Monday, December 18, 2006

Buone Feste a Tutti!

At Home in Rome is going on a holiday hiatus, so see you next year!

Thanks for making my new experiment in blogging this year such a delightful success, and grazie for sharing in my adventures and observations. I'm sure that 2007 will provide us with many more of these "behind the scenes in Rome" moments.

While you're enjoying your eggnog, why not browse some of these holiday treats?
Or, if you're new around here, take a look some of my most popular posts:

Rome as I See It
A.k.a., what Roman gladiators do on their coffee break

Charcoal, Propane Tanks, and Soccer Balls
Meet Ascenzo, probably the oldest man in my neighborhood, still going strong

Maybe You Shouldn't Do As the Romans Do

A lively discussion over an American writer's field day with Italian stereotypes

Priest of the Month
No, the Vatican has not contacted me on this one...yet

The Cofffee With Three F's
Get a caffeine fix just by looking at your screen

Fabio, my bionic supercousin
It's all in the family


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Crib Street

Let one thing be said for Italy at Christmastime: these people love their nativity scenes. So much so that I would go as far as to say that a nativity scene, known in Italian as presepe and sometimes by the French word crèche, is more common than a Christmas tree in many Italian homes.

The scene can be as simple as a little manger, to very elaborate, with moving figures, lights, mini-waterfalls—the works.

Something you’ll notice if you see a presepe in a home before Christmas is that the baby Jesus isn’t actually in the nativity scene—he makes his appearance in correspondence with his birth, ie, Christmas Eve. Placing the baby Jesus in his crib is a task usually entrusted to a child in the house and is a big event!

Probably nowhere is more famous for this tradition than Naples, where every year you can wander Via San Gregorio Armeno and be transported to a world of nativity scenes and all the fixin’s you’d ever need to make the most elaborate presepe you can dream up (hence "Crib Street") . On my recent day trip, we wandered onto this street purely by accident, and I discovered that it’s next to impossible to come out on the other end empty-handed. We bought a birthday present for a friend of ours who collects pieces (only from Naples though—he’s a “presepe snob”) for his presepe, which is quite impressive and gets more so every year. I also couldn’t resist parting with €4 to buy a kit for playing Naples bingo, with wooden markers and illustrated cards. Naples has a fascinating tradition that revolves around symbols and their associated numbers (which can then be used to play the lottery), which I would like to take up in a future post.

Something I think is also interesting to point out is that the presepe doesn't necessarily have to have a religious theme. Some presepi can simply represent country scenes or village scenes. I'm not sure if the baby Jesus is actually obligatory in these types of Italian presepe...does anyone know?

Well, as Dick Callaway, mayor of St. Albans, West Virginia, said: "It's not easy to put a light-up representation of a baby in a small manger scene, you know."

So for now let’s just wander down Via Gregorio Armeno and the surrounding area and see what we can come up with.

It's a pretty crowded streetkeep an eye on your belongings!

There's a Bambino Gesù for every style and every budget

The lady seated on the left is freelancing it with a stall just off of Crib Street

The foundation for the presepe can be quite detailednotice the lights inside

A fun part of the tradition is adding on new pieces each year—the possibilities are endless

Of course it wouldn't be Naples without a little of that Neapolitan ingenuity. Every year some of the most memorable moments of the year are transformed into presepe figurines. Remember this one? Something to do with a sister?

If you want to read more about presepi, here's an article from My pal Avery, another americana a Roma, also wrote about her take on this Italian tradition here.

I probably won't be able to get around to writing a post this year about the living nativity scene at St. Peters. But here's an article about this year's tree, the tallest ever. And here is some more information about where to see presepi in Italy.

Do any of you set up a presepe for Christmas? I don't have one but I'd like to start one day when we have children. I think it must be a fun tradition for them and for families to do together.

What are your Christmas, or holiday season, traditions?

Friday, December 15, 2006

C'è Posta Per Me!

That means "I've Got Mail!"

Yes folks, my first of two City Swap packages arrived today. So excited! I don't have a lot of faith in the Italian postal system, although I really have only had one little "episode": a package where someone ate one Godiva chocolate from a mini box and left the other 3 untouched (thanks, Signore or Signora Postal Worker! Although I suppose I shouldn't be so biased. I mean, I can't prove that the Godiva-eater wasn't in the States. But, based on all the funny Italian mail stories I've heard, my money's on Italy.) Why do I get two packages, you ask? Because we ended up with an odd number, so I took two buddies. Twice the fun.

This package made it all the way from Indiana, and it was from Rachael over at Rainbow Fish. Quite appropriate seeing as how one of my presents was, in fact, rainbow-colored fish:

Seems that a place called Mundt's is the "Sole Manufacturer of Madison's Famous Fish Candy." There's a cute little "fish tale" on the label that explains the history of the candy and why it is indeed famous.

The popcorn is from The Sweet Kernel, and is definitely yummy, a mix of caramel corn, chocolate clusters, and walnuts. It's already half gone, in case you're wondering.

I loved this quirky magnet from Rachael's "favorite greasy spoon," which is now attached to the panel on the back of my stovetop, since I have a weird fridge door that strangely is NOT magnetic (how un-American, yes, in fact, how very Italian, where the refrigerators are disguised to look like cupboards). Rachael is a college student and this little addition to my package reminded me of a few beloved haunts from my college days as well (Flagstaff, AZ): Mrs. Brown's Burger Bar and Mike and Rhonda's (aka "The Place"). Mmmmm, greasy spoons, me likey!

