Saturday, November 30, 2013

Arrivederci And Grazie Mille!

[Written on Thursday, November 28th.  Thanksgiving Day.] 

I can’t believe the day has come.  These 9 months are a blur.  I don’t know what to say to you loyal readers, so, while I sit hear in London Heathrow waiting for my connection to San Francisco, I’ll just give it to you straight. 

I did this trip expecting to have a blast.  I would not have done it if I’d thought otherwise.  I knew I’d see incredible art and architecture.  I knew I’d eat well.  I knew I’d drink a lot.  I knew I’d travel outside Rome to spectacular places.  I expected to hear wonderful music, and to see some beautiful landscapes and nature.  All of that happened.  That is not, however, what made this adventure so magical.  What I’m most going to remember is something else: the people.  

I did not expect the people.  The thing I did not anticipate was the people.  I did not see them coming.  I did not know that people everywhere – and especially in Italy – would be so warm, generous, welcoming, hospitable, helpful, and friendly.  I don’t know why, but I just did not know this.  It blew me away. 

I didn’t know that I’d meet a set of eclectic expats who live in Rome.  This dynamic group – American, Australian, Filipino, German, Turkish, etc. – helped me with 50,000 things.  Thank you for telling me where to eat, where to drink, what museums to visit, how to do laundry, where to go on trips, and how to deal with those daily frustrations of Roma.  Thank you for having me to your homes, and for introducing me to so many others. 

I did not know I’d get to hang out so often with a group of people who, like me, were in Rome short-term.  Thank you for telling me your stories and for sharing your time abroad with me.  I’ll always remember the incredible times we had, the struggles over which we commiserated about even temporary life in Italia, the piazzas, the museums, the walks, the talks, and all those nights drinking and eating together. 

One thing I did know was that, if anyone came from home to visit me, we would have fun.  But I did not know that they would really do it.  Getting to spend so much one-on-one dedicated time with Yonkel; Oomps & Irene; Bryan; Sam, Ronnie & Marc; Matt; and Anna & Danny was incredible.  It is so rare to get all that time together with great friends.  I had a ball with each of you, and I’m so glad you made the trip.  Likewise to all my friends, friends of friends, family, and former colleagues who were passing through Roma and met me for a drink or meal.  Seeing your familiar faces in an unfamiliar place was awesome. 

Of all of this, however, the thing that took me most by surprise was my Italian friends.  I keep hearing that Italy is in decline.  Some say it is a museum in itself – a collection of grandeurs past that is now fossilized.  That’s not what I saw.  Now, it may be that I saw a self-selected and narrow slice of the population.  I know that’s possible.  But the Italian people with whom I spent these 9 months are wondrous.  They are vibrant, creative, witty, and cultured.  They are interesting and interested.  Most of all, they are warm, welcoming, kind, and generous.  I know that all sounds hackneyed and clich├ęd.  But it is true.  I already miss them.  

Most of all, that I was able to develop such close friendships with my tutors Paola and Valentina moved me.  I guess we did not succeed in getting me to speak or understand much Italian – other than the sounds Italians make to characterize the noises that Italian farm animals make.  (See my November 24th video in the post about Assisi.)  But they taught me a lot about Italian culture and Roma, and they gave me selfless friendship – for me, that stuff was more valuable than learning to speak another language.  I owe them the biggest grazie milles of all. 

I guess my No. 1 take-away is this.  We live in world of immense cruelty and suffering.  They form a huge swath of the history of our species and they are relentless.  (Before some of you get too excited, this is true of all other species too.  We are not unique.)  Evidence of such suffering exists all over Roma (and any other place you visit), and news of additional atrocities stun us each day.  But, after 9 months in Italy, France, Spain, Croatia, Turkey, Montenegro, and Finland, I was struck most by the other side of the coin.

I was repeatedly overwhelmed by the kindness that I received.  There were of course occasional road-bumps; every once in a while, someone would clearly try to rip me off.  But, wow, that was the exception.  In upwards of 98% of my interactions, I found that other people are willing to – and want to – help.  They want to share.  They want to connect.  They want to laugh, eat, and drink together. 

Maybe I just got lucky.  I doubt it.  As someone who can at times be a cynical skeptic, this took my breath away.  It reminded me of the closing line in Woody Allen’s Manhattan:  "You have to have a little faith in people." 

*          *          *

If you’ve been reading from the beginning, then you know that these 9 months have been the time of my life.  I have had the best year imaginable, filled with one fantastic experience after another.  And, so, on Thanksgiving, let me close this manifesto by thanking you all – the readers. 

