Monday, December 24, 2007

Natale a Roma

Some more images of Xmas in Rome for those curious about how the holiday is celebrated here.

Above is the city's version of the Rockefeller Center Xmas tree, with a different backdrop, Il Colosseo.

As decreed in the Italian bible (page 45, I believe), it is tradition on the 24th of December to serve fish. The queues at the fish market were longer than usual this morning, but everybody was in a civil mood. No well-aimed elbows or sneers from the little old ladies. We're preparing a zuppa di pesce for this evening (details in the post below).

For the zuppa, you need proper tomatoes. And so it's on to the tomato stand where they sell the most expensive tomatoes in the EU - 6 euros/kg. But they're so damn tasty, you always go back for your weekly fix. This morning was no exception. (This photo taken 2 months ago)

Buon Natale, tutti. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Serpente and the Italian guide to Christmas gluttony

What do Italians eat for Xmas?


More specifically, it depends on the region. Here in Rome, the favored dish is Abbacchio alla Romana, a leg of lamb roasted in the oven with potatoes. In Bologna, it's a heaping plate of tortellini. In Naples, it would be capitone, or yellow eel (pictured opposite), served in a red sauce in a very lengthy dish. (I've never eaten capitone, but I believe the trick is to wait until it gets confused, trapping itself in a corner of the dining room. Then, everybody stabs at it with their tridents... Don't have a trident? Try a sturdy frying pan. Aim for the head.)

This year, we're having natale in Rome. We've decided to play around with the menu for the marathon of eating that begins some time tomorrow. First up, is a zuppa di pesce (fish stew) for the night of the 24th. The stew will include palombo (dog fish), calamari, prawns, triglia (red mullet) and sgombro (mackerel) in a tomato sauce.

For Christmas dinner, we are having a Perugian delicacy: roasted pigeon! And, for the 26th, roasted pheasant. Non vedo l'ora, as the Italians say. (Can't wait!) Meanwhile, the house is already filling up with Umbrian specialties - prosciutto and a type of soft pecorino cheese from Foligno, which we've greedily devoured, home-made cappelletti (to be served in brodo, a favorite of Francesca) and a mountain of cakes, pastries and biscuits.

Perugia is famous for its sweets. Chocolate, to be precise. But they have a fine tradition of biscuits and cakes too. For Christmas, they serve serpente, an almond sweet pastry shaped like a coiled snake. I'm looking at one sitting on my table.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Nevicata! (updated)

Winter arrived with authority this weekend in Central Italy. Well, it did on the eastern side of the Apennines. (Here in Rome, it's still sandals-and-shorts weather. With scarf. And mittens).

Back to Amandola, here's a photo courtesy of Michael, who estimates a half-meter (foot-and-a-half) has fallen since Saturday. I'm grinning. I hope to get up there for New Year's to do a little skiing.

And, the next day: Bright sunny skies.

Monday, December 17, 2007

K2. Conquered. Filmed.

For this post, I'm going to shut up and let somebody else do the talking. The entire NBC Sports K2 expedition is now online here. (Yep, that's the incredibly impossible gradient of the mountain pictured here).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

You think your country is falling to pieces?

Today's New York Times dedicates 4 pages to Italy's spiraling decline. Decades of soaring debt, ineffective government, stagnant competitiveness, and on and on have generated a type of malaise over the young people of this country. (What the Times refers to as "malessere"). They're angry. They want change. They want it now, if not sooner.

This story breaks little ground. Time wrote a cover story in 2006 about Italy's disaffected youth. The Economist was even more harsh in 2005. I too wrote a column about this topic a few months back and was flooded with emails and comments from Italians around the world. (One Italian asked me if I thought the UK would consider invading Italy. Not unless they get the OK from Washington, I'd say.)

Today's Times article does a brilliant job of capturing the tension and despair felt from north to south, the stuff I hear at dinner parties in Rome, walking along the streets of Perugia and read about every day. The best part of the NYT piece is the video they produce about Beppe Grillo. Classic stuff!


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

High altitude drama

This Sunday (16 Dec) at 2 p.m. EST, NBC in the US will be broadcasting an hour-long program about Chris' successful summiting of K2. It's a nail-biting tale, one that involves scandal and death.

I was with Chris last month, shooting interviews here in Italy. The footage is incredible, the story even more gripping. Tune in. You won't be disappointed.

For those of you outside the U.S., I'm told NBC Sports will be broadcasting the show online. As of now, the place to see the *Web simulcast is:

*The site is not operational yet. In the meantime, check out this promo:

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Sopranos: after the finale

Last night, the glorious six-season run of The Sopranos (or Soprani, as Xtina calls it) came to a subdued end here in Rome. It was just the two of us, the last of our DVD sets, and some mixed feelings. At the close of the final diner scene, Xtina stood up and said, "Pfft, I'm going to bed", eloquently summing up a recurring Italian criticism of the most misunderstood American TV import to ever reach il bel paese.

Not fair, I later pointed out. These are complex characters, in a demanding world called Jersey. There's no neat Hollywood ending here. Tony Soprano is a character plucked from the battlefields of Homer, racked with the doubts of MacBeth, as Journey's "Don't stop believing" plays in the background.

E poi?, she asked. What's next? How will these characters live on after The Sopranos?

The Soprano's legacy? Tough one. After much thought, I say, The Sopranos characters will live on, in roles the Italians can finally understand.

Here's my Fall 2008 TV lineup here in Italy:

1. Tony Sirico (Paulie "Walnuts" Gaultieri):
Takes over the role of Don Matteo (Father Matthew), the crime-fighting priest from Gubbio, one of Rai's top-rated shows. With his trademark shark-fin-sideburns and white loafers, Don "Paulie" solves crimes in this splendid Umbrian hilltown, that, despite its designation as an EU cultural heritage site, is plagued week after week by nefarious two-bit crooks. Each episode, Don "Paulie" overcomes his phobia of germs to solve complex capers. The final scene each week climaxes with a humorous misunderstanding between Don "Paulie" and the bumbling, but lovable, Carabinieri officers, usually over Paulie's shoes.

2. Edie Falco (Carmela) & Federico Castelluccio (Furio)
Falco plays Suora (Sister) Maria Elisabetta Grazia Angela, a crime-fighting nun from Benevento in a made-for-TV movie on Berlusconi's Canale 5, airing opposite Don "Paulie". To spice things up, Sister Maria Elisabetta Grazie Angela, or Suora "MEGA", has a dark secret. Her nemesis is a Napolitano cigarette smuggler played by Federico Castelluccio (Furio Giunta) with whom she may or may not have deeper feelings for. After a series of twists and turns, accompanied by an emotive score, she has a chance to put the sly smuggler away for good, but reconsiders only after he promises, in a tight profile shot that accentuates her chin and his nose, that he'll go legit. Alas, he goes back on his word (there's a larger metaphor here about the worthiness of Italian men, the critics insist, but the show's producers deny it), and he leaves Benevento for the coast. On Easter Sunday he secretly returns though, leaving a wad of cash in the offertory basket. Suora MEGA looks to the sky and smiles.

3. Dominic Chianese (Uncle "giu" Junior Soprano)
Plays senator-for-life on Telecom Italia's La 7. The government is particularly fragile. The left and right are deadlocked on everything, from troops in Afghanistan to funding for Alitalia. The paralysis is creating unrest on the streets. Each week, the wise and practical old senator builds consensus on both sides of the aisles, defeating young idealogues and the protected interests alike with a rousing speech on the floor of the Senate. Each week, the unkempt Communists are foiled and the sun shines on Rome.

