Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Summer's over: back to U.S. bashing

It's official. Summer is definitely over in Europe. We know this because EU parliament is back in session and European lawmakers are going after their favorite target: the U.S. This time, U.S. winemakers. Without saying as much, the Europeans are building up to some kind of protectionist policy on the beloved winemaking industry as the market here dips into crisis.

Intense competition from Australia and South America, overproduction in Spain, France and Italy, and flat demand here, all mean there is a glut of cheap wine on the market, crippling the little vineyards. At the same time, the U.S. winemakers are seeking open access to the European market. What to do? Cue the McDonalds and Coca-Cola cliches (French Liberal Democrat Anne Laperuze testifies: "I don't want a McDonald's type Chardonnay.") and harken back to some common ancestral rite (in this case, the Romans taught us to cultivate wine) in explaining a rationale to limit U.S. imports.

All U.S.-bashing aside, there is one troubling element that came out of the testimony in Brussels this week. In Europe, doctoring the production of wine is verboten. But diluting wine with water or doctoring it with smoked wood chips (apparently, the perfect companion to BBQ potato chips) are practices carried out regularly by American winemakers. I don't know how common a practice this is, but I always wonder what those little specks are floating on the top of say, a, California Zinfandel. It's unlikely the Europeans will succeed in changing American winemaking practice. But they have succeeded in scoring major label changes (at least on imports into Europe). No longer will Americans be allowed to freely use names like Riesling, Champagne and Chianti.

I can't decide if this is an improvement for the average wine consumer, but I like the idea of more honesty in labeling. Maybe in the next parliamentary session, the Europeans will take on Budweiser and its "King of Beers" slogan. I can just see a Belgian lawmaker saying "We Belgians have been making beer for 1,000 years. Budweiser is no beer."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Wine shopping

When I'm in Umbria, there's a no-frills co-operative wine press in a little town called Marsciano (near Montefalco) that sells Orvieto, Grechetto (two fine whites) and Sagrantino, a red wine that has fast become a favorite up and down the boot. I like this place because I can usually get a case of wine for well under 30 euros. Apparently, when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich is in Umbria he shops for Orvieto too, (the hilltop city, not the bottle) or some other equivalent vast tract of Umbrian countryside. A 13 billion dollar fortune can go a long way in Umbria.

This is the difference between me and a Russian oligarch. If invited for dinner, I will bring a nice bottle of wine, compliment the chef, maybe crack a joke. Whereas, a party involving a Russian oligarch will likely mean he jets you out to his sprawling villa in Central Italy, showgirls in tow, to watch his football club Chelsea on a jumbo-tron widescreen TV sipping the inaugural batch of vino Abramovitch. Oligarchs have all the fun.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Our man in New Orleans

Andy Sullivan, Reuters' rockingest reporter, is in New Orleans on Katrina duty. His brilliant blog captures the tragic and sublime.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Ah, the beautiful game

Everybody likes the underdog-conquers-all sports story. The 2004 Red Sox finally beating the Yanks. The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. ice hockey team victory over the Soviets. The Puerto Rico basketball squad that smoked the U.S. in the 2004 summer Olympics by 19. We all want to see the David slay the Goliath, restoring our faith that on any given day we too have a chance to accomplish the unthinkable.

In Italy, this season's David would be Ascoli Calcio 1898 S.p.A. Ascoli is short for Ascoli Piceno, which happens to be the provincial capital for Amandola. In other words, this is my local team. This is the sixth pro soccer season for me in Europe and I finally have a home squad to support. Woohoo! Ascoli was promoted to Serie A, the big leagues, just a few weeks before this season started in dramatic, only-in-Italy fashion. Despite finishing sixth in Serie B, they entered a playoff in June to claim one of three spots to move up to the big time, Serie A football, erm, calcio. Ascoli played poorly and was eliminated immediately from the playoff.

But then the magistrates stepped in.

Torino, the club that one the playoff, was forced to stay in Serie B because they are teetering on bankruptcy. Insolvency also stung Perugia and two other clubs that finished ahead of Ascoli, putting Ascoli in the unlikely position of getting a promotion for finishing sixth. It all came down to Genoa. The Serie B outright victor, Genoa, was denied promotion on account of a botched match-fixing scheme. Police made a dramatic bust, stopping a tinted limo of Genoa club execs from making a dubious money exchange just before a match against Venice. The punishment: Genoa was demoted to Serie C.

Now that you know the back story, how couldn't you cheer on the boys from Ascoli?

