Tuesday, May 31, 2016

'Bits' journal (March-April excerpt)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm obsessed with what poet and FSU professor David Kirby calls the 'bits' journal. The little observations one makes, the asides, the day-to-day activities one jots down, just because. I've begun posting excerpts of mine here. But what I really want to do is collect OTHER writers' 'bits' journals. Who's in?

April 1, 2016
Leo and I make quiche together. And yesterday as we stirred the bacon together with wooden kitchen spoons, he says, “It’s like a little hand touching the bacon.” Yes, a wooden “hand” held by an actual hand (that happens to be the world’s cutest hand).

March 22, 2016
On days I stay home with Leo, every minute of every hour someone wants to talk to me. And that’s what makes it so hard. It’s what makes going to work much easier. The moment you begin your journey towards work, someone stops talking to you, stops waiting for your reaction, stops asking you the same question over and over. Someone stops trying to seize every moment of your attention, every breath you take.

March 17, 2016
From one of Leo’s children’s books: “Where do months and years go when they’re gone?”

Friday, May 27, 2016

My quick-hit guide to Florence

The wonderful, exciting, taking-over-the-world writer Alexander Chee put out a call on Facebook for tips on Florence. I was happy to oblige and emailed him some suggestions.

And then I thought, well, I may know some other people shipping off to Florence for their summer holidays. So here are some ideas for how to spend your gorgeous Florence days....


From my first blog post during my trip last year at this time, click here for some ideas on where to eat, including my first visit to Trattoria Cammillo.

From a few years ago (in some ways Florence never changes so these restaurants are still open and still good, even if the post is from a while back), you can find a guide here to eating in Florence. I visited many of these restaurants last year and remained impressed and full (Ignore the Italian and just go to the middle of the post where the list of restaurants is).

ALSO: There are essentially three branches of Cibreo (the expensive version, the less expensive version and the club version that gives you access to a buffet plus a performance -- I've never been to any of it but Cibreo is quite well known so worth a try)

You know the biggies (the Uffizi and L'Accademia) so let me mention Museo del Novecento (for modern art). I'm personally really interested in 20th century Italian art (Futurism, i Macchaioli, Italian impressionism), and you may want a break after all being submerged in Medieval and Renaissance frescoes.

Produce Markets:
Go to the Sant-Ambrogio Market, slightly off the beaten path, in a neighborhood behind Santa Croce. That said, San Lorenzo was recently renovated and now has some great restaurants so also worth a visit but in a very touristy, crowded part of the city.

There's also usually a weekly flower market on Fridays in Piazza della Repubblica that's visually interesting even if you have no interest in buying flowers.

Neighborhoods (and WALKS):
Don't miss San Niccolo on the other side of the Arno (and of course, Sant'Ambrogio).

In fact the best walks are on the other side of the Arno. You can do the requisite walk up to San Miniato or you could walk to Forte Belvedere, strolling up a road called Costa San Giorgio (which you access just off the Ponte Vecchio). Walks along Via dell'Erta Canina (nearby) are also lovely. They'll help you work off your Florentine diet!

I don't care for leather goods so I can't give advice. My interests are household items (placemats, new Mokas, coffee canisters) paper goods, some clothing and of course, BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS. So, respectively, I visit the supermarkets and the casalinga shops (literally 'housewife'), Il Papiro, Barone near Piazza Beccaria (which had expanded when I went last year) and any of the Feltrinelli branches (including a fantastic one in the Santa Maria Novella train station -- peruse books while you wait for a train? Don't mind if I do!).

Field trips:
Lucca. In case you haven't been, it's a walled Tuscan city where you can even ride your bike on the ramparts of the wall. Also, there's tower in the center of the city with a tree growing on top. Plus some of the best food in Tuscany.

Local blog
Elena is a marketing expert who keeps the best blog (http://www.ioamofirenze.it/) on what to do in Florence. She no longer updates the English version regularly (http://lovingflorence.blogspot.com/)
but I'll include the Web address because there are some great links to restaurants and other attractions that are still up-to-date.



Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Donna Leon on Italian men

I've been urged to read one of Donna Leon's detective series books. And maybe I will. But in the meantime, I've picked up a book of her travel essays.

She's capable of some pretty fine insights. Here's what she has to say about Italian men:

"Most interchanges between a man and a woman here [in Italy], whether they take place between a woman and her lover or between a woman and the man who sells her cheese and prosciutto, are charged by some mutual recognition of, at however wild and improbable a distance, sexual possibility.

"This might st first sound like the ravings of frustration, the wild imaginings of a sex-starved spinster, but any woman who has lived here has surely often been aware of the sexual charge that fills the air at the most seemingly innocuous exchange with an Italian man."