4. Steven R. Schirripa (Bobby Bacala)
(Also on Telecom Italia's La 7) The pride of Italy, the Azzurri, is in trouble again. The national soccer squad is under investigation for match-fixing (an act that does not involve phone taps conducted by Telecom Italia's security team), blood-doping, tax evasion and strong-arming its way into the sale of counterfit Adidas products in the Pugliesi port city of Bari. The Italian national team faces disqualification from international competition, FIFA rules, unless they completely overhaul the front office and remove half the starters and the coach from the roster. Desperate, CONI, the Italian sports federation, turns to Coach Bacala, an unlikely choice indeed. Bacala is a butcher (macellaio) from Bologna and former anti-trust chief during the Berlusconi administration. Now that the Left is in power, Bacala is out of work, out of shape, but not out of inspiration. He accepts the offer and teaches his inexperienced squad how to be winners. They finish with a surprising third place finish in the European Cup, losing a 2-1 heartbreaker to the cheating Croatians. Bacala emerges as the big winner. Impressed with his masterful coaching, Senator "Junior" asks Bacala to come back to Rome and mediate a labor dispute with Alitalia. Bacala accepts. In last act as coach, he picks up his telefonino and calls a macellaio from Testaccio. Send a case of your best sausages to the union chief, he says. Senator "Giu" responds, "you still got it, my boy. Still got it."

5. Robert Iler (AJ Soprano)
Iler is asked to reprise his role entirely for Italian audiences on MTV Italia. Iler plays an Italian nearing 30, still living with mom and dad, spending the majority of his waking life in front of the TV and grousing about the fact there are no opportunities in Italy for guys like him. Every time his weary parents suggest he look for an entry-level job or call that nice girl whom they always see at church (and when are you going back to church, Mister!?), he testily responds, "how can I go to work or to church if I cannot afford to put gas in the car?!" Mom hands him a twenty. He spends it on 19-euro haircut. It draws the highest ratings ever among the 18-30 demo, but is canceled due to lack of advertiser interest.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

My failed music career

It was 17 years ago that I, a dirt poor college freshman, took a part-time job at a local Sam Goody music store in the mall. Never mind that I was clueless about any genre of music that did not include Jethro Tull and Blues Traveler; I had a car, a pulse and I walked upright. Plus, I was too poor to refuse the Friday night shift. I was hired on the spot, earning something like $6.30-an-hour. I was handed a Sam Goody "hello, my name is..." badge and set loose on customers. My career in the music industry was underway.

Mercifully, it lasted just a few months. I was terrible, maybe the worst salesman Sam Goody ever hired. I had never even heard of Coltrane or Miles Davis, and don't even think of asking me anything about Brahms or Handel. Whenever somebody would ask if we had something, I would mumble "yes" then lead them around the store in concentric circles hoping one of us would spot something vaguely familiar along the way. Most of the time I'd lose the customer along the way. Every once in a while they'd walk out the door, never to return again during my shift.

My manager, fresh out of prison (or so it seemed to us), had little patience for me. He would station me further and further away from the music and the customers. After a while, I was required to stand outside the door and hand circulars and other propaganda to customers as they ventured into the land of overpriced CDs. I recall customers back then, starved for choice, would think nothing of paying between $12 and $15 for a new Mariah Carey or Pearl Jam CD. This truly was the heyday of the industry.

I left the job around Christmas time, 1990. Despite its insistence on hiring clueless, unmotivated dolts like me to help sell product, the music industry went on to have a solid decade of ever-increasing sales. I finished my degree, got a job in a newsroom paying $10.65-an-hour, and rarely gave any thought to my short stint in the biz. Until this week. It was the inspiration for my latest column.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sunday morning wine tips

It's Sunday morning and I am procrastinating. I am behind on a series of deadlines, but basta that for the moment. I am distracted by the new edition of "I vini d'italia 2008", the annual wine guide from L'espresso.

I'll just rattle off a few of their conclusions:

Best value: A Collestefano 2006 Verdicchio di Matelica, costing about 8 euros, but scoring an impressive 18.5/20.

The decadent splurge: Verona-based Giuseppe Quintarelli's Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 1998 will set you back about 280 euros. Scoring a 19.5/20.
The canny buyer, however, might opt for Mastroberardino's 2001 Taurasi Riserva Radici (22-26 euros), down Avellino way. Also scoring 19.5/20.

When I get off deadline, I'll spill a few of my own more populist views, picked up from a few hours poking around Sensofwine the other night.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A wine worth trying

Firstly, Happy Thanksgiving everybody. Buon Ringraziamento!

I use ISB from time to time as a handy notebook, making mention of some nice wines I've had so I can remember and access them later, and maybe pass on a tip or two.

Last night, Xtina and I dined at a fine restaurant in our new 'hood L'Acino Brillo, dining on a generous gift certificate from my brother Chris and his wife Melinda who were in town last week. L'Acino Brillo has a spectacular wine list, and so we decided to splurge there. We decided on a Lagrein, a flavorful grape variety indigenous to the German-speaking Alto Adige region. It's one of my favorites.

We chose the Lagrein Riserva Abtei, 2004, from Muri-Gries, which is a monastery outside Bolzano. Che fantastico! Incredibly smooth, a little spicy and a powerful perfume. Here's what the makers have to say about it:

This wine features dark ruby shades and a deep flavour of ripe cherries, berries and plums. It sets free agreeable spicy chocolate and coffee flavour notes resprectively. It has a juicy, fleshy and extremely elegant structure with a concentrated outstanding tannic body and velvet-like roundness. Besides, its pleasant taste does not fade away soon.

I concur.

If you can find it in your hood, grab a bottle.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How big is your bird?

In certain countries, those five words will earn you a fat lip. But here in Italy it's a perfectly reasonable conversation starter. It's a question I've asked more than a few times this week. You see, I'm on turkey (tacchino) duty.

A friend has been gracious enough to host Thanksgiving dinner at his place in the center of town on Friday night. I offered to buy the bird while he's out of town. We went over the preparations on the phone just as he was catching a train north. I took down the following details:

They'll be eight or so of us, he informed. We'll need a big bird.

I agreed.

We did some calculations and arrived at a nice round number: 10-12 kg (or, 22 to 26.4 pounds). With eight of us, that will mean anywhere from 2.8-3.3 pounds per person.

Perfect, I said. I'm on it.

To source anything bloody, I usually head straight to the market in Testaccio where our favorite fish monger, butcher, veg guy and my candidate for the Nobel Peace prize, the tomato guy, have their stalls. This week, however, my motorino has been out of service, and so I ventured down the street on foot to the neighborhood butcher.

When I mentioned tacchino his eyes lit up. Sure, we can get you a tacchino, he said. How big? They'll be eight of us, I said. Before he could jump in and do the calculation, I informed him: 12 kilos!

He glanced at his partner, and said, sure we can get you a tacchino!

How much?, I ventured.

They run between 6 and 7 euros per kilo. So, probably 70-80 euros.

Can't be, I protested. It's just a turkey. How could it be so pricey?

He didn't like where this was going. To bolster his credentials, he told me he has a lot of American clientele, employees of the UN's food program, or FAO. They always order turkeys from him, he said, pointing to a calendar on the wall with scratch marks scribbled on the Nov. 22 box. I was starting to get that "acchiappa svizzeri" feeling. Whenever I hear the word "FAO" (pronounced "FOW!"), I get a little unnerved. These people live tax-free. To my mind, they overpay for everything. Of course they'd pay 80 euros for a bird, and then have a good laugh about it over dinner.

Hearing the word "FAO," I tried gracefully to back out of the deal. I told him I'd get back to him after checking around. I called Xtina, who, no turkey expert, said 6-7 euros per kg seemed reasonable. You pay 15 euros for a nice cut of veal, she reasoned. It's just a turkey, I responded, the second time in 10 minutes. Not convinced, I called my mother-in-law. She too is no turkey expert. She tried to steer me towards rabbit. You won't be able to find a 10 kilo-rabbit though, she responded, before bursting into hysterics.

I have learned enough to know that when your sweet will-do-anything-for-you mother-in-law starts to bust your chops, it's time to reassess the situation.

