Friday, December 29, 2006

Chiuso per le ferie a common sign around Rome these days. It means "closed for the holidays". And like the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker, ISB will be shutting down for a few weeks. What! A few weeks!

Yep, the staff of ISB is off to Sri Lanka where we will be doing our part for a little charity that is near and dear to our heart. Thanks to your generosity (well, many of you) and Xtina's quick thinking, we raised 400 euros at the end of the summer to build these little tykes a pre-school. (Yes, they are still taking donations).

We will be back in the new year with pics and tales of our travels.

Buon anno, a tutti!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Law and Order: Nativity Division

Scandal and outrage are the dish of the day in my apartment building today. What's happened? The ceramic shepherds from the nativity scene in the lobby are missing, as of this morning. With few leads to go on, the old ladies in the building have classified it a theft. It's not safe in our little corner of Rome today. You will get waylaid by one of my neighbors asking you: What kind of person would steal a shepherd?

Ok, this post is now updated with pics. The first photo is the offending crime scene: the Xmas tree carries, as a rather gaudy ornament, a several-paragraph notice that some miscreant made off with the shepherds. We'll be dusting the tree later for prints.

Here's the new nativity scene as it stands now. Mysteriously, in the place of the shepherds, now stands a strange figure in contemporary dress, maybe half the size of Joseph and the farm animals. This is strange!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Geeky map stuff

I'm crazy about maps. I've been known to pick up a map, with no travel plans in mind, and chart out a route from say Paris to Bordeaux (passing through Tours), or Berlin to Prague (definitely via Dresden). Don't ask me why. I don't want to get in a car and actually drive these routes. I'd prefer to make the journey in my head, I guess. Still, I can't resist picking up a map. It's such a satisfying read. Particularly ancient maps with oddball names for today's cities, or regions or states.

Old Italian maps, I find, are the best because the landlord has changed so much over the years. Italy has only been Italy as we know it today since the 1860s. Before that it was a jumble of states, administered by powerful merchants (as in the case of Tuscany, Genoa, etc) or it was under papal rule.

Where am I going with this?

Well, Xtina and I just received an incredible gift -- a 17th Century map of what is today Le Marche. At the time, it was under the greasy thumb of the pope. Le Marche (or most of it) was known as "Marca d'Ancona olim Picenum," a convenient way of amassing the four provinces of Le Marche into one territory for the pope. The map is an incredibly rich hand-drawn piece of art. It's not exactly accurate, but it's close enough. At the time, Amandola was called just "Mandola" and for some reason Sarnano was shifted about 15 km to the northeast. Close enough. The sea is not the Adriatic, but instead the Golfo di Venetia. Urbino, Rafaello's hometown, is a province unto itself.

See for yourself. The first pic is of the entire region; the second a close-up of the Amandola (here noted as "Mandola) region. Yes, I'm a total map geek.

Monday, December 25, 2006

UPDATE 1 - Dateline: Decadence

Buon Natale, dear readers!

Just a quick note to say Adam, always the danger-loving reporter, was alert enough to take notes from our meal at Arzak last week, I report today from Perugia, still digesting the Xmas guinea fowl. His report (with pics) is here.

ISB will be back later in the week with an end-of-year Best of.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hijacking the sun

How much would you pay to harness the power of the sun to keep you warm in these dark days of winter, or illuminate the streets enough for a noontime stroll? It seems cruel to even put a pricetag on such a thing. But then you probably don't live in Viganella, a northern Italian village high up in the Alps. Viganella is famous for receiving no direct sunlight for a 10-week stretch each year beginning in mid-November.

This year, the town got together and funded a 100,000 euro project to bring the sun to its dark corner during the winter months. How, did they achieve such a feat of engineering know-how and scientific ingenuity? They stuck a massive, ugly mirror on the far side of the valley to bounce the suns rays onto the little town. The Beeb has the story here.

In case you're wondering how it works: (again, courtesy of the BBC)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dateline: Decadence

In the 1600s, down Naples way, the Napolitani lived under a revolving door of foreign rule: the French first, then the Spanish. But the ever colorful Napolitani didn't mind. They used to say: "Franza o Spagna, basta che se magna". Translation? The French or Spanish, who cares, as long as they feed us.

Xtina and I took a very 21st Century spin on this concept this weekend, traveling to Spain's Basque Country to meet our friends Adam and Kelly and Brinley and Duncan for a final meal-to-end-all-meals before Adam and Kelly move back to NY. Naturally, we chose San Sebastian, on the French border, and, in particular, restaurante Arzak, a family-run, three-star shrine to sinfully good eating, to make our statement. I love Basque cooking. The influence of terra and mare means fresh fish and healthy portions of beef, served up with wild spices. It's the kind of food you dream about months later when you're hungry. A few days later, and I'm already having flashbacks to Arzak's brilliance.

Xtina, always a tough food critic, but a lover of all cuisines, was buzzing about Basque brilliance to our Italian friends last night at a dinner party. The subject of Spanish ascendancy is a sore spot among Italians, but this was the Basques after all.
They're no more Spanish than I am, I reckon. The Italians hung on every word of Xtina's gushing tale of gustation.

So, what did we eat? We opted for the tasting menu, code for 2.5 hours of non-stop
eating that began with seafood -- dishes of oysters, crayfish, etc -- before moving on to duck, and later a series of homemade ice creams and chocolates that had an odd endorphin-pinging effect. Yes, there were several moments of euphoria. Sustained euphoria.

So, what exactly does a meal cost at Arzak? The first answer is: not enough. I would have given all my blood, promise my first-born, anything, on top of paying the bill. The second answer is: if you see my bank manager this month, tell him you haven't seen me. A late mortgage payment will be worth it.

Forza Vatican City!

It was not really a scandal, but it was a good ol' hoax while it lasted. Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone (a cardinal) told the Italian press this weekend that the world's smallest independent nation (pop. 783) will seek to field a soccer team to take on the great powers of international soccer. With Jesus as they're striker, (metaphorically, of course), how could they lose? For a few days, the press went crazy speculating the likeliness of the Holy See qualifying under Uefa rules. The answer? It wouldn't be hard; Andora and San Marino are already in.

Today, however, Bertone said he was just kidding.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Your wayward correspondent

My trip to St. Petersburg last month was particularly fruitful. Here's my second St. Pete dateline, this one in today's Media Guardian.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It's nice to be nice

Or so my grandmother, (still) the sweetest woman to ever walk this Earth, used to say.

The subject of this here post was supposed to be about this four-letter word, nice. I even wrote my latest Times column about this concept. Nice-ness as it pertains to a business model, goes the thinking.

But then a loyal reader points out this, the story of Mal Lane, a student apparently in Rome who slept with a famous actor. Now, courtesy of Gawker, you too can pose as Mal and try to score $15,000 for an "exclusive" interview.

Editorial note: Il Sette Bello never pays for exclusives. So, stop asking.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The (other) wedding of the year

A friend of mine rang me a few hours ago from Bracciano, site of the TomKat wedding. Where was I?, he wanted to know. Why wasn't I with him jostling for a quote from John Travolta or Brooke? Because my students are covering it, I informed him.