To everyone who sent me even a single text or email, and to those of you who spoke or FaceTimed with me even once, thank you.  Your travel tips, your hellos, your jokes, and just your names lighting up on my phone or computer meant the world.  They grounded me and made me smile.  They reminded me of all the great things and people at home.  Because of you, I was not lonely for even due minuti while I spent 9 months traveling on another side of Earth. 

*          *          *

I’m not sure what will happen with this blog going forward.  We’re still in talks with management about that.  Please check in once or twice in the near future.  We will have at least another few postings in the near-term.  After that, who knows? 

Arrivederci.  Grazie mille.  Ciao, ciao, ciao.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

To Roma, Con Amore

I'm not sure I can come up with the words to express how much I've loved these past 9 months.  I will certainly try.  For now, however, I give you this.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Some Old, Some New

Some promised pics of Spoleto and Assisi (at night).

 In addition, Paola, Armando, and I went yesterday to what is easily one of the most peculiar churches in Roma.  The Dives in Misericordia (or Church of 2000) is in the Tor Tre Teste eastern suburb of Rome.  The American architect Richard Meier designed the church.  He won a competition in 1996, and the church was completed in 2003 -- in other words, this church was built just slightly more recently than most churches in Roma.  And, let me tell you, the Dives in Misericordia has just a tad more of a modern look than most of the other churches in Roma.

I don't know what else is in this part of Rome, and if this church alone warrants a visit on your next stay to the Tor Tre Teste area.  But if you like modern architecture, you should think about it.  It is beautiful.  (We covered another Richard Meier work in Roma on August 6th.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Assisi + Language Lesson = Sensational Sabato

I went yesterday for my final day-trip.  Paola, Valentina, Xeno, and I went to Assisi (with a stop in Spoleto) for the day.  It was a spectacular time.

You may know this already, but Assisi is a town in the Umbria region that has had a resurgence of importance and popularity recently.  Assisi was the home of St. Francis (Santa Francesco) of Assisi.  (Go figure!)  The new Pope took his name from St. Francis -- and he is the first Pope to go by Francesco.  The name that a new pope takes is supposed to tell you something about the new pontiff's philosophy, and this has been true in spades for Papa Francesco.  St. Francis was known for stressing the importance of poverty, mercy, humility, and joy.  That is so far what Pope Francis is all about.  

I will post some pics from Assisi and Spoleto later on.  I have to run now to go see a musical production of Romeo e Giulietta.    

For now, I'll leave you with this: there were some roadblocks yesterday.  The trains did not cooperate at all.  Every one we needed was late.  This led to some extra time on the road -- which, to be honest, I did not mind at all.  I am going to miss Paola, Valentina, and Xeno a ton; getting the extra time with them was a bonus!  

In any event, Paola and I took advantage of the delays to do a little impromptu language lesson.  Since so many of you have asked how my Italian is going, I thought I'd post a slice of our lesson here.  This will give you an idea of the remarkable progress I've made.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Read This Book....Especially When In Rome!

You know how I feel about fine art.  I was not always the biggest fan.  But I've made strides on this score, and -- in contrast to my failings with regard to Italian language -- my art knowledge and appreciation have increased dramatically.

Even before this year, however, I always had a thing for Caravaggio.  I've always found his paintings to be just so damn dramatic.  They have always grabbed me.  Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon is a superb biography of Caravaggio.

The book not only provides excellent explanations about Caravaggio's most significant masterpieces.  It also offers a pretty gripping account of the painter's life, and all the turmoil and dark events in his life. I'm actually not done with the book yet, but I'm 90% done and have no qualms about recommending it. The thing you have to do, moreover, is to read it the next time you're in Roma.

For one thing, many of Caravaggio's classic paintings are in Rome.  Many of them are in fact in churches in the center of the city, where they are free and available for viewing every day.  It is amazing to be reading about one of Caravaggio's finest, and to then take a 5-minute walk to the very church that houses the painting.  It really enhances the reading.

On top of that, Caravaggio lived an incredibly interesting (and short) life that was full or sordid details.  Graham-Dixon describes lots of the most intriguing events and writes about the streets of Rome where the events took place.  The streets are still around today, and most of them are in the center.  You can picture so much more about the dramatic events in Caravaggio's life when you see and understand the geography of where the events took place.

So, I recommend this book.  But I especially recommend reading it during your next trip to Rome.  (It helps too if you're here for several months -- the book is long.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mission Accomplished: My Papal Audience

One of the few remaining things on my to-do list for Roma was to go to a Papal Audience.  These take place every Wednesday morning.  I finally did it yesterday -- nothing like waiting until the last minute.