So far, they've allowed just one goal in two games, good for two draws (or 2 points for those scoring at home). They did manage one of those draws against the mighty AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi's well-financed squad. Next up is league powerhouse Juventus. Gulp. Is there a magistrate in the crowd?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

More sexy: French or Italian?

I got into a little trouble recently suggesting that the French are more sexy than the Italians. Actually, that's not so controversial. There are many Italian men who would back up that statement. What really got me into hot water was when I said French food is more sexy than Italian. I believe it came out like this over a meal in the Loir Valley last month.

Me: "Wow this is good," devouring a piece of duck confit.
Still me (after lots of mmmm mmmm noises): "You know, French food is sinfully good."
Xtina: "Pfffff"
Me, after sipping a fine Bordeaux: "Don't get me wrong. I love Italian food. But it's different. Italian food is prepared with amore. French food, S-E-X. And when the sex is this good..."
Xtina: "BEAR-NARD!"

I was not stating a preference, just making an observation. Rich sauces and gravies, butter-not-oil, medieval ways to torture ducks and then spread it on toast: this is what French cuisine is all about. If French food were a celebrity, it would have to be a beautiful French starlet, either Emmanuelle Beart or Paris Hilton. You know: decadent, possibly heart-stopping, all about beauty and presentation.

Italian cooking, in contrast, is a simple concept: it's all about the meat, the fish, the vegetables. No need to smother it with sauce. Keep all the pieces separated: no need to throw everything on one plate at the same time. No need for fancy names and gilded menus. Imagine a young Sophia Loren. In other words, a classic beauty.

This was my poorly articulated theory at the time. But recently, Luca, a Ligurian who makes a fantastic spaghetti vongole, explained to me that my hypothesis lacks insight. You see, he told me, the French use food as part of the seduction. For the French, the dinner table is the first stage of foreplay. For the Italians, the sex-food continuum runs in reverse. After sex, you eat, he said with a wink.

Which may explain why Italians eat so late.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The virtues of state-run industry

A few Saturdays ago Xtina and I boarded a 9:15 a.m. Alitalia flight from Rome to Stockholm, with a connection in Amsterdam. The two hour leg to Amsterdam gave us a solid 2 hours to catch my Stockholm connection. Piece of cake. Una passagiata. Right? Wrong.

Alitalia, the world's worst airline, loaded our plane with too many bags, oversold the flight and, in an aviation first, let everybody board the plane to claim the too-few seats. People stood in the aisles baffled that they had assigned multiple 13F's and 12A's. To diffuse this Fellini moment, the crew decided to march everybody off the plane and back to the gate. There, they scribbled a number on the back of our ticket stub and let everybody reboard again, somehow losing enough people along the way (probably at the espresso bar) for us all to have a seat. Our Alitalia flight left Rome airspace just as my Amsterdam flight took off for Stockholm. The *penalty for this blunder was a night in Amsterdam on the good people of Alitalia. Since the massively indebted Alitalia's biggest shareholder is the Italian government, I couldn't help but grin thinking that Italian taxpayers paid for my hotel room. Oh, what's this? Champagne in the mini bar?

( * similar airline screw-ups in the States gave me an opportunity to spend the night in such gems as Cleveland, Houston and Pittsburgh.)

I was excited to tour Amsterdam again. Xtina had never been. We met with a friend Lucas and his lovely wife and adorable kids. A few beers later, we parted, and X and I toured the town, of course stopping off in the red light district to see the hand-on-mouth naughtier side of town. What a let-down! Well, I shouldn't utter it in that way. But as far as titillation goes, the Protestant, state-regulated Dutch model of prostitution just doesn't compare to what you see on the streets or beaches of Catholic Italy. Not far from the Vatican, is a major thoroughfare, the Via Salaria (The Old Salt road, actually), that heads towards the Adriatic Coast. For a stretch, the Salaria looks a bit like Route 3 in New Jersey. There are non-descript office buildings, car dealerships, RAI's radio and Sky News' TV hqs. Oh, and the street is lined with young hookers. All day, every day. It's a tragic sight. These girls are all teenagers from Eastern Europe -- illegals, and quite likely, smuggled slaves. The Italians never seem to comment, or even question, the sheer volume of Czech cheeks or Latvian legs or Bulgarian b... (you get the idea) that grace both sides of the road. A journalist friend explained the Italian law on prostitution is ambiguous enough that hookers (or unofficially, le putane) can practice their trade with impunity. It's the pimps that are illegal. But they are there too. And so, the world's oldest profession thrives in Rome, not far from Benedetto's window.

