Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Battle Of The Bar Door

I am involved with a few blogs where people who are seeking information on life in Italy.  Many are considering moving to Italy, and are researching the hows and wheres, etc.  These blogs are helpful and I try to make a few comments in them about life here besides writing my own blog.   For my subscribers….. I am back to writing about Italy.  Here we go, my attempt to season your romantic world view.

The sky today is  gray, the clouds are low, the humidity is heavy like a wet blanket.   Italian pop music rhythmically reminds me in what country I reside in, while  three old guys sit near my small table in my coffee bar, Cafe Jolie.  A balding guy with a neatly trimmed mustache is speaking in Veneto, the dialect of this area.  He bears a striking resemblance to  Higgins, the character on Magnum PI.  Looking over the top of his glass he says, “ Heyay gowa sua eeah ay cava subata laya comeeah waka veeyaw, si, roba comabah….”  Veneto sounds exactly like this to me.  The acoustics of the dialect Veneto to my ears has less use of consonants.  Lotta vowels!  Lots.

Not a day over 75,  two other men throw in their comments and laugh.  They hardly look up as a fourth old gray haired guy arrives and pulls up a chair.  Together the look like aged pall bearers at the Godfather’s funeral.  Should I be worried?

They sit relaxed and jabber.  They have ordered no coffees.  They are just here for some engaging talk.  No one seems to mind.   In a village like mine, bars are meeting places. Hollywood has shown us this picture numerous times, the tiny village, the old guys sitting at a table playing cards and the sexy barista tending the bar.  However, no one plays cards in my village.

Slot Machines in Bars Here
A rough looking man, in need of a shave, wanders in.  He is dressed in typical orange worker garb, the kind that highway workers wear for visual protection.  He walks straight to the door of the bathroom.  
Bars are useful for refreshments but also for the bathrooms provided for their customers.  I also have learned to use them out of desperation. 
I sometimes buy something out of guilt and sometimes I don’t.  Like the burger place, It’s in and out.    Bar bathrooms are the local public restrooms for Italians, and unlike in the 70’s, are quite clean.  (Remember this when you are a tourist.)  

                                           A Good Example
Two days ago I was in the village of Noventa Padovana where I had held a painting exhibition some years ago.  One of my paintings now hangs in the mayor’s (Sindaco) office.  Which ought to count for something, right?  I was driving by and in need of a restroom, as there are no gas stations there and we don’t  have  7/11’s in Italy.    So I stopped in the convenient free parking area and went into the city hall with the office of the Sindaco.  I was met with a scowl in the hallway by a custodian in an prisoner-ish orange suit.   I could tell I was in trouble before I started.  He curtly wanted to know what I wanted, and I explained I was needing a bagno (bathroom).  He said, “what?”   My hit and run Italian accent had revealed me to be a stranieri.   I had little hope in the first place as most Italians take one look at me and figure I am either German or Russian.  I told him I was looking for a toilet.  At this point,  with feigned outrage, he stuck his arm out and pointed to the door, while he said, “BAR!”  He was pointing to the bar directly across the street.   Here was the prisoner in that orange Jailbird suit, telling me where to go!  I was being viewed with considerable disfavor, somewhere between a bill collector and Vlad the Impaler.

Later I was having an interesting discussion with my wife, and she politely told me that in Italy people do not use the city hall bathrooms.  Those toilets are reserved for the pampered fannies of the elected officials. Something about the perks of officials here in Italy don't add up!  I countered with my thoughts on this:  In America, no one would be refused to use a bathroom in the city hall.  We  Americans own that city hall!   I guess tax paying Italians don't own the local city hall.  Where is the justice in this!  RISE UP, ITALIANS!  (While you are at it, more benches and water fountains, please!)

Then it got funny when my wife told me I had looked pretty “rough” that day and much like a Romanian immigrant.   (I don't have any Romanians reading my blog, so I am safe to use this.)     Should I be wearing suit and tie?   I have been judged before the trial!  I countered that I did not look like the 4 guys who robbed me in St. Petersburg!  
I looked at myself, clean shirt, pants, hair combed, shaved, (Okay, I did need a haircut) everything in place and to top it off,  I had smiled and was polite to the orange costumed custodian.  This is not justice!  What would happen  if I had a SUDDEN AND URGENT need for a bathroom?  
Such is Italy.  They can hang my painting in the mayor’s office, but I cannot use his urinal!  I think I want my painting back!

                                           Back to the bar. 
 The old guys have now ordered a spritz which is a combination of compari or aperol and prosecco (champagne style wine made in Italy and quite good- - a lot cheaper)  They have waited until after 11:00 because bars feature snacks for free when you order a spritz at this time of the morning.  Cafe Jolie brings to your table a large bowl of chips surrounded by tasty finger sandwiches.  While they are wolfing down the freebies, another old friend joins them, coming in from the light rain shaking his umbrella.   I have noticed that he has left the door open and we are now feeling the chilling effect of the cold sneaking its way into the toasty-warm bar.  This happens a lot in this bar.  I don’t know why, except that Italians like doors open more than I would.  They don’t seem to realize the money lost in losing heat this way.   The door remained open for most of the morning that day.
Music Videos Pump It Out
The day before this it had been an even colder day and sitting in the bar I glanced up from my keyboard and saw the door had suddenly been propped open.  I had a light jacket on and was feeling uncomfortable from the cold.  I looked at the barista, but she was busily sweeping the crumbs dropped from people’s brioches.  I waited.  I tried to get her attention, but no....  I waited....My nose began to get cold and my fingers seemed to be at the first stage of frostbite.  