Just then Xtina pulled out our squat cookbook, "La Cucina Italiana" to ease my puzzlement. Every turkey recipe I could find in the book called for 4 kg of turkey, and each said it serves 12 people. Half convinced, I then fired off a few emails asking, how big is your bird?

The New Yorkers were shocked. 10 kilos!, Jim exclaimed. Do you have an oven that big? (He's cooking for 10 and bought a 15-pounder.) Adam is preparing a similar feast. He gave me a helpful formula: it's usually one pound per person. My mom concurred.

Armed with this info, I still wanted a second, erm, sixth opinion. I headed to my regular butcher in Testaccio (my moto is back on the road) this morning with Xtina. When we arrived, he had a nice sized bird in the window. "5.50 euros/kg", read a large plastic price fork stabbed into its belly.

How big is that tacchino?, I asked. No, not a tacchino, he informed. It's a tacchina. A she. Do you know the difference? No idea, I confessed. The female is more tender, he said, not nearly as bulky as the males. You can plop her right in the oven, no need to tenderize her.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But will it feed eight of us?

Eight? Of course!

She's 7 kg and she's sitting in my fridge right now. Set me back 38 euros. The hard part, thankfully, is over.

Buon ringraziamento, everybody!

One for the vino file/phile

Dedicated readers of this blog will probably recall my occasional reference to two little-known grapes from Central Italy that have been creating a bit of a murmur among the vino conoscenti: pecorino (bianco) and lacrima di morro d'alba (rosso/rosato).

I wrote an article about the rise of little-heralded Italian grapes such as these for a fine local publication here in town, Wanted in Rome. Both wines would be a nice compliment to a proper Thanksgiving meal, if you were serving rabbit or sea bass. Now,that would be a nice tradition. Think I'll start that holiday myself.

The lacrima di morro d'alba ripening on the vine this summer under unrelenting sun.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Vecchio uomo inverno

We've had a blast of winter here in the bel paese this week. Over the weekend, the mountains around Rome were white-capped. Further east, up Amandola way (pictured here), there was the first serious snowfall of the season.

Michael snapped these fotos this morning from the field next to our houses. Two weeks ago these slopes were gold, red and brown. Now, it's just white. Che belle! Bravo, Michael.

(BTW... my editors are not publishing my truffles story until next autumn. But you can get a sort of preview if you check out Michael's version on his blog. I wonder what Michael pays per-word.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Perugia, a tabloid tale

Is Perugia the Ibiza of Italy, as the Corriere della Sera reports? I've never seen any evidence of that. These days, the Etruscan wonder is splashed across the pages of British tabloids, discussed on chat shows and her bones are picked clean by bloggers (not this blogger.)Locals wonder if normality will ever return...

I've been quiet on the topic of the grisly murder that occurred in Perugia earlier this month. It's shaken many of the Perugini we know. Eric wrote this piece over the weekend that tries to sum up the impact the spotlight has had on the city. Some of the names may be familiar to you.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Olive amandolesi!

I have an odd attachment to my trees, particularly the olive trees. Xtina often says I love the trees more than her. This is simply not true. I love her and the trees equally. Most days.

Last year, for the first time, the olive trees finally produced, though the yield was pretty poor. This year, I can happily report, both trees gave us a large basket-full of olive goodness. The smaller of the two trees produces the hefty olive ascolane. The second, larger tree (pictured below) produced Italian black olives.

Update: A few weeks later now, and I'm trying the first batch. My mother-in-law has prepared them with orange skins and a bit of salt. They're a bit pruny, with a lightly bitter after-taste, but very nice! Next year: oil!

On the trail of Tuber magnatum pico

Last weekend was a rare treat. I went hunting with my neighbor Michael and a journalist friend from Rome Eric, searching for the precious tuber magnatum pico, or white truffle in the hills below my house in Amandola. A year ago, I learned these pungent aphrodisiacs (or so some claim) can be found in certain wooded sections in the valley around the house, and so I organized a giro with local tartufaii Alberto Mandozzi and Marcello Bianchi. We were hoping to find one or two under an oak or birch tree. Finding one, it seemed, would be the only way we could afford this delicacy this year. Why's that?

Well, I paid last year 30 euros for a 30-gram piece. This year, an equivalent piece could be had for between 150 and 180 euros; an incredibly dry spring and always-high demand have sent prices soaring. As a result, I bought the cheaper, and not nearly as good, black truffle. Set me back 17 euros. As Xtina said again this year, "once you go white, you just can't go back."

How'd we do? We didn't find any, but we were invited to a decadent meal hosted by the local truffle hunters association in Amandola, of which Alberto is president. It was a meal that will not be forgotten: a seven-course marathon, four of which included a healthy helping of white truffle shavings. (Pictured below is la fonduta, a Piemontese soup of several types of cheese coated in white truffles.) At this year's price, the meal would have set anybody back a few hundred euros. Thankfully, it was a BYOT affair. We ate what the association managed to unearth this year. Che fantastico!

Friday, October 26, 2007

...meanwhile from the other side of the planet

While I've been doing the glamorous movie thing, Xtina has been on the other side of the world on another mission for her NGO, this time in South Africa. She's been back and forth between JoBurg, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and beyond, usually in the most desperately poor neighborhoods.

She sent me this email update that I thought I'd share with you:

You have to imagine the poorest place you have ever been to, a desert dotted with little laminate shacks, no outdoor illumination, nothing. You drive along the main road in total darkness and suddenly you see this huge construction, temple-like, a piece of Vegas in the middle of nowhere. Lights, guards, 5 stars hotel, lounges, a vast green park (outside there is a very dry land), and slot machines, hundreds. The Sisters told me that the whites that come here look only for one thing. Guess what. I think this was the most outrageous contrast I have ever seen in my life. Probably people here are used to it.

This morning (wake up at 6) we went to another mission in the poorest village...they have a clinic, well organised with many girls that study and volunteer as home care assistants, especially for AIDS patients. Very nice girls, they walk for kms to get to their patients. Then they have nursery and pre-school. Tons of kids screaming my ears off. They don't have enough brick classrooms, the youngest (2-4) stay in hot...

They took me to visit a couple of patients, one woman with polio in a wheel chair...she was so happy that we brought her a new one...and the family with AIDS. The woman was very proud to show me her wedding dress...she did it herself...they have nothing else, four walls and nothing inside, bare rooms with some linens but at least they have gardens in the back where they grow vegs. They live off the government grant, 80 euros a month.

The thing that shocks me the most is that there are no men around. The women do all the work, in the gardens that the sisters give to the women to grow vegs I saw 2 pregnant women carrying water, ploughing the men. They don't feel responsible at all, they wander around, play football and many of them steal as much as they can during the night. Thieves broke in here several times and stole all the computers...

I don't feel too sad, I explained to the girls today that even if they don't see it they have a lot. They have a community, a network of people, they have their land, they have the opportunity to study..I wouldn't exchange this with a struggling life in the city...I don't know if I was very convincing.

Red carpet treatment

A special "red carpet" complimenti! to nostro Franco this morning. I attended last night his Rome Film Fest screening of Zero, a jarring 9-11 documentary. A packed cinema in Rome's Campo dei Fiori was the setting. Franco, the co-director, has been all over the news with the film in the past few days. On Tuesday, he strutted down the red carpet, accompanied by the screams of adoring fans no doubt.

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical initially of the public's appetite for yet another conspiratorial 9-11 documentary, but this one is well worth seeing. It's amazing how the natural inclination of Americans is to just shut that day out, and not seriously consider all the incongruencies of that attack. I met and interviewed the father of a man who was killed in one of the towers that morning last night. He's spent every day going over the details, and he's convinced we've all been lied to. Before you groan, do yourself a favor and find this film.

And thanks, Franco, for bringing it to the big screen.

Check out the site for more details.