I won't kid you about this: there were some obstacles.  For one thing, it's been raining a lot here recently.  And, the audiences require getting up pretty early.  Il Papa does not come out until around 9:00 or 9:30.  But, to meet up with your tour guide, or to get a decent seat on your own, you need to show up at St. Peter's by 7:30 at the latest.  That is an ungodly hour for me.  But I did it.  The sun, moreover, did it's job.  We actually got a few hours of blue sky and sunshine.  St. Peter's looked fantastic.

I was in a group of maybe 10 Americans, and our tour guide did a nice job of getting us seats.  We were pretty close to the action when Papa Francesco drove by on the Popemobile.  Twice.  We weren't quite close enough to touch him.  But we were not far away at all.

Overall, this was a great experience.  The Pope first welcomes groups who have made pilgrimages with from other parts of Italy, Europe, and the rest of the world.  Then bishops speaking English, Spanish, French, German, etc. recite some reading from the Gospels.   The Pope does it in Italian too.  And then he gives a sermon -- didn't understand much of it, but I heard him mention the Philippines and Sardegna (where there also was massive flooding and carnage two days ago).   I recommend doing this.  You gotta plan ahead though.  You can't just show up.  You need tix.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Your Favorite Feature: Film Reviews!

Yes, it's time for movie reviews again -- one of our consistently most popular types of posts.  Today, we have an added bonus: two reviews.  One is a Fellini movie, and one is by Sergio Leone.  You should rent one of them right away, while I think you should take a pass on the other.  Fellini is up first.

Amarcord (1973)

Fellini's Amarcord won the Oscar for best foreign film.  It was nominated for best direction and best original screenplay.  You should watch it and see why.

This is the third Fellini movie I've watched during my adventure.  The thing that amazed me so much about Amarcord is not that it was fantastic; it's that it was fantastic without being Felliniesque.  In other words, this is a relatively straightforward, linear, and simple story.  It is not surreal or astract or high-falutin' in any way.  (For some of you -- and you know who you are -- that is important!)

"Amarcord" means "I remember" in Italiano.  As I understand it, Fellini intended this be his homage to his small-town native city.  It takes place during the rise of Fascism in Italy in the '30s.  The story is basically a year-in-the-life of this small town.  There are lovable and eccentric characters throughout.  The children are going through puberty, and trying to have fun, navigate around school and their church, and deal with their parents.  The adults are trying to deal with their children, their spouses (or lack thereof), their jobs, the church, and the local politics.  In other words, Amarcord is just about normal life.  But it's wonderfully told, funny, poignant, and absolutely charming.  Watch it and feel nostalgia for your hometown -- and spend 2 hours smiling.  Guaranteed.

A Fistful of Dollars (Per Un Pugno di Dollari) (1964)

As you know, I've been trying to watch the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns.  I loved The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and I liked Once Upon A Time In The West almost as much.  A Fistful of Dollars was the first of the Leone/Eastwood pics.  I'm sorry to say that I did not care much for this one.

Maybe it's because this was the first of the Leone/Eastwood spaghetti western collaborations.  Maybe Leone's style was still evolving.  But this one did little for me.  All of these movies are quite spare when it comes to dialogue and even to action.  They are slow.  But the other ones I'd watched have real dramatic tension and some brilliant wit.  I didn't find much of either element in A Fistful of Dollars.  It seemed a little primitive.

I will still probably give the second Leone/Eastwood/Morricone effort (For a Few Dollars More) a watch.  But I cannot recommend this one.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Final Thoughts On Helsinki

My few hours strolling around Helsinki on Saturday cemented my view that Finland's capital is a remarkably wonderful city.  A bonus was that Saturday was Restaurant Day -- something that happens I think 4x per year, where anyone can open up a little pop-up restaurant and sell whatever they want.  (I think this happens worldwide (see, although it seems to be especially popular in Helsinki.)  In practice, it appeared to me like this is mostly about having a whole bunch of food stalls distributed around town, in particular at parks.  I saw lots of Vietnamese food, a handful of Turkish stands, and lots of Finnish dessert purveyors.  It was great.

Speaking of food, I know I mentioned previously how much I loved the food in Helsinki.  But I don't think I've mentioned the Karl Fazer cafe/bakery.  Wow!  I think this is a Helsinki institution, and I get the impression that it is like this city's Fauchon or Zabar's.  I ate breakfast there on 3 of my 4 mornings, and I loved each meal.  They have awesome desserts and delish Finnish fish snacks.  The place just looks good too.  I bet it is especially stunning at Christmas time.  Don't miss this place if you're in Helsinki.

