Sunday, September 14, 2014

At Home In Rome: The Love Affair Continues

You might think that an 8.5-day visit to Rome would not excite me much.  You might think that, after last year’s 9-month fantasy trip, I would not have that much to see – or that I’d be immune to the city’s charms.  You might wonder whether I’d get bored by walking through the same neighborhoods and seeing the same sights.  If you thought any of those things, you could not have been more wrong.  My heart sang for the past 9 days.  Just driving from the Fiumicino airport to the city center – and getting close to my Campo de’ Fiori apartment – was ridiculously exciting. 

The first impression I can report is that – even after so many times – Rome’s beauty still blew me away.  The major sights are still awesome.  The Colosseum still knocks me out, Piazza Navona still dances with energy, the Pantheon is still perfection, Piazza del Popolo’s majesty still impresses, Caravaggio and Bernini still grip your eyes and cast their spells, walking along the Tiber still feels like magic, and St. Peter’s presence still commands. 

St. Peter's in the background
Piazza Navona on a cloudless day
A late summer evening along the Tiber
The best espresso in town
And for me at least, familiarity has vanquished any trace of contempt.  I understand the pleasures of wandering in a new city.  I appreciate the fun of getting lost and struggling to find your way on a first visit somewhere.  But I have to say that, at least on this trip, knowing Rome so well enhanced this trip by orders of magnitude.  Knowing the city like I do was wonderful.  I loved being able to find exactly the espresso I wanted, how to get right to the church I wanted to see, and how to find my friends for one of the day-trips that we did.  Feeling at home in Roma – and even on three occasions randomly running into old friends (Toni, Silvia, Antonio) while walking around – flat-out rocked!

But I also found time for a couple of excursions to places I’d never gone.  On my first day, still groggy from jet lag, I went with Paola, Armando, Valentina, and Xeno to Ostia Antica.  I always wanted to go there, but this was my first time!  It’s worth a visit.  Ostia was the port city for ancient Rome.  An incredible set of ruins from the old city still exists.  Touring the ruins with Xeno(pedia) is a treat – the guy knows everything!! 

At Ostia Antica
The remnants of an ancient synagogue at Ostia Antica.  I didn't see it mentioned in my guidebooks - but Xeno knew it was there!  It is believed to be the oldest synagogue in Europe - and the oldest one ever found outside of Israel.  
I also went with Kat and Francesco to Villa Pamphili – the biggest park in Rome.  Villa Pamphili s a little out of the way if you’re only hanging out in the center.  But it’s well worth the quick trip.  It’s vaster than Villa Borghese, and it’s not quite as manicured as Vila Borghese.  But this huge park does not have many tourists, so it feels much more like a Roman experience.  There’s a nice little cafĂ©/restaurant where you can sidt outside, and the villa itself is really grand.

Kelly, Giulio, and I also went for a day-trip to the medieval towns of Civita Castellana and Narni.  The latter in particular, which is in Umbria, was tremendous.  These towns are a pretty simple train ride away from the Tiburtina station.  Definitely consider going to Narni! 

Within the city itself, my new favorite sight is the Tempietto del Bramante.  This tiny commemorative tomb is considered a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance.  Some experts believe it was built in 1502!  It’s stunning.  Plus, it’s all the way up on the Gianicolo Hill (up above Trastevere), so it’s a bit beyond the hubbub of the center.  When I went there, I was the only one there.   

The other over-riding emotion on this trip was how incredible it was to visit this jewel of a city and to have friends there to see.  Being able to catch up with everyone was a joy.  It felt like way more than a vacation, and I feel very lucky.  How many places can you visit in the world where you can go into the best bar in town, and have the bartender call out your name?!?!?

OK, now I have to do some work - and plan my next trip.

With Federico at Barnum
With Sonia in Piazza del Popolo

Friday, July 18, 2014

Two Great Articles On Roma From This Week's NYT

There were two awesome pieces in this week's NYT about Roma.  They both made me long for my favorite city.

In the first, we hear about a fantastic dinner that President Obama had in Roma this past spring.  What a shame this didn't occur in March 2013.  If it had been just one year earlier, I'm sure I woulda been invited!

The Prez at the Colosseum
The second is a good report about the trend in Roma for private companies to pay for renovations at some of the city's most treasured sights.  This was a big deal last year, when there was a ton of work getting done at the Colosseo and the the luxury company Tod's was footing the bill.  It's happening at other sights too, and this article explains the issue.

Even with scaffolding, it can't be beat.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

Film fans like you probably know that, earlier this year, an Italian film won the Golden Globe and Oscar for best foreign film.  Even though I had not yet seen La Grande Bellezza at the time of either awards show, I was pulling hard for it.  It had been on my mind for almost a year.

Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza was the talk of the town last year in Rome, and I really wanted to see it.  The film is set in Roma and it was reportedly shot beautifully.  There was a ton of buzz about the way that Sorrentino depicts Rome and a particular part of Roman society: the well-heeled and indulgent upper class that parties constantly and revels in its nihilism and narcissism -- in other words, the precise social set in which I ran during 2013.  (Not really!)  But everyone was talking about it, several friends told me I should see it, and I desperately wanted to do so.  Alas, La Grande Bellezza was never playing in Roma with subtitles or dubbing in inglese.  I thought I'd struck pay dirt when a good friend in Rome got me the DVD shortly before I left.   But even that was a false alarm, as I could never get the European-formatted DVD to play on my computer or DVD player.  So, I waited.

The Great Beauty is now available in the U.S. on DVDs formatted for our devices.  I've watched it twice.  The experience was moving for me, and so I needed to share with you some of my thoughts and reactions.

For starters, what you've heard is true.  This movie is a visual wonder.  The shots of Rome, including its ruins, are marvelous.  The decadent party scenes and Jeb Gambardella's apartment -- which overlooks the Colosseum -- are stunning.  Jeb's clothing, as well as the attire worn by his friends and cohorts, is unbelievable.  The Great Beauty is an optical feast.  

Something that surprised me, however, was the film's overall existential theme and story line.  To my mind, one thing shared by most Italian movies that have become hits here over the past few decades is that they have been relatively linear, light-hearted, and literal.  They are great movies that I unqualifiedly love, but they are easy to watch.  Think of Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, and Life Is Beautiful.  (OK, the subject of La Vita e Bella (Life Is Beautiful) is not exactly light.  But the story is direct and linear and in no way opaque.)  La Grande Bellezza is not like that.  The main character Jeb Gambardella, who is played marvelously by Toni Servillo, has just turned 65.  He is undergoing an existential crisis, where he questions the life of decadence and debauchery he has led for the past 30 or 40 years as the doyen of Rome's partying socialite class.  The film is, almost from start to finish, far from an easy watch.  So, if you expect a light and literal story that is simple to follow and digest, you will be disappointed.

In terms of influences, I also had a couple of reactions.  Given its grand sweep and its focus on Rome's night-life and visual splendor, many critics compare La Grande Bellezza to Fellini's La Dolce Vita.  I can see that.  It's hard not to.  But I actually thought more of another Fellini classic.  Because they both have an unforgettable protagonist who is a creative type suffering through a crisis of doubt and reflection, I heard echoes of 8-1/2 in La Grande Bellezza.  Either way, strains of Fellini clearly run through Sorrentino's masterpiece.

What I did not expect was to feel reminders of my favorite American film of the past 5 or 10 years.  I simply loved Terrance Malick's Tree of Life from 2011.  Although the movies on many levels seem miles apart, a couple of aspects from The Great Beauty totally made me think of Tree of Life.  As discussed, Sorrentino's movie is a feast for the eyes.  And what he and his cinematographer do for the eyes in The Great Beauty, Malick and his cinematographer do in Tree of Life.  It's true that 1950s rural Texas is not usually thought to be as beautiful as Rome, but check out these films and see what you think.  I believe they share a lyrical cinematography that serves their common theme about a grand search for meaning in life.  The similarities, moreover, were not merely visual and thematic.  Music too.    When we are not spending time listening to the thumping beats of the music played at Jeb's all-night parties, La Grande Bellezza's score contains more classical and spiritual pieces that soar.  These too brought Tree of Life to mind.

I cannot finish my review without a few more comments on Jeb.  I might now have a new all-time favorite movie character.  Gambardella is glib and sarcastic.  He is nonchalant and brilliant.  He is biting.  When watching him and listening to him, one legendary film character kept coming to mind: Rick Blaine.  If La Grande Bellezza were an American film made in the 1940s, Humphrey Bogart would have played Jeb Gambardella.  But Toni Servillo more than holds his own.

Finally, it's true that I had to watch The Great Beauty twice to really love it.  By adjusting your expectations a little, maybe this review will help you love it even on a first viewing.  In the end, I found it surreal.  This is partly because it brought me home to my favorite city, and made me long for its look, feel, and spirit -- as well as its people.  That said, one huge question lingers: where was this Roma when I spent 9 months there?  How did I miss this?????

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Californian Cannoli Contest

Did you know that there is a Little Italy in San Jose?  I didn't either.  But my new friends Angela and Augustine Buonocore told me last week that, not only is there such a place, but that there'd also be a cannoli contest taking place there on Tuesday, May 6th.  No way I could miss this!

It was great.  I haven't had this many cannoli in months, and I had to taste them all.  There'd otherwise be no way to make an informed vote.  In the end, Angela and Augustine won.  The people spoke, and they voted La Biscotteria's cannoli as number 1!!  (I only voted once -- this was in San Jose, not Napoli…..)  

La Biscotteria's display
Another contestant

Slim pickin's if you arrived late - not that I would do such a thing.
Angela (in pink) accepting her award!
Congrats to La Biscotteria!  If you're in Palo Alto, etc., and want cannoli or sfogliatelle (the famed pastry from Napoli) -- or if you want literally the most fantastic biscotti you've ever tasted -- give them a visit!  They are on El Camino in Redwood City.

Saturday, April 12, 2014