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.