I said this before, but my goodness the architecture in Helsinki was fantastic.  Some of Saturday's sights:

I would love to go back someday, both to Helsinki and to see other parts of Finland.  And these 4 days really make me want to get to Stockholm and Copenhagen and Reykjavik.  ASAP.

This was obviously a WWII memorial.  I could not understand any of it -- in the Finnish or any other language.  But I distinctly saw some Hebrew on this monument.  If you look closely, you can make it out.  If anyone knows what this says, shoot me a line.  Grazie.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Stranded [UPDATED]

Long-time readers know what kind of struggle this 9-month journey has presented.  I have had to overcome burden after burden, and hurdle after hurdle.  It has been one long slog.  The latest occurred today when I was forced to battle through an extra 24 hours in Helsinki.  Yes, when I was trying to do my on-line check-in this morning before hurrying through a last few hours of sight-seeing, I learned that FinnAir pilots and flight attendants were on strike.  There were hundreds of flights cancelled, including the 4:30 to Roma.  Can you believe my luck?!?!?  I am cursed!

But I made the best of it.  Another wonderful day in Helsinki.  I first took a short ferry to Suomenlinna Sveaborg, which is Finland's centuries-old naval fortress and Helsinki's only UNESCO sight.  I would not in the end characterize this as a "must-see" in Helsinki, especially if you're here in the late fall or winter when most buildings on the islands seem closed.  But it was still interesting to stroll around and look at the landscape, the barracks, and the houses.  The colors in particular were nice.  The seclusion was peaceful too: a 25-year-old Japanese woman and I basically had the island to ourselves.  She spoke little English.  She was, however, able to quite helpfully point out that her parents were also 46.....

Then it was off to the Design Museum.  This is a gem.  The exhibits here really show off the amazing Finnish talents for design in furniture, house ware, electronics, etc.  A visual delight.  (Photos were only allowed in one exhibition -- and it was not the best one.)  


A perceptive reader in California asks what F. Scott Fitzgerald has to do with Finland.  I'm not sure there is any literal -- or literary -- connection.  But one of the temporary exhibitions at the Design Museum focused on the impact that font design and book covers had on readers.  The Fitzgerald books are I think intended to be exemplary.  So was the following book, which is my favorite novel of all-time.


I also enjoyed another fantastic meal and a couple more outstanding cocktails, including at the world-class bar A21.  More and more, with time, I've enjoyed just walking around this city.  The Christmas lights are only now beginning to come out, and the official Christmas celebrations do not start here for a couple of weeks.  I can only imagine how marvelous Helsinki looks then.  I'm just getting a taste now.

FinnAir has me booked on a return flight tomorrow evening to Rome.  That gives me a little time on Saturday before I'm off to the airport.  But, in the back of my mind, although I'm packing as if I will be heading to the airport, I'm kinda hoping that.........   Go Labor!!!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Now I Know How Mercury Feels

Not this Mercury:

This one:

I went today to the last remaining public sauna in Helsinki.  What an experience.  Once I got over the confusion and fear based on a complete lack of understanding as to how the ritual is supposed to play out -- what to do, where to go, etc., etc. -- and once I got over the shock of hanging out naked with 15 naked 65-year old Finnish guys, I had to confront the heat.  The intense unbelievable oppressive inferno that blazed through the sauna room.

The room is weird enough as is.  It's bare except for the rows of benches along 3 walls that escalate up on each wall.  The guys are sitting on the benches stark naked discussing who knows what.  It sounded to me like they were debating points from the Talmud -- but that seems unlikely given the Finnish they were speaking.  My point is that the environment is already surreal.  And then there is the heat.

The woman at the front told me that they start the day with the sauna rooms at 120 degrees.  (From the feel inside, I think she meant Celsius.)  The rooms then cool slightly as the day goes on.  She said that the room was likely 110 degrees when I showed up.  The guys, moreover, kept throwing water onto the oven in the room to create more steam and to raise the temperature a little.  I would have protested if I was conscious.

Yes, I seriously teetered on the edge.  Came within a hair of fainting.  I didn't want to cave by walking out too soon.  I thus kept pushing it and remained in the sauna even after my friends went out to cool.  But when I finally stumbled out to douse myself under a cold shower, I had to grab onto the wall a couple of times.  The only way I fought off the light-headedness was through the sheer willpower that fear can create: there's no way I wanted to have these 15 naked Finns pull me off of the floor in a naked heap!  I have some dignity!!

Today was a fantastic second full day even outside of the sauna.  Ate a reindeer steak for dinner.  (It was tasty -- but a little chewy.)  Went to a nice "Rock Church" that was quite serene and beautiful.  I also continue to be impressed by the architecture and style of Helsinki.