Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Playing in the Traffic

The traffic doesn’t stop until you step into the street. This maxim rules the life of Roman pedestrians. That makes things difficult for those of us from another culture where the rule is: Don’t step into the street until the traffic stops. Drivers here see you and prepare to stop, but they don’t halt their cars until your feet are firmly off the sidewalk.
Romans on foot approach a crosswalk without pausing. They step into the traffic, and like Moses parting the Red Sea, they manage to interrupt its flow. The cars move around them. The key is to avoid pausing because drivers often judge a pedestrian’s pace and aim their cars ahead of or behind the stride without actually stopping. A pedestrian who dawdles risks death.
Despite the number of years I’ve spent here, I still find crossing the street a challenge. When I first arrived in Rome, I would walk great distances to find a traffic light. That ploy is not a guarantee of safety, however. At many Roman crosswalks there is a pedestrian “Walk” light while cars have a turn arrow allowing them to traverse it at the same time. One such intersection lies in my daily path just outside my front door. I usually cross the street twice to avoid that dangerous spot.
My lifelong stratagem for crossing the street fails me, too. I stand looking left, watching for a break in the traffic. I see one five cars along and wait, keeping my eyes on the spot. Usually, one of two things happens. First, a car ahead slows to give me a chance to step into the traffic, disrupting the entire flow so that the break I’ve anticipated closes up. The driver who has paused becomes disgusted with me and speeds up, and there’s no place to cross. The other scenario is even more annoying. Another pedestrian often steps up to my right, out of my line of vision. That pedestrian strides into the traffic, which stops. I have my eyes focused ahead and don’t notice until it’s too late and the traffic has started again.
My usual strategy is to join somebody else and cross with them. Just last week I approached a particularly harrowing crosswalk over a busy thoroughfare. The traffic from the left careens down a hill and around a curve so that you can’t see too far back. The traffic from the right speeds up the hill and around another bend with an equally short line of sight. I spotted a school group about to cross and tried to catch up, but I failed. I shuffled around until a lone, leggy young woman approached, and I stepped behind her has she plunged into the traffic.
Romans step into the traffic in the middle of the block, too. When I’m walking with someone who does that, my heart races. A couple of years ago I was in London with two Italian people. Now, crossing the street in England is a challenge because you have to remember to look right for oncoming traffic. These two people started to plunge into the traffic mid-block. They would surely have been killed before my eyes if I hadn’t pulled them back. Londoners expect people to follow the rules.
I am braver about crossing the street now, but if all else fails, I wait for a nun or a mother with a baby carriage.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Water, Water Everywhere

Unlike many European cities, Rome has an abundance of water, thanks in large part to the ancient aqueducts. This system was refurbished during the papal reigns beginning in the 1400s. Water is still piped through these acqueducts from springs in surrounding hills. It thunders into some fountains, like the Trevi, and trickles at a modest pace into others like the Barcaccia the foot of the Spanish Steps.
The Trevi, Rome’s most famous, completed in 1762, marks the end of the Acqua Vergine, the aqueduct built by Marcus Agrippa in 19 BC. It’s an amazing structure with water surging with such force that it sounds like a waterfall. In the eighteenth century, people believed that drinking its water ensured your return to Rome. Now, the toss of a coin gives you that guarantee. I threw my first coin in 1969 and never fail to toss in another whenever I leave the city (at least when I leave the country). The proper way to toss a coin is to stand with your back to the fountain and toss it over your shoulder. Famous from the movies, the Trevi is still featured in Italian advertising for bottled water and many other products.
Beyond the Trevi, many other Roman fountains quench the thirst and tickle the imagination. The Water Nymph Fountain in Piazza della Republica near the main train station, for example, features four erotic water nymphs entwined with sea creatures. It caused such a stir when it was unveiled in 1870, that it was covered for a time. Now it’s in the center of a busy traffic circle, and you must make an effort to get a proper look.
The Tortoise Fountain hides in a little secluded piazza where you can rest and smile. The fountain shows young men nudging turtles climbing up and over the fountain’s rim.
The most common fountain is the nasone (big nose), so called because the spout resembles a large nose. Spaced roughly 200 meters apart throughout the city (a designation dating to ancient Rome) these fountains ensure that you are a short walk from fresh water wherever you go.
The utilitarian nasone are fifteen-inch metal cylinders that stand about 4 feet above the ground. The spouts extend about 10 inches from the base, and water constantly pours from the thousands of them across Rome. If you put your finger against the opening at the end of the spout to stop the water, it emerges from a hole in the bend of the spout, spewing water like a regular drinking fountain in the U.S. You can have a fresh drink, even without a cup.
People here detect differences in the taste of water from various aqueducts, and the amount of advertising for bottled water rivals the Coke/Pepsi wars in the U.S. Many people forgo bottled water altogether. Knowing which fountains are fed by which aqueducts, they take their bottles to the fountains and fill them directly. You can buy plastic carriers to hold six liter bottles (similar to the old Coke bottle six-packs). I often see people going to and fro with these contraptions. In the markets, vendors wash their veggies under the nasone, and I’ve even seen waiters from small restaurants take salad greens outside to wash them under this free, and freeflowing, water.
It’s amazing to think that this water, which is really quite delicious, is flowing through a system that originated more than 2000 years ago!

NOTE: The Trevi Fountain is the scene for my story “Feeding Frenzy” appearing in Fish Tales, Wildside Press, March 2011.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Brown Eggs Are Better When They're Chocolate

Chocolate Easter eggs are clogging the supermarket aisles in Italy these days. And the pastry shops and chocolate confectioners are overflowing with handmade treasures. These chocolate eggs are an old tradition here. Each hollow egg contains a surprise, and finding the surprise is half the fun.