Yep, the recently launched newspaper of John Cabot University is now online in blog format for all the world to see. They're covering interesting topics: train crashes, a BabyShambles show where Pete Doherty smashed up the stage and yes, the wedding of year. Check it out. Per favore.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Back from the great white north

Il Sette Bello returned to Rome a few days ago, back from the frozen tundra of St. Petersburg. It's only 25 degrees centigrade warmer here. That's how cold it was in St. Petersburg, and how balmy it is here!

St. Petersburg, unlike Moscow, is a wholely European city with magnificent 18th-Century palaces, meandering canals and quaint cobble streets. It's also frigidissimo. This is only my second trip to Russia. I can't wait to return. It's an overwhelming sensory experience. Rather than blather on, I'll let the pics do the explaining.

Oh, in case you're curious, I wasn't chained to a bar this time.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Ministry of Health...and Sillyness

Italy has historically had a lax attitude towards cannabis. How lax? The new Center-left government feels as if the legal limit of a half-gram of dope is a bit stingy in these trying times. Yesterday, the government gave the OK to double "personal use" to one gram -- the equivalent of 40 joints, the Ministry of Health helpfully pointed out.

Explains Livia Turco, minister of Health (and, apparently, Happyness): "I intervened so thousands of young people don't have to go to jail or suffer a criminal proceeding for smoking a joint."

Erm, or 40 joints.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Behind the Iron Curtain

Il Sette Bello is yet again on the road, this time off to Mother Russia for a few days. Yep, I'm back to the scene of the crime. This time, St. Petersburg, the land of Tolstoy and the Winter Palace.

I'll return here in a few days with a report and pix, but in the meantime, here's a small tale of my last trip to Russia. Moscow, to be exact. First, let me set the scene. It's a Saturday night in December, 2004. I am part of an international group of journalists -- French, Swiss, German, Austrians, Brits and me, plus a few Russian hosts -- out on the town. What could go wrong?

On our last night, we hit the clubs. Yep, Saturday night in Moscow. Moscow night clubs are prowled by packs of women. Women with a purpose. You have little chance to hide behind your mug of beer before one tries to pull you and your mate onto the dance floor to shake your Western ass to truly awful Russian pop covers or the obligatory local folk dance.

Happily, there was only one international incident worth mentioning to the consulate. At an upstairs bar, we watched in awe as a pack of Muscovites participated in ritual self-mutilation, taking turns consuming conflagrating concoctions, stuff that could power an old Russky tank up a hill. The first victim was forced to suck through a
straw a flaming cauldron of some rust-colored cordial. Complicating matters, they stuck her in an old Colonial-era wooden stock – the heavy wooden plank that locks your head and hands away from the rest of your body – forcing her neck to contort in reptilian fashion to suck out the alcohol. She didn't fare well.

The next vicitm, a guy, was treated more inhumanely. This monster was fitted with a construction helmet and an even heavier stock that was attached to a chain. They shackled him to the bar, presumably to keep him from fleeing at the sight of the drink they were preparing. The mixologist grabbed a beer mug and began filling it with alcohol: a double shot of gin, a double shot of what I can only assume was grain
alcohol, two different kinds of rum and topped it off with pink champagne. We all winced as he struggled to down it. Encouraging cheers turned to moments of shocked uh-ohs as he belched and wheezed his way through about 3/4 of the mug. Defeated, he took a few dizzy steps to the side while his friends rushed over to keep him from
tipping over and strangling himself with the chain.

We all agreed this must be some Soviet-era ritual that survived perestroika. Just then, a big bear of a Muscovite tapped me on the shoulder and informed me: "You're next."

"Yes, Englander", he growled.
Realising I was a goner, I stifled my urge to correct him. What would they do to a Yank? Suspend me upside down from the ceiling and force kerosene through my nose?

I turned to a sensible fellow reporter: "How can I worm out of this?" His advice? "I'm sure they won't make you drink ALL of it. Just look at that guy," he said pointing to the young buck who'd just staggered away from his executioner. The guy was now propped up against the wall. He wore a vacant expression, like he was trying to read instructions off the underside of his eyebrows on how to regain his equilibrium.

Just then, my challenger picked me up and carried me a good 15 feet to the bar. When we landed, he gave me a simple command: "You drink, Englander!" He then made a brief speech in Russian that drew a small crowd of loud drunks. I imagined he was insulting us, calling us weenie Westerners. My mates drew the same conclusion. "Did you hear
that? He's challenging us! You have to do this, mate! For England!"

"For England? You can take your in-bred royal family and shove…" Just then, Lerch came back. "Ready, Englander?"

I tried to make a brave face, but found it harder to stifle an oncoming sob. I really didn't want to drink this thing. My heart was pounding nervously. I called over our Russian chaperone and pleaded with him to command the bar men to go easy on me. I'm old, I informed him in a cracking voice. He said something in Russian. No response. The mixologist and his toady assistant instead went into action.

I could have been imagining it, but it seemed the portions of alcohol were larger, and new and more varied bottles were being pulled off the shelf. "Dennis?" I asked my Russian guide. "Is that green stuff absinthe?" "Of course. Is Russian tradition," he informed me unhelpfully. I'd never tried the absinthe before, mainly because I have a strict policy against alcohol that was considered dangerous (something about causing blindness in some, madness in others) in the 19th century. Now, a retina-scarring dose was being emptied into my mug. The finishing touches of pink champagne turned the mug into a brimming, fizzy mess – like dropping Alka Seltzer tablets into a jar of paintbrush water.
I was beginning to hope the blindness would be sudden and painless. Particularly, when the toady produced a sawed-off beam and began banging on the bar. They fastened the construction helmet on my head and began the countdown in Russian. At one, or what I guessed was one, the toady wacked me over the head with the beam. Slightly dazed, slightly confused and incredibly angered I looked up at him, only to
catch out of the corner of my eye the mug coming at me from the other direction. To avoid the indignity of being force-fed Soviet-style, I had to wrestle the mug away. Mustering all the Yank defiance I could manage, I cocked my head up and brought the mug to my lips. I took a deep breath and muttered something resembling a vow that, should I survive this alcohol stew, I need to start acting more like an adult
for a change, which includes doing my best to avoid Russian bar challenges. How is it at the mature age of 32 that I'm about to drink a mug of jet fuel to uphold the honor and dignity (in my mind of course) of the West?
The instant the concoction touched my tongue, the yells and cat calls
went quiet. Not silent exactly, more of a muffle. For a moment there, it was just me and my mug. I'm still shaking my head about what happened next. (yes, there is photographic evidence of this. Not my proudest moment.) I'd like to think that in a different era – when this was the capital of the evil empire – my actions that Saturday night would have fit somewhere between a Hollywood treatment of
Miracle on Ice and Rocky IV. But you be the judge.

In three, dare I say, heroic glugs I inhaled the entire mug. Gone in seconds flat. I
slammed it down on the bar to a blur of stunned Muscovites and a few jubilant Westerners. I gave the crowd a victory belch and started to hoot obnoxiously about Yank supremacy wins again!!! If I was wearing my Uncle Sam boxer shorts at the time you can bet they would be doing a victory dance on the bar.