Yes! Ecco! Ding ding ding!

That's it. Leon has nailed it.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Re-posting: A Girl's Gotta Eat (Tutto)

I'm re-posting entries from May of 2015, when I went back to my beloved Italy.

Is it wrong to say I didn't eat everything I wanted to eat in Italy? That I left wanting more? I suppose who doesn't?

(I also left with an ungodly number of books and yet I still wanted to buy more!)

Of course, I had a mental list of the things I had to eat. And topping that list:

A ciambellina.

Not just any ciambellina. A fresh one. An airy one. An obscenely large one, or just simply, a very good one. With just the right amount of sugar crystals dusting the top.

There’s a reason it’s the name of this damn blog. These donutesque delights (above left) are the best pastries you can possibly put in your mouth. Especially if you like something that’s uncomplicated and pure. And honestly I would say that’s the essence of Italian cooking: not fussy, not overloaded with a thousand ingredients or dependent on some tricky sauce or filling. Just the genuine article.

I also ate a lot of savory foods, too, of course. Here's a partial list:

Pici al granchio (in photo above; pici is a type of thick spaghetti often found in Siena and granchio, well, just ask Leo. It's crab); Fiori di zucca fritti; prosciutto crudo; paccheri sul coniglio (photo at top); a selection of cheeses one evening as a second (which included a lovely gorgonzola, of course, that when spread on a piece of crusty Italian bread became a snack worthy of the Medici), crostini with chicken fat and carmellized onions, and so on.

Oh and gelato. Nocciola, of course, the only gusto worth my time (even if the others are pretty good, hazelnut ice cream? You kidding me? Bring another coppetta over here, right quick please!)

And I could have eaten a lot more. I didn't get around to having anything with cinghiale -- wild boar -- which amounts to a felony in some parts of Tuscany. I also didn't have suppli (or arancini) in Rome, which produces a pretty good fried rice ball, if you ask me.

I also didn't have a Conca D'Oro, or enough red wine or fettunta with pomodorini or spaghetti alla carbonara or spezzatino (stew).

But I guess that will have to be for the next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Re-posting -- Why We All Love Italy

I'm re-posting entries from May of 2015, when I went back to my beloved Italy.
It rarely fails. Tell someone I used to live in Italy and the swooning commences.

And these days, right after the person I’m talking to swoons, he or she launches into tales about upcoming or recently-completed trips to Italy.
Americans are in love with Italy. And understandably so. It’s a country of such exquisite beauty – not hidden, not at certain times of the year or limited to one particular feature or area – that you’d have to be somewhat immune to human charms in general to resist.

As it turns out, we can map some of the reasons we all love Italy.

1. The country is actually organized.
Hard to believe, right? You tried ordering a coffee at a caffe in Italy during peak morning hours and felt as though you were at the running of the bulls. Or worse, you rented a car in Italy. Yikes!

But it’s organized around public transportation, and divided, for the traveler at least, into two neat spheres of interest: country and city. To be sure, Italians themselves often live in drab, modern apartment blocks in the suburbs. But visitors are able to move fairly quickly and easily on the public transport system between stunning cities and the gorgeous Italian countryside to take in the best in urban and rural life.

2. Rituals remain at the center of Italian life.
Italian life is still dictated by rituals, and delightfully so. There’s a time of the day, week, year or season to do something.

And many Italian rituals are ours for the taking. You can do your own evening passeggiata, strolling past shop windows and stopping to admire the view or chat with someone. You can browse the flower stalls at the market or order un’etto of prosciutto crudo (but don’t slice it too thin, please). You can learn when to order a cappuccino and when to limit yourself to an espresso.

Italians. The people who not only invented the phrase buon appetito, but also a specific corresponding response: grazie, altrettanto!

3. What a visual culture it is!
It’s a visual culture. They understood #travelpics and click-bait long before the Internet arrived. My recent trip to Florence and Rome left me astounded by the gorgeous flowers tucked into every crevice. Gelsomina spilling over the walls of the city, geraniums hanging in flower pots, and quite a few other plants I can’t even identify. I, too, have house plants and tend flowers on a veranda. But they look nothing like this.

And don’t get me started on shop windows. The Italians are geniuses at arranging shop windows (along with the prices, thank you very much). So well-organized are Italian shop windows that they lure even someone like me, a confirmed non-shopper, into all kinds of stores.

They still live life outdoors -- unlike most Americans.

4. Italians are born communicators -- and remain so.
During my visit, my Italian friends expressed the same concerns I have about our digital culture, and the cult of the devices we have in our pockets, or really in front of our faces all day and all night. But, I can see, even in just the short while I touched down in Italy, that if given the chance, Italians would still prefer to talk to people face to face. Why else would the Italian coffee bar exist? They can make coffee at home.