Another fun touch were two copies of her college newspaper. Again, brings back memories as I worked for nearly four years in advertising at my college newspaper, The Lumberjack. Yes, people, that was our mascot---so?!? Got a problem with that? You're not laughing, are you? Stop! I can see you! If you really must know, we were all quite proud of Louie in his blue and yellow suspendered get-up.

All in all, a very fun surprise and pre-Christmas present. Jingle all the way!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ten Things I'll Never Understand About Rome

If you've been reading my blog for a little while, then you've probably noticed that my observations often tend to be of the curious, "why?" type. I can't help it. When I see certain things here, I am always asking myself this question and trying to uncover the answer.

Nine times out of ten, with a little detective work, I manage to get it all figured out. But for that inevitable 10th time, I decided to hammer out a list of ten Ask Yourself Why's: things about Rome I'm not sure I'll ever truly get to the bottom of. There are lots of possible answers to these ponderings, but so far, nothing I'd call definitive.

So without further ado, I invite you to join me on my quest to answer the following questions. All this demanding to know why might come across as just a tad bit militant, but you know that in the end, I really do love the quirkiness of it all.

Here we go then:

1. Why does my bank open at 8:30 am, close at 1:50 pm, reopen at 2:35 pm and close again after just 40 minutes at 3:15 pm?

2. Why do the transport workers almost always strike on Fridays? And what are they really striking for? And why do they warn us in advance? And why do they generally stop striking for an hour or two in the morning and the evening to let the workers commute?

3. Why does the pharmacy have to wrap up all my purchases in tissue paper, as if they were Christmas gifts? I mean, it's just a box of Bandaids, for God's sake, and there's all these old women staring at me! And while we're on the topic, why do I have to ask a pharmacist for a box of Bandaids? Why can't they just put them out on the shelf? Are they afraid people will steal them? Do they think that purchasing Bandaids requires a pharmaceutical consultation? (And why on Earth do they not teach you the word for Bandaid in your Italian classes??) Yes, I know that the supermarkets here have Bandaids now. But I'll never forget this episode, because it was my first encounter with an Italian pharmacy nearly six years ago. Bless their hearts.

3a (because I like the #3 so much I accidentally put it in twice...thanks for spotting it, Gracie!). Why, when I'm crossing the road and a car comes dangerously close to hitting me, do I put out my hand? Do I think that my hand has superhuman powers that will stop the oncoming Roman driver from obliterating me? And why do they always manage to stop, even when it seems like it isn't humanly possible? (Facciamo le corna.)

4. Why is it that at nearly every intersection in the city, there's a small sign with an arrow telling me how to get to the Auditorium? In trying to research this one, I found this blog post in Italian asking the same question, insightfully pointing out that some of the absurd number of these signs are located nearly 20 kilometers from the Auditorium, which is quite a stretch, and they always have their trademark random little arrow. They don't really delineate any specific path, mind you. They just kind of say: "Hey! You there! Just wanted to remind you, the Auditorium is here in Rome, somewhere in the vicinity of right" (or left, or straight, as the case may be). The only thing is, the closer you get to the neighborhood where the Auditorium is actually located, the number of signs drastically decreases, while the distance between them drastically increases, effectively sending you into a panic wondering where to go if you truly wanted to get there in the first place. People, I'm telling you. If you come to Rome, make note of this. It's both hilarious and surreal.

5. Why do Italians insist on having so much food at a wedding, or at the traditional New Year's Eve dinner known as cenone (literally: the big dinner, where I once was glued to my seat for nearly 6 hours), or at a first communion lunch, and then complain, I mean really complain in a woe-is-me kind of way, that it's too much? And why is it though, that if you don't offer this much food, they criticize you behind your back for being cheap?

6. Why, OH WHY, do people ride around on their scooters with helmets on without the chin straps fastened? If you've already gone to the trouble of putting the thing on your head...I it that much of an inconvenience to just fasten the thing? Or do these people think that the protection factor of the helmet is found in simply placing it on their head, not in actually securing it so that it stays there should their head unexpectedly make contact with the pavement? I know they're just trying to avoid a ticket from the mandatory helmet law, but still...seems like a petty little act of defiance, IMHO (thanks for that acronym and the geeky tip, Finny!).

7. Why is it that when I'm waiting for a bus and it doesn't come for like a half hour or more, when it finally arrives, another one of the exact same number is driving right behind it? Thank you, Bruno Bozzetto, for feeling my pain on this one.

8. Why are public employees allowed to sleep on the job and no one says anything? Yes, yes, I am aware of the Italian phenomenon of "I can't ever be fired, so I'll proceed in doing whatever I want." But still...have we no personal dignity? When I went to get my Italian ID card, the man at the information desk snoozed the entire two HOURS I was there. ("Um, excuse me, don't want to interrupt your dream there or anything, but I was just wondering where to deposit this form?") I've also heard a few tales of employees sleeping under their desks in government offices, although I can't say I've seen it with my own eyes. Are these people staying up all night so they can catch up on their sleep once they get to work?

9. Why are Romans obsessed with exact change? Why do they get so mad when I use a €50 bill? Do they never go to the bank? Is there a national change shortage? Why do I have to go make change for them when I want to buy something? Why did a shopkeeper once refuse to sell me a €1 loaf of bread because all I had was a €20? Is it that hard to keep €19 of change in the register?

10. Why, when Roman tap water is considered perhaps the best in all of Italy, do they never serve it in restaurants? And why isn't there ever any ice?

Don't get me wrong, folks--I'm not complaining. In fact, like I said before, I do love these Roman mysteries. For me it's all part of the unique "charm" of my adopted city.

Are there things about where you live that make you wonder "why"?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Worth a Thousand Words

As seen from my window a few days ago at sunset...

Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.
—Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

First Stop on the Gelato Tour

Is everyone here? You, in the back, can you hear me? Ok, just follow me…see this red flag I’m holding, if you don’t see me, just look for that red flag. Right this way!

The Gelato Tour doesn’t have a long and storied history, but as time goes on I have no doubt it will. Sara, aka Ms. Adventures in Italy, is our fearless leader, and you can go on other tours here. I am one of your trusty tour guides for Rome, and while our first stop today isn’t necessarily my absolute favorite gelato place (there are so many and my true favorite isn’t that close to my house, so we’ll have to go there another day), it is definitely the winner in my book for sheer number of choices. I give you: Della Palma, just steps from the Pantheon, an area where there's quite a bit of competition for your gelato money. So it's a good thing you have a tour guide to help you wade through the Roman gelato jungle.

I took four shots of the glass cases of gelato here, and I still hadn’t covered all of them. It’s usually full of tourists, but I managed to stop by when there was hardly anyone, which was perfect for getting all my photographic evidence.

By the fourth or fifth shot though, the guy serving gelato was so amused that I decided I better order something.

I got the smallest cone, giving me a choice of two flavors, so I picked biscotto and Galak (a white chocolate named after a candy bar here). The biscotto tasted like cookies and cream, which I loved, because it isn’t that easy to find. The best thing about Della Palma is that if you have a favorite gelato flavor and you can hardly ever find it, chances are good that it’s here. I didn’t ask how many flavors they have or count, although a list on Fodor’s says one hundred (seems a strangely round number, but it’s probably pretty close).

One of the only drawbacks to this place is the fact that it’s a little pricey. I didn't write down the prices, but I think I paid €2.50 for a small cone, which is about 1 euro more than what I'm used to. Most of the places around the Pantheon are higher, because they obviously cater to tourists.

While we’re on the topic, be sure to look at the price list before ordering at shops in these touristy areas, and if there isn’t a price list displayed (although that’s technically against the law), be sure to ask how much a small cone, or a cone with the number of flavors you want, costs. Once one of my study abroad students told me that she was charged €5 for a small cone, and was only told the price after it was being held out to her, dripping. It’s a bit uncomfortable at that point to start arguing that you’re being ripped off. However, if that had happened to me, I would have told the guy thanks anyways and let him eat the gelato. As I always say, don’t be afraid to refuse things if you feel you’re being ripped off. A small gelato (meaning 2-3 flavors depending on the shop) should run you anywhere from €1.50 to €2.50. Even if its higher, it's OK so long as you know that's the price before you order. Pay first, or at least ask, then order.

In addition to “regular” gelato, Della Palma offers variations on the theme, like mousse in several flavors (though only available in a cup, not a cone, because it doesn't have the same consistency as gelato). It’s also a candy store, so could be a good place to pick up some goodies for friends and family, or just for yourself.

Something I love about Italian gelato shops is how they randomly place objects representing the flavor in the middle of the tub. I used to wonder: ooooh, who's the lucky duck that gets that in their cone? Just imagine if this landed in the middle of your cone of cappuccino flavor gelato:

Hey, check me out, I'm going to try to be all artistic-like and take a shot of my half-eaten gelato in its natural environment of the Pantheon:

And I’m not the only one who likes this place.

As we wind up today’s visit, I’d like to have you take a look at Fodor’s list of the best gelato in Rome. First, I can assure you that my favorite gelato place is not on the list, and that’s because it’s not touristy. And I can also assure you that, in my highly unbiased opinion, it truly is THE best gelato in Rome. In a future visit I will be happy to take you there—it’s in a big neighborhood and not that hard to reach with public transport. Meanwhile, feel free browse the others on the list and try to guess which, if any, I’ll pick for future stops.

Della Palma
Via della Maddalena 20/23 (near the Pantheon)
Tel: 06/68806752

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Neighborhood Knife Sharpener

When I first moved to my neighborhood, every once in a while I would hear someone yelling some word at intervals. I thought it was a name, and this person was calling someone. It sounded like "OOOO TIIIII NOOOO!” I kept thinking: Tino, would you stop getting lost, for God's sake? But it kept happening, with a sort of regularity that I just couldn't make sense of. So I figured maybe it was a crazy person—I mean, how is it possible that the same person yells out the same name every week for the entire neighborhood to hear? As we say here when we have no idea about something: BOH.

One day when I heard it start up and Ale happened to be home, I said to him, “What IS that?”
He said, “Oh, that’s just the arrotino.”
“The WHAT?”
“You know, the guy who sharpens the knives.”

Um, ok. So, there’s this guy, you see. And he goes around my neighborhood to this day on Friday mornings, yelling out “AAA ROOOO TIIIII NOOOO!” in the apparent hope that people will come out of their houses with their knives for him to sharpen. I even read an article on Trastevere that says that people actually lower BASKETS from their windows, full of their knives to sharpen. Besides sounding quite perilous, is that not just a little too quaint, a little too nostalgic, even for my old-fashioned neighborhood? Is it possible?

In doing a bit of research for this post, I have come to learn that I am not the only one puzzled by this most mysterious figure. I myself have only actually seen him once. He rides around on a makeshift bicycle, and when there are knives to sharpen, he flips it over and turns the pedals with his hands to run the wheel that sharpens the knives.

