Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Unlocking Rome’s Secrets

Rome has long been characterized as a city that has secrets. Its mystical Roman past, mysterious confraternities, and “secret” archives are researched in academia as well as exploited in popular novels and movies. Yet, most of that seems either over hyped or simply falsified. Nonetheless, we have discovered Rome is full of secrets, and not just for treasure hunters or conspiracy theorists. In fact, unveiling its mysteries and unlocking codes, is exactly what one must do to get a glimpse of true Roman life and especially its food scene.

In a town stuffed with souvenirs and tourist traps, the outsider and insider food vocabulary has become distinct. Tourists are guided by signs, lights, and colored menus in order to lead them to much needed sustenance. If, you are not content to eat less than admirable attempts at spaghetti carbonara or just want to pay less, one must figure out the secret food places the city is hiding in its windy streets.

The Roman food scene is all about being in the know. Nothing is marked and often when a restaurant is not open, there is a large, gray garage door that is pulled over the exterior. A place with beautiful food can appear one day and you will have trouble finding it the next. Also the eateries do not equate their exterior with what might be on the interior, so don’t judge a book by its cover is a fast rule. The list below are our favorites, or at least the ones that we have found and patronize, each with their quirks that made them gems once discovered:

CafĂ© shop around the corner where we get 90cent cappuccinos, donuts or croissants like 4 days a week. Great wait staff, who have accepted us as the only English customers. How did we find it? My colleagues at work. Does it have a name? maybe, but not sure. It does have large cactuses in its window and someone owns an Irish Setter that is always outside. So if you are in Rome…try to find it.

Bar in Trastevere: where we go every Thursday and participate in an amazing Roman tradition, apertif. What does this mean? For the price of a drink (beer, wine, cocktail) and 2 extra euros, you get an all-you-can eat appetizer buffet. Think unlimited tapas like seafood salad, roasted veggies, cheese, cured meat, pasta, garlic bread, yummy! The place also has an awesome inside that is retro and our waitress has a buzz cut which makes it edgy although the bartender has a cute baby, so they are a good crowd. Anyway how did we find it? A friend. What to look for in order to find it? The buzz cut waitress. Name? again probably not.

Bakery with good smells three streets down, great for cookies. What does it look like? A factory. No door, only plastic flaps. No displays, no name and you would think it was just a supplier. But, it is in fact a bakery with fresh little cookies in every flavor. So if you are on the Trastevere side of the Tiber, follow your nose.

What might be most difficult about breaking the food code in Rome is that it does not match the American consumer ideal of how a restaurant attracts its customers. Good restaurants often look good in America. They exploit their goodness with stickers and Zagat ratings. The restaurants are not shy, often brightly lit to expose their fashionably designed interiors. Although these bastions of fine dining are not tourist traps and have genuine quality within their walls, restaurants promote themselves nonetheless and a bystander is rarely left wandering if the establishment is a restaurant or even if it is open. But it is different here. The good places don’t want the tourist crowd and need to keep the mystery to maintain their local/cool reputation. We, as outsiders and sometimes tourists, are not supposed to be privy to these places and I consider us very lucky to have found a few that accept us barbars.*

*Greek, then Latin, slang word for outsiders, or non-Romans, and barbarian is a derivative.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tim's Favorite Place in Italy (so far)

Last Friday the graduate students took a day trip to Tivoli (about 45min away from Rome by van) to see Hadrian's Villa and the Villa d'Este. Hadrian's Villa was OK - I mean it's really old, and really big - but ruins are ruins, right? Villa d'Este on the other hand was amazing. The gardens spill out down the side of a hill and the whole thing overlooks a large valley. Fountains galore carry water down the hill and through the garden. I won't say much more about it but instead let some of the pictures I took speak for themselves. Here's a wikipedia link for a little bit of background info if you're interested. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock Told Us Birds Can be Scary

Now, it would have been great to publish this post before Halloween but perhaps the terrifying nature of the blog will still be appreciated.

In Rome, at this time of the fall, hundreds, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of birds migrate here. They fill the trees and fly in huge groups that resemble clouds above.

Around dusk, the groups of birds swarm, not really moving in a direction, but making large shapes and patterns in the sky. They swarm until it gets dark and then they nest in sycamores that line the Tiber river.

