Holiday Gift Suggestions from Ex Urbe
I was racing from my office to the gym yesterday, struggling not to spill orange goo on my 18th century reenactment overcoat while wolfing down instant microwave mac & cheese with my reusable pocket eco-spork, when I finally faced up to the reality that the November demands of academia & inevitable autumn illness were not going to give me a chance to finish the next chapter of my Machiavelli series this week, or even next. But since the holidays are coming, I thought I might share some quick gift suggestions which I’ve accumulated this year. These are all items I either own, or have gotten for friends, or both, with, I hope, enough variety to make for a fun read, and possibly to fill some corners under your trees.
- The photography I have enjoyed sharing on this blog requires a practical, small, portable camera, not easily damaged but quick to use and that takes very good pictures. After trying many models and doing a lot of research, I can enthusiastically recommend my current camera, a Nikon COOLPIX S9300, which is the top of the COOLPIX camera line, with very high resolution and an astounding zoom. The 16x zoom is much too powerful to actually be usable unless you set the camera down or use a tripod, but even at half-way-zoomed I could get amazing detail on faraway bits of cathedrals and fortresses. It eats up its batteries, so you need two, but is a great pocket camera.
- The most exciting, and unusual, of the numerous tablets on the gift market this year has to be an authentic reconstruction of a Roman period wax writing tablet. A standard technology used throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, this affordable alternative to papyrus or vellum worked by scratching text into a wax surface with a stylus, which could then be wiped smooth and re-used. Standard for letter-writing and short-term note-taking. Through this cutting-edge ancient technology, your friends and loved ones can enjoy the miraculous gift of writing, then erasing it, then writing again on the same surface! Wonders will never cease!
- In order to avoid the life-threatening condition known as “gelato withdrawal” I rely upon my dear and trusty DeLonghi GM6000 Home Gelato Maker. I have been making gelato with it not quite every day for many months now. It is a little loud but whips up a batch in 3o to 45 minutes and many of the best recipes (yogurt gelato, lemon sorbet, chocolate) require practically no preparation. It came with a very good basic recipe book, and for some reason is currently $250 instead of $400+ on Amazon. Also, Amazon allows you to subscribe to chocolate, I repeat, subscribe to chocolate, so fresh chocolate powder is delivered to your house for free on a periodic basis to restock your gelato-making needs. There is now no excuse for not having gelato.
- Books are often hit-or-miss holiday gifts, since we all love them, but we all have a to-read list a mile long (I must state here the maxim: “Never give a book to a grad student if they didn’t request it.”) But just the right book can be just the right thing. This year my three book recommendations are the Unnecessarily Interesting Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an astonishingly exciting and even more astonishingly true account of the life and adventures of the Renaissance goldsmith/sculptor/arms-master/duelist/murderer who should’ve been the protagonist of Assassins’ Creed III, and by far the most exciting account of an historical figure’s life I’ve ever read; my manga pick of the year which has to be the long-awaited release of Shigeru Mizuki’s classic Gegege no Kitaro, a post-WWII collection of classic Japanese oral tradition ghost stories framed around an adorably morbid little zombie boy, packed with folklore and second really only to Astro Boy in its seminal position in mid-20th-century manga (English release finally available for pre-order!); or, the meta-book gift ideal for any bibliophile already weighed down by too many books, Petrarch’s Four Dialogues for Scholars, featuring excerpts from his “Remedies against fortune” which advise the reader on how to avoid pride and hubris over owning a lot of books. That’s right, it’s a book about having too many books. Witty, delightful and bilingual, it is a quick and entertaining read, a rich and rewarding reread, and also features dialogues to prevent hubris if you have a graduate degree, multiple graduate degrees, or are a published author.
- In DVD recommendations I prefer to focus on things you have likely not heard recommended elsewhere. Thus this year’s three pics are: The Secret of Kells, a gorgeous animated film based on the manuscript illuminations of the Book of Kells; the stunning and sadly under-publicized anime film Summer Wars, which is as beautiful, wholesome and delight-filled as a Miyazaki movie but with an action plot; and Borgia: Faith and Fear, by far the superior (and sadly the more obscure) of the two Borgia TV series that were produced last year. Like all recent over-dramatic historical TV series it makes sex and violence a centerpiece, but they’re the Borgias so it should be nasty, and it does a good job making the sex and violence feel authentically period, while also having the right combination of historical accuracy and storytelling to make it entertaining. We hope someday there will be a season 2.