I found some discussions in Italian about this and came up with two photos. Many of the Italians on the forums couldn’t believe that someone had actually captured a traditional arrotino in flesh and blood:

But folks, it doesn’t stop there. There is an even more high-tech version of the arrotino. Once when I understood Italian better, I was over at a friend’s house and heard something coming over a loudspeaker from outside. The piped-through-a-megaphone voice was shouting this: “Donne! E’ arrivato l’arrotino!” Basically it was a recorded voice yelling “Women! The knife sharpener has arrived!” My friends told me it was a classic thing that they had always heard as they were growing up. They said a car with loudspeakers tied to it would slowly drive around to announce "the arrival." They could all recite the recording by heart, word for word, which had me laughing. In fact, I found a hilarious yet very informative blog post that talks about this phenomenon, (unfortunately only in Italian), in which Mr. Diego tells us that the voice says the same thing and is the same man in ALL OF ITALY. It’s a recording and none of the Italians I found online seem to know who this famous man actually is. Does he really exist?

When I first heard it, I thought this whole recording was so incredibly, well, fifties. I mean, come on—did people really go outside to have this guy sharpen their knives? Yelling: "Women!" I’d never even heard of such a thing and was immediately intrigued.

I found an mp3/Flash video file that records the voice. It’s a funny article in Italian asking: Who is the Knife Sharpener? You can listen to it here (if you don't read Italian, click on "avanti" to go through the screens first, to get to the audio file. Even if you don't speak Italian, it's worth a look.) Here’s the translation (very loosely, as I did it myself) of what he says:

Women! The knife sharpener has arrived!
He sharpens knives, scissors, little scissors, silk scissors, prosciutto knives!
Women! The knife sharpener and umbrella repairman has arrived!
We fix umbrellas! The umbrella repairman, women!
We repair gas kitchens! We have replacement parts for gas kitchens!
If you have a gas leak we fix it! If your kitchen smokes, we take the smoke out of your gas kitchen! We work right away! Immediately! The knife sharpener has arrived!

In Mr. Diego’s post, he even mentions “my” arrotino here in Trastevere, one of the last of the traditional knife sharpeners. He asks if nowadays anyone really comes out of their houses with knives and umbrellas, and notes that the “gas kitchen” mentioned on the recording no longer exists. Yet, the omnipresent recording persists. Truth be told, many butchers still utilize this service, and the one time I saw my biking arrotino in action was when he was sharpening knives for the fruit seller in front of my house. These are the things that remind me that Trastevere is probably the only true village left in this big capital city, and I hope that enough people keep lowering baskets full of knives (slowly and carefully, of course, so as to avoid any unfortunate "mishaps") to have my arrotino pedaling along for many years to come.

So, another local mystery, somewhat solved...all that was missing was some evidence that I had actually seen an arrotino in action. Well, I guess the guardian angel of bloggers decided to smile down on me, because, although I had never actually seen one of these cars driving around before, only heard it coming from who knows where...just a few days after I wrote a draft of this post to publish later, I was walking down the street and I heard his native call! I felt like I was spotting an exotic animal on an urban jungle safari. I struggled with my camera: hurry, hurry, he's coming this way! And in the end, I got it. Not very exciting, I grant you, and I'm quite convinced that the arrotino himself thought I was either out of my mind or a very confused tourist (um, the Colosseum is THAT way) but still, proof that the elusive figure known as the arrotino does still exist. And his car's not all that shabby, either. Business must be good in the umbrella-repairing field lately. It is raining today, after all.

Hitler and the Pope 'bout that for a title?

Folks, it's simply that I've been tagged for my first meme. Get out your cameras, it's like my first trip to the prom, a bit of a blogger rite of passage, no? I was tagged by my lovely fellow expat and bloggy buddy Jessica, over at In Search of Dessert.

It asks me to pick the book nearest to me, turn to page 123, go to line 5 and copy the next three lines into my post.

Since my desk is right next to a bookshelf, this made for a difficult choice. So in keeping with my blog theme, I picked the first book I saw that related to Rome.

This is a book I bought with good intentions of reading, but still haven't gotten around to. These three lines aren't exactly promising me the lightest reading of my life. Here we go:

"argument the unacceptable claim of Italian Fascism over the totality of a citizen's life. The grotesque political realities of Fascism, however, were not rebuked. Within two or three years, the same constrained papal"

The book is Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell.

I have to "tag" three people. I don't even know if these people "do" memes, but here goes:

Finny (one of my few BFFs and the girl who inspired me to get blogging), Ebony and Ivory (one of my first "commenters" and bloggy buddies), and Avery, one of my fellow Rome bloggers and friends.

Cheers! And let's hope to God (no pun intended) that your books are a little more lighthearted than mine. Sheesh! Has anybody out there read this book? Should I leave it on the shelf?

My 15 Minutes of Virtual Fame

Ciao Mr. Sullivan!

I have no idea how you (or someone on your team) found my humble blog, but the number of hits I started getting once your blog linked here made me think my stat counter was broken. Quite an eye-opening and fun little experiment in the sheer power and reach of the Internet.

I guess everyone is entitled to their one Andy Warhol moment in the blogosphere, no?

Friday, December 08, 2006

One Day in Naples (Part 2)

Today we continue our walk around Naples, and the photo on the left has something unique in it...can you spot it?

As we were walking around I saw someone lower a blue plastic bucket from a window, then someone on the street either took something out or put something in, and the person in the window started pulling it back up.

And, before we go any further on this tour, I forgot to warn you: watch your step. There’s dog crap all over the streets. I even saw this sign on an apartment building:

It says:

Please take your dogs home to crap, because at my house there are children who want to live in a civilized manner!


(I’m just saying...)