Buona fortuna, amico!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Are Italian lawmakers planning to gag bloggers?

That's the very real concern around here. Well, from where I sit at least. A new d(r)aft law requiring all bloggers and users of social networks to register with the state has already passed one legislative hurdle. In the fresh light of day, it is being reconsidered in a slightly weaker version, but the "anti-blogger" law as it is being called is still alive and well. I wrote about the implications in my latest Times column, dubbed "A geriatric assault on Italy's bloggers." (I had nothing to do with the headline, but I think it's apt).

UPDATE: Apols for those who clicked on the link and went nowhere. I wish I could say it was the Italian censors forwarding you into a "404" black hole, but not so. Anyhow, the link is corrected. What I want to point your attention to is the number of angry young Italians who have responded to the story. 68 so far! I really despair at times for the youth of this country. They are completely ignored by the ruling class. Read their comments, and you'll see.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Vandals strike the Trevi Fountain

Who is the Ftm Azione futurista 2007, and what is their problem with the Trevi Fountain? In a baffling protest, the waters of the famed fountain turned blood red on Friday afternoon when a vandal dumped a jug of red paint into the waters. Within minutes the whole fountain was red, threatening to do serious damage, ANSA reports, to this incredible baroque masterpiece.

Corriere Della Sera
has even more images where you can see a bit more clearly the vandal in action.

He simply departed from the scene, exiting though a sea of tourists. What was his motive? It's unclear, but he left behind leaflets that spouted out something incoherent about unsettling "grey bourgeois society."

The leaflet said this group aimed to battle against "everything and everyone with a spirit of healthy violence" and to turn this "grey bourgeois society into a triumph of colour".

Today though ANSA is reporting they have identified the vandal. He's a 54-year-old and he was helped by two or three others. The initial press links between the group and the Italian art movement Futurism appears to be dismissed.

Marinetti and Balla would have never stood for such an act!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An hour to kill?

Then you must do yourself a favor and download (for free over the next few days), "This American Life's" latest gem, about high-security inmates' portrayal of Act V of Hamlet. You'll never think of Hamlet, Claudius, Horatio, et al again after you hear convicted killers interpret these roles.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Dateline: Garbatella. Yep, we're in

Ok, I've been in for a few days now; Xtina even longer. It's been several weeks delayed, and we still haven't managed to rid ourselves of a Romanian crew of workers, but we can officially say that the offices of Il Sette Bello are up and running in the new location. Please note, *reader mail should be sent directly to the embassy in Rome. Your embassy, not mine.

* - if it's a bottle of wine, contact me directly.

So, where is Garbatella exactly? It's on the other side (the Colosseo side) of the river, on a hill overlooking St. Paul's, a magnificent basilica that mercifully gets a tiny fraction of the pilgrims that usually converge on St. Peter's. Garbatella was the first community in Mussolini's grand urban plan, il Duce's idea in the '20s to extend Rome beyond the ancient walls and give everybody a bit of breathing room.

Mussolini's imprint is still visible today. Many of the buildings are adorned with an "E.F" for "epoca fascista" followed by a IV or V or some other Roman numeral, meaning built in 1926 or '27. (That's 1922 plus 4 or 5 for those of you scoring from home.) These days, Garbatella has flipped to the left, or so it appears from all the hammer and sickle graffiti in evidence. But the locals still like their Mussolini-inspired houses. And, there's a great teatro in the area that we've been known to check out over the years that has some funky avant garde productions.

Here's a funky Flickr montage, capturing the 'hoods more colorful parts.

And what about today? Garbatella was in the local press this week with Il Messaggero asking is "Garbatella like Notting Hill"? Turns out, no, not at all!

Locals got a bit feisty when a film crew from Working Title, the studio that produced "Notting Hill," tried to pay everyone to move their cars. They wanted a car-free street in order to film (or "gira nuda," as the Italians say) a scene with Sienna Miller (fully clothed, evidently) walking through the 'hood.

If I see Sienna Miller out my window (nuda o no) with a film crew trailing her, I'll let you know.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Still undecided about 2008?

Still undecided about next November? Take this quiz to see which candidate you are closest to ideologically.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Top 10 signs you know it's time to leave the nunnery

Yesterday marked the start of week 5 with the nuns. Not sure what we were thinking when we calculated this would be a 10-day layover. The curfew, the morning prayers, the fact we're on the periphery of town, the QUIET, all these things we first saw as a quaint transition now seem to thunder in our brains.

This is my last day here (I think) before I hit the road. In theory, the move should occur while I'm in London or New York, leaving Xtina to handle all the heavy lifting. To mark the planned departure (fingers crossed and voodoo candles lit) I thought I'd be constructive, compiling a list of helpful hints for those of you contemplating making a clean break yourself from convent life, metaphorical or actual.

So, here they are.

Top 10 signs you know it's time to leave the convent:

1) You start defining the world in terms of "in here" or "out there"
2) You realize smuggling beers into your room is not quite as exhilarating as it was in college.
3) You start repeating priest jokes.
4) You start humming "clappable" songs in public.
5) You refer to friends as "my child."
6) You communicate in a barely audible whisper.
7) You ask Romans to communicate in a barely audible whisper.
8) You find yourself commenting, "that's lovely. Did you sew it?"
9) You realize you're more of a John person, sighing heavily whenever Matthew or Mark are mentioned.
10) You grumble that the "St. Francis channel" on your satellite system keeps repeating the same programming.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Danger: over-protecting, animal-loving note ahead

Over the past month of so, I've been following the incredible journey of some Austrians and Italians guiding endangered birds on a 900 km route to new wintering grounds in Tuscany. This week, they finally arrived, a few weeks late, and with fewer than expected actually completing the journey. Still, they made it, including this mischievous one (pictured above) who I think is nicknamed "Arturo".

But now things get tricky. In past years, local hunters have taken aim at these rare birds, killing 3 as they feed in nearby fields. So, for my Tuscan readers (or those who may be hunting in Tuscany this autumn), don't FIRE at this bird! It's hardly worth the effort! They are not the fleetest species. It would be about as sporty as shooting the neighbor's dog. Chained to a tree. Yes, I hear they are mighty tasty, but still. Capite?

They were wiped off the map by Europeans 400 years ago. With any luck, they'll be back.

Gentili cacciatori Toscani,

Non uccidete questi uccelli!



Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why nuns rule

As some of you probably know, Xtina and I are living with nuns. We moved in two weeks ago for what we thought would be a two-week stay. Two weeks in, we're sticking it out for another two (at least). Sure, there are drawbacks. Certain popular street terminology is deemed "inappropriate" in these quiet halls. And the curfew puts a crimp on our social life. Try telling Romans we have to meet at 8 for dinner! Ma che dici?!?

But these are minor inconveniences. The upside is far greater. So much so that I feel I should share it with those of you who may be considering perhaps spending a few weeks/months/a lifetime in a convent.

But, before I get into that, I should clarify a few common misconceptions about our time in the convent.

- We are not being filmed 24/7 by a reality TV production team from Mediaset.
- Morning prayers is not mandatory.
- Xtina and I are permitted to walk these halls free of head coverings.

Ok, now for my top 10 reasons why nuns rule:

1) Broadband
3) catchy music you can clap to
4) Monday night Trivial Pursuit tournaments. For cash
5) Endless priest jokes
6) Did I mention "quiet"?
7) Friday night disco. ...Ok, still just a proposal
8) Not a single image of Padre Pio. Perhaps the only Padre Pio-free zone left in Rome
9) Inspiring organ-themed wake-up music
10) The sing-alongs

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Dante for dummies

A few weeks ago, Xtina and I joined her sister and assorted Perugini for a cultural night out, Dante's Divine Comedy in the 14th-century chapel of Sant'Agostino in nearby Corciano. The last time I was in that chapel, Xtina and I tied the knot. This time, we were treated to Dante's bleak description of hell. The irony was not lost on me.

