Relax. Have a gelato.

 Posted by on January 30, 2012  Food  6 Responses »
Jan 302012
 

I was cheered recently by the juxtaposition of a pair of articles on my Italian news feed:

Both articles struck me, of course, as perfectly natural, since, as the ever-groaning gears of the Italian government, law and economy grow slower and more exhausted under austerity pressures, the only sane reaction is to relax and have a gelato. Gelato is an indispensable defensive measure in my experience of life in Italy, where truly obnoxious and stressful things do happen a lot, and you have to just accept that, 50% of the time, whatever you were trying to do just won’t happen.  The shop you spent an hour looking for is closed for no reason?  Relax.  Have a gelato.  The hotel you booked turns out not to exist?  (This DID happen to me, in Modena).  The paperwork you waited in line for 2 hours to file turns out to require something they never told you you didn’t have?  A pickpocket got you on the Rome 64 bus?  The museum you were looking forward to turns out to close early on the second Tuesday of each alternate month?  The romantic cobblestones broke your suitcase’s left wheel a half-mile from home?  These things happen all the time here, all the time, not to mention the constant frustrations of impossible-to-open doors and whimsical plumbing.  But even something as frustrating as a pickpocketing is much easier to deal with sensibly, and feels much less like the end of the world, if you relax and have a gelato.  I generally have a gelato the instant I get off the plane when I arrive in Italy, to give me the stamina necessary to brave the mobs around the baggage claim.   In fact, “Relax.  Have a gelato,” has become so ingrained in me as a default reaction to stress or failure that I habitually say it at home, to the great chagrin of my poor US-bound housemates, who would love to relax and have a gelato, were gelato achievable in the New World.

Luscious, seductive... bad gelato.

“But it is!” you say.  “They have gelato at the fancy grocery store by the mall.  Or at the import shop, or that pizzeria downtown, or in little Italy.”  They do.   There is gelato in the US, quite often these days, but, the important thing to note, is that it is (almost) always bad gelato, mere Hershey Bar ranked against artisanal truffles.  I have had good gelato in North America, in three locations, the Suite 88 gourmet chocolate shop in Montreal, the ChikaLicious Desert Bar in New York City (their cupcake bar across the street also has apple gelato of extraordinary quality), and, of all places, the underground cafeteria in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC (here too get the apple flavor).  (Note: the organic gelato chain GROM also has branches in NYC, and I expect these too would have respectable gelato; my full thoughts on GROM another day.)  But for the most part, even in Italy-town subsections of US cities, the gelato is no better than one would find in an Italian train station.  Not what a gelato snob would call “good gelato,” and I am, I will comfortably admit, a true gelato snob.

See the fibrous and variable texture of the apple gelato on the right? That's a good sign.

What is the difference between good and bad gelato?  Good gelato is made from all natural ingredients, as pure and as few as possible, while bad gelato is made with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and coagulants.  Good fruit gelato is made directly from the fruit, bad from fruit extracts.  Really bad gelato is made from a powdered mix with no fresh ingredients at all.  Keep in mind that I do not say this as any kind of organic food purist.  I do often buy organic when I can, but I will never pretend that organic always tastes better, merely often.  I do not shrink from eating radioactive orange mac ‘n’ cheese out of a box when the craving hits me, and I heartily repented of my folly the one year I procured an organic turkey for Thanksgiving, and discovered to my horror and chastisement the true merits of the hormone-stuffed, brine-injected Butterball.  But gelato is very delicate, because it is so pure, involving so few ingredients.  You can taste the chemicals when there are chemicals.  You can taste the quality of the milk and fruit used, and if you frequent a place you can tell day by day how ripe the figs were, how in season the oranges.  Bad gelato has an inescapable tinge of candy-like artificial flavor.  It’s still a yummy substance, still worth eating, but it’s infinitely inferior to the pure article. There are, from what I have uncovered, four reasons for the scarcity of good gelato in the US.

  1. Fresh gelato without preservatives does not last more than a day, and has to be made from scratch every morning.  This is labor-intensive and expensive, and is why so many places even in Italy don’t bother.
  2. The companies that manufacture and distribute commercial-sized gelato makers in the US want to make continual money off the restaurants that buy them, so have designed them to require the mix, and not to work with fresh ingredients, so the restaurants will have to continually subscribe to fresh batches of mix.  The kind of machine you get in Italy, that uses real ingredients, exists in the US only in the tiny use-it-at-home form, but is nearly impossible to find industrial-sized.
  3. Gelato, being so sensitive, requires really top quality fresh ingredients, both the milk and the fruit.  Such ingredients are expensive, and actually rare in the US where fruit is, usually, harvested unripe, and milk ultra-processed.  It is difficult and above all expensive to find ingredients of gelato quality in the US, and most restaurants could only cover costs if they charged more for their gelato than most people will pay for a scoop of ice-cream.
  4. American ice-cream is, in fact, pretty good.  It’s not gelato, and does not excel at the same things, but it is good.  If gelato excels at accentuating the purity of a single flavor: lemon, chocolate, milk; American ice-cream excels at creating triple chocolate fudge peanut swirl mars bar cookiedough crunch peach marshmallow ripple surprise.  These luxurious, over-the-top concoctions are delicious, and also complex enough to largely mask the artificial preservatives and inferior dairy that tends to go into US ice-cream.  Such products are  satisfying, mass-producible, preservable, and cheap.  Good gelato, which is more expensive to produce and doesn’t last, struggles to compete commercially.

