Thursday, April 20, 2017

American Size Me

Today I was in my local post office (Post) to pay my electric bill.  Included in this bill is the national television charge of approximately 20 euros.  This is how the country squeezes the turnip and makes sure they get all the money intended.  It is all above the table.  One good thing I noticed was a sign stating that now free wifi is being provided while you wait in line.  This is a good thing!  Lines are long here, often stretching outside in the cold.  Bills are being paid, money withdrawn and packages mailed.  Nothing is quick here.

home made
It's market day in my village, always Thursdays.  Strolling through I found three vegetable sellers, two fish, one cheese, one roasted chicken, one shoe salesman, one florist, and assorted junky stuff made in China.  I bought two bottles of hot sauce spreads from the Sicilian guy, he is my source to stay spiced up a bit.  We are expecting visitors and maybe they will share my desire for a bit of heat.  I didn't expect  to see so few people on such a sunny day.   Sadly, absent for many months now is my accordion guy from Romania.  I miss his squeaky squeezebox sounds floating over the market.  Even though he knew few old Italian songs, I liked the Romanian ones.

                                           In my coffee bar

Lo and behold, I suddenly hear a British voice saying, "Well, I will call you tomorrow."  My head jerks quickly over and I spy a grey haired, jolly looking fellow putting his cell down.  This is a moment not to be missed and so I yell over to him, "Are you British?"  And we are off to the races.....Jim lives here in my village and writes a Friday column for a newspaper in Great Britain.  He is going to become a good friend....It is a good day!  I wonder if he likes Mexican food?  All this time I thought I was only one of two English speaking people in my village.
Mexican Plate


While Jim and I are talking, two old guys, my age, are sitting watching our conversation.  With a startled look like the discovered grandma is now roadkill, they seemed stunned.  I have talked to them before, but only in my slow Italian.  I am sure that they have thought I must be mentally challenged.  I have now been confirmed normal.  BTW, I am not normal!

When I first arrived at my coffee bar I had intended to sit outside in the sun.  The tables outsides had been rearranged and I had to look hard to find a place where I could actually even get a chair pulled back so I could sit down.  There was only one spot, and if I sat there no person could sit behind me as their chair would be straight up against their table.  This is a moment where I think, "Italians!"  Squeezing in is a good thing in their minds.   They like squeezing.  Crowded situations?........ no problem!    Touching..., up close and personal situations so tight you are  always worried about other hands sneaking to grab your  wallet while you stare at the hairy mole on someones neck.   You don't look into the faces of people, the rule is to stare off in oblivion.   (I cheat)   You get to know the locals really well in these situations.

 Italian furniture.    Bar owners in Italy always go cheap purchasing plastic chairs, or chrome designed chairs  so tight and uncomfortable that you know they want you to drink and "move on".   In approaching  a piazza we are always searching to find a bar with the best chairs.    Cheap bastardi!   Your vocabulary word of the day.
Italians  don't mind sitting in living room chairs where your butt is actually below your knees.  (Try to crawl out of that when you are old!) They don't mind little seats, and watch out in their movie theatres.  The seats are the width that would only fit a strutting fashion model.  The rest of us have to slide into a seating position shaking booty as if we are practicing the Macarena.  Getting out is worse!  I have often thought that Italians are related to the Japanese somehow.  Their beds are only raised a short distance from the floor, a real struggle for an old person to get out of bed and up into a standing position.

That's a short glimpse into village life for this week.
Ciao, Dave




Wednesday, April 12, 2017

John Kennedy, Nikita Krushchev and the Lucky Hand


Yesterday when I was in Padova I went to my usual bar where they have wifi and when I walked in I noticed that the owner had put up black and white photos of past historical events.  Almost in the center was a photo of John Kennedy shaking the hand of Nikita Krushchev, and I had to tell the owner that my hand had also shook the hand of John Kennedy.  I got a double take on that one and he asked me to explain, which I did in my elemental Italian.  


When I was 9 years old John Kennedy was making a tour of the United States before declaring his candidacy for President.  This was in 1958 and in June he  made a stop at the airport of Colorado Springs where my family lived.  My father knew of the Kennedy family because he had been stationed in New England after WWII, and he told me that we had to go to the airport and see Kennedy.  

We watched the plane land and taxi up to the terminal.  They used a moveable staircase such is now used for budget flights here in Europe, and  soon the door opened and men in suits deplaned.  John Kennedy stepped out of the plane and waved to the small crowd.  I remember that it  was less than a hundred people, more like 50.  My father told me to go up and get a closer look, so I pushed myself through the reporters and photographers and was soon face to face with Kennedy.  He was talking to everyone, and I just stood there watching but not having a political clue as to just what I was viewing.  BTW I was the only kid there, completely surrounded by adults.