Afterwards, we stepped out a bit dizzy, feeling completely thick for having struggled through so much of it. I picked up a measly few lines here and there, much less than my high school days. Xtina, of course, was the exception. She enthusiastically would whisper the upcoming scenes and what was left out of the modern-day version.

Today, I don't feel so quite thick, reading about the difficulty of translating Dante into verse in English. This is from the New Yorker:

To reproduce the Comedy in English terza rima, it has been calculated, approximately forty-five hundred triple rhymes are needed.

Ok, I feel less thick.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Thinking of booking the Pope?

Want the pope to speak at your next sacred monument dedication/World Youth Day/ CYO fund-raiser? It will cost you. Pope Benedict has been in Marche's famous pilgrimage spot, Loreto, this weekend for "Save Creation Day". The event cost more than 20 million euros to organize, 5 million of which will be covered by taxpayers, the local media is grumbling.

But, I say, should we really be putting a price tag on "creation day"? Everybody now: Of course not!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Changes at the top

Attentive reader, you no doubt have spotted a small edit at the top of this blog in the space designated for, to use newspaper speak, the "sub-hed". A few years ago I thought the most apt description for this blog was the ancient Roman phrase "Hic sunt leones", which I had interpreted as "from here, be lions".

Over pizza and wine last night, I was informed that this is not 100 percent correct. The Italians translate it to "qui ci sono i leoni" or simply "here be lions". There is more than a subtle difference. My interpretation suggests that just beyond this point, it is not safe to tread. But from where I stand, it's probably OK. Probably. Whereas, the ancient Romans used the expression to say that this whole damn place is unsafe to tread. How unsafe? There's lions, amico. Nuff said.

A special thanks to the always attentive (some might say, "disagreeable") Luca for pointing this out.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Italy's dilemma: tax the church or find the cheats?

In a nation of tax cheats, who is Italy's biggest tax dodger? The Catholic Church, evidently. Pressured by the EU and the Prodi government, Vatican officials say they are willing to go back to the negotiating table with government bean counters to determine which of the estimated annual 1.3 billion euros in tax breaks is legit. The issue is over ICI, the local tax. The Church has long been exempt from paying ICI on the grounds, to put it simply, it is a non-profit. The only problem is the church runs a healthy commercial business in the form of health clinics, hostels and schools all over Rome, and beyond.

But a rewrite of the tax code last year, aimed at chiseling away at Italy's teetering national debt, means the Church's commercial businesses (in other words, any Church business that competes with local hotels, schools and clinics) are eligible for taxation.

Italy's public debt ratio is the second highest in the OECD, making any fresh tax revenues urgent. The problem is an obvious one: it doesn't collect enough in taxes to fund its ballooning expenses. A big problem is tax cheats. Italians dodge taxes to the tune of 100 billion euros (or 7 percent of GDP) annually, Reuters reports. It's not just famous motorcycle riders either; major corporations who hide their money in off-shore tax havens is a common accounting trick here, and everywhere. Thus, going after the church makes sense in a country that can ill afford to let anybody slide on their taxes. Ah, but if it were that easy.

In the coming days, Pope Benedict is expected to publish his latest encyclical. In it, he is expected to denounce tax cheats as robbing the well-being of society. His big target is expected to be the use of tax havens by big business to cut out the tax man.
On the eve of such an important encyclical for Italy's treasury, I would imagine the negotiations have already begun between church and state.

Friday, August 24, 2007

You won't read this in the guidebook...

The scene: brilliant blue sky. Siena's famed campanile glints in the sunshine, looming over Piazza del Campo.

Xtina (to me)
: You have to understand something, darling. This town is a bit fake. They restored much of it in the 1700s.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Miss Patata Rossa 2007

It's sagra season, that time of year when every paesino, frazione and localita' aims to best their neighbor with the most sumptuous menu. It has to be getting tough on these little communities, what with la sagra delle cozze (mussels) in Pedaso, polenta in the next town and lasagna elsewhere. How can a town on a tight budget compete? Take a lesson from Colfiorito, a little town (pop. poco) on the Umbria-Marche border, that has rolled out a daring publicity campaign this year for its annual patata rossa (red potatoes) festival. The town has one major asset in the publicity department, a two-lane superstrada blows right through the middle of it, perfect for catching the attention of motorists. How is Colfiorito selling the red potatoes this year? With S-E-X, evidently. It's the "XXX Sagra della patata rossa".

Xtina points out it's merely the 30th annual festival, but the queue to get in would suggest otherwise.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Today's word of the day: liquidity

As in this Markets 101 summary by Mr. Econ, Pres. George W. Bush:

Another factor one has got to look at is the amount of liquidity in the system. In other words, is there enough liquidity to enable markets to be able to correct? And I'm told there is enough liquidity in the system to enable markets to correct.

And, George, how does liquidity affect the market? George? Mr. Bush? Are you paying attention, George?

In market-speak, it's hard to imagine a more troublesome word than liquidity. It's positive. Most people know that much. But what does it actually mean? Definition 1: liquidity refers to the ease at which an asset can be converted into cash. In other words, how fast you sell your car/ballooning house mortgage/baseball card collection/equities portfolio in exchange for cash or a cash equivalent? Guess what? Equities are not all that liquid. While easier to unload than, say, baseball cards, you still need a third party to arrange the transaction, and this person needs to find a buyer. And secondly, do we really want to send the message to jittery investors that the best way out of this mess is to sell their shares? Of course not.

In terms of dud mortgages, they are even less liquid. Only the most daring investor would snatch up sub-prime loans. And, again, does the president want to be sending a message to strapped homeowners, regardless of their unworthiness, that they should just walk away from the new home, let somebody else pick up the loan?

Definition 2: our ability to cover our liabilities with cash. This is the bearish term (a less frequent usage during the current 25-year bull market), and certainly what the president's advisors were thinking when they whispered the term into Dubya's ear. It's certainly in our interest to know that the giant hole covered by negligent lending practices can be covered elsewhere by investors to produce that 'soft landing' effect we are now praying for. This remains to be seen, of course, though there are positive early signs thanks to that other market mechanism too dull for TV financial journalists to fuss about: monetary policy. Still, questions persist, including: You say there is enough liquidity now, but what if the crisis worsens? Will the central bank white knights continue to bail out the market?

Extricating ourselves from the sub-prime mess requires a thoughtful response, not dashing out hollow phrases and terminology to gloss over the troublesome parts. If not, we might start hearing a new word: panic. And everyone knows what that means.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Space Aliens Ate My Laundry!

On Aug. 27, Americans will get their last fix of the latest goss on Elvis and Bigfoot sightings, out-of-control space aliens and sumu wrestler-sized toddlers. Yes, the Weekly World News is going out of business. Trips to the supermarket, under the guise of stocking up on bread, soap and garlic (the only true defense against Vampire Boy), will never be the same. Nor will the journalism profession.

From the brilliant Washington Post tribute to WWN, Peter Carlson explains the editorial philosophy of the tabloid:

too many facts can ruin a good yarn, so [WWN editors] Pope and Clontz encouraged their reporters to embellish a bit. The reporters complied and started spicing up stories with lovely details that came straight from their imaginations. Gradually, true stories became half-true stories, then quarter-true stories, then . . .

"It wasn't like overnight we decided to start running fiction," Berger says. "We just added a few facts to a story and got away with it, and it went on from there."

WWN's writers had stepped out onto that proverbial "slippery slope" you hear so much about, and they gleefully slid down it, riding right to the bottom, giggling all the way. Soon they were producing "FAMED PSYCHIC'S HEAD EXPLODES" and "ELVIS TOMB IS EMPTY" and "HEAVEN PHOTOGRAPHED BY HUBBLE TELESCOPE," which was illustrated by an actual photo from the Hubble, enhanced just a wee bit to show a shining city so lovely it made dying seem like a small price to pay for admission.