Untouched by my rant, Lerch was the first non-Westerner to greet me. I tried to reach out and give him a no-hard-feelings hug, but forgot I was still chained to the bar. Like a dog, I was yanked back into place. The Russian informed me I wasn't through. Obviously, they had underestimated me, and they needed to work on a second concoction. "No way, Boris" I told him. Lerch poked me in the chest. Justifiably,
I (or, in retrospect, the booze) poked him back. Suddenly, Dennis, a German and two Brits jumped into the dispute. Dennis started to negotiate on my behalf in Russian. The German produced a key and the Brits created a diversion. Unshackled, denuded of the construction helmet and dock, I was, for the second time in a 3-minute span being
carried, this time to safety, out of the bar by Westerners. 10 minutes later Dennis found us. He's determined to make me pay, Dennis informed me. I was feeling fine until that moment. My bravado was gone. I really didn't want to drink another concoction. He can't make me. The others nodded. Dennis wasn't so sure. Dennis told me to hide in a downstairs bar. So, I did. Nursing a pint of Guinness (why Guinness?
It seemed like the neutrality of Ireland was what I needed), I found the most inconspicuous spot in the joint – on the dance floor between a pack of Russian women who happily pulled me into a Russian folk dance (replete with an encore that probably still hasn't ended). Vegas has nothing on this town! Considered yourselves warned, comrades.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Behold the blessed tuber

No bigger than a cookee. Weighing in at roughly 25 grams. Packs a powerful, fungal perfume that we still can't quite get rid of. We'll miss you, amico.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Once you go white...

I am writing this post under the influence.

On Saturday evening in a shady corner of Amandola, Michael and I met a guy -- let's call him "Nello" -- for a rather sizeable transaction. He was dressed in camouflage fatigues, wore a blue knit cap and four-, maybe five-days growth. Between us, Michael and I were sporting maybe 6-hours of stubble. We'd been eyeing Nello's cache for a few minutes, but we lacked the confidence to pounce. We waited and waited and waited, mainly for the crowd to thin out and move on. We were buyers. We meant business. "Not the black stuff", we informed him by way of introduction. "The good stuff. Bianco". He pushed forward a scale and rattled off prices, prices, he boasted, that were below the going market rate. 150 euros per 100 grams (more pricey than gold) is what they charge in the big towns. Nello could score us a better deal, he assured. He held up the goods. Pungent. Fungal. Sold.

48 hours later and I am hovering a few feet off the ground. Having finally ingested my purchase this evening, I'm having a pleasant wave of flashbacks. There's definitely a lingering sense of euphoria, still some light-headedness. And, yes, I love you all.

My drug of choice? The white truffle.

I am also feeling a bit nostalgic. (Could I be coming down?) It will be another year before I get the chance again to eat nature's most precious tuber.

While we ate our tagliatelle dripping with while truffles this evening, we all wondered what this meal would cost in the most lavish cities of the world (the assumption being only lavish cities ever source the rare white truffle). In New York or London, Tokyo or Paris, I'd venture a guess that a single, overly garnished and truffle-deprived dish would run a diner more than the five of us paid for the entire meal -- last night's meal too, and probably tomorrow night's as well. In case you're wondering, I handed over a 30-spot for our hunk of earthy, pungent goodness, but that's not important.

The important part is that Amandola is on the map, one of the few places on this planet where the mysterious white truffle grows in select sub-terranean hollows. A year ago I went hunting with tartufai and we came back with zesty summer truffles, enough to stink up our apartment for days and put exceptional pasta dinners on our table. But the true king of the tubers is the white goddess. Tartufo bianco. As Xtina says, "once you go white, there's no going back." It's an expensive habit to kick. The good thing is they are only available in late Oct and early November. The odor usually fades by Spring.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Pio's peeps

In 1966, John Lennon scandalously proclaimed the Fab Four were "more popular than Jesus". Some Italians today might be remarking, "Jesus, who?"

A new poll out today reveals that the big man the Italians pray to most -- to smite down a daughter's new marginally employed boyfriend or goose the lottery odds in their favor -- is the bearded monk Padre Pio, not the son of God. Mary doesn't fare much better. Some 31 percent of church-going Italians (when the pollsters ring, all Italians have a 100 percent attendance record) pray to Padre Pio first; just 9 percent turn to the Madonna and 2 percent to Jesus. In fact, Pio beats St. Anthony, the patron saint of flat tires, lost car keys and yes, the lottery.

Pio is clearly riding a Duomo-sized wave of positive PR. After witnessing the canonization of Pio just four years ago, the Committee to Elect Pio has not rested there. They are still an active force, distributing postcard-sized Pio images to delivery van drivers, shopkeepers and football fans. Pio's peeps are everywhere in Rome. If a driver pulls out blindly in traffic, endangering the lives of motorists, pedestrians and stunned onlookers, chances are there will be a Pio dangling from the rear-view mirror, explaining the unexplainable. If your dry cleaner mistakenly mixes up your order, giving your dress slacks to a 5-foot-1 Roman instead, don't expect to find an answer in that crumpled receipt you're clutching. Look instead into the soothing eyes of Pio above the cash register. You don't know suffering, silly straniero. Pio has a stigmata. What troubles do you have?

I am not the only one who finds Pio worship more than a bit disturbing. Father Tonino Lasconi, an expert on saints and religious teaching, told ANSA:

"Despite all their years of religious education our flock is extremely ignorant. They don't seem to realise Jesus and the Madonna are on a different plane".

I plan to use this line at the dry cleaner next time.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A day at the movies

I would like to take back my previous disparaging statements about contemporary Italian cinema. I've seen a lot of cinema lately, on the job and off. I've seen in the past few weeks, five Italian films, four of which were excellent, in fact, a few candidates for Il Sette Bello's "Best of 2006" designation. Sadly, there is not much demand for these films outside of Italy so you may have to wait until they come out on DVD, or check your art house listings.

They are (in no particular order):

La Stella che non c'e -- this one was shortlisted for the Golden Lion at The Venice Film Fest. Still, it's distribution outside of Italy is meager. It's a great tale about the creepy side of Globalization.

NuovoMondo - The New World. A Sicilian family, dirt poor and barely educated, strike off for America at the turn of the last century. Che magnifico! There are scenes I won't ever forget, including the creepiest marriage-arrangement scene on the grounds of Ellis Island. Extra props for the Nina Simone soundtrack.

Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio - A sweet documentary about the mixed-race community of Piazza Vittorio. The filmmaker and a musician assemble a group of African, South American and Asian musicians to form an orchestra. This is a low-budget doc, but the characters are brilliant and the music is really catchy. I particularly liked it as Rome seems, at times, to be the least multi-cultural city I've ever lived in.

N. Io e Napoleone. This one made a big splash at the RomeFilmFest, then fizzled at the box office. It's an historical pic about a mad chap from Elba obsessed with killing Napolean. Instead, he becomes the exiled dictator's personal secretary. Some great performances, great scenery and great story. And Monica Bellucci? Small role, but larger than life in person.