Pear, persimmon, crema & yogurt gelato at Rivareno (Florence). Few flavors, but so good!

Reinforcing scholarship: in a published poll, when asked which they would prefer, an ice-cream shop with (A) 25 flavors or one with (B) flavors that were all really good, most Americans chose (A), most Italians (B), and the northern sections of Europe mixed both choices.

(This, by the way, is, I suspect, why, among Rome’s elite gelato joints, the world-famous Giolitti is so popular with Americans and San Crispino with Europeans.  I recommend going to both, as each excels at some things the other does not.   More on these when I eventually review different gelato places (if wordpress will ever let me create the kind of index I want to use to do so, grumble, grumble.)

What is the difference between gelato and icecream?

Friends enjoy elaborate cones at Giolitti (Rome).

I get this question a lot, and have two answers. In a technical sense, gelato is made with much less fat than ice-cream, in fact gelato is usually made with milk, not cream, but it has much more sugar, to compensate, since milk and sugar are the things that keep frozen concoctions soft and creamy.  A fruit gelato is, at its purest, a sorbet and contains no dairy whatsoever. In an aesthetic sense, however, gelato is much more about accentuating the substance from which it is made, whereas ice-cream is about combining flavors.  Strawberry ice-cream is an experience of the delightful comingling of strawberry juice with cream, producing a rich, strong, syrupy dairy experience, and reminding one pleasantly of strawberries and cream if one has ever had them together; strawberry gelato is the experience of eating a soft frozen strawberry, with no presence of dairy or commixture.  It is in the fruits and the nuts that this difference is most extreme.  A top quality chocolate gelato is quite similar to a top quality chocolate ice-cream, but a pistachio gelato is like eating a real pistachio, and a raspberry gelato will sometimes leave you with seeds between your teeth, which ice-cream never would.  Gelato, real gelato, doesn’t taste like it’s flavored with the thing, it tastes like it’s made of the thing. This last fact often makes it difficult for foreigners in Italy who are ordering gelato for the first time to choose flavors they will actually enjoy.   Pistachios and Pistacho Ice-Cream do not taste the same, and many people like one and not the other, and consequently make the wrong choice when trying to guess whether or not they’d like Pistachio Gelato.  I myself would run in terror from watermelon icecream, since I know from dumdums and artificial lemonade the horrors that watermelon flavor can inflict, but watermelon gelato (gelato di cocomero), which tastes like the entire fresh summer zest of a real watermelon distilled into each bite, is one of my great delights.  Conversely, many people like cherry syrup, in cocktails, on cakes, in Dr. Pepper, and these people are often wildly disappointed at the first bite of a cherry gelato, which bears no resemblance to the syrup, but simulates the experience of a, usually very acidic, sour cherry. Vanilla is the pinnacle of this cultural flavor misunderstanding.  Many Americans come to a gelateria wanting to try the equivalent of vanilla, and different people propose different equivalencies, but I have concluded, with careful study, that there is not an equivalent.  There are three equivalents.   This is because there are three different reasons people like vanilla ice-cream:

  1. Do you like vanilla for its pure, milky, creaminess?  The absence of any secondary flavor to interfere with the richness of pure dairy?  In that case you want fiore di latte (flower of milk) or, at a really good gelateria, fiore di panna (flower of cream), a gelato made of the pure milk or cream with sugar and nothing else to interfere.
  2. Do you like vanilla for its rich, custardy feeling, preferring the yellower French Vanilla flavors to traditional vanilla?  In this case you want crema, custard flavor, modeled on the eggy custards that fill pastries and doughnuts.
  3. Do you like the actual flavor of the vanilla bean, with its memories of Christmas cookies and traditional perfumes?  In this case and this case only you want gelato di vanilla, if they have it, but be warned: it means it that it’s really, honestly vanilla flavor, like a cookie, or liqueur.

Thus “Gelato is Italian ice-cream,” remains one of the more misleading truths involved in Italian travel.  Gelato is indeed Italian ice-cream, but one cannot apply the same logic to it, and there is nothing like a 1:1 correspondence between which flavors one should order in a gelateria and an ice-cream parlor.  Unfortunately, this concept is difficult to pass along quickly.  You must remember, that I feel true emotional pain whenever I see a happy-looking person step up to a truly terrible gelato place when there’s a good one next door, and I very frequently strike up conversations with passing anglophone tourists which lead inevitably to my showing them a good gelateria.

Witness a small tragedy on the Ponte Vecchio.

At this point follows the test, and the suspense, when I start recommending flavors.  Will they listen?  Will they not?  Since often I’m recommending flavors they would never want in ice-cream.  I can generally convince people about one flavor by having the employees give them a spoonful to taste, but a lot of people just aren’t prepared to believe that “Yogurt and Mandarin Orange” or “Grapefruit and Sour Cherry” are winning combos.  “I’ll take Chocolate and Chocolate Chip.” My two recent favorite people I took to gelato places were both middle-aged American men, with wives in tow who refused on diet grounds to get gelato and thereafter ate a hunk of their husbands’.  One, when we arrived at Giolitti and I started discussing flavors, simply said: order for me, I trust you.  One dark chocolate-coated whipped cream-stuffed waffle cone with Champagne, Sour Cherry and Fleur de Sel Caramel Gelato later, he was a very happy man.  The other I took to Perche no…! (The sensibly named “Why not…!” gelateria which is the reason I live on the street  I live on here in Florence).  I recommended Yogurt, Strawberry Mousse and Mixed Berry (Frutti di Bosco).  He ordered Chocolate and Coffee.  After he tasted his, I let him taste my own cone.  He sighed and smiled.  “Well, you told me so.”