So, as our mission is to get a photo of the floor of this church that's now a museum called the Capella di Sansevero, we head over. Not only are there menacing signs posted at about 6-inch intervals everywhere in the small chapel reminding you that NO PHOTOS ARE ALLOWED, there is a guard-to-visitor ratio of about 1:6, for the sole purpose of preventing said photographs. Still, we figure: are we not in Naples? Land of lawlessness? Land of devil-may-care behavior?

We immediately spot the subject of our photo and the entrance to the little room where it is located is, of course, guarded. As Ale enters, I kind of wander around, hoping to detract attention from our covert operation, but of course doing nothing of the sort, and probably looking more than slightly confused. The next thing I know, the entire room fills with a flash, and that telltale fake clicking noise the digital camera makes. Oh boy, let me tell you, was that guard ticked! But, once you’ve got the photo, what can they really do? After Ale got thoroughly scolded, we were free to leave.

Just for the record, here’s the picture:

Feeling triumphant after our act of defiance, and with our mission accomplished and the whole day ahead of us to just take in the city until our train leaves around 4 pm, we decide on a tour of Naples Underground. We ask directions, and as we go about our merry way, we come up against this:

I realize I could be considered fairly inconsiderate for having documented this poor guy’s struggle, but people, this was such an “only in Naples” moment for me, I had to get it. This truck on the left decided he needed to get by, but once he went for it, you would have been lucky to get a sheet of paper in between his truck and the parked car on the right. In fact, I got even more obnoxious, going so far as to try to make a little movie of it as well. We didn't have much else to do during the wait anyhow.

And just in case you’re wondering—the truck eventually backed up. I don’t really know what he did after that, but I do know that it was like a dam bursting, with about 15 people from each side of the road spilling into the space that suddenly opened back up.

At Naples Underground they tell us the first tour isn’t until noon, giving us about an hour to kill. We decide to wander around, and come across an entire LAND full of nativity scenes and all the trimmings for making your very own (Avery, take note!). So much good stuff there it will have to wait for another post.

Meanwhile, we sidle up to one of the many steaming glass carts that line the street. They’re all full of either pastries like you saw in part one, or pizza. Ale chooses a 6-inch round pizza and folds it in half. I go for a concoction called pizza fritta: you got it—fried pizza. Oh yes, it was just as greasy as it sounds, if not more. Let’s bring out the evidence:

Man, was that thing HEAVY! It was a huge pouch of fried bread, (nearly a foot long when flat, I'm not kidding) filled with ricotta, smoked provolone, and tomato sauce. I told myself I'd only eat half, but then when I got to the "surprise" filling in the middle, I went back on my promise and as a result I think I gained one kilo immediately. But it was worth it. One euro, folks. One kilo for one euro, not such a bad deal?

On to Naples Underground, which takes us down 40 meters (about 130 feet) below Naples, to the street level of the ancient Greeks. I highly recommend this 1.5 hour tour, which was informative and enjoyable and just under €10 per person. But I warn you, if you are claustrophobic, you might not want to do the part that I personally liked the best. At a certain point you enter this cavernous room and the guide starts lighting candles in ceramic holders. Everyone takes a candle and moves single-file into a narrow, I mean NARROW, underground passage without any lights, and this passageway goes on for a good couple of minutes. It was so narrow that at one point I had to turn sideways because my shoulders wouldn't fit without scraping the sides. Everyone got through fine though, and we were pretty astounded by the history of the place.

After our tour, we were ready for the holy grail of Naples (no pun intended, considering the topic of Ale’s book): pizza napoletana. According to this article, pizza was invented in Naples by the ancient Greeks, and the world’s first true pizzeria, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, opened in Naples around 1830.

For those of you who aren’t from Italy, don’t live in Italy, and/or have never been to Italy, a quick tutorial. Pizza in Italy is ordered according to types. There are many standard types such as margarita (cheese, tomato sauce and basil), diavola (cheese, tomato sauce and spicy pepperoni), fungi (with mushrooms). You don’t choose your toppings one by one, you choose the standard type you want. Everyone gets their own individual pizza, and they aren’t necessarily individually sized. I usually can’t finish a whole one. It covers your entire plate and you have to cut it into slices.

Naples pizza differs from Roman style because the crust is thicker and chewy instead of thin and crispy. Personally I prefer this kind, even though it’s a lot more filling.

Our favorite pizza place in Naples is called Lombardi a Santa Chiara (Via Benedetto Croce 54, closed on Mondays). We both got the margarita with mozzarella di bufala (an incredible mozzarella made with buffalo milk which is another speciality from the Campania region where Naples is located.)
Here's Ale, one more satisfied customer:

And the guys who make the magic happen:

After such indulgence, we just had to go over the top, so it was back to Scaturchio to have dessert. This time we got a babà, a traditional cake soaked with rum. I found a recipe here, and here’s what it looks like:

Naples enchanted me, on what was only my second visit to the city in five years. I know I will baffle many of you when I admit that I like Naples better than Florence. That’s because I tend to enjoy getting a feel for the people and the local lifestyle of a place, and when I visit Florence I always leave with the distinct feeling of having just visited a big amusement park. No offense to Florence or all of you wonderful expats who have made a life there; this is just my personal opinion. I think it probably comes from the fact that once you live in Italy you can be more selective about things like this, knowing you don’t have just “one chance” to pack in all the sights.

And as far as all those warnings go to “remove all your jewelry, don’t take your camera, etc. etc.” --at no point did I feel any more threatened by pickpocketing in Naples than I do in Rome. You need to use the same precautions you would in any big city.