The Unknown ("La Sconosciuta") - Another FilmFest premiere, this one scored big reviews. I won't be so charitable. The cast is great, but director Guiseppe Tornatore (Malena, Cinema Paradiso)really has a problem with subtle suspense. The score was painful at times. This one though will likely get a good look from overseas distributors, but doesn't stand a chance in the ISB year-end "Best of" roundup. Sorry, Tornatore.

Sibillini at dusk

Here's a great photo courtesy of my mischievous neighbour Michael.

Six words or less

I'm teaching my students the art of brevity these days, no easy task to master, as is evident from this blog from time to time. Today, I came across this exercise in curtness, courtesy of Wired: construct a six-word story of your life. Nothing more, nothing less. 'Nuff said.

Mine might go something like this:
"Lost job. Misplaced priorities. Found paradise."

Friday, October 20, 2006

Italy: from chic to junk

Economists and bean-counters stole headlines from the celebs in the past day. The big news is not the FilmFest here, but instead the ingnominous position Italy finds itself in these days, credit-wise. S&P and Fitch, two of the big 3 credit agencies, cut their credit rating on Italy. Not good for a country with the third largest national debt on the planet. Italy's credit S&P rating is now A+, worse than Portugal, a country that was on the brink of 3rd world status 15 years ago.

The downgrade means Italy will have to pay out a higher interest rate to bond holders. But that's not exactly enough to motivate this G8 power to get its act together. Politicians instead prefer to point fingers at one another as to who's to blame. In a country of tax dodgers and cheats, the Finance Ministry has its work cut out.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Un bel blog, una bella Bellucci

There's a film fest in town. The biggest mass transit disaster in years hit Rome today. Why aren't I blogging this? Well, I've been a bit busy, covering the former for Variety and editing my students' blog about the former. Check out their work here:

Before I dash off again, I just want to leave this update: on Saturday, I dined with the most beautiful Italian (after Xtina, of course) in the world. One Monica Bellucci. It's difficult to breathe, let alone swallow porcini ravioli in her presence, but this reporter succeeded.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Sunday Times dining tip for Londoners: fly to Rome

This may be the strangest restaurant review I've ever read. The Sunday Times' AA Gill reviews a new restaurant in London's Mayfair by talking about, what else?, Gill's most recent dining experience in Rome. The Mews of Mayfair gets three stars (out of five). Hosteria del Pesce? *Five.

*we can only assume five, because, again, the assignment presumably was to review the place around the corner, not obsess about Roman cuisine for the preceding 12 paragraphs. But, Il Sette Bello agrees with *the grade.

(*correction: changed "her grade" in previous post to "the grade." Il Sette Bello regrets the error.)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Benvenuti to the new-look Il Sette Bello

What do you think?

I've been playing with Blogger's new functionality. I like it. Do you? At the very least, it should clear up that silly problem with the spacing on the initial posting. Let's hope.

Tony Soprano v. Philip Roth

Yesterday, a package arrived. A gift, actually. It was a DVD for "The Sopranos", Series One. Grazie, Adam and Kelly. Xtina interrupted my we-got-a-new-DVD,-now-I-can-watch-famous-actors-
dance, with a stern pronouncement. "I have full veto power over this one", she informed. "I'm Italian. I know about these things. Americans don't know about these things".

It was creepy. It sounded just like a line out of "The Sopranos". I began to stake out a defence, sloppily. I informed her The Sopranos is the "most authentic treatment of contemporary America" (it's true; I used those exact words, gesturing at her with the DVD the way a preacher might wag at his congregation with a bible), then searching for a brilliant flourish, I summed up with: "ever!" Then continued: "It's more authentic than anything Philip Roth has written."

These are fighting words, and I knew it. Xtina considers Philip Roth to be her personal guide on all things America. Questioning his wisdom is an unforgiveable form of blasphemy in Xtina's mind.

And now, it's Xtina's turn at summation:

"That's BOO-shit!," she exclaimed. I stepped back. "They will be teaching Philip Roth in the schools in 1,000 years time. Where will your Sopranos be then? Heh?"

Xtina is a PhD. She knows about these things.

What's so interesting about men throwing balls at sticks?

This morning I woke to Xtina fussing about the bedroom, cursing the "damn metropolitane!" and agitating above me. Today is Friday, aka "strike day" or "lo sciopero" in Italy. The mass transit workers from toe to top, have planned a work action to paralyze the Italian machine of progress and force management back to the bargaining table. Ditto for the journalists. For good measure, Italian journalists are sitting out tomorrow too. In fact, this is the second straight weekend the Italian journalists have walked off the job, protesting the fact they are working under a lapsed contract. And so for today anyhow there will be no Italian tram drivers writing the news and no Italian journalists driving the trams. (All kidding aside, I have deep sympathy for the plight of Italian journalists. They work under difficult conditions, with or without a contract. But to strike on two straight Fridays and Saturdays? You're not earning too many sympathy points there, guys.)

I digress. It's this morning. Cristina. Agitating. Metropolitane!, she's complaining, now shaking me. It's not the tram drivers she's angry with. It's me. I woke this morning at 3:30 a.m. to catch the second half of the Mets game online. Xtina doesn't undertand why anybody would get up in the middle of the night to watch men throw a ball at a stick, as she says. She doesn't understand playoffs. She doesn't understand baseball. She doesn't understand my Mets rarely play a meaningful game in October. She doesn't even understand the term "Mets". "Metropolitans," I explained a few evenings prior. This is just after I casually mentioned I might be a bit sleep deprived come next week. "Come metropolitane," I explained, confusing myself now. Your favorite team is a commuter train, she wanted to know.

Italians don't understand our sports, nor our sport teams' name. Isn't the city enough? You need the city and a nickname?, they wonder. Excessive Americans. I don't want to hear it, of course. Since leaving the U.S., my big passion -- U.S. sports -- has been stifled. It's almost impossible, I find, to follow anything going on back home. Apparently, there's a scandal involving players taking performance-enhancing drugs. Phhhhhhhhhhhhht. Italians snicker at such child's play. Here, it's bribery, wire taps, match-fixing, suitcases full of cash exchanged in the middle of the night, coaches mysteriously falling off balconies to their death. And that's just the Vatican City intramural league. There are Italian kids, I'm told, who have posters of their favorite magistrates hanging on the wall, like the one who stripped the title from the mighty Juventus for paying off refs or relegated Napoli for cooking the books. (It must be noted that good ol' Ascoli plays fair, and thus they are doomed to mediocrity.)

But there's a bigger crisis at the moment. Xtina, with a big meeting today with other EU member states, couldn't fall back to sleep after the alarm sounded at 3:30. She tossed and turned all night, cursing the Metropolitane. She learned the phrase recently "on the rocks" and she's now using it liberally. At me. And my Metropolitans.

Mets in three, I predict. Otherwise, I'll be sleeping on the rocks.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A legend passes

I will get around to blogging about points closer to home in the coming days. God knows, I have some material. (My last trip to Le Marche, for instance, has my head spinning still; some bloggy therapy may be required to make sense of my trip to the cosmic world of black magic and country attorneys.) But alas, this is all for another day.