New Travel Tips Section

I am (if I can persuade WordPress to condescend to let me) about to create a new “Travel Tips” index section of Ex Urbe, in which I will gradually review restaurants, museums, hotels, coffee bars, and also provide general city-specific travel tips, things like where the public restrooms in Florence are hidden, and which are the better-tasting Roman water fountains.

Bad gelato, lurking in its homogeneous slimyness!

I shall initiate it with an updated, web-friendly but also printable version of my little guide: How to Spot Good and Bad Gelato.  So vital is the skill that I, in fact, routinely distribute it as a handout to my students, and have often been thanked for it. I will also, in it, review specific preferred gelato places in major Italian cities, but sticking always to one principle: There Is No Best Gelateria.  There are bad gelaterias and good gelaterias, but in ranking the good ones against each other, I have never found one which beat all others in EVERY way.  Each has its points.  Perche no…! excels at sorbets, seasonal fruit flavors and mousses, Rivareno at smooth, creamy, antique flavors, GROM at its raw, organic feel, San Crispino at its meringue semifredo assortment and complex crema variations, Giolitti at its luxurious, elaborate cones and ocean of flavors, Vestri at its chocolate (Oh, its chocolate!), and each of these has three or four signature flavors which cannot be rivaled by the others.  I would never order frutti di bosco at Giolitti, nor fail to order it at Perche no…!; the converse for Caramel.  Both remain superb gelaterias. Remember, though: even bad gelato is still very, very yummy.  So, even if you don’t have access to the best, relax.  Have a gelato.

Dec 242011
 

‘Tis the season for a review of the vague saintly origins of the modern Hallmark Christmas:

Saint Nicholas of Bari (or of Myra; San Nicola, 270-343 AD)

  • Common attributes: Bishop (with robes, hat, miter), holding 3 golden balls, or 3 coins, or 3 bags of gold
  • Occasional attributes: Accompanied by ship, accompanied by barrel containing three kids
  • Patron saint of: Sailors, ships, merchants, fishermen, children, also pharmacists & a few other things
  • Patron of places: Myra (Turkey), Bari (Italy)
  • Feast days: May 9th, December 6th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, on the coast near ships, sneaking in a window
  • Relics: Bari (Italy), Basilica di San Nicola

Saint Nicholas was a 3rd to 4th century bishop saint, Greek by birth and active in the Middle East.  He was of a wealthy family but orphaned and raised by an uncle.  He came to the priesthood comfortably (no towers or evil parents or prostitutes or lightning) and progressed to bishop status in good time.  Nicholas is remarkable for the large number of miracles he is supposed to have worked during his lifetime, and for that reason is a very popular saint to pray to, since he is obviously willing to use the powers all saints have.  He saved ships from storms, multiplied grain to save towns from famine, and resurrected three kids.

Nicholas’ most famous story involves, not a miracle, but generosity.  It has several variants, but all revolve around a poor man in the town who had three daughters but did not have enough money to give them dowries so they could marry.  Nicholas stealthily provided the money, which is most commonly said to have been three bags of gold coins, but it varies.  He did it on three successive visits (either three days or three years), each time tossing the money secretly into the house so the father never knew his benefactor.  On the last visit (predictable due to the regularity of the first two), the father lay in wait, hoping to spot and thank his mysterious benefactor.  The ending varies, but in one popular version Nicholas, realizing the man was watching the window, climbed across the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney.  Some versions add the detail that one of the daughters had left her stockings hung up to dry by the hearth, and the money fell into one.  He is also supposed to have given other charitable gifts, including leaving coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.

Saint Nicholas multiplies grain, so sailors can give some to end a famine and still have enough to deliver.

In 1071, when the area where Nicholas was buried fell into non-Christian hands, the relics were removed to the Italian town of Bari, sparking his large Italian cult.  Some Venetians claimed to have a big chunk, spawning another major church to him in Venice (where a patron of sailors was very popular) but scientists and their x-rays have confirmed that the remains at Bari are mostly intact.  Nicholas’ relics excrete a rose-scented liquid substance, referred to as myrrh, which has healing properties, much like the substance produced by the remains of Catherine of Alexandria.

Bishop saints are tricky to identify in art.  They’re easy to tell from other saints, with their curved shephard’s-crook-shaped miters, their pointy, triangular bishop hats (not to be confused with the cone-shaped pope hats with three crowns on them), and their fancy robes, with a cloak with elaborate trim closed by a broach at the breast, and, frequently, gloves with gems on the back of the hand.  Yet they can be very difficult to tell one from another, because their attributes are often unclear, or omitted.