Kennedy looked down at me and said, “Who are you?”  I told him my name, and told him that my father had brought me to meet him.  He was looking over the crowd, probably wondering what bigshot had brought his kid.  I extended my hand and said I was glad to meet him and he shook my hand.  He  said, “Who is your father?”  I pointed through the crowd at my father standing in the back. Kennedy said,” What does he do?”  I proudly told him that my father was a plumber.  A smile grew on Kennedy’s face and he shook my hand a second time.  I remember he said something like, “I am glad you came out.”  I was then pushed by the crowd as they moved away from the plane and I went back to tell my father what happened.  


That was my big moment in history.  Well, not the only one, thank goodness.  But it was one that I think of often and when I saw that photo of Kruschev and Kennedy I remember how Kennedy managed to remove the nuclear missiles that the Soviet Union had sent to Cuba.  Of course I remember how my entire high school was informed over the intercom of the assassination of Kennedy.



During my youth, there were times that I acted and thought like most teenagers, thinking my parents needed a ‘second education’, etc.  Later  I realized how wrong I was, how my father the plumber was so aware of history.  I was the only kid who got to shake Kennedy’s hand that day.    Bravo, Dad!


Thursday, April 6, 2017

What's New In Northern Italy

Spring Brings More Business For Gondoliers
Spring is here in Italy!  We know this by two things, one is when we see leaves sprouting on the grape vines, and the other is when we see cotton floating in the air from the cottonwood trees.  Grapes are usually one of the last plants to show action, so when they show leaves we know the weather will change for the best.  The cotton makes allergies go nuts!

March was fairly dry, compared to other years, and April seems to be also the same.  We have temperatures reaching 70, causing Italians to shed those overused scarves and black jackets.  Standing in my coffee bar are four gentlemen, two with shirts and two with jackets.  It’s a mixed bag this morning caused by the overcast skies.

I made a visit to my family doctor this morning in order to get his signature that I am alive and well.  My teacher’s pension system needed assurance that  my descendants were not mooching off the system after my demise.  The office had only 3 people waiting to see him and it went quite quickly.  Only one person was coughing, the others had paperwork.  My doctor goes it alone, he has no secretary, no aides, no nurses, no people sorting paperwork.  This is the way in Italy for doctors.  He keeps a copy of my tests, but I carry my own copy and my X-rays.  It is my responsibility to not lose them.  By the way, in case you are an unbelieving American, my visit had no fee.  Doctor visits are covered by the health system in Italy.  Go in the hospital, it is the same, covered.  All people, poor or rich get a chance to stay healthy without going bankrupt over medical bills.

Monday the weather was  so good that I made my first outing to paint watercolors.  It was a bit of a shock to find that the waterwheel I intended to paint for several years, was now a construction zone for a new pedestrian bridge.  I had walked a distance with all my equipment so I made a go of it anyway.  Here is the finished product.   It is just a sketch I will use later for a larger painting.



I have also completed an acrylic painting of this old boat.  The size is about 4 feet by 3.

Quiet Sunset 


Greek Salad and Tzatziki
How to make Greek Yogurt Tzatziki below
http://www.jamieoliver.com/news-and-features/features/how-to-make-tzatziki/ 
I have plans to fly to Chania, on Crete Island where I will  soon enjoy a week of painting.   Chania (pronounced Hawneeyah) is a quaint town with the center featuring Venetian architecture created when the Venetians ruled there.  They have a nice harbor with a small light house, and another boat harbor nearby.  We have enjoyed Chania several times, gotten to know some great people, and visited many of the beaches of Crete.  It’s not just the scenery, though, I really enjoy Greek cuisine.  Fotos next month!

home made rolled noodles and great sauce with meat
Croatian Specialty
Totally Awesome Calamari
Croatia is also on our travel list.  We will stay in a bungalow on the shore of the sea.  I will take my painting equipment.  Last year while painting a terrific thunder storm rolled in and the whole night the rain poured down in buckets.  I will pass on that this year!  Their food is also super.  Here is a foto from last year of the storm arriving. 
Storm Coming
The land looks like it is floating


I wish you a happy Spring, ciao.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Weekend Diversion To Amsterdam

We made a quick weekend trip to Amsterdam, using a budget offer, and I will made a few comments.

