words of Charles Bock, an author and Bennington alum, I also began to see writing as my permanent side job.

I've now begun to set writing goals for myself each year -- concrete objectives, some of which are definitely within reach. 

(There are also 'non-concrete' goals, like collaborate with Bono on a project. Yes that Bono! And no, it's not a joke! For me, at least).

This year, I wanted to publish something in a national magazine and I also wanted to publish some travel writing.

And....I did both! Although I should I say I did both with ONE assignment, rather than two.

I wrote two long stories, including a destination piece on Atlanta, for Delta Sky Magazine (you know, the mag in your seat pocket when you fly on Delta). As a longtime Delta flyer, I was thrilled to land a piece in a magazine I've cheerfully read many times! Plus, it was truly travel writing! You can read those pieces, plus a short profile of Mayor Kasim Reed, here.

There was another bit of travel writing that inspired an equal measure of pride because it was for CNN Travel (whose stories I occasionally edit as a contract editor for CNN) and because it was an honest-to-God personal essay about Italy (you pretty much can't beat an assignment that allows you to wax poetic about your version of heaven). I'm also proud to say the piece, entitled "You Can Return to Italy," gave me a chance to lay out my personal traveling style -- what I call nostalgia tourism. Where you have a private list of stops that allow you to take the pulse of a place you know so well. You can read the piece here.

A few other milestones:

*On the literary translation front, I published my first translation (for Drunken Boat).

*I also reported on Italy's largest book fair -- and the positioning of Italian women authors -- for the bookworld website Literary Hub. It's called, "Where are all the great Italian women writers?"

*I said goodbye to Atlanta through a 3,000-word personal essay for the AJC's Personal Journeys rubric, which appears on Sundays. What an honor! As soon as I knew we'd be leaving Atlanta, I began writing the essay in my head. To have an editor actually want to print some of those thoughts, well, it's cool (Thanks, Suzanne!). You can read it here

I wouldn't want to paint too rosy a picture. I think you'd all know already if I were some super successful writer! I didn't publish anything in The New York Times this year, which, after the high of my essay and reported piece last year, was a grave disappointment. I was hoping The Gray Lady needed me! She does not. But you can still read the essay I wrote (about recording Leo's first sounds and words) here

There were many other writing milestones I did not reach, such as polishing a short story and moving forward on a longer project I've begun.

As I've said before, it wasn't an Alexander Chee year (he's so successful now, he doesn't write his year in review anymore!). But there's no question that as a writer, I'm not where I was a year ago or two years ago. A little more than five years ago, I wasn't even writing every day outside my job as a journalist.

And besides, taking stock of the year that's about to end isn't an exercise in comparing yourself with someone else. That won't work. And it isn't the point, is it?

So about those fiction projects I didn't get to: Shall I put them on the list for next year? I think I will.

Last but not least, where is YOUR 'Year in Writing'? You know who you are. Post it here in the comments or on Facebook. 


Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Dear Marie Kondo

Dear Marie Kondo,

I know that your book has helped many pare down, and since a relocation has consumed me for much of 2017 – moving away from my Atlanta home of 9 years to begin a new life in Connecticut – I thought it might make sense to seek you out.

If I got it right, you tell people to ask -- as they inventory their things -- does it “spark joy”?

Except, Marie -- can I call you Marie? -- you don't understand how many things spark joy for me.

Or merely incite some kind of emotion inside.

Or, in the case of Elmo Peter Elson, represent a line in the sand. He’s my childhood teddy bear – and he’s dressed in my childhood clothes (a blue windbreaker with a faulty zipper and riotous 1970s toddler pants).  I can’t throw him out now. (No, I don’t know why his name is Elmo Peter Elson.)

Elmo’s making the journey along with a cassette tape of U2’s “Boy” album that’s unspooled, and half-used notepads engraved with the name of my deceased uncle and a button for a failed political campaign where I volunteered 20 years ago, plus a vintage pin from Bayonne, N.J., my father’s hometown (because sometimes other people’s mementos, especially one’s parents, are even more potent than your own) and the pregnancy tester stick – positive! – that forget ‘changed my life’ – it gave me the life I didn’t know I was even craving. Also: bus, train and plane tickets, mainly to and from Italy, and a lot of Lira – Italy’s old currency -- that can no longer be used. But they’re like my bank statements from Cassa Di Risparmio di Firenze, which remind me that I was lucky enough to live long enough in the city of Dante to open up an account at the Florence Savings Bank. (I’ve also kept the Enrico Coveri scarf Melanie gave me and the plastic shopping bag she used to give it to me because while it is a relatively ordinary yellow and green plastic bag it is also instantly recognizable as a bag not produced in the US or used by a US retail establishment. Reason to keep it.)

Plus writing journals.

Lots and lots of journals, including ones from grammar school that I find unreadable (some thoughts should be kept inside, I’ve concluded.)

Lots of letters, too, including the one from a very dear friend that remains unopened and will likely stay in that virgin state until we die. You see, Marie, it’s a condolence card. Everything there was to know -- and everything we didn’t want to know -- is discernible on the outside of the card. Her careful handwriting, our names, the date stamp the week Mike’s father died -- without any need to open it. She is sorry and we are sorry and nothing can be done to erase the death that occasioned the card. To paraphrase the poet Donald Hall, the dead stay dead. So it’s still sealed but my God, Marie, how can I throw it out? Her kindness can’t be discarded.

I also still have Doug K.’s business card. In fact, I have two of them. I know what you're thinking -- who uses business cards anymore? Especially one for a man I last spoke to back in 2000. No, I don't need it. But you see, I do.

We named Doug Security Director of the Year in 2000, back when I was an editor on a trade pub that covered security systems and metal detectors and locks with audit trails.

He'd done such a bang-up job in his position as security director of -- wait for it -- the World Trade Center, that he won the annual contest that year. Security Director of the Year. In Doug’s case, it might as well have said ‘of the decade.’ His picture was on the cover and everything, with the two towers looming behind him. And then on Sept. 11 – you know the year -- I tried calling the number on the business card but I couldn't get through. You see what I mean, Marie? I've got to keep his business card. I need something to remember him by. Just like the page I ripped from an old calendar of New York. The last image I have of those Twin Towers. Where we went after we saw "Annie" on Broadway with Uncle Pat and Aunt Maureen, before they had children -- a thousand years ago, give or take.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Read Delta Sky Mag (& fly Delta jets!)

If you've flown Delta anytime this month, you might have read one of the stories I filed for Delta Sky Magazine about Atlanta!

If not, you can find there here.

I wrote a destination piece about Atlanta, centered around the Beltline rails-to-trails project (called "City in the Forest") and a snapshot of Atlanta's economy, which you can see in the photo here.

I also wrote a short profile of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (where I compare him to a competitive athlete).

Thanks to all of my friends who snapped photos of the magazine while in the air!

As the sign at Hartsfield says, Fly Delta Jets!


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Italy and Nostalgia Tourism for CNN Travel

A trip to Italy for me? Swoon.

A trip to Italy that leads to an essay in CNN Travel? Days and weeks of swooning.

Read it here! There you'll also find my very own photos, from my trip earlier this year to Torino and two years ago to Rome (including the one above).