Today, I wanted to give a small, humble tribute to a journalist I never met, but have tremendous fondness for. Veteran NY Times reporter R.W. Apple died earlier this week at the age of 71. He had a truly fascinating career, parachuting in and out of war zones for four decades. In between, this gourmand would travel the world in search of the finest vintages and most sumptuous dishes. His death is a real loss. His very last article for The Times appeared today, a fitting tour de force in which Apple tells us his top ten favourite restaurants outside the U.S. (a few of which I hope to try out subito). Even better is a Washington Post homage to Apple, quoting friends, rival journalists, and admirers all.

Here's one gem of an anecdote from WashPo:

Jon Randal, author and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and New York Times, spent many overseas assignments with Apple:

I first met Johnny Apple in Sardi's in Manhattan in 1965 when to my horror I was informed out of the blue that I was assigned to the New York Times Saigon bureau to work under this exceedingly brash young man. Within weeks, I was won over by Johnny's energy, curiosity, speed and willingness to listen, occasionally even to me. He was a superb bureau chief, insistent on sharing the good stories with the other reporters in the bureau.

Over the next 40 years our paths often crossed. We became the best of friends. After I went to work for The Washington Post in 1969, that meant we sometimes competed on the same stories. He never let me or any other reporter forget how good he was. Johnny could sweep into Tehran in the last few weeks before the Iranian revolution in January 1979 and beat me on a story I'd been covering for a good year.

His passions were eclectic and his interests profound. He knew domestic politics as well as any reporter extant but also loved cricket, as well as professional football, baroque music, modern art and Venice, too -- and always the good life. For him that basically meant food and wine.

When we were younger, he would arrange week-long grand tours with two- and three-star restaurants for every lunch and dinner. In recent years, he relented a bit but still would enlist me during his regular Paris sojourns in, say, a three-day investigation of the mysteries of varied recipes for such simple fare as pot-au-feu .

And only last year we journeyed to northern Brittany, where within 24 hours he had us eating at the best fish place in St. Malo, then lunching at a one-star and dining at a three-star restaurant.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Newsroom reverie

It's been ten years now since I left the I-95 corridor of Central Jersey for what would be my first significant career decision: getting out of the New Jersey newspaper business. Ten years, three cities, and five-plus publications later, and I am struck at what fond memories I have for my first employer, The Home News (later to become the Home News Tribune, and now part of the Gannett empire.) The source of my warm feelings is Chuck Paolino, the best editor I've ever worked with. I've had many great editors, nimble with copy and sage with advice, but Chuck taught me valuable lessons about fairness and compassion and professionalism that go far beyond the newsroom. I have thought many times How would Chuck want me to handle this? while out reporting a story. Usually those words pop into my head as an adrenaline reflex when I'm seeing the worst side of human nature -- interviewing victims of a bus-bombing in Isreal a few years back, and a hostage crisis a few months later, are two episodes that come to mind.

Why this sudden bout of sentimentality? Because I just spotted today Chuck has a blog. If you were ever curious about what goes through the head of an assignment editor at a local paper: check out what he has to say. It's worldly and witty, compassionate, humorous and silly. Vintage Chuck.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The travails of "OK," "D'accord", "Va bene"

"OK" may be the most common phrase in the world, it's also the most troublesome, some of us clueless ex-pats have learned. Here's a humorous piece by David Sedaris explaining why.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Why do Romans hate Milan? Perhaps it's the undies

This post comes to us from Milan, by way of a loyal reader in London.
But first, some background:

Milan, according to i Romani, is another country, another planet maybe. The Milanese, of course, feel the same way about the Romans, (perhaps with a bit more charitable view of Rome than its natives). Me, I like both cities. But I probably wouldn't ever leave Roma for Milan. It's probably because I hear so often Romans agitating about the fear of being relocated to Milan. (Londoners, think Birmingham. Right. Scary!). This sense of different-ness was recently reinforced by a tale now making the rounds in Rome among our friends. Francesco quit a perfectly good job, the story goes, this summer when work relocated him to Milan. The Romans applauded this bold move. I wasn't so sure. But then he found another good job in a dumpy town south of here, Pomezia. He couldn't be more happy today. No more 4-hr train trips back and forth between Rome and Milan twice a week.

How, is this background for a story about SMS alerts for laundry? Think different-ness. In balmy Rome the weather rarely changes. It's sunny all the time. Thus, no need for the service described in the article. But, the Milanese apparently have the Romans beat in the underwear department, I type with a scowl as I look out into my courtyard, house dresses flapping in the breeze.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Reaching bottom

The contadini have been making grappa for millenia. After the annual grape harvest and wine pressing each fall, a mulch of grape skins and seeds is left behind. It's this mulch that is distilled once again to extract highly potent alcohol. The result is good ol' firewater, what the Italians call a digestivo, a perfect capper on a fitfull meal. Last night, Luca, Xtina and I finished off an old bottle of grappa from Trentino that I've been serving after meals for months. At the bottom we found this spindly creature, a root plant called Ruta.

I'm debating what I should do with the Ruta. Fish it out and add to a nice autumn stew? Dry it out and smoke it? Hang it upside down over my doorway to ward off my pesky neighbors? Press it and frame it? What would you do with a crunchy piece of flora that's been part of so many good evenings? Throw it out, is what Xtina would say. Help me convince her that the Ruta is now family. What should I do? Posted by Picasa
The tree of life? Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 11, 2006

Paris has its Eiffel Tower. Manhattan, the Empire State Building and Vegas, its Vegas. Now Rome (for a week, at least) has a collossal mega-watt structure to join the illuminated metropolises of the world. Here, we unveil Gasometro (pronounced gas-so-MET-ro). No, it's not a publicity stunt for an antacid formula. It's Italgas' skeletal petrol depot on the banks of the Tiber (viewable from my flat).

It was introduced to i Romani this Saturday night as part of the Notte Bianca festivities -- an all-night, all-free walkathon of concerts, open museums, etc. Everyone flocked to Gasometro thinking that acrobats would dangle from the rim in truly spectacular fashion. We arrived to find kids tossing handkerchiefs in the air and Romans agitating that somebody must pay for leading us astray. Our friend Franco called the Commune switchboard at 11 p.m. The conversation went something like this:

Franco: Ciao. We're standing under Gasometro and cannot see the performance.

Commune official: where exactly?

Franco: Right. Under. Gasometro. And we can't see a thing.

Commune: Try moving.

Perhaps out of guilt, the good people at Italgas (my gas company, btw) will keep the structure illuminated for a week. The electricity costs will no doubt be covered by customers. Posted by Picasa

Monday, September 04, 2006

Hooch with a kick

Well over a year ago I started nosing around on a story that was too crazy to be true: an EU project to remove wine from the common market and re-sell it as factory-grade fuel. In an era of near-$80-per-barrel fuel prices, it makes some sense. And, there is precedent. During WW2, most warring European nations confiscated huge amounts of produce from the domestic market to make fuel. A little known fact is that part of Italy's war machine was based on apricots and other citrus fruits. Ditto for Germany, England and France.

