Monday, October 31, 2005

Entirely the Wrong Witch

La Befana, Babbo Natale, and the shifting focus of Christmas traditions in Italy

It is around 9pm on the last day of October, All Hallow's Eve. Back home, in America, it is Halloween, and everywhere kids are looking forward to the end of the school day when they can dress up and hit the streets to fill pillowcases with candy begged from the neighbors.

Here in Venice, it is simply October 31, the day before the Feast of All Saints. In Italy, the time to play dress-up isn't for another four months and the moveable feast of Carnevale, that Fat Tuesday of partying before Ash Wednesday ushers in the 40 austere days of Lent.

So why is it that the pizzeria I just left is packed with babbling kids, their faces smeared with makeup, pointy hats on their heads and gauzy or silky capes tied at their necks? Why did the marble fountainhead on Campo Santa Maria Formosa have a gaggle of costumed youths sitting upon it, laughing and eating candy?

What, in short, the Hell is Halloween doing in the very capital of Carnevale?

(Before you get confused: Yes, this story really is about Christmas; Halloween is just the setup.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Good Night, Sleep Tight...And That's All

I'm a confirmed one-star hotel man.

I get a quirky, self-satisfied thrill every time I snag a railroad narrow room with creaky wood floors, a wobbly chair and table rejected by a finer hotel back in 1963, a bare 20-watt bulb dangling on its wire from the ceiling, and a bathroom down the hall I have to share with the rest of the floor.

Good night

I downright revel in my thrift. I mentally lord it over people who can afford better hotels than this one-star in Ravenna. In fact, I picture the poor saps shelling out three or four times as much for a room with TV and minibar in the three-star joint around the corner, and I think: suckers!

Sure, they don’t have to put on pants and grab their keys every time they want to nip out to the bathroom, but I look at it this way: I could stay here for three or four nights at the price they're paying for one. (I say "could stay" because I can't; I've got to dash off to Modena tomorrow, Parma the day after that, then Milan... more than one night in a city is a luxury we working stiff travelers cannot afford.)

I stand here in my gloriously drab one-star hotel room, stripped to my undies, smugly washing my clothes in the sink (even rooms without baths in Europe usually have a sink).

As I round-robin my camera, Palm, laptop, and cellphone battery chargers though the single outlet available, I reflect on my wisdom for preferring one-star hotels—"wisdom" sounding so much better than the slightly more accurate term, "poverty." I am one who appreciates that a comfy bed is all one really needs from his lodgings; anything more is downright slothful. Or maybe avaricious. One of the Deadly Sins, at any rate.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Bologna the Fat

A walk through the culinary side of Bologna—street markets, specialty food shops, pasta boutiques—plus cooking classes and a killer recipe for traditional tagliatelle al bolognese

Coils of tagliatelle, tagliolini, fettucine, and other freshly made pastaCoils of tagliatelle, tagliolini, fettucine, and other freshly made pasta Every Italian region is justifiably proud of its own cuisine—considers it in fact to be the best in the whole world. But ask any Italian to name just one region, one region in all of Italy, that's known above all for its culinary prowess and he'll admit: it's Emilia-Romagna.

In Modena they make the world's best balsamic vinegar; in Parma the best aged sheep's cheese (parmigiano) and cured ham (prosciutto di Parma). And the regional capital? Ah, you must mean Bologna the Fat.

Bologna is the birthplace of tortellini—little rings of pasta stuffed with savory meats and gooey cheeses. This is the land that invented the ragu sauce atop tagliatelle alla Bolognese. The local cured meat named mortadella remains so wildly popular the world over (particularly in school lunches) that most culture call it simply "bologna"—or, if you prefer, "baloney."

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Up the Blue Grotto without a paddle...or a boat

An ill-advised swim into the famed Blue Grotto of Capri

It's the seventh wave that'll get you.

Oceans and seas across the world all craft waves the same way. They come in a simple sequence: each wave is larger and more powerful than the last. This sequence builds in a set cycle: the number of waves in each cycle is seven.

And it's the seventh wave that'll get you.

Counting waves

I've been counting waves for a good ten minutes now, and my arms are aching from hanging off the precipice so long, peering into the darkness of the tunnel. Is it my imagination, or is the sea getting rougher? I know the sun is getting lower and lower, and I can't hang around forever—nor, for that matter, can I hang on all that much longer, physically.