I am tempted to use this space to blame the rise of mindless celebrity news for killing off WWN, but I'll leave you to ponder this at the check-out counter as you question whether or not there may be aliens among us, perhaps working the cash register. After the 27th, we may never know.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Best said in pictures

As Pete mentioned in the post below, Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, were killed a few weeks ago in a US helicopter attack. Reuters is asking for a full military investigation, a request that will undoubtedly go unheeded.

In the meantime, Reuters has posted a touching tribute to this young man's incredible work. Check it out here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Back in Baghdad

A quick shout-out to one of ISB's favorite war correspondents, and all-around good guys: Pete Graff. He's left the war zone that is Islington and is back in Baghdad, this time for an extended tour...I've nicked this from the Reuters site (here's the original) because it's a sweet story about his first day back:

WITNESS-Soccer makes it the right day to return to Baghdad
Sun Jul 29, 2007 12:58PM EDT
By Peter Graff

BAGHDAD, July 29 (Reuters) - Looks like I chose the right day to return to Baghdad.

Five hours after I touched down in the Iraqi capital I found myself decked out in an Iraqi soccer team T-shirt, screaming my head off and dancing around the room like a madman with two dozen Iraqi colleagues in the Reuters Baghdad bureau.

We won the soccer.

Now, strictly speaking, as a non-biased journalist, I was probably not supposed to pick sides in the Asian Cup final between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

But at the precise moment Younis Mahmoud, a Turkmen, climbed to head Kurdish team mate Hawar Mulla Mohammed's flawless corner into the back of the net, I was a partisan Iraqi fan.

Thanks to a stunning save moments earlier by Shi'ite Arab goalkeeper Noor Sabri, that single goal in the 71st minute was enough to clinch the Asian Cup over the much-favoured but clearly outplayed Saudi team.

Several of my colleagues wept with joy. Everyone chanted, clapped, screamed and hugged, releasing the sort of emotion that cannot possibly be explained by football alone.

Twenty two minutes later, when the referee called time, gunfire erupted across the city as jubilant Iraqis -- including some of the guards on our road -- began firing into the air.


That morning before the match, when I had stepped back into the bureau after nine months away from Iraq, I was handed my green and white team jersey, with an Iraqi flag over the left breast. Today was match day and we were going to enjoy it.

Everyone had T-shirts. We lined up for a group photo. There would be a barbecue later, whether Iraq won or lost.

I went from room to room saying hello to the staff -- the photographers, cameramen, writers for our Arabic and English services, drivers, cooks, cleaners.

The bureau had changed: there was a new layout, fresh paint, new TVs and a handful of new faces.

But mostly there was a sense of mourning. Two weeks ago, Namir Noor-Eldeen, a gifted photographer at the age of 22, was killed in a U.S. air strike in Baghdad. So was Saeed Chmagh, one of the bureau's drivers.

That same week, a translator who worked for Reuters was killed by gunmen. His family have asked that we do not name him.

Their photos were up all over the bureau.

The game began with all of us crowded around a television set.

At halftime the game was tied at 0-0. I was sitting next to our office manager, sharing a tube of Pringles.

"So, how's it been?" I asked him.

Difficult, he said. "Since the guys were killed, they have been in shock. It is only starting to lift now, just barely," he said. "Three guys killed in two days. It's hard."

But our dead colleagues would have wanted us to celebrate. And that we did.

The final whistle sparked euphoric celebrations. In a small room at the back of the office, staff danced to Arabic pop tunes. Some of the drivers stripped off their soccer team shirts it was so hot.

On the wall were portraits of Namir and Saeed. Both of them were smiling.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Dinner with Fausto

Editorial note: This is an Xtina "gossip rag" exclusive, filed shortly after our return last night from the dinner party of the summer. All legal inquiries should go straight to her.

Our most aristocratic friend, who bears with nonchalance a double surname and counts as part of his inheritance a XVIII century portrait of an ancestor beheaded by the Borbons for supporting the Republican Revolutionaries in Naples at the end of 1700, finally got married. Blood aristocracy in Italy, following the disgraceful end of the worst European royal families, turned out to be a powerful networking system Sunday night producing diplomats, bankers, intellectuals, business people and some politicians at a fine soirée in Roma Nord. Our friend's celebrated uncle gracefully threw the dinner party, in his posh-neighborhood garden house. From the photos and posters on the walls we argued that this party, even if full with celebrities, ranked pretty low on the board -- for sure, way below the dinner party for Nancy Kissinger's birthday in '94.

Back to the invitees, all the above-mentioned categories were very well represented around the dinner table, in the most bi-partisan fashion.
Politicians you've read on the morning papers insulting each other, were kindly sharing mozzarella and sipping -very understated, indeed- wine, next to their young -or rejuvenated- female partners. Fausto B., the Italian equivalent of Nancy Pelosi, a very charming former union leader - maximum, current idol of the variegated Italian no-global galaxy - that spans from late followers of the Red Brigade dreaming to erase injustice from the world by killing labour law professors, to the Franciscan brothers of Assisi - chatted the whole night with his new best friend, Marina, the queen of Italian jet-set in the '80, a cross between Jane Fonda's glamorous political engagement and Brigit Bardot's extenuating anti-fur fervor.

Probably nobody informed Fausto that two passionate Berlusconi supporters (and one current MP) were seated on the other side of the table. During dips in the conversation, the right-leaning power couple (he of indeterminate, but unquestionably fine Northern Italian stock; she, a Teutonic beauty that could inspire a propogandist to his finest work) explained to me and my friend her political philosophy. Once arriving in Italy a sweet, unblemished sight no doubt, she immediately took to the intelligent and truly genuine politician that is Berlusconi. And how does she feel about Prof. Prodi, Berluconi's nemesis? He's artificial and awkward looking, she informed. How was it possible that living for 4 years between Dubai and London she didn't get an exact picture of the charismatic and powerful Berlusconi from the international media? Ah, yes of course, that was a plot loomed by the E-communist!

Unfortunately, Fausto didn't pay too much attention to our Frau pundit. He was busy listening to the Buddha-looking, wannabe next mayor of Rome, junior senator Goffredo B. The king-maker that crowned Rutelli first prince of the new-swinging Rome, the architect of Rome's cultural Renaissance, was probably unveiling secret strategies to pull the carpet under Prodi's feet by 2008...Fausto could give precious suggestions, having knocked down the first Prodi cabinet and nearly delivered his supporters a BIS last autumn!!

Unfortunately, we don't have a detailed account to offer our readers. We were too busy deploring the Italian banking and political system together with this gracious Milanese-americanophile gent and his wife, who turned out at the end of the night -courtesy of Bernhard's mobile Internet connection- to be the vice-president of one of Tronchetti Provera's companies. Bernhard dashed inside to wash his Italy we have a saying to describe this behaviour, you don't spit on the plate where you are eating, well...ehm, just metaphorically, but this is what we have been exposed to during this dramatic dinner affair.

I have to say that my personal take at the end of the night was fully positive.
Fausto greeted me twice (due to the wine, the age, or the low-cut dress, I cannot say); his diamond-shining wife shared with me her love for Umbrian hilltowns. As for the location, I would like a private tour some day, a close-up glance of the original Andy Warhol's and even a Morandi. And the 8cm heels I walked on for 4 hours brought me back home without breaking any ankles.

Erm, Chris, you have something in your beard

This may be the last K2 post for awhile. I couldn't resist posting this photo of Chris on the blog now that he's back safe. The latest dispatch explains what a hell experience it was descending from 8,611 meters in a white-out blizzard.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Worse than Michael Vick...

It's been a bad week for animal rights activists. You know all about the Michael Vick case. Ever since "Amores Perros", I've been really down on dogfighting.