Canal Bridge 
Amsterdam, like most of the world, has changed a lot since my first visit in 1974.  The economy has taken off and the city has grown to be massive.  The effect seems to be that many of the original families that lived in the center have moved away to be replaced by the nuovo rich, much like Venice and even San Francisco.  
Huge Cheese Wheels
The Dutch Are Famed for Great Cheese
The center of the old city is frequented by the young tourists, some of whom just want a glimpse to see if there really are prostitutes in windows and marijana shops galore. Between these and the  souvenir shops one can still find cheese shops that offer a tasting before you buy.  

Where have all the hippies gone?
 In 1974 the famous Dam Square had some 25 hippies smoking grass without being prosecuted and a few tourists being what tourist do.  Today a gathering of hundreds visit the square each hour while the smoking of dope is in the coffee houses.  I felt overwhelmed by 35 year olds crowding the square while folks my age sat on benches and people watched.  Hundreds surrounded a guy who could pull his whole body through a tennis racket while balancing a large glass ball on his head.  This was a nice break from another type of circus we see in Washington.



We made a nice morning of it in the Van Gogh Museum, where one can see the painting left by the great painter to his brother after he passed on at a young age.  Many of these were stored under the brother’s bed, now hanging with gold frames on the museum walls.     Did you know the Dutch pronounce his name with a coughing sound at the end?  Not the usually hear "owe" sound....

Windmills of Holland






We made a follow-up visit of the R. Museum with a plan concentrate on Rembrandt, in particular his, Night Watch and other large paintings.  Those two museums made a morning it and we had lunch featuring foods whose designs and flavors came from the Dutch West Indies, a colony of Holland years ago.  I appreciate the chance to try something new, a nice change from pasta land flavors.  Another plus is a chance to try  locally made beer.  









An Enchanting Hour Cruise
If you are ever in Amsterdam, I would suggest that you take the night canal cruise.  The lights on all the canals and bridges are beautiful, plus you can look into windows and get a real look into the life style of the citizens.  Most of these windows along the canal have no curtains, and the Dutch are known to keep their windows squeaky clean.  You can also look into the boats along the canal, people are not afraid to let you look into their boat while they are dining or entertaining friends.  

For our last meal we decided to take tram 4 a ways out from the center and then look for an interesting “non tourist” place.  We do this sort of thing a lot and had good luck in Munich, Prague, and Lisbon.  What we found in Amsterdam was a Moroccan restaurant in an old church.  The food was excellent, reasonably priced, and the decor seemed a bit north African.  



Love those plates!  Mint Tea was relaxing.








It is difficult to deal with the fact that my country continues to spend a large majority of its budget on the military while countries in Europe are applying resouces to surpass our economy, provide free university to educate all its people, and a decent health care for all the citizens.  Since my first visit to Europe I can see HUGE progress, while America's roads and  bridges mirror what we think of moving forward in education and health care.  We have lost our middle class, while the Netherlands and other countries in Europe move forward.  All this with less crime, gun fatalities, and hunger.

Ciao!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Driving With Mario

I am not Catholic, and even though there are only Catholic churches here,  I decided to consider attending after last week’s hair raising bus trip.  The new driver, who had replaced my last,  who was a more calm and laid back driver, gave me a bit of the spectacular and unexpected.   Most bus drivers are exceptional and safe drivers.  Yet I began to believe, that Dale Earnhardt must have an Italian relative?  

I usually sit in the first seat so I can enjoy the view when leaving the city and reaching my village.  That was my first mistake!   I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather, certainly not screaming and yelling like the passengers in my bus.  I had a front row seat feeling quite imperilled as the bus flew around corners, screeched to stops, and brushed by pedestrians who suddenly decided they should have stayed home.

He Always Got The Girls

I was reminded of the first auto chase movie I had seen as a child, the 1958 movie, Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum.  (Yes, I am old!)  Speeding his home-made liquor through the hills in his souped up jalopy, racing away from the authorities, screeching tires, he seemed to escape from the police at every attempt to deliver his hooch and get paid.  But here in Italy there are very few police on the roads, so there is little chance to catch bad drivers who violate rules.  And certainly there are no hooch makers evading the police.

 My ride last week was no donkey derby.  It was more of a hair raising Grand-Prix that started off when I boarded the bus.   When I stepped onto the bus the door hit my in the butt and  I grabbed a railing to hold on.  I struggled to climb the stairs and grab a front seat as the bus left two black stripes on the pavement.  From my seat the driver, hair combed back as if the wind trained it, leaned forward to adjust the his radio as he wheeled into a right turn and entered the city traffic, pushing his way into a circle and bullying the small Italian cars into submission.

