Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Italian trip 2017: photo-a-day #5 Torino courtyard

Will someone tell me if I've failed so far to make the case that Torino is astonishingly beautiful?

That hidden treasures await you?

What do they do in this courtyard? Who lives in this gorgeous building? Whose days begin looking out of that window at the grassy little field in the center of the courtyard?

To be sure, all Italian cities are riddled with tiny hidden courtyards -- but the key is "hidden." One rarely sees them. In Turin, just turn your head while heading down Via Po toward the river or Via Roma toward the station. They're there. They sometimes even house businesses like florists.

One can imagine someone wheeling into the cortile on a bike, gleefully putting an end to the commute (such as it were) by hopping off the bike and sniffing the air, with a premonition about dinner...I have a premonition that I may never return to Torino, if only because it seems almost ridiculously lucky to get two chances to explore such a wonderful city! More to come.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Italian trip 2017: photo-a-day -- #4 Fresh peas!

Just follow them. Go where they go, do what they say, ask questions but don't obstruct.

Those are my unspoken rules for being with Italian friends. It was a strategy that when I was a student in Siena reaped such travel gold that I insisted on going to live in Italy full-time. My Senesi friends took me to places that I could probably never find again -- some abandoned castle in Vescovado di Murlo, thermal baths in Southern Tuscany, a discoteque all'aperta out by a small airport in the countryside.

When I was in Italy last week, I had the chance to go hiking with my friends Giovanni and Veronica and again, they took me to a place that I could probably never find again. Two places, in fact. The second, in the low mountain range outside of Pistoia, that was so silent, so remote and hidden, that I felt as if my footsteps were trampling over the footsteps of the ancient Romans who'd sown the path. No tourist signs, no official place to park where you fed money into slot. Just the most intense greenery I've seen in a long time, and a serenity befitting the Buddhist converts who have taken refuge in this corner of Tuscany.

Oh and of course after you hike (or really do anything in Italy), you eat. In our case, a tiny restaurant in an old mill beside a stream (where else would they have put a mill?) where the waitress read out the menu, which is to say, read out the menu in her mind. We left a small window by our table open so we could hear the babbling creek below us.

We were hungry so we had pretty much everything, including these fresh peas (stunningly good) and a swiss chard involtino filled with baby veggies, plus I had the fresh pasta with a ragu of rabbit (don't tell Leo!).

Buon appetito!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Italian trip 2017: photo-a-day -- #3 Fiori!

Sure, we have flower boxes in our windows, too, in America but they never look like this! What exactly is the Signora or Signore feeding these flowers in Milan that they look like something you'd bring to a wedding?!

I became obsessed with window flower boxes during my last trip in Rome when I photographed several in Piazza Navona, and it might even have been the moment I decided to admit (once more) that I had it bad (for Italy) and it wasn't good, to quote the old blues song.

I cannot for the life of me understand why more tourists don't visit Milan. It's stunning beautiful, like any major Italian art city, but also chic and modern!

I had really only a few hours there, before bedding down for the night, and catching my return flight to the US. But I made the most of them, strolling before dinner from my hotel down via Brera into the Brera arts district, where I took this photo, past La Scala (where fancy Milanesi were filing in the famous theater for the 8 p.m. symphony performance), through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (oh if our malls could look like that), around the Duomo, and then ultimately down Via Orefici and Via Dante toward the Castello Sforzesco. Troppo bello! Especially for a walking enthusiast, such as myself. I basically threaded my way through the city from one pedestrian area/piazza to another.

(I really think American cities could take a page from this book -- we have beautiful buildings in our downtowns, even if they may be abandoned or underused. Can we give people a place to stroll? Can we build some squares? We'd have to contend with the homeless population, but then again, in Milan, you're contending with the strolling vendors who seem to think I need a woven bracelet of the kind I wore when I was 12).

Cheers to the gardener who lives at this home in Milan! You made my day.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Italian trip 2017: photo-a-day -- #2 Breakfast


Una ciambellina. Oo-nuh chah-m-bell-eena. The name of my favorite Italian pastry, hands down. The name of this blog, in fact!

I did something this trip to Italy I almost never do -- I ate breakfast twice every day! Meaning, two pastries. I usually adapt myself to the very Italian habit of moderation (something visitors often overlook in the Italian character) when I visit il bel Paese but this time, I wanted to try other pastries without giving up my beloved ciambellina.

Che golosa!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Italian trip 2017: photo-a-day #1: Piazza San Carlo

So we're in Torino, here, in Piazza San Carlo. But which photo is the best? Which photo makes you want to jump on a plane right now?

Piazza San Carlo is one of seemingly dozens of broad open squares that invite you to stroll-bike-boogie across them. Young people, old people, toddlers.

I found myself just wandering around, almost whirling around, taking it all in, as if I were a camera.

And in some ways that's what my eye needs to be. I need to store up all these pictures of Italy in my head -- until I can go back.

Italian trip 2017: photo-a-day #1.5: TRAMS!

I'd like to inhale this tram (see other post for explanation). The way it moves down the street, barreling through tight spaces between buildings, under arches, across rivers, I'm in ecstasy. Next trip, I want to simply spend the day on a tram in Milan or Turin (this picture was taken in Turin).

Friday, May 26, 2017

Italian diary, May 2017


I’m back in the “in-between” world, the space where sentences begin in one language and end in another. 

It’s a world that I inhabited for many years and then withdrew from (in Allentown, when I resigned myself to being stateside, which was not a completely unfortunate occasion since it was also when I discovered that Mexico, for example, is marvelous and that wherever I live, even Allentown, a part of that place will stay with me forever).