See this website for a video: http://wn.com/Roman_Bird_Migration

Now natural phenomenon is very interesting but this swarming leads to some problems. First, the stench of birds is horrendous. Second, these large groups are destroying the trees to the point where they barely have leaves left. Third, there are the droppings.

But, the droppings do not just fall under trees and completely enshrine parked cars. Even if you are stealthy enough to avoid trees, the swarming makes it so you have to bring an umbrella with you if going out between the hours of 4-6. Seriously, when they swarm it sounds like it is raining and if you hear that sound you better run for cover or expect your day to be made afowl. We cant wait till the siege is over!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Spooky Scrabble and Other Things

We couldn't help but celebrate Halloween while in Italy. Fall is my favorite time of year and there is something spooktacular about the harvest time.

Although there are bars that cater to the American taste for a night of revelry, we decided long ago, perhaps in college, that "adult" Halloween is not that great.

So for our small celebration we got only the traditional essentials (as best as we could):

Hot Chocolate
Pumpkin Soup
Halloween Colored Candies (turned out to be sugar free!)
Chocolate Truffles
Orange-flavored chocolate bar in neat wrapper
Orange-color, meloncello (cantaloupe liquor)

For the actual day, we streamed (via an invention called Sling Box) Halloween movies that were playing on cable TV in the Philadelphia area. Only problem was that for the first part of the day we got the really crappy movies that play at like 4 in the morning (it actually was 4 in the morning eastern time). If you have seen "They Live" or "Death Eaters II" please share in our pain.

We then got our creative hats on and made our own jack-o-lanterns out of cereal boxes as well as theme drawings (Tim made a pumpkin patch and I made a graveyard). During our craft session, we listened to LA radio's DJ Thomas Callahan spin great Halloween tunes from the online radio LIVE365. If interested his channel is doing "food music" for November in celebration of Thanksgiving.

No holiday would be complete without games and we came up with two good ones. Poltergeist Pictionary and Spooky Scrabble (see the finished board from our scrabble game) both were a hit.

Finally, our holiday was enhanced by the cute ghost towels from John and Erica. Thank you guys for this great gift!

Happy Halloween All!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tim's Trip to Northern Italy

So this past week my class traveled around Northern Italy. We visited 5 cities in 8 days. Unfortunately Sophia wasn't allowed to accompany us because she's not a student in the program. Never mind the fact that she is an alum who is currently employed by Notre Dame. In any case Sophia came down with a cold while I was away so perhaps it was for the best.

We first took a train to Venice where we stayed for three nights. The whole concept of building a city in the middle of the ocean is pretty dumb if you ask me but it certainly makes for a cool tourist trap. It almost seemed fake, but I can assure you that there are in fact millions and millions of pylons (tightly packed tree trunks driven into the ocean floor to create a stable building surface) supporting much of the city. Not seeing a single car for three days was nice, but it was frustrating at times not to be able to cross the "street" wherever you'd like but instead wind your way through a maze of very narrow streets to find the bridge you're looking for.

From Venice we went to Vicenza, which is Palladio's hometown. Not surprisingly there were lots of Palladian palazzos and villas. Of course the best is the well known Villa Rotunda, which is pictured here.

After Vicenza was Ferrara, which is a medieval town that was expanded during the Renaissance. The medieval and Renaissance areas of the town sit side by side so you compare the very straight streets that lead to landmarks or important buildings with the older windy and narrow streets that developed organically over time.

While we were staying in Ferrara we took a day trip to Ravenna, which is home to many early Christian (Byzantine) churches built during the 5th and 6th centuries. Brightly colored and extremely intricate mosaics decorate the interiors of the churches. It's amazing to think that they were designed 1,500 years ago! The photo included here is a detail of the mosaics inside the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

We left Ferrara to head to Bologna for one night before returning home. The University of Bologna is the world's oldest university. We were lucky enough to get a tour of part of their library. This portion was built in the 1750s. It's one of the best rooms I've ever been in. The photo hardly does it justice. The wood is walnut and it gives the space a very warm feeling. Busts of authors line the top of the room and serve as organizational reminders for the books found near them.