Here in parched Italy, we may have Vick beat in the cruelty category. A number of forest fires have erupted this summer, particularly in the south. The tinderbox conditions are not the principle reason for the blazes, it turns out. It's pyromania. In incredible testimony yesterday, Guido Bertolaso, Italy's head of civil protection (the equivalent of FEMA), said they have evidence that pyromaniacs are dousing cats in gasoline, setting them alight, and then tossing them into fields to ignite the blaze.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bubbling in the heat

In Rome, the asphalt has become soft and mushy at our feet. Parked motorini are tipping over in the swelter, and I am starting to mutter obsenities at the harmless puffy clouds overhead. We haven't had a drop of precipitation in weeks and weeks. Brush fires are breaking out across the tinder box that is Central Italy. Meanwhile, much of England is under water and the north of Europe is cool, grey and sodden, thanks to man-made climatic changing forces.

Back in Rome, I check the 5-day forecast (coutesy of the BBC). It never changes:

Monday, July 23, 2007

Selling The Sopranos to the Italians

Introducing "The Sopranos" to the Italians has not been as easy as I first thought. I thought they would find these cappocolo-munching gangsters, with their overbearing mothers and archaic Italian expressions entertaining. Instead, it generates confused debate over an aperativo or at a dinner party. As an anthropological experiment it hasn't produced the results I first imagined.

With that in mind, I wrote this article for today's Media Guardian, summing up why the Italians just don't get the Sopranos. Whadayagonnado?

Monday July 23, 2007
The Guardian

Why The Sopranos flopped in Italy
A few times an hour, the No 8 tram rolls into Rome's historic centre bearing the 10ft-tall likeness of four mobsters from New Jersey: mafia boss Tony Soprano and his crew.

Beginning this month, Italians are getting their second dose of The Sopranos, accompanied this time by a massive promotional blitz from the broadcaster, Cult, a Fox cable channel on Rupert Murdoch's fast-growing satellite TV service Sky Italia.

Six years ago, The Sopranos flopped in Italy, which was unexpected in a country where critically acclaimed American TV imports - and Scorsese and Coppola gangster flicks - are popular. The lacklustre ratings were blamed on everything from a poor time slot - Silvio Berlusconi's Canale 5 ran The Sopranos on Saturday nights after 11 - to the idea that Italians have had their fill of overbearing families.

"In Italy we have this concept of familismo amorale, where the family supersedes all. It's evident everywhere, in the schools, in government, finding a job. Italy's problems stem from the family. To see this on TV, for the average Italian, it is just not very exciting," says Luca Tummolini, a researcher at Italy's National Research Council.

The language could be a problem too. Tony and his crew, whose forebears hail from outside Naples, use a New Jersey slang to describe the women and lunch meats in their lives that would make most Italians wince. For instance, capocollo Italian ham is called gabbogol, while gumar, the label the American mob use for mistress, would confound even the most prolific womaniser in Italy. "Never heard of it," Italian TV critic Italo Moscati says, confirming a common response. "It's a forgotten language they speak. Their view of Italy and Italian culture is a nostalgic one, the Italy of the 30s and 40s, the land of their grandparents," he says.

It is not so much an antiquated view but an American approximation of Italian culture that has proved to be a turn-off for Italian viewers. "Italians see in The Sopranos 'lo zio d'America'," Moscati says, referring to the cliched Italian immigrant who finds a better life in America, only to return home for visits, pockets bulging with cash, to find an alien country and distant relations.

Of course, it is this blind pride in their Italian roots that makes Tony Soprano and his captains such flawed, but classic, TV characters. What second- or third-generation American isn't guilty of romanticising his ties to a nonexistent "old country"?

As David Remnick recently wrote in the New Yorker, "The Sopranos are a recognisable reflection of all of us," a statement most Italians would find as scandalous as gabbagol

If Italians are to develop a taste for The Sopranos, now is the time. Cult channel is showing The Sopranos and another critically acclaimed series, Six Feet Under, back-to-back. The combination could work. As Tummolini says of Six Feet Under: "A family show about death, a topic that is so taboo in Italy, now that's interesting".
Bernhard Warner


For a clearer picture of what's happening on the mountain as the descent moves into Day 3, click here. They're getting closer. And, Chris, if you can rig up a Net connection and read this: Happy Birthday!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

K2 Update

About two hours ago, we received word that Chris and his climbing team of Don Bowie and Bruce Normand had reached advance base camp (it's not marked on the image below; but ABC is about 2-hour trek from base camp). Their descent continues in the morning, local time; they should reach Base Camp tomorrow some time. On Friday, the American trio summited 8,611-meter K2. On behalf of friends, family and countless well-wishers, Congratulations! We're elated and incredibly proud of you in accomplishing such a rare feat. We wish you a safe and speedy return. Good luck, guys!

According to The Baltimore Sun, my brother Chris is only the ninth American to have summited both K2 and Everest. Before Friday's successful ascent, just 253 climbers had reached the summit of K2 between 1954 and 2006.

Friday's historic day comes with some bad news. Evidentally, and this is unconfirmed as of now, an Italian climber from Terni, Stefano Zavka, and two members of the Korean team remain unaccounted for as of a few hours ago. It's a tense situation as there's been no word from Zavka and the Koreans since Friday, and bad weather is beginning to lash the mountain. (It should be noted that the bad weather could be fouling with the communications lines too, explaining the lack an update on their whereabouts). Our hopes and prayers go out to Zavka and all the climbers, plus their friends and family, in these tense hours.

Perugia, Al-Qaeda hotspot?

New York City, London, Washington D.C. and Ponte Felcino, un paesino on the outskirts of Perugia? Yep, little ol' Perugia, Xtina's home town, is the latest front on the war on terror. Police are saying a little mosque in Ponte Felcino (population: nessuno) was a front for training Al-Qaeda foot soldiers. Police found poison, explosives and instructions on flying a Boeing 747 at the mosque.

The news has been trickling in to quiet, leafy Ponte Felcino (pictured) throughout the weekend here. (We drove up Friday from Rome to beat the heat, only to find it hotter here in Perugia - literally and metaphorically.) The Perugini are genuinely stunned that their pristine city is on the terror watch list, but they don't seem to be too fussed about the discovery of Al Qaeda under their noses. If it were a cell of Albanians, that would be different! Kidding, of course.

Our friends have a business in Ponte Felcino, which is where we heard the news yesterday evening when we met them for dinner. They say the Muslim community is visible and growing in the region, but quiet too. If there was a terrorist training facility here, they concluded, there could be one in any community. Ponte Felcino is a community where everybody knows everybody else's business. To outsiders like me, it always seems as if every straniero -- and that means anybody born outside Perugia -- is under suspicion. I wouldn't be surprised if police were tipped off by a church-going nonna whose been surveilling the group for ages.

The timing of the arrest is interesting, I can't help but point out. The annual Umbria Jazz fest concluded last weekend, easily the region's most popular tourist attraction. Most of the music fans have left the city and life around here is slowly returning to its slow summertime rhythm. After the jazz fest and before the start of the school year (L'universita per gli stranieri), which attracts hundreds of foreign students from all over the world to study Italian and sample fine prosciutto perugino, the city is rather quiet, the perfect time to swoop in and break up a terror cell.

It's not been the most pleasant of summers for i Perugini. They are still chewing over last week's scandal: the lifetime ban the festival organizers imposed on pianist Keith Jarrett. In an angry outburst, Jarrett refused to play until fans turned off their "F---ing cameras". Otherwise, he would "leave this goddamn city". Such a slur has earned Jarrett the Public Enemy Number 1 tag. The three Al-Qaeda guys trail somewhere behind.