Naples is a city that has a certain energy and soul that no other Italian city possesses, and once you get wrapped up in it—in the chaos, the mess, the excitement, the confusion—it will leave you with the unforgettable feeling of having peeked into down-home, street level Italian life. While I’d never live here, and while it clearly has a deep-rooted and incredibly complicated problem with an organized crime syndicate known as the Camorra (read Avery’s post from a while back), I can’t help but admire its unique character and resilience.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

One Day in Naples

I haven’t mentioned this before, but Alessandro has written a book that’s going to press in the next week or so. The book discusses symbolism related to the Knights Templar and the holy grail, but not in a Dan Brown kind of fictionalized way. It is based on his own personal research and discoveries he has made by studying a church in small town in the Abruzzo region called Bominaco, and his original theories of how this church not only connects to other important churches frequented by the Templars, but how it is perhaps one of the places the holy grail passed through, if not its final resting place.

Before going to press Ale needed one final photo, and it was for the cover, no less. It was a pattern on the floor in a Naples church called the Capella di Sansevero. The church itself has quite an interesting history, being as it was the chapel of a Baroque-era prince who was an alchemist and Grand Master of the Neopolitan Free Masons. Since we couldn’t find a photo in any book and Ale’s manuscript is going to press soon, we decided to take a day trip down to Naples. Besides our mission of getting the photo, there was sure to be the reward of a real Neopolitan pizza, something one should never pass up the chance for.

Well, not only did we accomplish our mission, we ended up having almost a mini-vacation for all the things we saw and did in just a one-day trip. I figured I would try my best in the next few posts to give you a taste of Naples as I see it.

When Ale told a colleague of his that he was going to Napoli, his colleague said, “Better make sure your passport hasn't expired!”

Oh, poor, battered Napoli. The butt of all jokes. Personally, I am fascinated by the place. I’m sure it has to do with a story I was told years ago by my Italian teacher, Anna, a Roman who has lived in Arizona for many years. She told me that when the mandatory seatbelt law came to Naples, the people started driving around with white T-shirts that had black stripes diagonally across them: painted-on seatbelts. You’ve gotta hand it to them for sheer ingenuity.

Our adventure starts at Termini station here in Rome, where we board the much-anticipated “Alta Velocità” or high-speed train to Naples. Inaugurated just a few months ago, the train is a bit of a laughingstock for the fact that it covers the first two-thirds of the route going 300 km/hour (about 186 mph), but for the last third when the high-speed track simply runs out (they inaugurated the route before finishing it), it switches back to the regular track and slows down to a near-crawl, in effect becoming a regional (read: slowest) train as it creeps through town after forgotten town on the outskirts of Naples. One of the men sitting next to us joked that, “usually trains try to speed up near the end to recover lost time, but this train actually slows down to compensate for having gone too fast.” I haven’t quite been able to decipher why this is so, but I’ve been told that the money ran out. I heard some of the Italians on board jokingly refer to this phenomenon as simply another example of doing things all’Italiana: Italian-style.

In any case, I was shocked when a uniformed attendant came through with a beverage cart, free of charge. Usually it’s woe unto he who travels with Trenitalia. Some day maybe I will tell you some of my stories, but for now just imagine herds of chickens and other assorted barnyard animals being rounded up and transported to their final resting places. Luckily this was a surprisingly pleasant trip, made even better by the fact that we managed to get our tickets on a 2-for-1 special, meaning we paid €15 each way per person, even less than the normal Eurostar train.

So, after an hour and a half, we get off at Napoli Centrale. Truth be told, I did feel a little like I had just entered a foreign, exotic locale—Naples to me is almost like one huge street market or bazaar. You’ll hear more Neopolitan dialect being spoken on the streets than you will actual Italian, which contributes to the otherworldly feeling. The best way I can describe Napoli is that it’s not really a place you visit—it’s a full-on sensory experience.

Crossing the street in Naples is akin to being transported back to the 80s and becoming the star of the video game Frogger. It’s not unlike the video you can watch below. Although I have no idea what city this video was filmed in, it certainly could be a busy Naples street on any given day.

After navigating our first challenge, we’re ready for breakfast, and so we head for the hallowed (and very crowded) Scaturchio.

Here you can experience the ultimate in one of the things Naples is famous for: its pastries. I opt for a warm sfogliatella, crispy and flaky on the outside and filled with sweet ricotta cream and a slight hint of cinnamon inside.

I found a recipe for sfogliatella here, but frankly even without reading the recipe, it looks like quite a challenge to make. If any of you have ever attempted this (and succeeded), I'd love to hear about it! Here I found a recipe claiming to be Scaturchio’s own pastiera, another famous Neopolitan pastry.

Don’t let the crowds scare you away—this is a must-stop when in Naples.

P.zza San Domenico Maggiore, 19
Telefono 0815516944

Next time we venture on to the fascinating Capella di Sansevero church, and after that we continue our gastronomic exploration of Neopolitan delights, while stopping to admire the nativity scenes, do some shopping, and tour Naples Underground. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Just Don't Spill Anything on the Sofa!

So, I'm thinking...let's get the owner of this place together with the owner of Pig Night. They seem to have the same, shall we say, "eccentric" taste in naming their businesses.

Pizza & Champagne in Living Room
Via dei Genovesi (corner of Via dei Vascellari)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Guest Blogger: Ale, Notaio Hopeful

Today I get a day off while my future hubby (T minus less than four months) takes over the heavy lifting of the blogging duties for me. I showed him your comments on the Offida post and your curiosity got him motivated to explain the process of becoming a notaio, or notary, to you. The other night after dinner he sat down with his laptop and hammered out the following, which remains unaltered except for a few very minor spelling corrections ... bravo Ale! And to think, this was the same guy who, when we first met, said to me, "I want you to know that I hate English." (Traces back to some traumatic experience with a mean high school teacher.) Who would've ever thought that a mere six years later, he'd be negotiating with Don Johnson's, ahem, I mean, DJ's, LA agent, when a client of his decided to make a movie? Ah, life, does it not reserve its surprises for us? Perhaps one of them will be Ale becoming a notaio.