How can we be expected to tell them apart if they have no identifying attributes?  Often the original context of the painting would make it clear, since it would be commissioned by or for devotees of a particular bishop saint, or in a city where a specific one was most popular.  But since pieces are so often in museums now, sometimes all one can do is guess.  Nicholas was one of the most popular bishop saints, along with Augustine and, in Florence, Zenobius, so in general Nicholas is a safe guess.  When in doubt, the artist sometimes provides separate scenes as hints.  Sometimes these are painted on separate panels below or above the main painting, showing a recognizable scene from the saint’s life.  With bishop saints, sometimes scenes from their lives are embroidered on their robes, though this can be deceptive, since I’ve seen Saint Augustine with scenes from the life of Saint Stephen on his robe.

As for Nicholas specifically in art, three golden balls or golden coins or bags of gold are the clearest sign, or a bishop accompanied by ships or standing near the sea.  Beyond that, though, Nicholas is a decent generic guess if you don’t have a better clue for your unidentified bishop.

La Befana, the Epiphany Witch (not a saint, but…)

  • Common attributes: Pointy hat, dark shawl, rough dress, old, long nose with warts, scraggly gray hair, spectacles
  • Most often depicted: Flying through the air on a broomstick with a sack of toys

Since Saint Nicholas is not, in fact, a jolly, red-clad toymaker equipped with flying reindeer, someone else has to bring presents to the kids in Italy.  This office falls to La Befana the Christmas Witch, or more accurately the Epiphany Witch, who flies on her broomstick with her sack of toys bringing presents to all the children on Epiphany Eve (Jan 5th).  She looks like a witch in every classic sense, so Christmas fairs in Italy are packed with witches and Christmas decorations often look more like Halloween than Christmas to American eyes.

If you ask Wikipedia about La Befana it will tell you various origin myths.  She was hostess to the Three Wise Men on their way to the Nativity; she regretted not following them and is still looking for the Christ Child so visits all children; she had a child which died so Christ let her be Mom to every kid in Italy; she’s the Sabine goddess Strina.

La Befana ornaments crowd for space at a stall in Piazza Navona, Rome.

If you ask an Italian, in my experience you don’t get any of that.  La Befana is a part of the holiday tradition, unquestioned as Santa in areas where he’s the gift giver, so just as most of those in the Santa region can’t tell you much about Nicholas of Bari, Italians are content with the witch they’ve known since childhood and don’t seem to wonder much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to say, though, Italian kids have more excuse to freak out at shopping malls when parents set them in the lap of someone costumed as the Christmas gift-giver.  A witch!  Why are my parents handing me to a witch?

La Befana is also subject to the same bizarre cultural distortions as Santa:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this year, if you’re the tree-trimming type, get out your broomsticks and pointy hats and have a nice witch-filled Italian Holiday!

 

 

And now, Spot the Saint Quiz Time:

(Click for more detail.  If your eyes are sharp, you should be able to identify a few of the tiny figures on the sides as well as the main ones.  Scroll down for a detailed view of the left-hand main figures.)

A little more detail on the left-hand side:

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Arbitrary Pricing

 Posted by on October 26, 2011  Italy  No Responses »
Oct 262011
 

Drum roll please… time for the results of my Guess the Purse – Guess the Price challenge:

 

Purse #1: the unnecessarily quilted reptile purse

Purse #2: The inconveniently small reptile purse (giant clutch)

Purse #3: the crumpled trashbag look purse

 

I often stroll through what I call the “thousand dollar purse” district, but even I stopped short the first time I spotted Purse #2 in the window.  Did they put in an accidental extra digit?  I was used to trying to guess from a distance whether any given purse cost 200 or 400 or 600, but nothing had quite prepared me for quintuple digits.

This thousand-euro dress is made of hand painted art nouveau velvet lace and is beautiful and obviously very labor-intensive and I am totally comfortable with it costing a thousand euros.

I had known fashion items in the ten grand range existed, so it wasn’t that which shocked me as much as my complete inability to tell why that particular purse cost ten times what its neighbor did.  Not only did I not know, but I couldn’t even begin to understand how I might know, yet at the same time I’m very aware that for people connected with the world of fashion, all it would take is a glance to tell.  It was a language barrier.  Like how an architect fluently interprets the vocabulary of a facade, a mechanic the sounds of an engine, or a medieval person can recognize saints at a glance.  A moment of feeling what illiteracy must be like.

If these purses came with the chicken feet, and if they would run around and follow you and fetch your bag whenever you wanted... no, it still wouldn't be worth 2000 euros!

Except at the same time, Reason rebels:  10,900 euros!  It’s a purse!  It’s a glorified sack!  I could make one in 20 minutes out of fabric or duct-tape, and the materials can’t possibly cost more than a few hundred.  Nice ones are nice, and I have some bags I’m very fond of, but… is it from the Moon?  Made of the hide of the last surviving wyvern?  Does it cure disease and repel undead?  Is it electronically synched with a satellite which will shoot pickpockets with lazers from space?  Was the leather bathed in the healing liquor which drips from the tomb of Saint Catherine of Alexandria ?  Is it perhaps like George Jetson’s suitcase, and folds out into a car?  I’d pay fifteen grand to never have to park again, but anything less…

Apparently crabby thirteen-year-olds shop at Prada

Now, I don’t dislike fashion.  I quite enjoy looking at interesting clothes, studying costume history, making costumes, looking at shop windows, get excited over a particularly rich fabric or elegant coat tail, and I do pay serious attention to how I myself dress.  Fashion is a form of communication.  That’s how I primarily think of it: a social tool whose vocabulary of gender, class, situational, ethnic, geographic and subcultural cues let people communicate to others a kind of instant introduction and self-presentation.