How is this possible? Any fruit or veg containing enough sugar can be turned into ethyl alcohol. If potent enough, it can be used as a fuel or fuel additive. And, it's being done today. Here's my piece for Wired on the topic.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Unemployed, by choice

According to NYT, about 13 percent of American men between the age of 30 and 55 -- the so-called "engine" of the American economic machine -- are out of work. This is up from 5 percent a generation ago. More shocking still, for many of these able-bodied men, they are choosing to remain unemployed rather than work in a demeaning, under-paying job.

How is this possible, in a land that we were taught values the work ethic and supports only those who punch a clock every day? Turns out, the US has a surprisingly efficient public welfare system, the Times reports, in the form of disability insurance paid for by Social Security.

But let's put the U.S.'s newfound freeloading ways on a global perspective. The number of out-of-work (to an economist, there's a giant distinction between "unemployed" and "no longer looking") American men in this age bracket is rapidly closing in on those layabout Europeans. Yep, it's 13 percent for the Yanks. 14 percent for the let's-take-August-off Europeans.

I'll ponder this while I'm on holiday next week.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Cappuccino after 10 a.m.? It's illegal and immoral

Beppe Severgnini, a correspondent for Corriere della Sera and author, was on The Today Show this week. In his few minutes, he had some shocking things to say about the real Italia, including red lights don't necessarily mean stop!, dinners are not seen as a break between getting home from work or school and watching TV, and every town square is the equivalent of the American shopping mall. And yes, never never never is it acceptable to order a cappuccino after 10 in the morning. Here's a link to his clip.

Dateline: Amandola, a geek story

During my years at Reuters, I filed a grand total of one story from Le Marche. It was about the gadgetry and high-techetry employed by police for crowd control purposes. I believe the hook was Dubya's November 2003 visit to the UK, a stopover that triggered massive protests and demonstrations. (How times have changed. eh?) I wrote and filed the article from one of the most incongruous places: a municipal library in Sarnano. As I recall, a few dozen hip-high Sarnenesi 6-year-olds were making a hell of a racket in the other room as I typed. Sadly, I couldn't convince the desk to slap a Sarnano dateline on the article. But this time, the eds couldn't wipe out any references to Le Marche.

My latest columnfor The Times is about HSDPA, written in my neighbor's back garden in the middle of nowhere. For those of you wondering just what is HSDPA, it's an incredible wireless broadband technology that I've been lucky enough to demo. It's been a life-saver for me the past few weeks as I work remotely. I'm going to rue the day I have to hand in the kit and head back to the library to file.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A smile to light up the room

This weekend, Xtina, her father and I went to visit Giuseppe Agozzino, a delightful old illustrator/artist whose cramped, one-window studio lies below Perugia's main square. Centuries ago, the studio was a temporary cell of sorts -- the very place where church officials would lock up the cardinals to vote on the next pope. According to Agozzino, five popes were selected in conclaves held in these narrow dwellings.

Today, the barren room is locally famous for its 80-something-year-old tenant, Agozzino. A tireless promoter of all things Umbrian, Agozzino now spends his day illustrating, philosophizing and sharing incredible tales of his travels and past encounters with some of the art world greats. Upon leaving, Agozzino presented us with this. I'm keeping the artist's name a secret for now. But suffice to say, we are thrilled with our new smiley face. Posted by Picasa

Monday, July 31, 2006

A dog walks into a bar...

Woof! Who goes there? ... There are dogs, untethered and unaccompanied by humans (some might call "strays"), wandering many of the streets of southern Italy. This one opened a sidewalk cafe. The service is crap, I hear. Posted by Picasa
Is propoganda a form of "indirect propoganda"? Or, is it, as we were naively taught, democracy in action. Perhaps we should ask the proposition-giddy Californians. Posted by Picasa

Who's that under his arm?

Carrying our prized possession through the streets of Matera - a 5 liter cannister of olive oil. Posted by Picasa
Matera is truly an incredible place -- and not just because Mel Gibson says so. 15 movies (including a New Line flick this Xmas called "The Nativity") were shot here in this ancient, ancient city that for decades was abandoned. Walking through the streets is like stepping back 2,000 years. Much of the old city is still unpopulated, the perfect set for biblical-themed movies. Oh, and the restaurants are fantastic! Posted by Picasa
Italians swear by the medicinal value of the natural iodine content in the sea. It cures everything from an upset stomach to brain cancer, they say. In the summer Italians wade in the low end of the sea, lapping up the iodine, storing it for the long months ahead when they will live, cruelly, in an iodine-deficient environment. Here's Xtina at that nature riserve of Torre Guaceto. I liked it because of the incredible snorkeling in the reefs just off to the right. Posted by Picasa
Posted by Picasa
Kerplunk! Posted by Picasa
The Puglia coast is incredibly varied. One minute there are soft, sandy beaches, the next rocky promentories that jut out into a crystal clear sea. Here we are at a hidden spot off Costa Merlata. To the right is the deep and calm waters of the Adriatic. Along the coast though are grottos that form deep pools. Perfect for (as you saw above) cliff diving. Posted by Picasa

Truly trulli

Puglia is famous for, among other things, trulli -- little stone, cone-shaped houses. From the looks of it you would think that only little gnome-like people could live in such a building. Yep, that pretty much sums up your average Pugliese. They don't wear funny pointy hats though. Here's the capital of the Trulli, Alberobello. Posted by Picasa

The itinerary in an image

I've only been in Italia a little over a year now and I think I figured out the answer to that nagging question: where should one go when they visit Italy? Of course Rome, Florence, Venice are all worth seeing. But if you want a bit of adventure, fantastic food and doting treatment, go where only the truly knowledgable Italians go: the east coast along the Adriatic. I would recommend Puglia for fantastic beaches, wondrous Baroque architecture, cuisine, red wine (in the form of the Primitivo and Aglianico) and then further north, Le Marche for more of the same (and great white wines too). The difference here is that the locals are actually grateful to see you. Their enthusiasm is sincere, infectious even. This is is Google Maps rendition of where we went this weekend: a 4-day jaunt from Rome to Puglia, then Basilicata and back to Roma. Che bello!
The inner courtyard of Castel del Monte. Moments like this I wish I had a professional lens. Posted by Picasa

Puglia and the influence of Federico Secondo

Federico Secondo (1194-1250) was a remarkable man. King of Germany, Italy and Sicily, he also held the title of Holy Roman Emperor. He was excommunicated twice -- once for not embarking on a crusade, a second time for going to the Middle East to battle, but getting distracted by scholarly pursuits. A polyglot, math wiz, student of architecture and an unapologetic Islamophile, Frederick II quickly became public enemy number one of the 12th and 13th Century church. He was a Renaissance man 200 years before the birth of Leonardo. Oh, and he's a Marchigiano (born in Jesi). This - Castel del Monte -- is one of the many castles he had built in Puglia. It's more a math puzzle than a castle. It's designed in a octagonal shape with eight rooms up and eight rooms down. Federico probably had a good chuckle over its design. It's still in remarkable shape. It's been refurbished, but nonetheless much of the original structure is still standing. Posted by Picasa

The passion of the south

There's a handy phrase in Italian that all outsiders should know: Acchiappasvizzeri. Or, "catch the Swiss". It may sound cute, but it's actually creepy and predatory. It refers to that moment when a clueless straniero (with agitated partner in tow, no doubt) is stumbling around the streets of an Italian city, map in hand, perplexed look on face, and comes into contact with a savior in the form of a local. This local is usually quick with a reassuring grin and indispensible advice about how to find, no, not that restaurant/attraction/museum, this restaurant/attraction/museum is much better. Within moments, he is handing you his number. Anything, and he means anything, you want, he can source. Have a nice day. Warning: These encounters can be costly.