Although it was fun to be away from Rome for a little while, we were all pretty exhausted by the end of the trip. It's good to be back. Luckily we have a week off for Fall Break before classes resume. I definitely need it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Becoming a Vat Rat

On Friday, I made a journey to the Vatican Archives and Library. This experience is worth noting. I should first explain that I am doing research at the Vatican for a drawings exhibition on the Notre Dame painter and professor Luigi Gregori (1819-96). The exhibition comes out of a year-long project with his drawing collection held at the Snite Museum which will also be the host of the exhibit. Before Gregori started as a professor at Notre Dame, he was employed at the Vatican as a painter and art counselor for Pope Pius IX. I am hoping to find out more information about his life while at the Vatican.

Archives and Library is limited to researchers with basic credentials (an MA) and adequate research goals. This was not a problem as I had copies of my degree and a letter from the Snite explaining my research needs. However, the library and archives are not easy to physically access. There are no large signs proclaiming their presence. In fact they are on the very interior of Vatican city, not in Saint Peter’s but adjacent (see map). What I needed was a guide and I had a good one, Professor Ingrid Rowland.

Professor Coleman, my MA thesis advisor and the initiator of the Gregori project, had the forethought to contact Professor Rowland and ask if she would kindly escort me the Vatican on my first trip. Professor Rowland is an architectural historian who teaches one of Tim’s classes (she is the cat lady from a previous post). Turns out, she loves the Vatican library, goes there all the time, and wanted to visit the archives in order to find some lace from Malta.

So we set off on Friday via the line 62 bus that travels up the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and stops at the Porta Angelica or the main gate into Vatican city. To get to the gate, one has to push their way through large groups of tourists trying to take a “candid” shot of the exclusive country. Then, one has to get pass the Swiss army guards and if you don’t know what they dress like, it is ridiculous so here is a picture. There are three checkpoints with these guards. We passed through because Professor Rowland had her library pass and could explain that I was also there to use the library but had not received my proper badge.

What is really amazing about being in Vatican city is the calm. One goes from an utter chaos at the gates to a barely populated, walled fortress. Those walking around are equally quite: nuns, monks, priests, researchers. Something that also peaked my interest was a mention of the amenities including a post office, a pharmacy, and a grocery store! I plan to research these as much as anything else. I am hoping for special products like “Pope Pops” and “Heavenly Honey Clusters”.

The library and archives are separate entities. Which means I had to get two different passes. At each place there was a wait, document exchanges, waivers signed, and pictures taken. In the time span of a little over 2 hours I ended up with two photo ids which seems reasonable as they provide me with amazing access to some great research resources and who knows what else. “Vat Rat” is the endearing term Professor Rowland used for herself and other academics devoted to this illustrious place. I can only strive to be one of the rodents.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Anatomy of an Italian Shower

This is bound to be one of my less glamorous posts but life is not always pretty, even in scenic Italy. So to the bathroom…

The bathroom in our apartment is not set up for a shower in the American, perhaps modern sense. There is a bathtub and then a faucet for filling the tub. Slightly above the faucet is a shower attachment with hose.

Problem A: There is nowhere to “hook” or fasten the shower hose except just above the faucet that is only slightly above the tub ledge.

Problem B: The faucet and shower hose are mounted in the center of the tub. So if one wants to stand and hose off (while holding the shower hose) water sprays out into the room.

Problem C: There was a shower curtain rod with hooks but no shower curtain. We could not find a shower curtain anywhere. Seriously nowhere and I even asked at work. I mean I work with a bunch of people who also live in Rome, no answers.

With this set of problems we started the semester by bathing and washing our hair in the sink. But I hate baths, a lot. So I got tired of that archaic form of human grooming and devised my own shower.

Here are the components to our new fully functioning shower: a wall mount for a woman’s razor, two rubber bands from the States that once bound broccoli ( they read “Organic US Produce”), a suction cup from a wall-mount Italian toothbrush holder we bought for our toothbrushes, and two unused government issued recycling bags.

The solution was attaching a suction cup to the back of the shower hose so that it could be stuck on to the wall when needed. Luckily the hose reaches far enough to be stuck onto a sidewall. Then I cut open the trash bags, punched holes at the tops, and threaded the shower hooks through.

For the inventive shower solution that has bettered our lives immensely, I would like to thank my mother, my Davidson education, and American ingenuity.