Thursday, December 01, 2016

From the Archives: Time for the Panettone

I've always thought about panettone at this time of the year, even back before you could find the little Italian Christmas loaves everywhere in America. And I'm reposting this essay -- about the ritual of going to buy a panettone in Florence -- from a few years back:

I opened the panettone.

I wasn't going to. I bought it last week at the Whole Foods store on Ponce in Atlanta with the idea of bringing it somewhere as a special treat.

But then I thought, well, I would like a special treat. Right here, right now.

So I opened it, and still mulling over a long-awaited email I had received from a British friend this morning, I had a flashback to the days when I lived in Florence and I would buy a panettone to bring for Christmas dinner.

(Yes, a flashback to Florence -- what do you expect? Chalk it up to my living in Florence just after college. I think those early years of adulthood, no matter where you spend them, remain disproportionately impressed upon the brain, perhaps because it's then that we launch our own independent lives, with their own rhythms and routines, separate from Mommy and Daddy).

Specifically, I remembered going to order a homemade, artigianale panettone from a bakery on Borgo San Iacopo to bring to my British friend's family in Luxembourg.

They had invited me to spend Christmas with them that first year that I lived in Florence, and as I counted down the days until I boarded the overnight train from Santa Maria Novella station, I made the rounds of neighborhood stores to pick up treats and gifts.

I remember walking over to the bakery along the narrow, cobblestone streets on the other side of the Arno from the Duomo, and pausing a moment in front of the glass storefront.

You know the type -- either from movies or real-life.

It had a large front window through which you could see a display case full of Christmas delicacies and everyday pastries, I believe the baker had stuck his head out of the kitchen for a moment to share a laugh with the girl behind the counter, and condensation had formed on the window from the heat of the kitchen.

There was a clutch of older women, in their quilted jackets, identical grey, knee-length wool skirts, and sensible brown leather shoes, issuing with authoritative tones and gestures specific instructions about the items they wanted.

I felt simultaneously integrated and assimilated, fully in the stream of Italian life as I waited to place my order, and forever locked out -- I would never be like one of those women.

It all seemed so evocative of city or village life: the neighborhood bakery. Ever since, I've always wanted to live in neighborhoods that are anchored by a bakery, but alas it's not so easy in America.

And while I was cutting myself a piece of panettone this morning, I wondered why that chore had remained lodged deep inside my mind. Living in Italy, one would not find it unusual to buy a panettone.

But I think the idea of rushing around town, preparing for Christmas, crossing chores off your list -- it all constitutes such a fundamental activity that it almost seems like a scene out of Dickens.

Going to the neighborhood bakery and ordering a Christmas treat is as far as you can get from the suburban shopping mall or car traffic or the incessant intertwining of romance with the birth of Jesus (doesn't that seem a bit odd?).

And it was enough just to breathe in the scent of the panettone this morning to unearth this memory.

Now if you buy a panettone this Christmas, you won't remember the same thing, but you'll have the same sensation of enjoying a seasonal treat. And Lord knows, nothing is more Italian than eating a particular dish at a specific time of year -- and then not again until next year.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Leo Journal: "Dreaming about dreams"

Lost entry from the Leo journal:

Sept 23, 2016

My little genius bounds up the stairs at 7 a.m. yesterday, and while Mike steps into the shower, Leo and I cuddle on the bed, which spurs him to say: 

“I dreamed about dreams. What did you dream about?”

This one little sentence, for me, tells a long story. A beautiful and complex story. Not only is Leo smart enough to talk about dreams, and to either recognize the themes of his dreams or realize it’s tricky to suggest one could dream about dreams, but he’s also learned to ask other people their opinions. 

He wants to dialogue with others. He doesn’t simply want to talk about himself. 


Leo Journal: "Dreaming about dreams"

Lost entry from the Leo journal:

Sept 23, 2016

My little genius bounds up the stairs at 7 a.m. yesterday, and while Mike steps into the shower, Leo and I cuddle on the bed, which spurs him to say: 

“I dreamed about dreams. What did you dream about?”

This one little sentence, for me, tells a long story. A beautiful and complex story. Not only is Leo smart enough to talk about dreams, and to either recognize the themes of his dreams or realize it’s tricky to suggest dreaming about dreams, but he’s also learned to ask other people their opinions. 

He wants to dialogue with others. He doesn’t simply want to only talk about himself. 


Monday, November 21, 2016

The Reader's Lament

I’m in heaven and I’m in hell. And it’s a very specific form of heaven and hell.

What I mean is, my partner has just returned from Italy and he’s come back loaded down with every periodical known to man, specifically to Italian man (everyone but Nuovi Argomenti, that is, the one I asked for. Pazienza, he’s not a writer. He’s just an engineer.)

For someone who is a writer and an aspiring Italian translator such as myself, the bounty is Christmas-morning worthy. 

I now have the joy of looking forward to reading the Saturday editions of Il Corriere della Sera (with the culture section, yes!) and La Repubblica, plus a special edition of Bell’Italia (the most beautiful magazine I've ever seen, as I never tire to say) and a copy of Io Donna.