(You must all now make the "rock on" sign, with both hands, fingers directed towards the ground, to prevent my previous sentence from jinxing his chances. This in Italian is called "making the horns" or fare le corna, and is the less-vulgar version of another choice that, if you have any contact with Italian culture, you are probably aware of. All's I'm gonna say is that the second option involves scratching a region below the belt. No, I am not kidding.)

But enough of my blabbering! Here's the Italian for you:

Actually the notaries in Italy are the inheritance of the middle age, when the people didn’t know how to read and how to write and they needed a trustworthy guy doing it for them and checking that everything was honest and legal. Nowadays the problem is that even if everyone is able to read and write, we (in Italy) still need a guy who checks the contract is honest and respectful of the law, otherwise everyone would try to rip the other off.
And this guy is the notary.
But how can you be sure this guy is trustworthy?
We have to pay him a ton of money so that he doesn’t need to be bribed to become rich. A "poor" notary makes about €10,000 a month. An average notary makes about €1 million a year. A rich notary makes around €20 million a year.
And this is the notary.
For this reason here when we need to sell or buy a house we have to go to a notary.
When we want to create a company we need to go to a notary.
When we want to take a mortgage we need to a go to a notary.
Because he’s the only one who can certify all the papers are ok and transfer the rights.
He can do that because the government gives him the “power” to do that with the public seal.
So he writes the contract and he stamps it with this seal and you buy or sell your property, take the mortgage and create your company!!!
The issue is that to check the integrity of these guys, the law says they have to be a small, closed number.
Now I think we have just 6,000 notaries in all Italy (over 70 million people!!!!!) You can understand why they became so rich!!!!!! And you can understand the reason why I’m so bored to be a lawyer and I want to become a notary!!!!!
But here there is another problem.
The procedure to become notary is the most complicated and difficult procedure in all Italy procedures (and everything in this country is more difficult than usual).
You have to take a law degree.
You have to attend a notary office for 2 years.
And you have to take the “CONCORSO”
More or less every 2 years there is the Concorso.
It consists of 3 parts.
The first one is called “preselezione.”
It means you have to memorize 10,000 multiple choice questions about the civil law.
The computer chooses 45 questions and you have to answer in the right way all 45 in 45 minutes.
If you do just 1 mistake you are OUT.
Once you pass this test (I passed it 3 times) you have the most difficult work. “LA PROVA SCRITTA”
It consists of 3 days’ work closed in an underground government room in which they give you 3 different essays to do pretending you are a notary and a university professor of law. Everyday just to dictate the question (yeah, because the Commission doesn’t give you a paper but it dictates it!!!) it takes 1 hour and a half because just the subject is 4 pages long.
You can have with you only your pen, blank paper and the civil code. And you have to explain all the legal issues the question gives you and write all the acts a notary is supposed to write, in 7 hours per day.
Usually you have to write down all the stuff straight, because the subjects they give you are really long and complicated. And each written work comes out to 20-25 pages.
So at the end of the 3 days you wrote 60-70 pages, you finished 3 pens, and you have (like me the last time) your hand bleeding!!!!!
After this you have to wait 2 years; this is the time the Commission needs to correct the work.
If you pass the “scritto” you can go to take the “orale” (oral exam) which is much easier.
But there are so few people that pass the “scritto”…….
Average to do all this stuff, without “un calcio in culo” that in Italy means when someone “helps” you, it takes 10 years.
This happened to my friend Paolo, who now is a notary in Offida.

More or less after 10 years he passed the contest.
And the funny thing was that he was so bored of all this stuff that he decided not to do the contest anymore, and so it was his last contest and it was the good one.
When you pass the contest the government gives you a list of cities you can choose.
And he chose this beautiful town of Offida where he’s the only notary.

The main piazza of Offida, where Paolo has his office.

And now he’s enjoying all the 10 years work he did.

Paolo's office, with frescoes on the ceiling.

One day I hope to do the same.

View from Paolo's office window.

Otherwise I will have to be a bored lawyer for all my life.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Priest of the Month

Folks, it’s Sunday, a religious day, and I have a topic on a somewhat religious note for you. Now, please don’t get offended by this. I’m a little nervous even going here but in all sincerity, I am just trying to unravel and demystify a phenomenon that has been puzzling me for the last few years, when I first saw it appear on Roman newsstands. So, without further ado, I give you: the “hot priests” calendar:

For the price of just €6 (about $8 US), you too can be the proud owner of 12 months of black and white shots of men of the cloth.

What IS this?

I mean, first of all: will you please look at Mr. March?

Is that not just a little bit, well, I don’t know…suggestive? It kind of gives me the heeby-jeebies. I mean, it’s a priest. And if I’m not mistaken, they’ve taken a photo of him, trying to make him look almost seductive. Do I need a new pair of contact lenses or is this a fairly accurate assessment?

Another point to make note of: there’s not one ugly priest in the bunch. It’s not like they got a shot of some 90-year old priest giving confession, or tried to represent the entire spectrum. These priests are in their prime and they are all fairly or very good-looking. I mean, HELLO October!

Again, I feel kind of blasphemous even saying that but people, is it not the truth?

This brings us to several questions:

1) Who makes this calendar and why?
2) Perhaps in answer to why: where do the profits go? Charity?
3) What is the target market for this calendar? I mean, WHO really buys it?