 

Sullen vampire faeries shop at Cavalli

When a dolphin meets another dolphin the first thing they do is urinate at each other, because by tasting each other’s urine in the water they can tell a lot about each other: age, gender, health, “Hello, I’m a juvenile female who just pigged out after a long journey without enough food.”  “Well, hello, I’m a middle-aged female local to this area and in heat; get stuffed.”  Clothing accomplishes the same, in balance with function, comfort and expense, of course.  On a bus or subway one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know a lot about what class and type of professional or hobbyist most people are trying to seem.  I have a great respect for people who manage to use clothing to present themselves in ways which make them seem exciting and also give a good sense of who they are, and I strive to do so myself, and, in my case, maintain several different wardrobes (nerd, professional, historical, otaku) for presenting myself when I hop from hat to hat among my many spheres.

This fashion succeeds in communicating: if you want to present as an Icy Big Boss Lady and bully action heroes, shop here.

Like language, clothing as communication requires one to work within a set vocabulary.  As an astute economics textbook I read on the matter once pointed out, it might be that to some person encasing herself in a two-foot-diameter aluminum tube perfectly summarized her thoughts about herself, but if she walked to a room like that no one would be able to interpret it, so it would fail as communication.  Tweed jacket with leather elbow pads = professor, black with spikes = punk with all its countercultural associations; you can’t reverse or change that until the whole culture does, or no one will know what you mean.

This outfit succeeds in communicating: wealthy, fashionable

But the fashion industry is something different: it changes constantly, every season, and it’s in its very changeability that it somehow communicates.  Bowtie = quirky/geeky/old-fashioned; wearing the latest fancy thing that’s currently in shop windows, whatever that may be = fashionista.  Thousand dollar purses do have a function, which is to communicate that this is a person of sufficient wealth and education and with the proper tastes to want one.

Returning to the familiar ground of the Renaissance, a blue garment or a lady with pearls woven through her hair is a declaration to passers-by of social class, and important for enabling the correct interaction between classes, and for making political and economic contacts and alliances.  When Alessandra Strozzi writes in her letters of having a daughter married wearing hundreds of florins worth of pearls sewn to her garment, the wedding procession was an invaluable advertisement of the family’s wealth and status and its connection to its neighbors, which played a significant role in the political interplay between Strozzi, Medici and other rival powerful families in the city.  This has a function, and even a wedding dress that cost as much as a house did have a function, and I respect that.

Here a wedding procession through downtown Florence is depicted on the Adimari Cassone (c. 1450). A cassone is a wooden chest, usually used to hold clothing, and they were often decorated with wedding images and carried in the wedding procession; another way to display the wealth of clothing involved in the alliance of great houses. You can see the Baptistery and Florentine trumpeters on the left.

I can respect these shoes. They make their owner seem like an interesting person.

I understand these shoes; they tell me a wealthy woman is going to an important, formal event.

The problem comes in contemporary fashion from the fact that now one often has to be such a fashion-conscious person in order to interpret correctly, because to the untrained eye this year’s black Gucci purse looks exactly like last year’s black Gucci purse.  It’s a private dialect spoken only among a specific type of wealthy, trend-minded elite.

 

This season’s trends prove precisely why the private dialect of high fashion baffles me where other regions of fashion seem reasonable and, indeed, fun.  This season’s “look”, as one can’t help but notice on a stroll past Florence’s boutique windows, focuses on huge, rough, bulky, shaggy knitwear, mostly in brown, beige, gray or black, with accents in orange and teal.

Huge, shaggy knitwear of precisely the style that knitting hobbyists–a slice of society associated with old-fashioned handicrafts, tradition, nerd culture, and the shy prim crafts-doing girl type–produces.  There is no way that I can perceive to tell the difference between these 300 euro Ralph Lauren shawls and scarves and something one might request from a grandmother, or see growing longer panel by panel at a con.

This tells me that the wearer is cold and slobby, not trendy and rich!

Spot the Saint! The John the Baptist Hairshirt Look is in this season.

It really is the John the Baptist Hairshirt Look!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The John the Baptist winterwear ensemble

The John the Baptist Hairshirt Purse, available in camel, avocado and hypercosmic cherry

Hairshirt Shoes complete the ensemble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Communication has failed.  Generally speaking,the presumed goal of a fashionable trendy dresser is to communicate to the layman that they’re generically nicely dressed and upper class or upper middle class, while to communicate to the expert that they’re savvy enough to know that boutique X rather than boutique Y is the correct space to spend a few hundred on sunglasses in 2011.  This season’s fashion accomplishes B but fails at A, since passing such an outfit in the street, my first thought would be “oh, that person knits or knows someone who does,” not, “ah, that person is a fashionable dresser.”  The vocabulary of fashion has left communication behind.  The dialect is now incomprehensible to the bulk of the country.