- Truffle butter. Truffle butter. Truffle butter. Eat the Truffle Butter. There are many kinds and I cannot say which is best since I haven’t tried them all, but it is out-of-this-world stuff. Have it on bread, or melt it over fresh pasta, or a white meat, like chicken. But pasta is always best.
- Italian cold cuts are another treat which I mourn on returning to the New World. While many grocery stores in the US now carry prosciutto, pancetta and even bresaola, the delicacy I miss most intensely is the cured spiced lard which melts across your tongue like butter. Lardo Toscano or Lardo di Colonnata I have yet to reliably find, but a good Spanish Lardo can be ordered from Boccalone, and other good salumi from Murray’s cheese.
- One of the most enthusiastically-received gifts I’ve ever given was “Professor Doctor Sweetie-Pie’s European Adventures”, a glossy photo book of my research travels which made my Mom bounce and cheer and which she has read over and over for many a moon. Many companies allow one to create these things, but I did mine through Shutterfly, and while they’re a little pricey they really can be a big hit.
- Pants are an essential but oft-neglected clothing item, allowed to languish in boringness while shirts and jackets receive all the stylish decoration and superhero logos. I derive constant joy and frequent compliments from my habit of sewing decorative trim down the side seams of my jeans and other pants, making them with an hour’s effort into something distinctive and fun. The trims I use come from CelticTrims.com, and can also be added to all sorts of other simple things to make them excellent.
- As a frequent flier, I was always frustrated by the fact that I could no longer carry a pocket cutting tool to open plastic packaging etc. without risk of confiscation. For others with the same problem, small round-tipped metal scissors like these are pretty-universally allowed on planes.
- In the kitchen I continue to swear by my Leifheit Garlic Slicer and use it pretty-much every day to turn cloves of garlic into luscious quick-cooking petals of deliciousness.
- For travel, I can also recommend a folding travel backpack like this one, which folds almost as small as a reusable compact shopping bag but is much more practical since it’s a backpack. I usually travel with one and stick it in my pocket when heading out to wander a town, so I can easily carry any shopping. It’s also useful for when one leaves with one bag but inevitably can’t fit new acquisitions into it for the return.
We are all drowning in eco-products, making it hard to tell which ones are actually useful. I have had several happy years now with my credit card cutlery, little flat plastic silverware that fits inside a credit card slot in your wallet, providing a fork and spoon/knife. I would estimate that in three years or so they have prevented me from using about thirty plastic forks, but more valuably, they have often provided me with a fork when one would otherwise not be available, and the spoon is firm enough to act as a slicing tool for cheese or fruit.
- A trick I learned from my father when thinking of stocking stuffers is that one can often achieve smiles by returning to those items which were exciting when we were ten, and are still exciting even though grown-ups aren’t supposed to be excited by them anymore. For example, yes you can have little colorful umbrellas in your drinks every day, that’s what being a grown-up means! Also, remember those little capsules that you put in water and then there’s a colorful sponge that expands out of it shaped like a whale or a dinosaur? Well they’re still just as fun now as they were in the science museum gift shop when you were barely tall enough to peer over the display case.
- Life without olive oil is not worth considering. Now that I no longer have access to Italy directly, I have been doing a survey of the best olive oils stocked in the US. For a basic one, even carried by some grocery stores, I have been very impressed by California Olive Ranch, which is now my new default oil. For something more extraordinary, The Olive Tap produces incredible infused oils and vinegars, and I can particuarly recommend their out-of-this-world Tangerine Balsamic (I am not a tangerine fan but this is the best thing to put on a salad I have ever, ever, ever tasted!), and their Blood Orange Olive Oil. For imported Italian oils I have enjoyed Ottavio Private Reserve, but can’t find a good online source.
- And when in doubt, there are 10,000 things you want on ThinkGeek.com. Just don’t buy them all.