But mind you, a few weeks ago, I'd returned from ALTA (the American Literary Translators Association conference) where I snapped up a book of poetry by Eduardo Chirinos, a Patrick Modiano book and a literary travelogue of Mexico.

All of these reading materials arrived on top of reading I was already doing, including The Best American Short Stories of the last 100 years and E' Tutto Vita, a mass-market fiction book by the well-known Italian author (and TV personality!), Fabio Volo.

So what am I getting at?

Well, I want to dive right into the periodicals. I’m translating a book right now that is full of slang and I know that the magazines and newspapers will help me place certain expressions in the current moment of Italian popular culture.

It’s also just fun. Like an archeological dig for someone obsessed with the Italian language. I enjoy even reading captions of the articles on applying makeup and styling one’s hair (topics I normally have no interest in). Why? Because I love the otherness of Italy. I love the way they say “classe 1980” to indicate someone was born in 1980. In the class of 1980.

So what’s the problem?

Well, I have a lot of other reading to do. A lot. Like anyone who wants to translate, I’m constantly reading new Italian novels and perusing Web sites and lit mags for info on up and coming short story writers. (Finally finished Nadia Terranova's Gli Anni al Contrario).

I also have reading to do as an adjunct college professor. (I've assigned "Nickel And Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich to my Freshman composition students).

In other words, how does one balance all the reading one needs to do to remain in touch with his/her culture of obsession? (Or just one's intellectual obsession).

Does anyone have strategies to share? One that I often fail to adopt is to bring a book everywhere with me. I'd love to hear other ideas.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Final projects for 2016 -- how's it looking?

One way to consider the end of the year is to think about holiday parties and shopping.

But writers (and other creative people) have to also think about what they can finish (and possibly submit) in the final weeks of the year.

Yes, now's the time to think about this!

Take a look at your goals for the year. How are you doing? You don't need to grade too hard -- things change. Look at me.

My original goals for the year were:

*Publish a work of fiction somewhere (Ha ha!!!! Did not happen)
*Establish a regular exercise routine (not so much)
*Get a byline in a major national magazine (Still working on that one)

Then halfway through the year, I invented some other goals -- really I suppose replacement goals. And I'm doing pretty good on that front:

*Begin translating in earnest (I submitted my first translation to a literary magazine so I will check this one off)

*Find a regular editing gig (I'm now a contract editor, working part-time, at CNN so I will also check this off)

*Blog regularly for a literary magazine (I've developed a good relationship with Asymptote Journal, a wonderful online literary mag that celebrates writing in translation and world literature -- so that gets crossed off, too! Woot!)

But there's still more work to be done. Here's what I hope to do before Dec. 31, 2016:

*Finish translating the first half of an Italian novel I've been working on this year

*Submit something to a literary magazine before the end of the year -- in my case, probably a story from my Bennington thesis

*Finish the short autobiographical essay for a reach publication (reach!)

*Capitalize on the success of my New York Times essay by submitting another essay about parenting (possibly to the Washington Post)

I would love to hear from others (writers but also other creatives) about how you're mapping out the final leg of the year.

Buon lavoro, as they say in Italian!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Leo: “Do you have my number?”

From the Leo journal: 

May 14, 2016
From the backseat of the car, I hear, “Mommy I’m calling you!” 

I turn to look at him and I see he’s posed his hand against the side of his head as if holding a phone. We then proceed to have a pretend phone conversation. Swoon.

May 21, 2016
Leo says I should call him. Then he asks, “Do you have my number?”

(Editorial note: Oh I got your number all right, pal, as my mother might say)

When I “call” him as I stand a foot from him, he says, mimicking responses he’s heard me say, “Who’s calling?” 

When I ask him what he’s doing, he says, “Good.”


Wednesday, November 02, 2016

My 'Italian' Christmas -- it never gets old

I will always get a thrill from seeing a mass of Italian magazines, newspapers, coffee containers, biscotti packages and other sundry items from Il Bel Paese -- especially if it's all for me!

In fact, this phenomenon of Christmas in October (or July or March) is the basis for an essay I wrote for Catapult that you can find here.

Basic summary: Mike has just returned from a whirlwind trip to Italy and now he's hauling back treats for not one Italophile, but two (hard not to love Italian things when your name is Leonardo).

I'm in magazine heaven, biscotti heaven, southern Italian coffee heaven, etc. And I have a new t-shirt! Not as good as Mike's, though, which actually features a shark plane dropping cannoli out of its cargo hold. Ahhh....Sicily!

This is really the only kind of shopping I love.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Aubade by Phillip Larkin

Here's what my "English 101" students at Clayton State University will be reading this week:


Related Poem Content Details

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   
—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

Read the rest of the poem here at The Poetry Foundation's Web site.

We've also read "Now" by Denis Johnson and "What the Living Do" by Marie Howe. 

Poetry rocks!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Here's your Italian itinerary (prego!)

Once a year, at least, someone hits me up for recommendations in Italy. Oh I'm going to Italy. What should I do? Where should I go? (said breathlessly, of course) And it makes sense.

I live and breathe Italy! Even after all of these years back, stateside.