This is more than a petty annoyance to me and finally I got up and closed the door.  ( BTW I am sitting 6 inches from the wall heater.)  Soon it became comfortable again.  I couldn't see my breath anymore.  Ten minutes go by and the manager rushes out of the kitchen and hurrying to the door says, “Dave, I must open the door, it is hot in here!”   What can I say?  It is 54 degrees outside.  She wants it the same!  They have lived their lives in this cold humidity.  The kind that caused consumption in the past.  I have lived in the dry cold of the Rockies and the west coast of the U.S.    This is Italy.  
Italian Breakfast Of Champions
Another heated discussion at home occurs the same day.   I am made to realize that scarfed and jacketed Italians walk in off the street to have a quick hard-core two-minute coffee “whatever” and leave.  They don’t come into a bar, remove their jacket, and sit around reading a book, working a computer or talking on the phone.   They come for their coffee fix, a jolt of caffeine in a tiny cup.  If they want to sit, they will do this during their hour and a half lunch.  (Factory workers only get 30 minutes, I say this to save myself another at-home discussion later.)  There is no lollygagging around.  This is NOT Starbucks!  I am the lone goof-off in the whole village.  For me, pacing is important.  At least they know my name in my bar!   (BTW we have checked and Starbucks in Milano is still a few months away.  So some of you will have to wait a bit longer for your souvenir Milano mugs.) 

Cin Cin!

This is life in Italy, the bare bones, reality.  People want to know.  It is not a hard life, and if you let go a little, you find a very peaceful one.   Those little things combined with no crime in my village?   They are gladly acceptable for me.  I just have to wear a better jacket…..
long underwear
wool socks
Russian hat with flaps
scarf (no I refuse that)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Two Winners in Tallinn

Old Center of Tallinn
I wonder how many people in the United States could correctly point to Estonia on a blank map of Europe.  Shamefully, I have to admit that I might have guessed right with a 33 per cent chance between Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.   You almost never hear about them, and the last big news was years ago when they broke from the Soviet Union.  Think about what you know about these countries.   Not much, right?

I had my eyes opened this summer.  Landing in Riga, Latvia and riding a fancy but cheap bus to Tallinn, Estonia.   Walking through the center of both Riga and Tallinn, we visited the wonderful markets and later found some great local cuisine.   It was easy to have our eyes opened to see the gathering weight of two economies.  Clearly, the citizens have decided to use a strategic approach and compete with the rest of Europe.  That took  hard work and a truck load of time.  

For several months we made plans to meet two men in Tallinn who started their own business from scratch.  Ascending through the ranks of the successful, these fellows now run a factory that turns out frames for stitching hobbyists.  People from all over the world now excitedly order and wait for their new frames to be quickly delivered.  You would be surprised to know the huge number of stitchers in the world.  They are organized, to the point of groups who have made friends with others all over the world.  They spend time stitching, discussing their projects and more, all at the same time. Modern technology allows them to use videos as if they are sitting in the same room.  It is actually amazing to see how connected they are.   They have even organized weekends where they meet, a convention of sorts.  One I am familiar with met last February and had 50 people from 5 countries.  Imagine 50 stitchers taking over a golfing hotel!  Many of this group use frames made in this Tallinn factory and so  we were interested to meet these two fellows and see what they have accomplished.

They Are Good Listeners
There’s an old guy and a young guy.  Alexei is my age, the old guy,  and he had been a soldier in the Soviet army.  When the Soviet Union was dissolved he was given a choice to move to Russia and remain in the army, or leave and remain in his country of Estonia.  This was a difficult choice because it meant he would have no income and be starting out in his later middle years.  He chose to stay.  The state offered some classes that were offered to help people find a new career and Alexei chose jewelry making.   During this class, he was asked by a  Russian lady to build a stitching frame, one he would have to design by himself.  The frame turned out to be a great success and Alexei began to get a lot of orders from Russia.  Along the way, he managed to find an unused army building and this is where the factory is today.  His son, Anton, is the voice of the operation and is now the one communicating with the people who order frames, he also helps Alexei in their construction.

Put yourself in the shoes of Alexei, facing his economic disaster and a huge change in lifestyle.  He was a man standing on a bridge in a hailstorm yet he managed to change his direction and forge a new life for his family.  It is the kind of  story that encourages all of us to never give up.  No job to a new factory, what a vivid contrast!

The outside of the factory looks exactly as you would expect an ex-Soviet Army building to look, in need of a paint job and a bit in disrepair, but the inside is filled with tools and machines to do their work. Alexi tells us that he purchased many of the large machines through auctions held to unload state-owned equipment no longer used.  They have plenty of space and are able to separate painting operations, from machine work.  The factory is doing so well that they have hired another fellow to do work in a side room and Alexei had to ask him to stop for a few minutes so that we can hear them explain how and where they do each of the processes to make the frames.  