One Handed/Half Brained
Every turn was taken too fast, forcing the bus to lean.  We heard tires screeching at every stop, some just in time, barely missing the car in front.  Speed was his object,  this guy lived like Mario Andretti, “If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.”   I realised I had chosen the wrong seat as there was nothing between me and the big windshield.  The guy really had a control issue, and we were all part of it!   We even skipped one stop where 8 angry passengers waved their arms in a useless signal.  You win some, you lose some, you wreck some, this was my driver’s apparent motto, while I just wanted to finish above ground.  




It wasn’t the speed, or the turns that scared me the most.  It was the driving too close, the bullying of the cars in front.  It was the pushing them from the road.   Where were the police when you need them?   Who is going to challenge a huge bus in one of these tiny cars.  This bus would eat this car for breakfast!

Leaving the city only increased our speed.   It was a straight shot to my village.  This guy must have been a stunt driver in the Bourne movies.  He had no fear.  I had it all!  I grabbed my phone, wrote my wife while I invented several text abbreviations.  OMGIMDT, Oh My God I Might Die Today, and RMTHSDGOM, Remind Me To Have Sex,Drink, Goof Off More.   They seem long, but I was desperate!



An old joke came to mind about driving.  “My wife had her driver's test the other day. She got 8 out of 10. The other 2 guys jumped clear.” 

 We not only brushed past pedestrians but an old lady on a bike got a few more grey hairs when she had to stop in the middle of a crossing as our bus swerved to miss her.  (In Italy pedestrians have the  right of way, especially in a painted cross walk.)

I did not complain to the driver as I was afraid he would not stop at my village.  There are few stops outside of Padova, and it would be a long walk if he intentionally missed it.  I did mention to him, when we reached the finish line, that this must have been his personal best.  Then I sent a text to my wife, MNFA, Make No Funeral Arrangements!





You learn to appreciate the calm life of a quiet village in funny ways.

Ciao!

Monday, February 6, 2017

This will be a follow-up fact finding “mission” dedicated to my readers that responded to my earlier blog on Starbuck's invasion of Italy
Ciao Tutti?
It has been some time since I wrote about the Starbuck's corporate decision to invade Italy, first in Milano and later to other cities.  Howard Schultz, CEO Starbucks, had originally decided to stay away from competing with the hoard of coffee bars that Italians  frequent daily.  Times change, and placing a Starbucks near the Duomo in Milano  will be a sort of trial balloon, fishing to see if the hard-core coffee drinking Italians will storm the doors of a Starbucks coffee shop, lining up like crazed prisoners making a food raid.  Will they tolerate the long lines like the people of Moscow upon the opening of Moscow McDonalds?   My take on this is that Italians are down to earth people, they never dream  of one hand gripping a cup of exorbitantly priced java with  the other hand holding a cell phone needing free wifi.    Starbucks will be welcomed by the Milanese like a heavy dead wind and a greeting by the people, “come back when you can’t stay so long!”   


As things go here in Italy, it has been a much slower than imagined process for the American company.  In America what takes a few months, in Italy takes much longer.  When I last wrote the official statement to the press was that the big splash would be in February.  February is here and the big day has been slowed by the  usual bureaucratic snafus we all find here in Italy.
 (Go read my blog on obtaining a driver’s licence.)  Now the grand opening date is rumored to be  in September.  Months of profit lost.  I admit I am smiling.  Poor Starbucks!

The young people here are asking questions about possible employment, but they find no answers.  They need jobs, and here people are paid a living wage.  This is a tip off to us all as to really when will be the big day and the crowds will line up.  Starbucks has been in production stocking up on souvenir mugs with “ITALY” and “MILANO” emblazoned on the side.  One can only imagine how the massive Duomo will be presented.  Of course, one year after the opening they will change design to make these coffee mugs highly prized and valuable merchandise on ebay.com.    The furniture for Starbucks is rumored to be stored nearby, complete with their imported toilets they use in all their stores. They are ready!  But the officials of Milano are not!

Mamma Mia!
Oh no!
The newest problem is a matter of landscaping.  How can Starbucks be involved with landscaping you ask?  A councillor, Pierfrancesco Maran, has announced that "Starbucks with its garden will give an exotic touch to the square, while currently present trees will be replanted in other areas of Milan.”   - -an article by— Manuela Messina, journalist in Milano.  What this boils down to is that Starbucks made a plan to change the landscaping to spruce up their coffee quaffing shop.  Green it up, after all, who wants to look at those romantic century old buildings!  So it has been decided to place palm trees while removing the trees and plants that will go to another area of milano.  Palm Trees!  This is so NOT Milano.  Can you imagine the indignation of conservative Italians?  