Often the questions are the same so I figured it might be worth setting down some basic suggestions.

(For something similar on Florence, you can go here).

Given the topic and potential permutations of a trip to Italy, this post is scandalously brief and glossing over all kinds of amazing Italian cities and destinations. Also: light on detail about the specific cities and regions I recommend but I figure this can be your starting point. I'll always be happy to add info later if the same question keeps coming up!

Skip down to the bottom for the real skinny but in the meantime here are the answers to "the usual suspects" for Italy trip-planning purposes:

What to do in Florence

Is it enough to say walk around and marvel? Probably not. I'll assume you're going to hit all the biggies (the Uffizi, for example, the shops on Via Tornabuoni, the glory of Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica) and suggest you also roam around the Oltrarno section.

You'll find other ideas in my quick-hit guide to Florence.

Tuscan countryside excursion?

I usually suggest Lucca because of all the cities in Tuscany, it is truly unique. It's a walled city, for Chrissakes! There is a piazza that is a perfect oval. And a Medieval tower topped by a tree.

Obviously, Siena (where I spent a semester, studying abroad) is gorgeous as is Volterra. But honestly that's just scratching the surface. There are all kinds of other delightful little cities and no I don't mean San Gimignano.

When in Rome

I personally think you can do just about anything in Rome and you will quickly understand why it is the Eternal City. Just walk around Piazza Navona or Campi dei Fiori. Look up. Eat (especially in Trastevere or Testaccio). Drink. Spend an ungodly sum at the store with the Vespa gear (ahem).

Or better yet, here's my specific advice: Stand in front of the Pantheon, then go in. You could easily fly back home after that. Leave it to the Romans to know the only way to top (literally and figuratively) a gorgeous building with a cupola is to insert a window on the sky.

Seriously, Rome seems to lend itself to any kind of trip. I spent a mere 24 hours in Rome last year and was so thoroughly enchanted, I can't stop thinking about the visit. Needless to say, three days in Rome would be great, as would a week.

More information on Rome here.

What about Venice?

Yeah, what about it? Okay so I am not an expert on Venice or even a frequent visitor. I believe I've been there twice. It's stunning because it's unique but overrun. And I don't mean overrun and hence I judge it and everyone who goes there. I mean overrun, as in, you might not enjoy it that much because it is a tiny city thoroughly overwhelmed by tourism.

That said, the streets are made of WATER. Hard to beat that as a concept. Also the Peggy Guggenheim Museum is quite interesting. Plus if you go, you can read John Berendt's City of Falling Angels as trip prep.

Wildcard (BOLOGNA)

Maybe try Bologna. It's a small, centrally-located city with gorgeous porticos on just about every building. Oh and the food is insanely good. About an hour by train from Florence so you could easily make it a nice day trip. It's in Emilia-Romagna, the so-called "bread basket" of Italy. And you'll be eating a lot of bread there. And pasta.

Wildcard #2 (MILAN)

Milan is an amazing city, and one often overlooked by Americans (although more and more are making it part of itineraries). It's amazing how, you ask? The food, the architecture, the fashion, the ART.

In fact, my favorite Italian painting (Rissa in Galleria by Umberto Boccioni) hangs in Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera museum (there's also another great painting, ahem -- Da Vinci's The Last Supper. But good luck getting a ticket!).

Other absolutely breath-taking places to visit: the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which is near the Duomo (stunning) and La Scala. The area called the Navigli is chock full of cool restaurants and bars, which are canal-side. Have a glass of Oltrepo Pavese for me!

Le Cinque Terre/Italian Riviera

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Le Cinque Terre/Italian Riviera, although I only visited once and it was years ago. The five little cliffside towns are overrun with tourists but also stunning. This description applies to Vernazza, in particular -- the most picturesque of the five villages. You may want to make your base another town in the region -- like Lerici or Portovenere -- but either way, nothing beats traveling by train to these tiny towns, watching the Mediterranean streak by from the train windows as you traverse vertiginous tunnels that seem perched on the side of the cliff and ready to tumble into the sea...and then hiking around the region (also grab a pesto pizza and a bottle of Schiaccetra').

My real advice?

Head down to Southern Italy. The food is so good you will wonder why you didn't come sooner. Most incredible region I've visited. In particular I would suggest Puglia. You can divide the province into three parts, choosing one to visit or as I did, sampling all three: the Salento peninsula, the Gargano promontory, and the area around Taranto. Oh and take along Italy's version of the Michelin guide (the Gambero Rosso) -- you'd be surprised how many entries show up for places like Bari (but you won't be spending a lot because everything is cheaper down South).

In the Salento peninsula, you'll find two types of beaches: spiaggie rocciose and spiaggie sabbiose (rocky vs. sandy beaches), you may eat horse (I did), you'll drink the local wine (the only wines I drink now, including primitivo and negroamaro) and you'll never miss Tuscany's tourists.

Click here for where to eat in Trani, and what to do and eat in Lecce, -- a regional capital that is sometimes called the Florence of the South.

Hit me up with questions in the comments or on Facebook (where I'll be posting this).

Oh and buon viaggio!