Category Archives: Bologna

TRAVELLING TO ITALY AND STAYING CONNECTED

How did we survive without cell phones and laptops and i-Pads and all the gadgetry that keeps up connected, a mere 15 to 20 years ago? On vacation, I used to unplug, call home once or twice in the space of three weeks to let my mom know I was alive and I didn’t care one bit about what was going on in the world, much less what was happening at work or in my family or friends’ lives. Now, here I am, getting ready to travel with my i-Pad, my laptop and phone, buying additional data, discounted minutes and the likes. Right or wrong, I adapted to this lifestyle and I would venture to say that it’s not all bad. Instead of packing the customary half a dozen books, they are all downloaded on my i-Pad with just one paperback in case the power runs out. I won’t come home to a pile of unread New York Times or New Yorkers because they will be right there, with me.

In the process of organizing my upcoming trip to Italy, I uncovered a few helpful sites that will make my stay easier. I am Italian so navigating Italy is not something I have to think about but I discovered there was so much I could do from my sofa in Los Angeles that would save me time at the other end.

So, if you happen to travel to Italy, Venice and Rome in particular, here are a few tips.

VENICE

I feel like Venice has become my home away from home. I rent the same apartment in the same neighbourhood away from the tourist fare, I have my trusted supermarket, my fish monger and greengrocer where I shop, yoga classes I might attend and a vaporetto pass. But even for a native, Venice can be rather daunting. There is so much to do (besides the obvious sightseeing if you have never been there). It’s also a college town with a lot of cultural events taking place at any given time. Figuring out what takes place when and where is a different matter. A wonderful website managed by the City government makes the job easier. You can buy museum tickets/passes, search by type of event or date and everything is there: movies, plays, concerts, exhibitions, I even found a Tai chi class inside the Guggenheim museum I would have never otherwise come across.

On veniceconnected.com I was able to buy wi-fi for the week I will be there, for 20 euros. You enter the dates you want, pay and you will receive instructions on how to activate it when you get there. So goodbye little “cartoleria” where I used to buy wi-fi from.

Best of all, you can buy a vaporetto pass (or airport transfer) as well, avoiding the daunting lines that will greet you once you step out of the train station. Click, pay and print and validate it on your first trip.

Even if you are not going anywhere near Venice, hop on the site anyway and check out the camera that gives you views of any corner of Venice in real time.

For more in-depth information on Venice, check out my posts in the travel section Random Venice Post

ROME AND BOLOGNA

In Rome, staying connected is even easier. The entire city center (a very vast area) is covered by free wi-fi provided by the City of Rome. All you have to do is hook up to it and, if you are visiting, chances are you are staying somewhere central.

Bologna’s city center is also equipped with wi-fi but you have to register. Just go to the Public Internet office in Piazza Maggiore (right next to the pharmacy) and let them know you want to open an account. They will set you up and provide you with a login name and password which you can use on your own laptop or at any of the computers in their office. Totally, absolutely free. And valid for the rest of your life.

TRAIN TRAVEL

If you are seeing more than one place, chances are you will be travelling by train. Unless you are renting a car and good luck to you being on the road with any of us Italians. Train tracks crisscross the entire boot and trains will take you even to the remotest places. You can plan your trip and your fares on www.trenitalia.com. High speed trains are more expensive but they will get you there, well, fast but all other kind of cheaper options are available if you have time. You can purchase your ticket on-line (either by opening an account or registering as a guest) and the ticket will be e-mailed to you or else a code sent to your cell phone (has to be an Italian one). When the ticket collector comes by, all you have to do is hand him your phone. And you will have avoided long lines at the ticket counters, travel agency fees or trying to explain in your broken Italian where the heck you want to go – everybody is very nice and helpful but not always English-speaking.

Now that my travel plans have changed, I am left figuring out how to change all the handy-dandy tickets, passes etc that I have already purchased. Will let you know how easy that is or if begging on the phone in Italian is required.

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PIAZZA GRANDE

There are monuments or landmarks that come to represent a city – think Big Ben in London or the Tour Eiffel in Paris. And then there are people so closely associated with a city they become the embodiment of it.

