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.