Monday, September 27, 2010

Hike to Malga Slapeur (Asiago)

A nice little hike to Malga Slapeur, in Asiago. The farms have closed, most of the cattle have migrated down to the plains where the winters are a little less harsh, and the slopes are quiet until winter arrives and the cross country skiers descend. Until the snow falls, we enjoyed the peace and the crisp air, with nothing else except little rodents running about and burrowing underground. For the silence and the feeling of emptiness, this might be one of my favorite hikes to the Prealpi Vicentini so far.

Festa dell'Uva - Gambellara (VI)

Roughly twenty minutes from Vicenza and sitting on the same area as the wine-making machine that is Soave, Gambellara’s entry into the DOCG group of Italian wines (DOCG being the superstars of Italian wines) surprised many wine aficionados due to its relative anonymity (it’s a hard knock life for a little-known to compete in a region known for Soave and prosecco) and the suspicious motives behind the designation (i.e., to please the region’s very influential wine producers). Some even attacked, stating that the wine is mediocre at best (speaking about the region’s sparkling sweet wine: “the intellectual level is somewhere near kindergarten,” probably one of the classic lines of pretentious wine criticism.) Curious, I visited Gambellara during its Festa dell’Uva, a festival crowned by a wine-tasting at the Piazza Cerra by the town’s main producers.

My friend who owns a vineyard in Gambellara even admits that there is room for improvement; he himself continuously improves, and the next year’s wine is always better than this year’s, but the wines I adjudged were not bad. The wines I sampled may have been better than the wines tasted by those curious about Gambellara’s wines produced before the DOCG designation, especially in a region where the techniques for manipulating the preferred but difficult grape are still being refined. Given I don’t have a refined palette for tasting wines and largely incapable of what is pleasing me about a wine (which could be read as simply not having been inculcated into the system of words used to describe notes and flavors, largely designed around expediency rather than sincerity...I mean really, what does it mean tasting of wood and dirt?), My reaction to the wines were not unfavorable. Although the whites were not on the level of Soave—too strong and bitter for my taste, while Soave’s was light and has a hint of citrus—the sweet wine recioto was a surprise, perfect for dunking brasadelo, Gambellara’s local sweet bread. It could be a little heavy, but the lightness of the sparkling version perfectly balances its potentially competing sweet and bitter flavors.

Gambellara itself is not a bad place to start a low-key drive around an excellent wine-producing region. The small unassuming town is surrounded by hills covered with grape vines which glimmer in the setting sun. If the surrounding countryside is not enough to give a hint of the region’s typical industry, the lingering scent of fruit and wine really makes it quite obvious. As I drove into the village center, the smell of fermenting wine and rotting fruit goes through even the most tightly shut windows. Driving futher, the town is guarded by the almost industrial-looking Cantina Sociale de Gambellara. Within the town are a number of wineries offering tours and samples of their product. Driving afield, one can pass through the rest of the region, heading towards Soave’s famed white wine and walled town and Bardolino’s red wine. It's a pity that I live so close yet have always drove past the region on the A4, but maybe come spring I will take a more extensive tour of the area and report on my findings.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Mile-High Half Squat

Italy invents the plane seat that isn't

Ryanair has been floating the idea around (really, more like threating us with the possibility) of standing-room only seats for 5 euros, and now the Italians have made that crazy notion one step closer to reality. It really looks more like a high chair half-squat porta-potty designed to really mess-up someone's knees, but the real question is: how do you get to your seat if you're next to the window? Simple. Be skinny like the rest of Italy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

An Antidote to a Rainy Florence Night

In a city of art, history, and tradition of charging rich tourists up the nose for everything, stumbling upon Palazzo Vecchio during a late night stroll through rainy Florence was a refreshing change of pace. For three euros (typically six, but with the Salone Dei Cinquecento closed due to special events, the ticket was cut by half), we, along with no more than ten others, were able to tour the palace right before they closed at midnight. Without daylight and crowds, the palace is eery, with every step echoing and shadows thrown by the palace's anguished and twisted mannerist sculptures. The best part of the night however is when we entered into the upper walkway of the Salone Dei Cinquecento and became audience to a best-of compilation of arias performed by a trio of excellent singers for a fancy banquet of some sort. For half an hour, we listened, clapped, and yelled "bravi!" along with the guests of honor, and were thrilled whenever the singer's high notes were complimented by lightning flashes outside the palace. We were not lucky enough to see Vasari's "Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana" as it s supposed to be seen, but the closer view gave me an opportunity to search for the inscription "Cerca trova," Vasari's supposed clue to Lenardo's lost "Battle of Anghiari" thought to have survived underneath Vasari's fresco. After the concert, we mingled for a few minutes longer and were forced back out on the streets by the sleepy docents ready to go home. The visit changed my opinion of this tourist city, and left me entranced and promising to come back to see more of her.