My birth city, Bologna, is known for its two leaning towers, for its red roofs and for the oldest university in the world (and for its food). The main medieval square is wide and open, framed by porticos, an unfinished cathedral and a pretty palace. It’s the heart of the city, whether you sit on the church steps or at one of the fancy cafes and watch the world go by, the groups of old men huddled in their coats to talk about sports and politics and the tourists with their noses in the air.

Some of the most personal images of Piazza Maggiore came in a song by Lucio Dalla, a famous singer songwriter who, despite his success, chose to keep on living and working in the warmth of his native Bologna. Lucio died yesterday and, among the many songs I browsed on You Tube to feel closer to home, I am choosing to post the one about the Piazza I grew up in, the one I said goodbye to the night before leaving for good, the one that is always there, immutable in its medieval beauty, whenever I choose to go back.

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SNOW DAYS

Snow in Bologna

Snow days announced themselves by their utter silence. Tucked under the covers, the familiar traffic hum that would greet my waking, the cars going around the square where I lived, would be eerily absent. I would crawl to the window, hoping not to see any buses skulking around, a sure sign that school was out of the question.Then I would bundle up, don after ski boots and enjoy the crackle of the white powder under my feet, before it had a chance to turn brown and muddy.

These days, I live the experience of snow vicariously. Even if it flurried for about ten minutes five years ago, I am pretty sure that doesn’t count. In Bologna, though, where I come from, at this point they have had enough of the snow, that fell, pretty much uninterrupted, for two weeks. With most of Europe in the grip of snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures, I feel more and more guilty  about the unprecedented warm winter California has been enjoying. For the first time in years, though, I wish I could experience the surprise of waking up and instantly knowing I was snowed in.

Photo courtesy of Bruno Barbiroli

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ADVENTURES IN BOLOGNA – The aperitivo hour

Some claim the idea of drinking small quantities of alcohol before dinner dates back to ancient Egypt. What we do know for sure is that the habit started in 1786, when a Mr. Carpano invented vermouth (a forebear of Martini) in Turin. Nowadays, in Italy, it has become a nearly daily ritual for many, especially when the weather cooperates and sitting outside is just too pleasant to forego. Bologna used to be filled with osterie, drinking dives mainly populated by old men discussing politics and sport and playing cards while imbibing. In the ‘80s, it became trendy for the younger generation to buy out aging owners and add some basic food and a wider drink selection, quickly attracting the young crowds that inhabit this university city.

Osterie stay open until the wee hours, usually until the last client has gone, and can vary from trendy eateries to gathering holes where people mingle, sing, play music and mate. A remnant of the good old days is Osteria del Sole, right in the heart of the downtown market, where the tables and benches haven’t changed in 100 years and some of the chairs are held together with duct tape. The wine is not great but the old men playing cards, alongside the preppy lawyers stopping by for a glass before heading home is a sight to behold. If you are really hungry, you are allowed to bring your food as long as you buy a glass or two.

But the city is also filled with bars that serve cappuccinos and croissants for breakfast and aperitivo starting at 6 pm. There are so many that, in order to attract and keep clients, the competition is based on what food is served with the drinks. It’s not a Campari or a Chardonnay anymore, it’s a drink and a swath of plates filled with all kind of edible goodies that put chips and olives to shame: miniature sandwiches, morsels of chicken tikka, tiny frittata, fruit, canapes, pizzas – you name it. It’s all built in the price of the drink, giving you the illusion of eating for free but, all things considered, if you are in a hurry, it’s a much cheaper alternative to dinner.

Around the city center, I couldn’t find a single place that wasn’t regurgitating with people, well past dinner time. My personal favourite,  not because of the food, was the one right smack in the middle of Piazza Santo Stefano, where you can sit and watch the sun go down and hit the red brick facade of the church, people strolling by on the pebbled square and a police car idling to the sides, its “contents” standing around smoking a cigarette. They don’t seem too bothered by a car that enters the piazza illegally, screeches to a halt at the sight of the patrol car and then meekly heads off to a side street with nary a glance, let alone a ticket. In a society that is still fairly chauvinistic, if you are female and pretty it’s not so hard to talk your way out of most tickets.