And thank God they don't because there's nothing more entertaining than watching them as they kvetch with the barista over the partita or politics!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Re-posting -- The Nostalgia Package Tour (FIR.)

I'm re-posting entries from May of 2015, when I went back to my beloved Italy.

You can retrace the steps of Dante when you visit Florence, visiting his parish church, for example, where he spied Beatrice for the first time.

Me? I’m retracing MY steps as I walk through the streets of Florence. Steps I first took so many years ago. Nostalgia comes so naturally to me that while in Rome earlier this week, I stumbled into a tiny piazza and stumbled back nearly 20 years to a weekend getaway to the Eternal City – my first with Il Nostro Inviato (also known as Someone). I looked up at the street sign – Piazza San Pantaleo – and my mind, photographic for things like street names and addresses and the dates that important moments happened – recalled instantly that we had stayed maybe two nights at a small pensione on the piazza.

My days in Florence are filled with what I call controlli. I’m monitoring the streets, the crowds of tourists, the number of restaurants (and gelaterie – there are so many now!), the exact locations of shops (the clothing shop Gerard has moved, ladies and gentlemen. So has Patrizia Pepe’s boutique), the routes of buses I used to take (you catch the No. 23 bus now in front of the station, not on the side) and so on.

I’m also monitoring what people say. As in, I'm eavesdropping. I’m swooning over the constant flow of Italian language in my ear. Finally, I’m once again surrounded by Italian, a scenario I find so inspiring, so fundamentally pleasing I wonder if they should prescribe it as therapy? Perhaps it would only work for me. Jeanne’s Therapy. But I suppose other people could get a prescription for French Therapy? Or Spanish Therapy?

(This is hardly a new discovery since I’ve long known that quite simply, I get my jollies hearing and speaking Italian. Spanish, too.)

Of course it helps to know what the Italians are saying when you eavesdrop. But not only. It helps if you can follow the peaks and valleys of the sing-song Florentine accent, through which the natives express a constant, often hilarious litany of slights, recriminations and general observations that there’s nothing that can be done about whatever problem is under discussion but oh what a mess things have become!

The Florentine patois seems perfectly attuned to bursts of desperation, expressed through comments like, “Dio buono, ragazzi!” (Good God!) and complaints of any kind, though mainly of the most pedestrian nature (a signora told me yesterday that she had been waiting 30 minutes for the No. 4 bus. I don’t belittle her complaint – the No. 4 bus jilted me, as well, because I wasn’t standing in the exact right spot).

And of course there are controlli of the most personal kind. My old apartment now has mosquito screens on the windows that I can see from the street. (I should say: Apartment No. 3 in Florence…I haven’t visited #1 or #2 yet. I did see #4. It’s a medieval tower in the center of the centro storico. So not much has changed, although they have cleaned up l’Arco di San Pierino where the Antico Noe sandwich shop is located. Exactly where did all the heroin addicts go?).

Today, the day stretches before me, and it promises to bring hundreds of small discoveries. I may even do something new (Museo Stibbert, anyone? Apparently the grounds of the museum constitute a gorgeous park, a stone’s throw from the center of Florence).

All I know is I’ve paid for the Nostalgia Package Tour. The “This Is Your Life” Full Immersion Tour. And the “Brush Up On Your Florentine Dialect” Tour.

Also the “Can I Really Be This Lucky?” tour. The answer to that last one is a resounding yes.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Re-posting -- Returning to Italy a year ago

I'm re-posting entries from May of 2015, when I went back to my beloved Italy after a hiatus of eight years.

It’s noon on May 13, 2015 and apparently I’m about to touch down in Rome.

I’m sitting in my seat on the airplane and I see it. I see IT.

It’s Italy. It’s Italy.

My Italy. Just beyond the green and red Alitalia logo on the wing of the airplane is a country called Italy.

Wait—applause! Everyone is so glad we landed safely that they give the pilot a hand. Benvenuti! The Italian guy next to me has already donned his sunglasses. You can never be too cautious.

Am I ready?

To be honest, I’m a bit nervous. Will Italy and I still be in love?

Well, before we can even figure out whether we want to resume our love affair, there’s a slight delay in disembarking. You see, you can’t take the plane all the way up to the airport. You just can’t. You have to take a shuttle bus. Which isn’t here yet. Obviously.

Once inside the airport, it’s the usual major airport hysteria combined with a particular brand of Italian caos. But my suitcase arrives, the hotel pickup shuttle is there waiting for me, and we’re off.