We are shown a new frame, which is still undergoing changes, and we are asked not to show photos later.  They expect a lot of interest and they do not want the competitors to copy their ideas.  My wife sits behind it and offers  suggestions. They listen.  She is very positive about this new set up.  

Peter The Great's Humble Abode
We spend almost two hours there and then Anton takes us back to our hotel in his Landcruiser.  We will meet them later for a late lunch, but on the way, Anton drives by the house of Peter the Great.  I had no clue that Peter the Great had lived in Tallinn, but let’s face it, I know very little of the history of Peter the Great.  We also see the house of his wife, located across a small park.  However, these are no palaces, as you can see.  His huge palaces we will visit later in St. Petersburg.

At the Restaurant 

Like a cop at a crime scene I was highly interested in what these two men would choose to eat, and secretly I was wondering if Alexei would be drinking vodka.  They ordered in Estonian language and we ordered in English, so I had no idea what we would see on the table, but sure enough a jug of vodka appears with one glass, then two tomato glasses of tomato juice arrive.  This is kind of a shock to me as in Italy you  would die before you could find tomato juice anywhere, a store or restaurant.  Bravo, Estonia!  The juice did have a funny color.

World Peace!
So here we are, me, an American flag waver, sitting next to Alexei an ex-Soviet Soldier.  There is hope for the world.   Never in my wildest dreams would I ever think I would have lunch in such circumstances.  (I grew up in the cold war era.)  What is also amazing is that in one week I would be meeting and staying with my good Russian friends, Albert and Alfiya, making a double dose of world peace.

The food was excellent.  The restaurant, we were told, was one of the oldest in Tallinn.  The experience of meeting these two men with their life stories made the day one of our best in the summer.  I came away glad that my wife is a stitcher and made this day possible.  

To all you stitcher folks!  This blog page was also dedicated to you.   You now have a glimpse into people who make those frames possible.  I hope you can also travel to these small countries and see their beauty as we did.  

If you have read this far, maybe you would like to offer a comment.  You can do that by clicking on the area that says...."no comments".  Google controls this statement or I would change it to "make a comment"......


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Everybody's Friend, Umit

Turkey has so many beautiful beaches, but one of the best is Cirali.  Our research had revealed that this beach was a prime stop and still not overrun with sun-seeking tourists.  Every article written by travellers spoke praises, and we took a look using Google Earth and it looked perfect.  Backed by the green hills, the beach stretched for miles and near the village had many beach side restaurants.  What google couldn’t show us was a man standing at the gate of the restaurant called Ikiz, which means “twins” in Turkish.  That man made a striking impression with us through his ambitious work and his pursuit of making our visit a memorable one.

Two years ago
Meet Umit.  Umit the manager.   Umit the translator.   Umit the concierge, the helper, the friend to all foreigners, the hardest worker with the longest hours in Cirali.  He’s the guy at the gate, and when you come to know him you find him to be a funny person balanced with grown responsibility and caring for the people who visit his restaurant and pension owned by a local family.  

Umit made sure we enjoyed the regional products and led us through the menu each day as if he knew where the treasure was buried.  When we left Cirali it seemed like we had been on a road trip with a true friend.  The thing that comes most to mind is that right now, Turkey needs more men like Umit, because he shows the best part of Turkey, the heart.

Umit is kind of like Food Network’s Guy Fieri, you know, the kind of person you could come to know and like right away.  Built like a brick house, like the majority of Turkish men, he makes a striking impression with his gentle and kind way.  If Umit would wrestle Guy, The “Road Stop” guy would be on the mat begging for mercy.  

Every question we had about Turkey, about cuisine, about life in general for Turks was answered.  We discovered that Umit was learning Russian to help the hoard of Russians who were coming to Turkey.  (Now they are not coming due to the plane shot down.)   Once away from the beach work it was hit the books, a complete immersion into hotel and restaurant management.  I admire his pursuit of contentment for his customers. 

xray showing titanium and bolts
But it was a moment similar to a car crash with a freeway pileup that brought Umit’s quick thinking and care into reality.  It was when my wife accidentally fell and crushed her right knee.  The village has no doctor, no clinic, and no pharmacy, and we were about one hour from the nearest hospital.  Within minutes Umit had an ambulance on its way.  Umit made all the necessary arrangements got our bags packed and ready, and made sure that she was as comfortable as possible.  Without Umit, it would have been so much more difficult to get help so quickly.  The knee was so bad that the hospital began surgery immediately.   He brought an oasis of calm into an unexpected disaster.  

Mr. Cirali, Umit
That was two years ago, now the knee is healed with titanium, and we have been back to Umit’s Cirali beach.  Nothing has changed, it was still a calm and magical place. We found Umit smiling at that gate, and our memorable road trip began again.  At the end of the week, it was difficult to leave and fly home.  Umit has made plans to visit our home in the Spring.  I hope that you, dear reader, will visit Umit and his Cirali Beach someday.  

My Road Trip Restaurant