I wonder why it doesn’t seem possible to replicate the  laid back aperitivo experience in LA. We do have “happy hour” which is usually a rowdy and loud affair, standing at a counter. Large distances play a major role – here in Bologna, once work is over, nobody rushes off to the gym, to pick up the kids at day care, to run one last errand. The day is done, the weather is beautiful – everything else can wait.

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN BOLOGNA – Chatting my way through Italy

It’s the people. I forgot all about the people. Sitting at a sidewalk cafe, having breakfast, a beggar approaches. He is tall and burly, probably in his 40’s and says he needs help, could I buy him a panino? I wave him away but the older ladies at the table next to me offer him some change. One of them looks at me, prim and proper in her linen dress, perfectly coiffed and says “I know him. He is worthy of our charity”.

Alright then. I call him back “If the lady knows you…” and I shell out a euro. A conversation ensues with the lady in linen and her friend who feel compelled to tell me all about the beggar they have known for decades and another coterie  they “patronize”. The two friends argue about a woman who plays the accordion and who, apparently, squander the money she begs for on packs of cigarettes. A philosophical debate gets under way on whether we should have any input on how the money we give to beggars is spent.

At the same time, a tiny dog on a pink leash wanders under my legs while her owner is chomping tiny doughnuts oozing pastry cream. We get chatting about the dog’s mongrel breed as he apologizes profusely about the intrusion. He politely bids me arrivederci when he leaves.

In the candle store that displays a wide array of wax made cakes, cupcakes, cannoli and cassata that look more yummy than the real thing, the young girl who helps me with the Sicilian lavender soap tells me she recently bought the store and she has never been happier. She used to work for a bank and has now realized her dream – her enthusiasm is beyond contagious.

And what about the volunteer at the small Pepoli museum who shadows me and regales me with stories about the building restoration process and the minor painters whose works adorn the walls? Or the greengrocer who ducks back into his store, right after closing time, to sell me the lemons I forgot for the fish that is cooking upstairs?

Italians like to talk. And they like to make friends. They will commiserate at the bus stop or in line at the post office, they will share personal details at the drop of a hat and will be quick to introduce you to other people – in Italy, one is never alone for long. All those movie clichés are actually true. Anywhere in the world, meeting one Italian will beget three more and so on in an endless chain which results in a few very close friends and a myriad of acquaintances.

While I climb the stairs to my apartment, a frail, white-haired lady approaches the elevator. I tell her the light inside has gone off, but not to worry, the elevator does work. While pondering her choices and then informing me that she will rather walk the three flights up, she also manages to tell me she lives alone and doesn’t want to get stuck in a dark elevator. The whole exchange lasted less than 30 seconds. I could have said nothing or she could have just said  “thank you”. But we are Italians. We like to elaborate…

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ADVENTURES IN BOLOGNA – A step back in time

There is something to be said about being woken up by ringing church bells, something comforting, in a city that is slipping away from who I am.

Waking up in the heat is familiar and so are the sights but the way people go about their business is not anymore. I return home after dinner at my mother’s, (they way she fries zucchini blossoms is still unparalleled) and the bus is jam-packed as if it were rush hour: a woman in a chador with three children in tow smiles at me, three Moroccan youths are dressed to the ninth for a night on the town, the Singhalese man talks rapidly on his cellphone – hardly anybody speaks Italian. Walking from the bus stop, I see people spilling in the streets, surges of small crowds, mostly young in age, congregating outside pubs and bars and osterias, each group identifiable for a uniform or a creed or some other common ground.

Santo Stefano Church

My sister’s apartment is located a stone’s throw from one of my favourite churches, Santo Stefano, otherwise called the Seven Churches, a sober and magnificent example of seven different architectural styles, accumulated over the years, as way back as the 1300s. Of the seven chapels built as a Russian doll, the one that always took my fancy is the hexagonal Romanic one, with pillars around a stone reliquary, at the moment empty of any sainthood. It’s outside Santo Stefano that I am approached by Babakar, a Senegalese young man selling useless and cheap wares. His toothless grin is sincere, he just craves for some conversation, in any language, French, English, Italian. He gives me a tiny a bracelet “because you look like Shakira” (uh?), knowing I will not be able to resist the offering of a euro or so. My two euros apparently also buy me a small red and yellow elephant with a chipped foot.