As for the extreme edges of fashion, and fashion advertising, which too often leaves you uncertain even what they’re selling, there one can only revel as in surrealist art.  Here are two choice specimens from the Milan train station billboards.  What am I supposed to want to buy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guess the Price – Guess the Purse

 Posted by on September 7, 2011  Italy  5 Responses »
Sep 072011
 

The Gucci store window

The Prada store window

There is a district, just west of the center of Florence, which I refer to as the “Thousand Dollar Purse” district.

Here the truly extravagant end of European fashion displays itself for the delectation of the envious masses.

Here one can spend $500 on sunglasses, $1,000 on boots, and ooh and aah over purses whose merits elude my understanding.  Yet I know to that, to the stylish, the differences are as obvious as when I glance at an altarpiece and tell a Saint Sebastian from a Saint Jerome.  It is a language, and I do respect the effort it takes to achieve fluency.

In preparation for a more substantial post on the subject of thousand dollar purses, I present a simple guessing game. I challenge you to guess the prices of the three black purses shown below. I will not pull any cheap tricks and include a purse from the sensible end of town: all three of these purses cost over a thousand dollars.  My challenge: Guess the price of each!  To whoever gets closest I’ll give the prize of suggesting my next topic.  Or if you’re not confident enough in your knowledge of high fashion to guess the prices, simply guess which of the three purses do you think costs the most.

By the way, the Prada jacket shown above on the left left costs 3,950 euros, and the purse she’s holding costs 2,700 euros.  The Gucci dress at the above right is 2,700 in green, 3,500 in pink.  Oh, also, the green dress should be worn with a 500 euro belt and 585 euro shoes, and the little purse is a mere 1,350.

Now, the challenge!  Guess the price – guess the purse:

 

Purse #1: the unnecessarily quilted reptile purse

(up close, it’s not reptile leather, it’s smooth leather quilted to look like reptile leather)

 

Purse #2: the inconveniently-small reptile purse

(No, there’s no shoulder strap, just the wrist loop, so it constantly occupies a hand.)

 

Purse #3: the crumpled trashbag look purse

(yes, that’s a Prada label)

Bathroom Suspense

 Posted by on August 31, 2011  Travel  6 Responses »
Aug 312011
 

American friends who have traveled extensively in Italy, or some other regions of the Earth, smile with an instant, knowing understanding when I say “bathroom suspense.”  I grew up to expect going to the bathroom to be simple, relaxing, an almost unthinking break in which simple repetition and the brief suspension of work and interaction allows for a defragmenting mental breather.  In Italy, instead of relaxation, suspense: “How will this bathroom not work?”

The cause is simple: the buildings predate modern plumbing, so the bathrooms are tucked and tweaked in by force in often inconvenient and inhospitable architectural circumstances, but remembering the last time I had to replace a toilet in my own house, and browsed at Home Depot through the endless row of nearly-identical, “American Standard” toilets, I can’t help but think that the equivalent should be named, “Italian Chaos.”

Bathroom Suspense has two primary forms.

This seatless restaurant toilet presents only a brief challenge with its wall button

The first, and briefest, is hunting for the flush.  Many times a week when traveling one enters an unfamiliar bathroom, in a restaurant, hotel, train station, and there is very often an unsettling, sometimes extended hunt for the operating mechanism that commands the exodus.  Will it be a pull chain dangling from the ceiling?  A foot pedal?  A button on an extended wire somewhere random in the room?  A ceramic mechanism that looks like wall art, or alternately an enormous metal button that looks more like an emergency trigger than a flush, and won’t budge unless you lever your full bodyweight against it?  Even simple-seeming mechanisms, such as the common large plastic button on top of the tank, present complexities: which of two buttons is the right one?  Or, worse, sometimes there is only one button but it turns out to be a hinged panel which does different things when you push the left side or the right.  It generally only takes a few seconds’ experimentation to solve the mystery, but it is enough to turn calm into stress, much as if one were immersed in a novel only to discover that the last ten pages are glued together and need to be separated with a letter opener: annoyance destroys the moment.

This cartoon squirrel attempts to demonstrate a particularly intimidating automatic sink

I have also often had friends return from a public restroom with rather uncomfortable faces to confess that they gave up and couldn’t find the flush, or, more often, the sink controls: “Oh, that sink is controlled by a pair of color-coded foot petals behind the trash can.”  And it doesn’t help anglophones that caldo = hot and freddo = cold, therefore the hot tap is labeled “C”.

A large number of Italian toilets are also bizarre in other ways, with no seat, or a seat that pushes itself up automatically so you have to hold it down while trying to sit, or a seat that squirts itself with disinfectant at unpredictable moments.  Most infamous is the rare squat toilet subspecies, lurking patiently in the innocent-seeming stalls at museums and coffee bars.  Many are unaware that squat toilets exist in a civilization that had proper toilets more than two thousand years ago.  Even if one is aware, they are always still startling and awkward, as if one checked into a hotel room and went to throw one’s coat and backpack on the bed only to discover a hammock in its place: doable but weird, and not the kind of surprise you want mid-travel.

Shape adds another element to the complexity of the Italian public restroom, since these are, after all, crammed into awkward corners of Renaissance if not Medieval homes.  Many bathrooms are trapezoid, rhomboid, have strange beams or blocks of stone protruding into them, or deep former windows through foot-thick stone walls covered over with something as ephemeral as waxed paper.