Fiera del Riso - Isola della Scala (VR)

In Isola della Scala, south of Verona and the center of Italian rice production, is the Fiera del Riso, a veritable temporary temple to rice in general and the many different ways of preparing risotto in particular. For five euros, one can try risotto prepared in every which way: with zucca, funghi, porchetta, and octopus; from Rome, Piemonte, Sicily, and of course, Veneto. For dessert, cakes, cookies, and pastries made of rice flour. The festival dedicates two very big tents much like Oktoberfest in Munich, complete with booths for beer, wine, spirits, and musical entertainment. Wander around, try a bowl of risotto, rest for a few minutes with a shot of grappa, rinse and repeat. Just like any sagre, Fiera del Riso is a glutton's dream and a dieter's worst nightmare, as the smell of creamy risotto wafts throughout the tents and causes minor hallucinations. The fair grounds include the usual tacky booths for product demonstrations, art installations, candy stands, and fashion boutiques, but one can ignore all that and head for the party at the booths that sell locally-made spirits by the shot glass. When you're done, head for home--with a (all but mandatory) designated driver, of course!--and dream of next year's risotto overdose...and plan a workout to burn off the week's worth of carbs you just ate in a few hours.

What: 44a Fiera del Riso
Where: Isola della Scala, about 45 minutes south of Verona
When: Until Oct 10, 2010
Tips: The town is small, so bring some cash; there may not be public transportation, so driving is the best way to get there

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Death in Italy

(Photos from NY Times articles)

Two interesting articles about the Italian textile industry from the New York Times, published about two months from each other. One talks about an industry heading towards specialization, high production cost, and low profit; the other talks about an industry getting hurt by the influx of competition from China mass-producing cheap, low-quality goods. Two faces of the same coin, but these articles emphasize the Italian schizophrenic approach to production: to specialize, to tout the “made in Italy” label that focus on individual and detail-oriented approach, but to mass-produce and to maximize profits. In America, we tend to separate the two: we know Walmart will not give us top quality (sometimes not a very safe assumption as Walamrt increases the quality of its products), and we’re slowly realizing places like Whole Foods will not as well. But in Italy, buyers are shocked that their cheap balsamic vinegar was not made in Modena.

Also worth mentioning is the overt racism illustrated in the second article about Chinese immigrants in Prato. The biggest problem it seems is not that the Chinese are taking over (this is a problem that is currently a big deal across the world, not just Europe. From Roma to African immigrants, everyone needs somebody to blame for their country’s economic problems), but that the Chinese are fitting a little too well with the Italian life, inheriting their rebellious tendencies towards silly things like production regulation, taxation, and laws against organized crime. The Chinese are not being foreign. They are reflecting Italian life and reality a little too accurately—too real for comfort.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Vicenza Antique Market and Medieval Fair

(The eternally picturesque Loggia Valmarana, in the Giardini Salvi.)

Enjoy these pictures from downtown Vicenza today, with simultaneous events going on. Along with the usual Sunday passeggiata and monthly antiques market, there was also a somewhat rowdy medieval fair and the celebration of the "Rua." The streets were packed, the crowds were lively, and the sky was blue. Perfect day, except there was no loot to bring back home.

This was the first medieval fair I have been to, and as fun as it is, it still boggles my mind: is it a celebration of medieval life? The war, death, destruction, pestilence, hunger? The Italians seem to have a love affair with its medieval fairs, and I think it is because the period was by and large Italy's "shining moment," right before the invasion of foreign neighbors and about the time when Italy's hordes of talented artists, thinkers, and inventors started to teach Europe a thing or two about progress. Regardless, it is fun, and if they had such things as marching bands, flag throwing, and stilt-dancers back then, life couldn't have been so difficult. (During the same weekend Marostica's bigger and more well-known medieval fair centered around a "historic" chess match was going on. However, as much as I try to convince myself to go because everyone seems to want to go, everything always boils down to, "three hours of watching a chess match?")

Vicenza's market is not as big as Piazzola sul Brenta's, nor as impressive as big-small city markets such as the one in Lucca, but it holds its own. I am always on the lookout for books about the history of Vicenza and the Veneto, as well as books on Palladio, and the city's market is chock full of them.