At 4.40 on my first morning in Bologna, I open my eyes and am wide awake. I patiently wait for dawn to make an appearance and, with only three hours of sleep, I start wandering the still empty streets, stopping at an ATM (lovely called Bancomat here which, with the word “matto” meaning crazy, it conjures images of banks run amok).

The coffee shop, or bar, where I settle on breakfast, as my sister espresso machine spews out an undrinkable concoction, is called Colazione da Bianca and is a wide and trendy store with a long array of pastries. I am the first client and the man behind the counter asks me if I am on my way to work. “No, I am actually on vacation”. Why are you up so early? Good question but long story, as I sit with a cappuccino and croissants at one of the outside tables, nose buried in the newspaper. Around me, an old man rummage through the garbage can, some people placidly hurry to work and the first customers slip in and out of the cafe.

As I roam the streets with the shops still closed, the air not quite hot or humid as it will be in a couple of hours, I see my surroundings more and more with the eyes of the tourist. In the ensuing 4 hours of aimless walking, not even trying to look for old hangouts, I see the signs of a city that, if always intellectually curious, it has now taken that curiosity to a new series of opportunities. Along Via Zamboni, the heart of the University citadel, students idle about and I peek my head into St. Cecilia cloister, never seen before: hanging pots of flowers soften a corner, two crates of vegetables are lying around – is there a vegetable garden in the back? – an old man sweeps the floors and a small poster advertises a classical concert that night.

Cloister of St. Cecilia

Pushing my way deeper into the University quarter, I come upon Palazzo Poggi, the once palatial home of a prelate that, in a reversal of roles, is now an astonishing scientific museum, filled with wax didactic reproductions of every known organ, every possible type of pregnancy, wax cadavers with removable organs for faux autopsies, old maps, and all kinds of unexpected scientific instruments. A reminder of the greatness of this University and its medical school, which has been going strong for the last 900 years.

Inside the City Hall building, an amiable woman helps me restore the wi-fi account I opened last time I was here –  I can use three hours a day at no charge, either inside their offices, around the main square or at any of the public libraries. How civilized is that? The city I grew up in was a staunch bastion of Communism for many decades and, withholding all political judgment, I have to admit that public services have always run well and continue to do so, in the generic chaos that is Italian bureaucracy.

 

to be continued

 

 

 

 

 

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THE IRON YEARS

It was one of those hot and humid mornings so typical of our Summer. With the high school exams finally behind me and a long vacation beckoning before starting college in the Autumn, I had already decamped to my parents’ country house to escape the unbearable city heat. That morning I decided to accompany my mother into town, to run some last-minute errands before my departure for London. We left the country early to make the walk around town easier, so we wouldn’t shed pounds of sweat – air conditioning hadn’t really reached our shores yet.

I remember stepping into our 6th floor flat, where the furniture was covered in white sheets and the rugs were rolled up and stashed away, even the curtains had been taken down and all the shutters were meticulously closed –  the eerie atmosphere of uninhabited homes  lingered despite our presence. The loud noise intruded unexpected, akin to thunder, but upon inspection, the sky was clear. The windows rattled but nothing else shook – no, it wasn’t an earthquake.

A few minutes later the sleepiness of that August morning was shattered by sirens –  not being the age of readily available information yet, we knew something had happened but didn’t find out what until we climbed back in our car and turned the radio on: a bomb had exploded at the train station in Bologna, at a time when people where busy coming and going from their Summer vacations. It was August 2, 1980 – 10.25 am as the permanently stuck clock reminds everyone passing through the station. 85 people died and 200 were wounded.There weren’t enough ambulances to transport the wounded who were bundled up on the plentiful buses outside. Local business owners, taxi drivers, hotel workers across the street all rushed to help pull people out of the rubble. Hospital wings had to be quickly reopened after having closed for the customary August lull.