We met one such Swiss catcher in Matera yesterday. His name is Franco and his mobile number is 33 - (erm, read on first). Xtina and I were not exactly lost (nor exhibiting much Swiss-ness from what I could tell) when Franco came into our lives. It's true. I had been repeating for a good 10 minutes "I swear. The restaurant, according to this map, is around the next corner", but we were nearly there. Nearly. While craning our necks to read a non-existent road name, Franco, in a blue poncho, glided up beside us on his motorino and asked where we were headed. In Rome, I would have had a curt "We're Ok, but thanks" dismissal, but we were on our third day in the south and we were feeling a bit disarmed by the locals. (Throughout Puglia, and now, Basilicata, we ran into the sweetest, most helpful people. I would love for the government to fund an exchange of Pugliesi for Romans, a dose of southern hospitality would be a nice image-cleanser for Rome, methinks). Uncharacteristically, Xtina and I, at that unnamed street corner, broke down and revealed all our hopes, dreams and priorities, as they were at the moment, to a complete stranger. We cannot find the restaurant, we began. We cannot seem to find a store open that will sell us the famous Matera olive oil, and, while we're at it, any gossip about Mel Gibson? Did I forget to mention Mel shot "The Passion of the Christ" here in this hauntingly beautiful town?

Franco nodded, escorting us across the street to the restaurant entrance. Yep, across the street. In the time it takes to check your watch, Franco had given us his phone number, offered us his mother's apartment the next time we're in town, promised to source some quality oil for us and gave me some dirt about the Warner Bros filming of the Nativity (according to Franco, due out in a cinema near you this Xmas). Franco didn't stop at the door. He followed us into the half-empty restaurant, stuck his head in the kitchen door demanding we be seated pronto and then hovered awkwardly before vanishing again. Impressed, we rang Franco after the antipasta and ordered from him 5 liters of olive oil. 10 minutes later he was standing at our table, olive oil in hand. (He rang the owner of one of the closed shops we had visited earlier that afternoon. Heartbroken, we read the words "Chiuso Domenica" and quietly set off looking for lunch to revive our spirits.) Sure, it was a bit awkward for somebody to deliver diners a giant cannister of oil mid-meal, but this was Franco. He probably does this all the time, we figured. We gave him a big tip, a tenner, and exulted in our Swiss-ness. Everybody wins.

(I will post photos of the trip in the next day or so. I'm waiting for a certain somebody to determine which of the 92 photos of random Poles, Finns, Germans and Italians taken at a series of dull-looking EU conferences can be expunged from the camera. No, that certain somebody is not Mario Monti.)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The ponderous Puglia post

One of the biggest complaints I've been getting recently is the dearth of posts on Il Sette Bello. The truth is I've been on the road so much lately that I've had little time to fill everybody in on the latest dirt. I'll try to be more active. Promesso. A Saturday evening post, just before we head off for dinner in Martina Franca (yes, another Slow Food Guide recommendation), is a good start.

Where am I?

In Puglia, the stiletto heel tip of Italy. Putignano to be precise. I am posting from a country house on the outskirts of town. Nothing but bails of hay and ancient olive trees between here and the horizon. This post is a first for Il Sette Bello. I am posting on the road -- in the middle of nowhere, actually -- thanks to a wizzy piece of kit: a mobile broadband card. Il Sette Bello has a strict editorial policy of remaining ad-free, but just this once I am happy to plug this wondrous technology from 3 Italia. (I am trying it out for an article.) The coverage is much better than I expected. And, they tell me, growing. On the way here, Xtina was emailing work while I was driving on the Autostrada south towards Naples, prompting this honest assessment of my life choices:

Xtina: (Upon receiving confirmation her email had been sent as we sped south) You know, sometimes I really am happy you're a silly journalist.
Me: (A sharp look at my passenger)
Xtina: Sometimes. (kicks up feet on dash, turns up radio and bobs head to the music)

With this 3 Italia card, we have had a fast connection everywhere we tried it out. And, we're in Mezzogiorno country, the notoriously deprived south. I hope the same fantastic coverage is available in Amandola. Gulp! There goes my excuse that I cannot get online while at the house there.

What are we doing in Puglia? Good question. Xtina and I were invited to a "party" last night in Noci -- for those of you checking your Italian-to-English dictionary, yes the town is called "Nuts". (What do you call a person from Nuts, anyhow?) I digress. A friend of Xtina's from work, Walter, was having a big bash in a masseria, an old farm house on the outskirts of town. He and his girlfriend's favorite 150 people (and me) were to be there. That's about all the instructions we received. When we arrived we learned this was Walter's wedding reception. He hadn't told a soul he was getting married. He just wanted us to join him at the party, which started at 9 and they were still serving food at 3 a.m. The incredible thing about stumbling into a wedding reception blind is that everyone arrives under-dressed and confused, a bit embarrassed they hadn't thought to bring a present, hadn't known, actually. The first few minutes are awkward. But Xtina and are pros at this. This is the second time it's happened to us. In a week. Last Saturday evening we arrived at Ostia for a party organised by our friends Pietro and his Russian girlfriend, Masha. When we arrived, Erwan, a French pharmacist with an Italian boyfriend, was officiating a wedding on the beach around a circle of umbrellas. Pietro and Masha, in dripping swim trunks, were exchanging vows. Xtina and I were dumbstruck, nothing a few glasses of wine couldn't cure.

So, last night was not nearly as awkward for me and Cri as it was for the others. Firstly, I didn't know Walter, but was grateful for the invite and the chance to witness a Pugliese style wedding. (Imagine an endless parade of food and reception that goes til dawn). But it still leads to the nagging question that strikes at the national identity of the Italian male: why are they so uncomfortable about the topic of marriage? The women in their lives seem sweet, a good catch even. Why so reluctant then? And, when they finally take the plunge, they are in denial, so much so that they fail to tell us why we are there to celebrate with them. Oh, right, you're getting married. Congrats, amico. Sorry about my appearance. Had I known, I would never have shown up in shorts and sandals.

Xtina and I will be chewing over this at dinner tonight. (Next post will include photos...lots of sea and flesh.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

When a travel writer comes to town...