Friday, July 20, 2007


Less than an hour ago, Chris and the crew summited K2. For further details, check out the Shared Summit site here. Congrats, fratello!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

In vino, (the search for) Veritas

Xtina and I set off yesterday morning at 8:30 on a special assignment: to discover the secret of the little-known grape, Lacrima di Morro d'Alba. Yes, it truly is a mouth-full. It's found only in a small zone surrounding the Marchigiani town, Morro d'Alba. (Most Italians see "Alba" and immediately conclude this is a wine from Piemonte. Nope. They could be forgiven. The grape is incredibly flavorful, a nice change from some of the ho-hum Sangiovese/Montepulciano breeds that dominate Central Italy).

We visited the wine-making duo, Piergiovanni Giusti and his lovely wife, at their cantina in the hills north of Ancona. Coming down from the mountains of Amandola, it was a stark climatic change. The cool mountain climes gave way to the hot and dry coastal plains. The sun has been baking the earth with unrelenting force around here since late May - not ideal conditions for sensitive little grapes, but it's not as bad as the summer of 2003 when much of this crop was cooked in record temps. It's hot, but not too hot. 2007, we're told with a wink to the sky, will be a good year. Magari!

We toured the vineyard Saturday morning, and got a lesson in history, chemistry and voodoo, and then went straight to the tasting. We had a few sips (and a few more) of their four wines - a rosato and three reds. The Rubbiano was exceptional, but the Luigino was a revelation, as good as anything I've tasted from this fine grape (pictured above). Amid my steam of compliments, he informed they only make 3,400 bottles per year. I quickly did the math: that's not nearly enough. We then sat down for a nice meal at the exceptional Falconara restaurant, Il Camino where we discussed all manners of things, tucking into a decadent Marchigiano meal of fresh fish. For dessert: ice cream drizzled with olive oil and white pepper, and a few more glasses of the Luigino. We came home with two bottles - one we are giving Massimo for his 60th birthday this weekend; the other we'll keep for a special occasion in Roma.

You can bet I'll have more to say about Lacrima di Morro D'Alba in the future.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A note to our reader(s)

...if you were wondering about the origin of all the new photos -- and now, video (along the right hand side) -- it's because I've been playing with a new Nokia N95 phone. It has a 5-megapixel camera and video camera built in. It's a damn fine gadget, particularly when I'm up here in the hills of Amandola. There are so many times I wish I had a camera with me to snap the most improbable scene of country life: like a half-dozen nuns piled on a tractor, a great sunset, or a lizard devouring some insect at my feet. Ok, maybe not the last image, but you get the idea. The phone came with my new mobile carrier, 3 Italia. It's not a piece of promotional kit that I'm demo-ing. I'm paying for it. It gets ISB's highest marks.

Gelato vindication!

This just in from Adam, a longtime ISB reader in New York: Serious Eats names its top 5 gelaterie in Rome, giving a special nod to Gelateria alla Scala in Trastevere. They say:

Alla Scala: located in a small piazza across from the baroque Santa Maria della Scala church in the Trastavere neighborhood; Appell's picks: pear, pineapple, kiwi, banana, fragola (strawberry), or frutti di bosco (forest berries). Via della Scala 51

As you may recall, ISB crowned Alla Scala top honors in 2005. The editorial board here of course seconds the Serious Eats list, although we favor the cannella, but the fragola is pretty damn good too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Blogging from basecamp

I suppose I should have bloggers' envy about this sad fact: I've been running this little blog here for the past few years and now manage something like triple-digit traffic each week. Older brother Chris starts blogging a few weeks back and he's amassed 1.5 million page views since May 21. Ok, he's blogging from K2. And the media loves him, including me. He and his team are the subject of my most recent Times column.

It was fun exchanging emails with him. At base camp, Chris met up with an Italian team consisting of a very famous sports journalist/celeb, Marco Mazzocchi. Mazzocchi (pictured below) was a recent contestant of Italian TV show Ballando con le stelle (Dancing with the Stars). If you think those moves are bad, you should see Chris on the dance floor.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Summertime, and the living is easy

Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good-lookin'/hush now baby, don't you cry

The danger of having wifi in the country is you start doing geeky stuff in the middle of the afternoon, like updating your web site about the very place you're sitting. But this is the digital age, and hence, I'm putting the new broadband connection to work.

There are some fresh fotos here, giving you an idea of what life is like in the country. I'm sparing you the less appealing details like Bessie, at my feet, trying to catch flies, the two scorpions I found in a box of New Yorkers this morning, the lizard wrestling a grasshopper to the ground and devouring it in one spikey gulp, oh, and the snake that wriggled up the driveway this afternoon.

I'll leave you with this image: Xtina lazing in the sun, reading her latest anarchist manifesto, chuckling blithely.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Dog days of summer

It's hot in Central Italy. How hot? Even dogs need a day at the lake. Here's Bessie going for a heroic swim in Lago di Fiastra, about a half-hour drive from the house in the middle of Monti Sibillini National Park. The lake is perfect on a hot summer day. Fed by mountain streams, the water is always cold and refreshing. We spent the last two days there, underwater.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Best. Obit. Ever.

That was the subject line of an email from faithful ISB reader Jim I found in my inbox this morning. For those unfamiliar with the subject, the British papers long ago turned the obituary into an art form. Some of the best prose in British nupes can be found on the obit pages, a far cry from the formulaic capsules I'd write in my first days at (the defunct) The New Brunswick Home News.

There's plenty of material. There are so many drug-addled, eccentric Eurotrash philanderers parading around the capital cities of the old country. Check out this latest obit from The Telegraph on the great-great-grandson of Otto von Bismarck. Poor Otto.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Living la vita trasloco

Xtina and I are in our final hours here in Monteverde. Yep, stiamo traslocando. Moving.

A single rep from the moving company arrived this morning, a massive Eastern European of indistinguishable nationality who's worked through the day, disassembling everything in a blur of quiet productivity. Leaving, he asks if he can come a half-hour earlier tomorrow to finish. Gotta love EU expansion!

Scanning the flat, we are in a strange place, technically it's still ours till Thursday, but it will be stripped bare in the next day. At the moment, boxes are piled to the ceiling and dust bunnies the size of Fiat Cinquecentos tumble down the halls, High Noon style. I better get the aspira polvera ready.

What does this all mean for Il Sette Bello readers? Readers should continue to communicate with us electronically. The physical post will be no better in Garbatella. Also, we will be vagabonds for the next, at a minimum, six weeks, which could explain the lack of posts. Oh, and it's summer too.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Rome, from pilgrimage to pub crawl

Once again Peter Kiefer at the Times writes a gem about life here in Rome, this time about those hard-drinking, hard-partying tourists who, to the chagrin of the locals, turn Campo dei Fiori and Trastevere into heaving party spots when the sun goes down. I've had a few drinks with Peter in Campo dei Fiori. He knows what he writes about.

Not sure I understand fully this quote though:

“Why would you come to Rome to drink beer when you can do that anywhere else in the world?” said Giuseppe Strappa, an architect and professor who has written extensively on the changing face of Rome’s historic center. “The value of Rome is its urban tissue.”

Urban tissue? Must be what the young clubbers are taking these days.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Recycled chic

A few weeks ago Xtina came back from the Philippines trailing a monster duffel bag filled with local handicrafts, the labor of some enterprising locals who live in extremely impoverished conditions. The crafts were put up for sale this weekend as part of a charity event for Xtina's NGO to raise some much-needed funds for these communities back home: financing things like school supplies (where there are schools).

The products were of a remarkably high quality. But that wasn't the real draw. The locals crafted the bags out of refuse. One woven bag was made of pages ripped from the phone book. If you looked hard, you could read off surnames, partial and whole, like "Cruz" and "Sant-something". Others were made from soda cans, juice packs and plastic shopping bags. Recyclable chic! I couldn't help but think these handbags would be all the rage in the funkier parts of Shoreditch and the East Village.

Not surprisingly, they sold pretty quickly to the trendy shoppers (and Luca). Here, the lovely Giulia models the juice pack bag:

and nostro Luca with the phonebook-weave bag, presumably a gift for one of his many admirers:

Please give a hand to our models. Che belli!