People my age who grew up in Italy in the ’70s and ’80’s were no strangers to terrorism – those years came to be known  as the “iron years”. The public high school I attended, like every other public school, was heavily politicized – professors made no mystery of which side they were on, strikes on both the part of the student body and faculty were not uncommon. Neither was it uncommon to walk home and be engulfed in tear gas because a leftist faction was clashing with a rightist one. The Red Brigades killed unpunished, with their crown jewel the abduction of the Prime Minister and his subsequent homicide after 55 long days in captivity. Right wing factions were not shy either in having bombs explode in Brescia and Milan. I might have been a carefree teenager but I couldn’t have been immune to the daily news that was religiously watched every night, to the learning of the frequent  kidnappings of kids like me, most of them ending in death. But the train station massacre forced the entire country to stare terrorism in the face and to ask questions. Because it’s Italy, no good answers were ever forthcoming.

Only  recently  I was able to crystallize the reasons that pushed me to leave a country I love, where people are warm and fun and more enthusiastic about life than their Anglo-Saxon counterpart I chose to live among. And those reasons are still there, preventing me to embrace the idea of going back. The parties in power might have changed, their names might be different but the collusion between state and secret services at the time, between state and mafia always, the rampant corruption, the daily quid pro quo – nothing really has changed. The Italian word “Immobilismo” perfectly describes the status quo of one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I opted for a country that was seemingly at the other end of the spectrum, England – more predictable, more orderly, more sure of itself despite coming off the loss of an Empire, a deep economic crisis in the ’70’s and their Irish “problem”.  Somehow, I felt more at ease under that permanently grey slate of sky and later on, happier in the US, where everything seemed to be possible. Now, I am back where I started, steeped in a society trying to grapple a different kind of terrorism, on a bigger scale  but still built on the loss of random and innocent lives.

I saw the clock permanently stopped at 10:25 just last September, when I boarded the train to Venice. The wing of the station that was destroyed was rebuilt to resemble what was lost but for a slash of glass running through one wall  and the names of the dead forever inscribed on a plaque next to it. History is us. Our names will not be found in the books next to the events that defined our lifetimes but it’s clear to me now how our collective experience of those events contribute to their future understanding. Our choices, our shifts, our silence or our participation are all particles of what history is made of.  It’s a bigger collective burden we might have bargained for but maybe one of the reasons that might make our lives a little bit more worthwhile.

PS If you think I have gone completely mad, these reflections were brought upon an Italian movie I saw recently, “Romanzo Criminale”, that beautifully and painfully recounts those years.

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A BITTERSWEET RETURN

 

 

 

In the typically staid world of Italian food it’s apparent that a nouvelle vague is taking place. If coffee is still drunk espresso style in a hurry, at the counter, most of the time, it’s becoming more common to see caffetterie that pay more attention to different bean varieties, without committing to a single blend.

Terzi, in Via Oberdan in Bologna is a small cafe, in a stylish rococo style that serves coffee a hundred ways – think an improved, Italian version of Starbucks where cold coffee drinks are perfumed with berries, sheep’s milk is available in addition to all the regular cow varieties and whipped cream is made with cream from Alto Adige, from the best cows that graze on the slopes of the Alps. The choice of sugar too, can be daunting – alongside the much maligned white refined, there are granules from Barbados, Muscovado, with more or less molasses and ordering coffee according to the five page menu can take up to 10 minutes. And for those wishing to explore the art  of making coffee, Terzi also offers barista courses with a full diploma.

Right in the medieval center of town, in Via de’ Toschi is Roccati, the first real chocolatier Bologna has ever had. Italy has a long tradition of chocolate, mainly in Turin and Sicily (Modica Chocolate is made in the Mayan tradition with the roasted beans compacted with sugar, without prior melting, resulting in a grainy chocolate bar that melts in your mouth in a not unpleasant and unusual way). At the back of the store, two chocolatiers can be seen working with the melted gold and at the front, trays of pralines, chocolate dipped sour cherries, mounds of chocolate with almonds and cremini can make your head spin and your wallet lighter. Being nosy susy, I ask what kind of couverture they use but the lady at the counter remains vague and won’t give up the chocolate brands of their choice. Whatever. I still buy it.