A friend of mine last week sent me this Travel & Leisure article about Le Marche. I was genuinely excited to see the link in my inbox as I truly believe the charms of Le Marche is a story worth telling. Half way into the first page I started to groan, then gesticulate wildly at my laptop screen, and then bellow incomprehensible grumblings in the general direction of my neighbor across the courtyard. The author might as well have been describing Mulberry Street. The same pedestrian observations are tossed out, like so many travel writers before her: Loreto, Leopardi and a strange place called Ascoli (presumably, the football club has taken over the provincial capital). Not a peep about Acqualagna's truffles nor Ancona's famous stoccafisso nor the ascendancy of Marchigiani wine. Nor does it cover adequately the natural wonders (the blue flag beaches, the trails that criss-cross Monti Sibillini National Park, the caves of Frassasi) that makes Le Marche such an incredible part of the world. Instead, we get observations like this: (warning, take a deep breath before reading)

A schizophrenic existence is possible in Le Marche, as one shuttles back and forth between the austere hill towns and the sybaritic resorts and bathing establishments along the Adriatic, where for four to five months of the year raked sands are ornamented by a forest of striped, polka-dotted, and bright-colored umbrellas, and neat rows of deck chairs and sun beds present a world dedicated to rest and recreation, set within a "real" one of small cities, traffic, shops, and bustling life.

Il Sette Bello
needs to go on the road and write the quintessential guide to the region, methinks.

Nero on the stand

I've been out of the country for (far) too long. Yes, this is the beginnings of a sheepish apology for failing to update Il Sette Bello. Where have I been? Loitering in a court house in south London.

But, as of last weekend, I'm back in Rome and looking forward to sampling as much of la dolce vita (while eking out a living) as I can. First stop? Back to court this evening. Well, sort of. The city of Rome has been putting on mock trials for its ancient founders. Last week, Julius Caesar. (Xtina voted him "thumbs downing," saying he was a marauding imperialist who nearly destroyed the Empire. The crowd, sentimental to a conquering hero, pardoned his sins.) Tonight, it's Nero. What possibly could one say in defense of Nero? Xtina has already been lobbying me. He was a disturbed, irrational boy, in over his head, she pleads. Sounds guilty to me.

Monday, July 10, 2006

An Italian's take on winning the World Cup

Where was I for the historic Italy World Cup victory? At a bar called Harlem on Westbourne Grove in London with Jim and Kate (pulling for the French) to my left and a table of yawning ragazze italiane to my right. Here's what was happing back home in Roma. This dispatch is an Il Sette Bello exclusive, the first (perhaps of many) celebrity contributions. This one from the inimitable Xtina, a mainstay of this here blog. Here's her unedited recap:

By the time we got to the penalties, the Italian males I was watching the match on TV with were absolutely exhausted (females were busy appreciating the referee's salt&pepper head of hair and wondering how it comes that football players in their 30-ies do not get bald like their boyfriends). They had been screaming and suffering the whole time and eventually almost unable to enjoy the final victory. Most important the Romans were very disappointed of Totti's performance and secretely frustrated that Del Piero, and not their belove "Pupone", scored the penalty. I also found out that Materazzi is not very much loved, my well informed friend Simone pointed out that his most relevant feature is a tatoo of his own birth day in Roman numbers....with this background what can you say from the top of the world? The most beloved ones are Gattuso with his thick Calabrian accent and his blue-collar background and the smiling hard-working captain Cannavaro.

By the time he raised the Cup, women were screaming and planning to take a bath in the Trevi Fountain. That was not an easy task for the crowd. We were in Pigneto, a popular neighboroud near Termini and we had to cross by motorbike or on foot the crazy Centre. In the streets of Pigneto africans and indians were playing drums and Italians started playing their favourite instrument: their cars' horn! Flags, bottles of wine, beer, flesh of semi-naked women: a jungle I had to cross riding my motorino. In front of me there were four cars in a row on a single lane, two with 8 people each, open trunks and people screaming not very polite words against Zidane's mother . When I tried to overcome the cars, a motorbike with 4 poeple on (the whole family I guess), cuts my way. My efforts to keep up with Luca and my other friends got irremediably frustrated.
At the Colosseum we got stuck, people running around and a bus laying across the street that eventually, pushed by ten volounteers, jumped over the wall between the lanes...I did the same, helped by two over-excited teenagers. I left the Colosseum in flames behind my back, heading to Circo Massimo were I expected to see hell...a couple of non Romans asked me to jump on my motorino to go to Testaccio and pick up their car..."uff, guys there's no way you can drive the car to the Centre, enJoy the passeggiata!" I replied. Being in Rome I decided to
end my WorlChampionship final night like a famous ancient Roman: like a little Nero I climbed the hill of Gianicolo and looked down, enjoying to see Rome in flame.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Germany v Italy...cue the insults!

It's t-minus a few hours to the big match: Italy v. Germany. I have tried to remain neutral, but I just received an email from a friend in Frankfurt. Attached, was a video entitled "Training der Italiener". The translation? German trash talk!

Here's a link.

This will be a truly strange soccer viewing experience. Typically, when playing Germany, the English fans' trash talking consists of WW2 movie theme songs, or the crowd-pleaser: "Stand up if you won the war". What taunts will the Italian fans concoct if they jump to an early lead? Perhaps "Stand up if you can make a proper Bolognese sauce"? Nah, doesn't have the same ring to it.

I'll report back here tomorrow and let you know.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

When in Rome...

Last weekend we had a visitor. I mentioned my friend Jeff in a previous post here. He's one of a handful of journalists picked to participate in the prestigious Templeton Foundation. His mission: a summerlong sojourn in Europe looking for God. Naturally, one might choose Roma as a good starting point for such a spiritual jouney. Xtina and I picked him up at the airport Friday night and showed him a different side of the Eternal City: a decadent, fleshy, layabout 3 days of sun, heaping dishes of seafood, vino italiano and deep conversation about the merits of gelato, pizza and generous annual vacation packages. Back in Cambridge now, here's Jeff's recap. Warning some of the pics may be NSFW -- not suitable for workaholics.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Calcio in your hand

My most recent piece for the Times Online was a rare (for me) product review. Yesterday, I met with 3 Italia to check out their new mobile TV service, which incredibly carries live broadcasts of all 64 World Cup matches. I was plenty dubious going in. A TV in your hand? Right. But the picture quality was great and all the warnings of patchy coverage proved to be not an issue. There are still coverage limitations, but it was a very impressive debut for an interesting technology that is sure to be a big tech story in Europe in the coming year.

Amandola exposed

My last few posts have been about Ghana, Togo and Cote d'Ivoire. This short post is about Amandola, a place I mention from time to time here on Il Sette Bello.

For those of you not familiar with the backstory, in the summer of 2001 I had, incredibly, amassed a nice nest egg and wanted to put it to use. So, I bought my second house first. A little cottage in the hills of Le Marche, a region that borders Umbria and Tuscany to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east. The house, specifically, is the frazione di Sant'Ippolito, a hilltop farming community. I am the lone Americano in these parts, which leads to the occasional awkward situation, but nothing that cannot be diffused with a smile. Here's a further description of the place, a site I just whipped up in the past few days.