Finally, sometime during the last few weeks a tower called "rua" was erected in the Piazza dei Signori. The story goes that during the 14th century the city constructed a tower for religious processions. As time went by, the tower became taller, heavier, and gaudier, until the church finally refused to use it for processions anymore because people looked forward to the tower more than the passing sacrament. However, it continued as a symbol of the city. Throughout the years, the tower was re-constructed to honor major religious and civic events, as well as whichever passing foreign army was in power: the Venetians, the Austrians, and the Savoys. The last time the tower was put on display was 1928, and never again because the weight of the tower as well as the cables crisscrossing the piazza made it difficult to transport it. (Surprisingly enough, part of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that it never occurred to the locals to put the thing on wheels.) The original is now gone, destroyed during WWII along with much of the town, and the new tower that stands today is a much less extravagant reconstruction of the original.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Donald Out of Place (Marostica Flea Market, Fall 2009)

Brussels, Day & Night

Brussels can be dreary and dull in the morning and early afternoon, making pictures look equally dull and lifeless...

But the city center explodes in colorful neon at night, entertained by street performers, making it impossible to turn out at least one decent picture.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Italians (Luigi Barzini, 1964)

Written during the thick of the post-war Italian economic and political boom, Barzini's The Italians was written in a style has become defunct with the rise of postmodern and poststructuralist anthropological studies of entire societies and cultures. Read today, Barzini's question, "what is the essence of the Italian people?" is difficult to swallow during a time when asking questions about people's essences and "true natures" are at best laughable and at worst offensive. But regardless of how overbearingly paternalistic Barzini sounds, the book is still a good read. It is a weighty counterpoint to the large numbers of books published each year about the charming, easy-going Italians whose stress-free lives attract foreigners who want to escape the strictures of their own culture. Predictably, Barzini finds the idea of la dolce vita a myth. But who doesn't--even Fellini's film which popularized the term (and produced four years before Barzini's study went into publication) was a satire of the idea of the "good Italian life." But Barzini's "source" for such a myth is interesting, in that he never actually tries to persuade that there is no such thing as la dolce vita. In fact, he swears by its existence--that is, the existence of a facade of a good life to hide the misery of a humiliated population. The over-reaching attempt at pleasing everyone, the unconscious need to dress in the most fashionable clothes, the over-wrought emotions of its paintings and operas are all products of a population that for centuries have been forced into submission by powerful neighbors, creating a squabbling society forced to fend for itself, mistrustful of those outside of its most immediate circle (i.e. the family). To the author, foreigners that have become deluded by this illusion are only victims of mistrusting Italians who, always mistrusting of the outside, puts up an inoffensive and always-pleasing facade to guarantee freedom from the hurt that the foreigners are capable of unleashing. Foreigners see Italy as "special" not because it is (he makes a good point about food: Italian food is good because it preserves the nature of the ingredients; French food is better because it is an art of manipulating food and controlling the "Nature" that it represents), or are treated specially because they are, but because it is too humiliating for Italians to show what has been swept up under their rug.

It's all very true. Just speak to an Italian who has been to another country, and that's all you hear: bad economy, idiotic politics, close-minded people, and restricting religious traditions. But make the mistake of agreeing, and you get in a world of hurt: we are the best in fashion, food, cars, art, music; our sunflowers are yellower and taller than Spain's; the alps are more dramatic here than in Austria; the Riviera is better here than in France; our ruins look more ruined than Greece's. But one questions Barzini's single-minded vision of history, with the future reacting to the past merely by repeating it. Spain, for example went through the same humiliation and almost fifty years of oppresive Facist rule. Yet, they come out of that traumatic experience with a completely different perspective: they threw themselves into the project of opening up to the rest of the world. The post-Franco Spain (which, based on Barzini's description, is as equally traumatic as post-war Italy) had to face the facade created by Franco of the unity of Spanish culture. Why did the Italians choose to maintain it? One can argue that the Spanish facade was easier to destroy because only Franco believed in it, but that simplifies the relationship a dictator has over his subjects--if he is in power, it is because consent was implied from the people's silence. And what do the Italians get from continuing the facade? Tourist money of course, but in the expense of a perpetually unstable government, an economy that is always on the verge of collapse, and a north-south dicotomy that has largely affected post-war Italian politics and will continue to affect Italian life and culture in the future. (In retrospect, making Barzini consider the Spanish case is forcing him to have an accurate prediction of the future, with a book written in 1964 commenting on a collapse of a regime that happens more than a decade later.)

So in effect, Barzini paints a neat picture of what ails the Italian people, but also does a bit of brushing under the rug himself. A history of disunity, dislocation, and foreign subjection--especially when living in a present that is anything but--ultimately cannot fully explain why Italians continue to behave like people under siege. Were past events so traumatic that they really sealed the fate of Italians forever? Are Italians really too lazy to change their destiny? Or, as the essentialist in all of us would like to argue, "that is just the way they are."

Who the meantime, I have a spritz date with some friends. dolce vita.