Walking around the food stalls downtown, the greengrocers’ offer the usual seasonal vegetables alongside previously unseen sweet potatoes, minuscule blueberries from the Apennines, already roasted pumpkin slices – an abundance so inviting and so inspiring that making dinner seems like an easy task.

Leafing through magazines, it’s clear that chefs are moving away from the regional tradition but, still using local ingredients, create innovative menus.I have eaten so much on this trip that the thought of another meal is actually menacing. But nearly every morsel has been worthwhile. Sardinian couscous and canocchie

Besides my mother’s lasagna, gnocchi, cotolette and whatever else she has managed to force feed me, my most memorable home cooked meal was a surprising one from my childhood friend Silvia. Surprising not because I don’t have faith in her culinary ability but because she went through the trouble of going to the fish market for the best canocchie (a sort of prawn) that she prepared with a Sardinian couscous and for some crudo (Italian sashimi) that melts in your mouth. I am going back home with enough memories on my tongue to see me through my next trip.

What I will miss it’s the irreplaceable warmth and affection of friends I rarely see but whose love is etched in my heart. Friends who go to great lengths to see me when I am there and inadvertently remind me what a big hole  I have on the other side of the giant pond  where I have taken residence.

But enough with the self serving sadness. I actually never thought I would say that – it’s time to go back to the land of waxed apples.


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FRIED MEMORIES

 

 

Having a good palate is essentially the ability to take apart whatever dish is in your mouth by recognizing the individual ingredients. It’s harder than anyone might think as the visual component plays a large part in how we perceive taste. Just do a blind tasting of fairly common ingredients and you will know what I am talking about.

I have been blessed with a decent palate which I try to keep in shape by not smoking and by curtailing the amount of alcohol and sugar I ingest as they both dull our taste buds.

Sitting on the patio of Ristorante Diana, one of the oldest and most traditional restaurants in Bologna, which specializes in local cuisine, I forced my father to order the “Tagliatelle alla Bolognese” (hand made noodles with meat sauce) and “Fritto Misto”.

The tagliatelle come fairly thick, with a slightly rough surface  they way they should be to better hold the sauce (noodles rolled with a pasta machine are too smooth and slippery as opposed to the ones rolled with a wooden pin), barely coated with a chunky meat ragout – no runny tomato sauce or olive oil anywhere at the bottom of the plate. Most Americans would probably comment on a lack of sauce but we Italians see the ragout as an accompaniment to the uniqueness of the pasta and not as a food category in itself.

The fritto misto Bologna style does not involve seafood, rather it comes on an oval plate lined with butcher paper and it includes matchstick zucchini, a slice of lamb rack, meat filled olives, potato croquette and what we call “crema fritta”,  dusted with a quick snow storm of powder sugar.

Every Sunday, as a child, our father would take us for lunch at Diana’s – it was more of a religion than attending mass and, every Sunday, I would religiously order  tortellini followed by a whole plate of crema fritta. I still haven’t replicated it at the restaurant where I work but now that my taste buds have been titillated once again, I am determined to.

To illuminate you unbelievers, crema fritta are cubes of thick pastry cream, coated in a light batter and deep fried. When eaten next to the saltiness of olives or meat they are a perfect counterpoint. My dad had to agree as I stole the precious cubes from his plate and kept on popping them in my mouth.

It all came back to me and I could actually deconstruct the ingredients fairly easily: eggs, milk, sugar, a tinge of lemon and flour to thicken it (not corn starch!) but something else was playing at the back of my tongue which I couldn’t decipher, the secret ingredient or, rather, the unexpected one that makes a dish memorable.

I called Eros, the maitre d’ and now owner of the restaurant who has known me since my skinny childhood days and, as a showoff, I rattled off the ingredients and said, a bit hesitantly “I know there is a liquor, right? I just can’t place it…” He smiled seraphically and, for a moment, I thought he wouldn’t give up their secret but, generously, under his moustache, muttered “Anise”. Yes, a touch of anise, of course! I claimed my childhood right to replicate the dish without asking permission that was promptly granted anyway.

It was worth the whole day to know that I will bring back home a slice of my youth and one of my very favourite ones.

 


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