And within a few minutes, gazing out at the city from the back of the taxi, I have that feeling again. I get it every time I see Rome. I don’t know how else to express it other than, “Oh right, Rome is so beautiful, so masterful, so all-encompassingly majestic that swooning is inevitable.”

It’s almost as though I forget or the human brain, my human brain, simply cannot spend all of its time computing how fantastic a place like Rome is. Each time I visit, I remember why it’s the Eternal City. Eternally enchanting. Eternally beguiling. Eternally mine (and yours) – if only I can find the time to catch a plane and get here.

Because when I do, I see vistas like the one in the photo above. Small, little splashes of Italy to brighten not just your day, but your life.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The journal I keep in my car

I glance at my car diary and am entranced by the snippets of thoughts I find there. The gushing emotion. If I’ve bothered to record a thought in this diary, it’s an urgent one. Often scrawled while the car is moving, and the handwriting attests to it. I love the juxtaposition of thoughts and I think, Transcribe as is and submit it (as if someone would publish it -- ha ha!). 

It's a snapshot of my life as seen through the lens of one particular document, my car journal.

Absolutely obsessed with idea of publishing an excerpt of my diary. Such egotism! I guess it’s just I find inspiration in it (if I’m able to find an excuse). Would others?

Without further ado, here are recent excerpts of the journal I keep in my car:

Oct 9 2015
“Last night, a terrible fight,” the redux.

Except it was yesterday afternoon, not last night. Isn’t, then, the problem me?

For the short story “Westshire”: The two trees growing outside the window. At first, they are distinct plants flanking either side of the window in the front bedroom, a perfect frame for the panes of glass. Later, he sees they need to be trimmed. The leaves of the two trees are beginning to converge. At the end, when the two trees have blurred into a mass of foliage obscuring the front window and casting the room into permanent shade, he’s given up the idea of trimming them. It’s no use now.

Oct 10, 2015
For my next Bennington assignment: how do I write a novel like Teju Cole? (As if)

Add to the reading list: “To Have and To Have Not” and “Death in the Afternoon.”

Also, add to your other diary: teaching Leo to sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” after watching the clip of the old James Cagney film. Parenthood at its best – 'Here is something I love and now you love it, too.'

Oct 12, 2015
The babysitter calls me at work and I hear his voice down the phone line, tiny, bewildered, “Mommy.” Then again, “Mommy.”

Oct. 30, 2015
I think I’m losing my fingerprints.

Nov 11, 2015
Listening to “Casta Diva” on the stereo. Oh Maria Callas…

I think he senses my distraction. I think of the pat on my back (self-administered), ‘Look at me, not as addicted to digital devices as other parents.’ But what of it? I’m still distracted, constantly, thinking mainly about my writing, and he senses it, even if he cannot possibly guess at the cause.

In my own version of “Casta Diva,” she says, “My life is a fuckin’ opera. One long opera.”

Nov 20, 2015
Another night of only five hours of sleep, and my mind is so alive. Skipping from thought to thought. Tired, yes, but alive, and thinking.

Nov. 28, 2015
When do I start writing about Atlanta?

“Spaghetti Junction”

“Suburban Chinatown”

Then I remember something Mike said about Leo. “Lui’s bravo.” [Lui  is bravo] Atlanta – where our world was born (or re-born).

Dec 4, 2015
Obsessed with Adele’s song “Hello.” Watching her performance on Jimmy Fallon over and over. And it’s revived another dormant obsession. That New York is the center of the world. A sense of missing out. A sense of being outside the action. Or simply just, I miss New York.

Dec 6, 2015
Still listening to Adele’s “Hello.” What happens when you get ‘beyond sorry’? When ‘sorry’ doesn’t even begin to atone for what’s been done?

Dec. 11, 2015
He’s sucking his fingers. Worrisome, but still better than if he were twirling his hair.

Dec 15, 2015
My interest in foreign worlds completely intoxicates me sometimes. Listening right now to the BBC World Service on WABE and thinking about Italy, and more graduate school studies, and Irene Chias’s book. Troppo.

Dec. 16, 2015
Driving to HLN, recovering from a cold, I see visions of a young priest on a class trip to Italy (a la St Anthony’s chorus trip). He seems lost, emotional, secretive, having a crisis…having an affair? He’s seen spending a lot of time with one young female student…but it’s not as it seems.

No date
A fire in the mind, no question. An unabashed embrace of my intellectual passions. A life of letters in the making (I hope, I hope).

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Bookshelf fetish

Very excited that I could actually snap this picture and use it for a story I wrote for HLN (a division of CNN). I just look at the picture and I swoon. It's my idea of cozy.

You can read the story here (it's about indie bookstores making a comeback. Woot!)