The in-between world is one I love and I loathe – loving it because Italian quickens my pulse! I become Italian Jeanne -- who has the luxury of walking everywhere, yes everywhere, every day, which only serves to ratchet up my already overflowing reserves of enthusiasm and energy. I might just walk someone to death in Italy, purely out of the joy of movement in my adopted country!

I also loathe the in-between world because it plunges me into saudade. What was, what could have been, what wasn't. America is the land of opportunity -- but it is not, for the most part, a land with an excess of perfectly-planned, grand public spaces linked by achingly beautiful cobblestone streets to other perfectly-planned, grand public spaces, where you can be both with and without people. Where you can see something heart-stoppingly beautiful outside of yourself and something deep inside of you, too.





I walk through the streets of Torino (or insert here whatever Italian city that I happen to be visiting) and I want to consume everything. Not merely a panino or a gelato, the things one normally consumes, but buildings, nooks, mossy courtyards, caffes, signs – especially signs, any vehicle for the Italian language that falls under my sight. Also: cobblestone streets and the tight juxtaposition of shops and restaurants, piazzine, too, which are tiny, often hidden lands frequented only locals. Yes, I want to consumer those piazzine, those cortili (which especially in Torino seem to give access to worlds unseen), I want to mainline the way bikes cross piazzas and how content and confident the riders appear. I want to inhale how toddlers bound across the grand squares of Torino without a car in sight -- how Italian cities are made for children to be children.

I want to gobble up how homey some of the cafés appear – their singular arrangement of product and signage and sumptuously-arranged display window and ancient door, making me want to eat and drink items I don’t even like or simply don’t care for at the moment (no I don't need another caffe or brioche, and yet, well, while I am here...).

Seeing these homespun creations, I want to order 3 cappuccini,, 4 ciambelline (like donuts but not), and also some other pastry that looks yummy and appena sfornata, a glass of acqua gassata, un bicchiere di vino rosso and maybe something else (I actually had breakfast twice every day I was in Italy this trip -- che golosa!).

It’s almost tender, how beautiful Italian cities are (and how welcoming their public and consumer spaces are). Made to be lived in, made for life outdoors, in the streets, in public. As if the Italians’ need for picturesque boulevards and quaint eateries is something they can’t help wear on their sleeves, as if it’s a remnant of the warm, coddled world of their childhood. That need to be welcomed and wanted by the world around us, by the barista, the giornalaio. That need for human contact.

At the risk of repeating myself, it will never be anything else but thrilling that Italy is a place I’ve called home, a place that’s still home to a very significant part of my mind. Somehow I am lucky enough to know this foreign country in the most intimate way. I didn’t simply live in Italy – it lives in me. Every time I’m here, I’m thoroughly inhabited by this bewildering, beloved, bedazzling country. 
Inhabited in a way that makes me spring to life, as if in Atlanta or America in general, I’m merely treading water, moving ahead instead of bursting onto the street and through piazzas as I do in Italy.

You may grow tired of reading this, and other posts that are similar, but I, at least, never seem to lose that thrill of contact with the culture. Even in moments of difficulty – where Italians insist on something absurd – this is still my Italy.

-30-

Friday, May 12, 2017

Map my brain

I have this fantasy about what I call "mapping my brain." In other words: pouring my thoughts out to an illustrator so that he or she can translate the recurring contents of my mind into a drawing. 

A constellation of thoughts is how I imagine it. 

Headlines, warnings, prayers, snippets of songs that have remained impressed and the layouts of the family homes I’ve visited so often that the furniture arrangements have been internalized -- I have them on 'speed dial,' is how I put it. Ten East (my grandfather's house in Bayonne). Peach Lake (my grandparents' house in what we called 'Upstate,' a.k.a. Westchester). 

Why do I remember that moment when one of my Italian students in Florence said to me, "Ma se non tu lo sai?" (Is it because it's slightly ungrammatical?)

Why do I picture myself, again and again, as a toddler, pouring the bottle of Prell shampoo on the brown, linoleum floor outside of the upstairs bathroom in Hicksville? I can see the blue green gel spreading out into a large puddle by the linen closet. 

Or the songs on permanent rotation. That French one, "Du Nord au Sud," for example, which is sung in Spanish, too. Or "Bus to Baton Rouge," by Lucinda Williams where she's moved to return to a childhood home with some rooms kept locked because they contain precious things that she could never touch. The first words of the Aeneid, chanted like a mantra: Arma virumque cano. I sing of arms and the man...

The headline I saw on the newsstand in Siena the day after the 1993 Italian referendum was held, during my study abroad program: "Italia E' Desta." (Translation: Italy is awake).

The map of my brain also includes -- ahem -- actual roads (mainly from Florence). Indeed, I find the video camera in my head is frequently livestreaming various viuzze, vicoli and strade from my beloved city (so many hours spent wandering the centro storico and climbing the hills outside the city walls, clearly my brain was absorbing every cobblestone even while my thoughts were elsewhere). 

Such that it mitigates the distance; in my head, I am often in Italy so what of it if my body remains stubbornly in Atlanta?

I jot ideas down now and again, in the hopes I somehow meet an artist with whom I could partner.

Map my brain. Who can help me? What will I find when we map my brain?

But better yet, why do I want to map my brain? Just another form of intellectual narcissism?

Monday, May 08, 2017

Italy trip prep! Alessandro Gassman interview



I try to immerse myself in the Italian language before embarking on a trip to Italy. That means loading up on podcasts, watching films and in this case interviews with famous Italians. Who said it needs to be work? Alessandro Gassman is one of the most successful and best-known film actors in Italy (thanks in part to his father, Vittorio) and someone who gives a good interview.

Note, the one from the show Le Iene is much better but I can't link to it easily.