There you have it...another insight into the Eternal City that the guide books censor out. Oh, and another tip: don't ever fly Alitalia.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina and the waves

Invariably, my Roman friends pepper me with "how" questions. How can the United States...? Or, how could George Bush think that...? These questions typically involve the same central quandaries: did the Bush Administration have any idea what is was doing in waging war in Iraq? Do Americans give a damn about the environment? Why is it that the richest nation on earth has so many impoverished citizens (37 million) and citizens without health care coverage (45 million)?

For Europeans, the last question sums up the least defensible aspect of the American way of life. Europeans don't necessarily see universal health care so much as an obligation to provide a safety net for society's most sickly and vulnerable, but rather it is seen as a wise investment. It makes good economic, social, political and practical sense to invest in the health and vitality of your country. Plus, it's just a decent thing to do -- to look after your neighbor in a time of need. There is no so-called "European way of life", but if there was the central idea would be: everybody contribute to a state that looks out for everybody. Sounds kinda nice, particularly as we see images of some of the poorest Americans dying on the streets of New Orleans because of neglect from an inept and uncaring government.

Typically, I deflect questions about my country with a groan, an offer of more wine, or, if I am really desperate, I bring up the latest Bank of Italy scandal. But last night the questions were coming at me too fast and furiously. I was inundated with questions about New Orleans. Practical questions.

Why can't the United States evacuate all those poor people? It's New Orleans, not Bangladesh.


We grew up believing the United States could conquer all. We saw movies where you defeat space aliens, where poor, hard-working men and women become huge successes. But now we see on TV so many Americans neglected and left to die. How can this be?

This last question goes well beyond New Orleans. The wonder is what if a Katrina-like disaster hit Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta or New York? Who would make it out alive? Looked at with this sense of bafflement it begins to explain (but cannot possibly forgive) the frustration and rage of the snipers and looters. Peering through this lens, systematic neglect -- a neglect that has its roots in the essential concept of the American way of life where your obligation of care is limited to your family, but not your neighbor -- is as indefensible as firing a gun at a rescue helicopter. Curiously, the italiani never asked me last night why a person would fire a gun at a belated helping hand extended from the government. Now, I wonder why do you think that is?

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Falco! Falco!  Posted by Picasa

Best of Euro pop music: Vol. II

Some of you have questioned my logic in formulating a list of top Continental European pop songs of all time. One anonymous poster wondered how I could possibly choose Macarana over Las Ketchup's cleverly named hit "The Ketchup Song"? (Another local communist friend wanted to know how I could exclude Manu Chao. My answer: does he represent France, Spain or North Africa?) Another wanted to know where is Austria's favorite son Falco, the genius behind "Rock me Amadeus"? And then there's the Sweden problem. A few of you wanted to know how I could choose something, anything, by ABBA over say Europe or The Hives. This is no contest. The Hives and Europe combined will never out-sell even Roxette, let alone ABBA.

Still, all these points merit consideration. Firstly, I must say I have been deficient. Falco should have been in the first installment, if only because of the classic Simpsons' episode in which they turn the Planet of the Apes into "legitimate thee-ate-er", set to the music of "Rock me Amadeus". Get your paws off me, you dirty ape... Doctor Zaius! Doctor Zaius!

And, I missed out on Bjork's contributions. And who could forget "Barbie Girl" by Denmark's Aqua?

So, I am adding three more to the list. But first, a reminder. The only qualification: these songs are chosen because they have staying power, meaning we are just as likely to hear them on the radio 10 years from now as we were 10 years ago.

Country: Iceland -- Song: Human Behavior -- Artist: Bjork (post-Sugarcubes) -- '93
Country: Denmark -- Song: Barbie Girl -- Artist: Aqua -- '97
Country: Austria -- Song: Rock Me Amadeus -- Artist: Falco -- '86
Already spinning:
Country: Germany -- Song: "99 Luftballoons" -- Artist: Nena -- 1984
Country: Norway -- Song: "Take on Me" -- Artist: A-ha -- 1985
Country: Italy -- Song: *"Gloria" -- Artist: Umberto Tozzi -- 1983
Country: Sweden -- Song: "Dancing Queen" -- Artists: Abba -- 1975
Country: Spain -- Song: "Macarena" -- Artist: Los del Rio -- 1993
Country: France -- Song: **"She" -- Artist: Charles Aznavour -- 1974

* redone in English by Laura Branigan with new lyrics
** while numerous French acts (Air, St. Germain, Noir Desir) of recent years deserve mention, only Chuck gave us a No. 1 hit in 1974.

Please help me find a better French single! And what about Portugal?