The smallest eggs are about 10 inches high, made from about 500 grams of chocolate. The eggs can be as large as five kilos, which is a hefty amount of chocolate indeed.

Each egg is balanced on a little plastic cup to make it stand up straight. Then it’s placed on a square of colorful foil which is gathered up around the egg and fastened in a topknot, often with a ribbon.

The supermarket variety targets children. The foil wrapper hints to the prize inside, and children have their favorites. A quick stroll through my neighborhood supermarket revealed eggs featuring many cartoon character—T om and Jerry to Scooby Doo to the Roadrunner (known here as Willy Coyote and Beep Beep). Disney is well represented, too, with 1001 Dalmatians, Snow White and Peter Pan.

Some eggs contain prizes that are targeted for girls, others for boys. The eggs for girls are labeled “Bimba” in large letters while those for boys say “Bimbo.” This is diminutive for the word bambino, child, with the characteristic “a” ending for feminine words and “o” for masculine. It always makes me giggle since “bimbo” in American English usually means a ditzy female. I’m longing to call a male American friend Bimbo. But I digress.

Commercial eggs targeting adults use other ploys. Perugina, the manufacturer of Baci candies, makes an egg featuring the dark chocolate of their kisses; the prize inside these eggs is four Baci. Lindt, from neighboring Switzerland, gets in the act, too. Their elegant eggs are wrapped in red foil and topped with gold ribbon.

And the choices! One company produces a candy bar called Novi made from chocolate embedded with hazelnuts. Their egg is called “Noccciolato,” combining the Italian word nocciola (hazelnut) and cioccolato (chocolate). It’s the only egg I’ve seen that’s bumpy.
People stand in the aisles discussing the merits of milk chocolate vs. dark. They’re both available, but you have to read the label carefully.

The pastry shops and chocolate confectioners make the eggs by hand with elaborate decorations. The prizes inside these eggs tend to be more elegant, too. These shops are prepared to make eggs to order. You see chocolate egg halves awaiting a customer’s special prize. Engagement rings are frequently tucked into these.

The customary way to open a chocolate egg to get at the prize is to punch it with your fist. It seems crass, but that’s the custom. And you do get a little bit of joy at feeling the chocolate give way to your blow.

Billie Mochow's sugar egg
Billie Mochow, a renowned pastry chef in the U.S., asked me to look for egg molds last year, a month or so after Easter. She wanted to create for a confection, not chocolate, for this year. Now, Italy bends with the seasons. At that point, Easter was well behind us. There were no egg molds in cookware shops. I approached a couple of pastry shops to see if they could special order them, but I got a lukewarm reception.

The egg season was over. Billie found her own source and has produced an incredible work of art. And just as I expected, egg molds began appearing in upscale cookware shops a few weeks ago, but they’ll be gone soon.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Legendary Food

I’ve just returned from my neighborhood market with two first-of-the-season finds, both aromatic, but very different beings.
First, I bought fresh garlic, which is available for a few short weeks early in the spring. At this point, the bulbs and cloves are fully formed, but the papery covering of each clove has not yet developed. And is it pungent! I took it immediately to the balcony, where it will stay until I use it up because it overpowers the interior of my apartment otherwise.
Italian folklore says that you should eat this delicacy raw in the spring to cleanse your blood from winter impurities, that it will lower cholesterol, and that it will reduce hypertension. But let me warn you, if you subscribe to this practice, you can only associate with like-minded individuals for a while. I tried it a few years back. The cloves were both hot and sweet, but the aroma lingered on my breath for a very long time.
Other folktales about garlic abound, both about the fresh and regular varieties. The ancient Greeks and Romans fed it to athletes and soldiers because they believed it developed strength and aggressiveness.  And midwives put it in birthing rooms to protect the newborns from sorcery and illness.
In the Middle Ages, garlic developed a reputation as a protector against the Evil Eye and vampires. It was also believed to be a strong deterrent against “illnesses provoked by malignant spirits” which my Italian book of herbs defines as “mental disturbances.” I wonder if psychiatrists know about that.
Garlic was also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac, and in World War I, before the discovery of penicillin, it was used as a disinfectant.
My second purchase was Genovese Basil. Large-leafed basil has been available for a couple of weeks, but I held out for the variety from Genoa, home of pesto. This variety has fairly small leaves and is the most flavorful, although it won’t have a full flavor until it has a few more hours of sunlight a day than it gets now.
My herbal book recounts both sacred and profane legends associated with basil. In one, basil is said to have grown up from the vase in which Salome buried the head of John the Baptist. The other holds that Elena, mother of Emperor Constantine (who brought Christianity to the ancient Romans), gathered seeds from the site of the crucifixion of Christ and disbursed the plant throughout the world.
On the profane side, a 13th century song immortalized one Isabella of Messina. She preserved the head of her lover, decapitated by her brothers, in a jar of basil. Even more profane is the legend that a pot of basil on the balcony of a young girl indicated that she was ready to receive a lover.
I hadn’t read about this legend when I visited Genoa a couple of years ago. I saw pots of this small-leafed basil on doorsteps throughout the city. I assumed that meant the people of Genoa loved their basil. But maybe there was more to it.
I’m putting the pot of basil on my balcony along with the garlic, but don’t worry. I’m not a young girl.
TAGS: Garlic, basil, legends, culinary legends, Patricia Winton, herbs