Another quote from Messina:  "In the west of the square, rows of palm and banana for a spectacular scene with vegetation of large evergreen leaves. Will also be planted shrubs, grasses and perennials with alternating blooms during the seasons in various shades of pink: in spring a carpet of Bergenia, during the summer the big hydrangea flowers in variety Vanille Fraise and hibiscus, in the autumn of inflorescences Chinese giant reeds. A dark gravel carpet finally exalt contrast to the green of the system, which will be powered by an automatic irrigation system. “

Madonna! This is so American!  Gravel carpet and automatic sprinkling systems!  All in front of the former Post Office building in Piazza Cordusio!  To Italians this is much as if Italians planted palm trees at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty complete with expensive gondola rides to Manhattan.   BTW, Some years ago the mayor of San Francisco planted palm trees along the street of Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.  Many people were not happy about that.  It’s the American way!

Thirty-three years ago, Schultz visited  Milan and Verona, wrote off the trip on his taxes, and began to build his multi million dollar enterprize.  The stage is almost set, and soon the curtain will rise.  I project that the lines will be formed with touristas, and the young.  With only one Starbucks it will be a popular success, but when their strategic approach moves to capitalize on more  shops Starbucks will be less popular.  After 8 years of living here, and my daily experience in my coffee bar, I believe the average Italian will remain loyal to  their old shop and baristas.

Want to know more?  Take a look at:  Potrebbe interessarti: http://www.milanotoday.it/economia/starbucks.html

But you will need a translator, try google translate.

Ciao,

Dave

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sitting In My Local Bar, Thinking Food

MANGIAMO! 

That’s what we say in Italy for let’s eat!  
The food is so good in Italy you never run out of new things to try.  Every region has its specialties.  One bite and you are hearing Luciano Pavarotti.

One region uses more butter, another only olive oil, one region has smoked cheese another has wonderful parmigiano cheese.  It’s eating at every level. You never tire of sitting down to something new.  It’s always a challenge to read a menu for me.  After all, it’s not all pizza!



The good thing about living here in the north of Italy is that we are near other countries, and so that makes life twice as good!  Croatia, Slovenia and Austria are within a few hours drive and so they make for a fun weekend.  Even though only a border separates these countries from Italy, the food there is quite different.   
I am putting together a small cookbook of things I like to cook at home, things that I have discovered and the tricks to make them work.  Meanwhile I want to try and encourage readers to think about trying to make something different than their usual fare.  If something below causes an interest, you can find numerous videos on Youtube on how to…..So be brave.  This is not a fearless cultural exploration of foods, you have nothing to lose.
Casey Stengel (do you remember him?) said, “Without losers where would the winners be?”  Every time I try something new, I learn, and the next time I do better.  

Different Cheese Displayed
There are so many of us out there, you know the ones taking photos of the food.  We do that when we go out.  I enjoy looking at the presentation and then using that at home.  I think food tastes better when it looks better.  Here are a few examples from Italy and nearby countries. 
A simple cheese plate is made more separates with decorative cherry tomato, a red pepper, green olives and some sliced pickles.  This is a typical appetizer plate in Italy featuring some different cheeses.  There is nothing difficult in making this at home.  








How about a change in the weekend breakfast!  Take a look at the typical hotel offering in Turkey for breakfast.  Colorful and good for you.  You can’t miss copying this one! 

Sliced cucumbers, tomatoes and some cheese of different types.  Throw in a pepper and some parsley to dress the plate up.  

Let your imagination go!









Something simple things you can make could be bruschetta.  (pronounced broosketah, not shh in the middle).  Soak some sliced tomatoes in a little bit of lemon to help them be more tasty before you add oil with garlic flavor.  Toast some Italian bread on a grill, or even in your toaster.  Brush with oil and add the tomatoes.  You can’t beat that for taste and simplicity.




served on handmade pasta
Have you tried making goulash?  You can find this in the Alps of Italy, and in the countries north of Italy.  Each one has a different style but all are hearty, and are great on a cold winter’s night.   We have seen goulash served with pasta, polenta, potatoes or as a soup. 
Goulash is not difficult to make, kind of a set it and forget it recipe.  You won't have any plate smashing temper tantrums over this one.   Here is a Viennese recipe easy to follow and they even provide a video on their website.  You can’t miss!  


Go to:      https://www.wien.info/en/shopping-wining-dining/viennese-cuisine/recipes/viennese-goulash


The clock on the wall tells me I must go home and put together dinner.  If you think we always eat Italian here, you think wrong.  We actually don't eat much pasta.  Tonight is chicken enchiladas night!   Those of you who have access to corn tortillas--APPRECIATE THAT!    We cannot get them here.  So tonight is a special night.     Ciao!