An example of the common set-up with no head-height shower nozzle and no curtain, just a hand-held hose, and your own dexterity to prevent a flood

Pipes trail along the corners and bunch around rare openings, like tree roots desperate to claw their way through rock.  All this makes the brief moment of bathroom going a disruptive and memorable garnish to the museum trek or hotel night; simplicity is now adventure.

Hotel rooms have the extra resource of a shower to add surrealism to the moment.  I encountered an excellent example in Milan last summer.  It is not uncommon for an Italian bathroom to have no shower-height shower head, but instead to have only a low bathtub-height faucet, or more commonly a spray nozzle on the end of a hose, so one may sit or stand while holding it, and generally shower with reasonable success so long as one is careful to aim into the tub (which is often not guarded by any shower curtain).  Here, I discovered with some satisfaction that there was, in fact, a shower-height wall nozzle—jubilation!—if positioned a little oddly.  This shower had a formal bathtub positioned with one long side against the wall of the bathroom, and the nozzle was in that wall in the precise center of the tub’s length, so one stood, not at one end, but in the middle to be in the water’s course.

Of course, the venerable metropolis of Milan has treasures enough to compensate for any small inconveniences

This would have been excellent if not for two factors.  One: the nozzle didn’t point down, it pointed out, spraying the water completely past the tub toward the unguarded center of the room with a force sufficient to knock the shower curtain aside and drench the bathroom.  Okay, sure, this was surmountable if one took great care to position one’s self between the water jet and the room at all times, using one’s body to deflect the force.  However.  There was a lower nozzle, for filling the bath, flanked as many are by two taps, one cold one hot, so one could mix the water and achieve the desired temperature: good so far.  Yet, for the upper shower-height one, there was only one tap, hot.  Very hot.  Scaldingly hot, in fact, with no possibility of dimming its force with any cold.  So, to shower, one had to stand in the middle of the bathtub and, shielding the room with one’s body, take full brunt of a powerful jet of literally burning hot water.

But this is only the lesser form of Bathroom Suspense.  The true form comes in renting an apartment, and committing, sight unseen and from across the Atlantic, to six months with a bathroom which may well turn out to be another tier of Purgatory.

The view from my bathroom window. All residents of the dense and skyward-climbing termite colony that is the center of Florence share this problem, and are generally polite about moments of awkward eye-contact.

Before I turn to the outstanding examples, let me say that I love my current bathroom.  It is wonderful, by far the best I have had in any Italian apartment.  It’s bliss.  It is a peculiarly long thin space, narrow enough that one must take care stepping around the fixtures, and one must move sideways through it at all times, as well as entering sideways, since the tiny bathroom door is four inches narrower than my shoulders.  There is a window above the toilet looking out on the beautiful skyline and Giotto’s bell tower, which for me is at eye height when I’m sitting on the toilet, has no frosting, shutter or curtain, and an excellent view of several other nearby apartment windows, often occupied.  The shower follows a common trend and has no actual shower bed or rim, it is simply a nozzle that squirts hot water into the bathroom and a drain in the slanted tile floor to which the water, after adventuring across the bathroom, returns and exits.  There is a shower curtain (wonderful!) and a fine sink.  Oh, and the toilet requires my full bodyweight to flush, and the button has to be pressed so it actually recedes into the wall, so I have to throw my full weight against my thumb, not my palm, to activate it.  The water is gas heated, rather than electric, a great energy savings, but it does mean one has to turn the gas on before (and off after) every shower, and the activation mechanism is clear on the opposite side of the apartment by the front door, requiring either foresight or a quick dash in a bathrobe if one forgets.  It only takes about a minute and a half for the water to get hot, though, which is excellent.  My landlady warned me that the water pressure was low, since we are, after all, at the top of a medieval tower, and she even installed an electric pump to increase the flow, but I don’t use it, finding the water pressure perfectly sufficient and comparable to American Low Flow (Low Flow is a concept which will, I suspect, never penetrate a country whose towns are filled with lovely free-flowing public fountains pouring gallons of drinkable water down the drain every second).  Please don’t read any sarcasm into this description.  This is the best bathroom I have had in an Italian apartment, and I am absolutely delighted.

For those skeptical, let me now describe the worst bathroom I have endured in an Italian apartment.  The title does not go to the Roman apartment which offered precisely 1 minute 43 seconds of hot water followed by ice shock, nor to the Florentine apartment with the bathtub in the middle of the room and no curtain, requiring the most delicate aim with the hand-held nozzle.  Another Florentine place where the gas was actually inside the shower so you had to keep an eye on the fire while showering, was also more a case of character than discomfort.  No, the winner is a little place in Florence’s Oltrarno district, which used to belong to the Machiavelli family, whom I do not blame.

Wikipedia will happily educate the uninformed about the history and function of the bidet

Let me first highlight the important fact that, through all this chaos of chain-operated levers and incomprehensible knobs, and in most women’s public restrooms as well, there is always, inevitably, identically, beautifully and functionally, a bidet.  I’m certain that for those who grew up using a bidet its absence in American restrooms must be annoying if not disgusting, but coming from a bidet-free culture (and often having to explain to guests what that “little low sink thing” is next to the toilet) I can stay with confidence that a bidet is not necessary for the bathroom process.  Convenient, comfortable for those accustomed, but you can totally succeed in the whole bathroom experience without one.  (For those unfamiliar: you wash your bottom with it.)  So will someone tell me why, with so many barely-functional showers and sinks that require you to pump a priming handle, the least necessary component of the bathroom is the most reliable?