Yes, people, I bought the calendar, but only in the name of blogging. I swear! I was considering taking some photos of it at the newsstand but in the end, the embarrassment quotient of taking digital shots of the thing from the sidewalk was, for me, greater than that of actually purchasing it and then scanning various photos at my leisure.

Now. In answer to question #1: they have a website. I saw the name Piero Pazzi on the calendar, looked it up on Google, and there it was. I don’t see it written anywhere that the profits go to charity, because the same website also offers a calendar of Venetian gondoliers (which, frankly, I would feel a lot less guilty about hanging on my wall and admiring) and a calendar of angels. So the answer to part 2 of question 1 is clearly: cha-ching. Unless you can find evidence to the contrary. I don’t feel like going to the trouble of emailing the guy to ask because it seems fairly clear to me. In the English part of his website, he explains the calendar's purpose like so:

This calendar intends to give basic information and some notes on the general characteristics of the Vatican with the hope of sating the thirst for knowledge continually demonstrated by the Eternal City's visitors.

Yes, you read that right. Please, Mr. Pazzi, sate my "thirst for knowledge."

All I could find by way of news was this little bit in Italian, which says that it’s the 5th year running that Pazzi, himself a gondolier, has made the calendar, and that the photos are all taken during public services and on the streets, in Seville, Rome, and Venice. Do you think the priests have to sign some kind of release form or get permission from someone in the Church to be photographed and appear in this calendar? Do you think they even know what the photos are for?

I ran into a discussion thread in Italian here, where the participants are trying to answer the same questions. One even contacted some people associated with the Church but didn't get any answers. Someone suggests that they might not be actual priests. I have no idea, but it seems like it would be a heck of a lot of trouble to go to, dressing these guys up and parading them around. My gut feeling is that they are real priests.

Signore Pazzi (which, coincidentally, translates to “Mr. Crazies”) suggests on his website that his calendars make a great Christmas present. So, looking for that perfect gift for the person in your life who's got everything? I can almost guarantee you they don’t have this.

And folks, I still have mine. Now that it has served its purpose, I’m putting it out in the first ever At Home in Rome Rummage Sale. Only at my rummage sale, like the one I saw over at my pal African Kelli’s place, is a free one. So, first come, first served, and it’s yours, in the mail and on its way. Just send an email with your mailing address to ahirswap AT gmail DOT com. Leave a comment so others know when it's taken.

At this point I guess all that's left to say is Happy Holidays, and happy priest-admiring! (Heeby jeebies, I tell you!)

Oh, and by the way? Apparently they’re doing “casting” for 2008. Know anyone who might be interested?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Photo Hunt: Lights

Grab the Scavenger Hunt code.
Join the blogroll. Visit participants.
This week's theme is Lights.

Yesterday I was walking down Via Arenula and noticed that they were putting up these holiday snowflake lights. In my 5 years here I don't recall them ever installing lights on this main street from Trastevere to Largo Argentina (near the Pantheon) and it makes the city feel a little more festive. Of course, I would have loved to have been able to go around a neighborhood searching for the perfect "Chevy Chase/Christmas Vacation" house, but here in Rome we all live in apartments so the best you'll get is perhaps a string of lights around a window. Better than nothing, I guess. But I still miss the neighborhood competitions I used to see back in the States, and driving around to look at all the houses.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The City Swap: And They're Off!

Today is the deadline for our city swappers to get their packages in the mail. Some people have already managed to get theirs out, and some have already received their packages.

Donna from Assignment Alaska shares her swap package here. Notwithstanding the fact that one item froze in her mailbox (her blog conveniently shows the current temperature, which at the moment is holding steady at at unusually "warm" 10°F with light snow), her package arrived safe and sound.

I'll keep you posted on the other swappers as their packages arrive. You can view a list of all the participants here.

The November Perfect Post Awards

The Original Perfect Post Awards

Visit other winners at Petroville and Suburban Turmoil

First of all, thanks to Sarcomical for introducing me to this wonderful little initiative which I think is a great idea for supporting the efforts of our fellow bloggers, as well as a great motivator for me personally to get out there reading more of what people are saying.

I have to be completely honest, even though I was planning on giving this award since the beginning of November, and kept my eyes peeled all month for a candidate, and even though I am constantly amazed at the quantity and quality of what's out there in blogland... until yesterday I hadn't run across any post that I felt was what I personally would consider a "perfect post." Of course, this is all totally subjective and I think that's part of what makes it great. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about what makes it perfect, and perfect has a lot to do with how you individually react to the post.

Happily, at the last minute, I read something and thought: yes! This is it. This month I read many expat tales of how they experience Thanksgiving abroad, and many of them were touching, funny, or really hit home with me--but none quite like Thanksgiving Revisited over at In Search of Dessert. I was impressed not only by Jessica's style of writing (believe me, it takes quite a bit of skill to keep me reading through a post as long as this one--I have a pretty short attention span with blog posts), but also by the sincerity and clarity of the thoughts she expresses. She put into words perfectly the ambivalence I also feel about Thanksgiving abroad, how much I miss it and the struggle at the same time with how to go about recognizing it in my adopted country. Even though she expresses some doubts about aspects of the American consumer culture, I think it was done in a sensitive way that thankfully doesn't contribute to the myth that we expats are abroad because we are shunning our home country or aren't proud to be Americans. I think this is a fine balance that is often misunderstood and I appreciated her honesty in this post.

Jessica is a fairly new expat who just reached her 6-month mark. Judging by the quality of her blog and writing, I'd say she's doing just fine and hope that she keeps on letting us into her and Jonathan's Swiss world!