In the Machiavelli bathroom, the bidet was perfect.  The toilet was reasonable, requiring minimal massage of the mechanism to coax a flush out of it, but the shower nozzle was positioned almost directly above it, so while showering one had to either literally straddle the toilet or teeter in the narrow space between toilet and bidet.  There was again no rim around the shower area, it simply flowed freely into the bathroom, which had a drain in the middle of the floor, but while the very excellent bathroom I am currently enjoying has well-sloped tile to direct the water efficiently to the exit, in this one the water flowed merrily all around the bathroom, completely flooding it.  And this bathroom had no lintel.  So the water flowed merrily out of the bathroom to the space outside.  Did I mention this bathroom was situated on a landing half-way down a flight of solid stone steps between my bedroom and the outer door?  And that said stone stairwell was completely unheated?  Thus if the water made it out the door in winter, sheets of ice were instantly produced, coating the landing and glittering merrily down the steps from bathroom to street.  To prevent this, a squeegee on a long pole was provided, and while showering one had to periodically pause and squeegee the water away from the doorway back to the drain, an exercise rather like raking leaves, only when naked and wet.  And cold.

December in Florence offers bright lights, holiday treats, and an acute awareness that they hadn't invented insulation in 1500

Cold was the true centerpiece of this bathroom.  Italian stone architecture is brilliant in summer at using the natural cave-like coolness of stone and shade to create cool spaces without air conditioning, but the winter converse is not fun when the bathroom is just about as unheated as the stone stairwell outside.  It was freezing—sometimes literally—inside that bathroom, and rather than fog there would be lovely frost patterns on the mirror after a shower.  Returning through the sub-zero stairwell from bathroom to bedroom with wet hair required a deal of moral fiber as well.  Did I mention that this apartment was so cold that, in winter, I slept in my clothes, and my wool coat, and my super-thick camping socks, and my winter boots?  Getting out of my wintry bundle to strip off in a freezing bathroom was… character building.  Fine, good, we can deal with this, the cold should make the shower even more blissful, because the treasured immersion in streaming hot water is the one daily opportunity to be truly warm.  Right?  No, reader, I will not leave you with so predictable a punch line as to say there was no hot water, or that the water ran out after a few moments, or took forever to get warm.  Such mediocrities are unworthy of a property which might have at some point maybe belonged to Machiavelli’s uncle.

Italy, of course, still has treasures enough to make all these inconveniences more than worthwhile

The shower had a simple nozzle.  Half the holes produced completely frigid, barely-above-freezing cold water.  The other half produced blistering burn-yourself-from-touching-it you-could-make-tea-with-this hot water.  With no mixing.  Thus, the full shower experience involved stripping off cuddly warm winter wear in freezing temperatures, then straddling the toilet only to stand with my teeth chattering as freezing water cascaded over part of me, while other areas of skin are burned red by the scalding heat.  While periodically stopping to squeegee.  Comfy as covers are, never before or since has getting out of bed in the morning literally been torture.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is a true Italian bathroom, and I would not trade my current gas-activated heat and oddly-positioned window for all the treasures of the Medici.  Well, maybe for their Botticellis.

“Get your piping hot tripe!”

 Posted by on August 7, 2011  Food  1 Response »
Aug 072011
 

Locals enjoying their "Trippa Fiorentina"

In Florence, daily meals become a pleasure, but there remains the peculiarity that, divine as the pizzas and pastas and cheeses are, the actual Florentine delicacies, the ones invented in Florence by Florentines, are generally a bit less inviting than the broader Tuscan and Italian offerings. “Bistecca Fiorentina” (Florentine-style steak) is excellent, of course, but take, for example, the Florentine lunch special of choice, “Trippa Fiorentina”, spiced tripe. Tripe. Honest to goodness, it’s tripe, chopped, fried tripe. Roadside carts sell it like hotdog stands as a quick lunch, and locals crowd around, and you can smell it for blocks. In a cuisine centered on bringing out the best of fine quality ingredients, a rich milk, a powerful tomato, Florentine lunches focus on the part of the animal that tastes like… well… what its job is. If someone wants to argue that the American hotdog is itself a rather questionable food, despite being a hotdog eater I can’t really deny it, but a hotdog stand does not make a city block smell like a hybrid between a cow’s butt and a urinal. I am an open-minded diner and have tried tripe many times in many forms, Italian, Chinese, and it always tastes like tripe. I can’t understand it. I know the words “traditional” “local” and “delicacy” are often code for “what we ate while under siege when we ran out of cats,” (if you don’t believe me, hunt down a Tuscan recipe for “stinco” i.e. boiled pig’s knuckles). Still, they clearly love it, and if people have the option to eat buffalo mozzarella or tripe and choose tripe, then… I will try it again. I’ll wait a few months, and with sincere effort… maybe. One does acquire some local abilities by osmosis after a while. After my first six months in Florence I gained the inexplicable ability to recognize saints Cosimo and Damiano in a painting even if they don’t have their characteristic hats. So perhaps a year will be enough to master even tripe.