Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fast Food in a Slow Country

            One spring morning in 1986, while I was puttering around in my Maryland apartment and listening to the radio, a short news feature caught my attention. The first franchise of a well-known hamburger establishment had opened in Italy near Rome’s Spanish Steps. Initially, I wasn’t sure how successful the new fast food restaurant would be in a country where Sunday lunch can take three hours.
            It’s no small irony that my first student in Rome was the estranged wife of the man who opened that fast food place.  She can go on and on at great length about the virtues of the Piazza Spagna store—it’s the biggest, it’s the best.  It’s certainly financed a fine apartment overlooking Rome, private schools for the children, and a few Mercedes (not to mention a private English tutor).
            I felt compelled to visit said restaurant after I came to live in Rome.  When I entered, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place.  It almost looked like a normal Italian coffee bar:  there was the ubiquitous espresso machine, boxes of Baci chocolates, and a freezer case of true gelato.  But as I looked around, I saw brochures with images of the red-haired clown who promotes the chain, so I knew I was in the right place. 
I continued past this room through a tiled hallway with a discrete fountain offering soothing water sounds, past a marble statute from some forgotten ruin.  At the foot of a staircase leading to an upper floor I saw a brass plaque proclaiming this indeed to be the first of the chain in Italy (Opening Date:  March 20, 1986).  At the top of the stairs was a vast room with vaulted ceilings.  I saw the familiar red banquettes, but they were fronted by marble-topped tables.  On the walls were modern frescos of typical Roman scenes, but one included a waiter wearing a familiar paper hat.  Large brass signs forbade smoking.
            There were the illuminated signs offering the recognizable menu (in Italian), but the drink case was full of mineral water, and an iced service counter offered equal amounts of Coke, Sprite and beer. 
I felt that my research would not be complete without sampling the fare, so I ordered a signature hamburger and waited for it to be prepared just for me.  The bun was freshly toasted and quite hot and delicious, but alas, it was stuffed with two thin beef patties, wilted iceberg lettuce (the first I’d seen in Rome), and that mayonnaise-ketchup sauce; it reeked of grease.  It’s not a taste sensation that I have repeated.
I must admit that the salad bar looked promising.  The pasta salad was made with authentic gemelli in a green herb dressing; there was a lovely vegetable salad with green beans and tiny potatoes; a rice salad with olives, mushrooms and sausage beckoned invitingly; the centerpiece was a cherry tomato, black olive, and tuna concoction dressed with olive oil and a bit of hard-cooked egg; and at the back of the counter, almost out of sight, was a dish of grilled eggplant marinating in fresh herbs and olive oil.  All these dishes were displayed on a bed of ice decorated with rosettes of blood oranges and lemons. So Italy had made its mark on the chain as well.
But the chain continues to thrive. The dichotomy of the fast food empire’s success in a nation that treasures its taste buds fascinates me. In the mystery I’m writing, the chef of a successful independent restaurant is pitted against a burger baron. Who do you think wins?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hanging Out in the Local Bar

The Morning Crew
            There’s nothing quite like an Italian bar. It’s a community center: a place to eat or drink, to meet friends, to read the paper, to sit and dream, even to write a blog post. Only a small portion of the profits come from alcohol!
            I have a new favorite, Caffe Paradisio, around the corner from where I live. They have free wi-fi, and I have been dropping by with my little computer a couple of times a day since I returned to Rome. In the morning I’m there to check email, Facebook and Twitter from the U.S. while I enjoy a cup of cappuccino. The cappuccino costs ninety euro cents. If I don’t order a pastry, they bring me a small plate with a few cookies. And it’s perfectly okay to order just a glass of water.
            It’s ten a.m., and I’ve been sitting here for about an hour. A constant stream of people flows through. A man with his dog sat at the table near me, reading the newspaper the bar keeps for customers.  Several couples have been here, taking a quick coffee and pastry standing at the bar before going to work. A woman who works at a nearby pizzeria came in to pick up espresso and cappuccino to take back to the restaurant. The barista prepared the drinks—in real cups—and sent her off with a tray, each cup covered with foil to keep the coffee hot. She’ll bring back the dirties later. My hairdresser, whose shop is next door, came in waving at me, and a woman’s studying English sat near me doing her homework.
         Espresso and cappuccino generally cost a dollar more or less, so it's usual for one in a party to treat the others. I just overheard a man asking his two companions what they wanted. Each said espresso, but he tried to offer additional things. Caffe machiato is espresso with a splash of steamed milk, for example. Or a highly sweetened whipped cream might be added to the cappuccino or the espresso. He also offered pastry, but they declined. People don't linger over their coffee either. The threesome I mentioned have already gone, and the waiter has collected their cups. They had an animated conversation, and the host paid about three dollars for the session. It's this rapid turnover that makes a bar profitable, so they can indulge someone like me who parks.
            Many bars offer complete lunch. This one doesn’t, but on a nearby corner there is another one where you can get a choice of pasta dishes, meat and fish, several vegetables, and dessert. All the food is wedged on platters behind a glass case. You make your selection, pay the cashier, and the food is brought to your table. I recommend bar lunches to travelers because they are fast, usually cooked from scratch, and always good.
            In the afternoon, I’ll be back here again. I may order a Campari soda or a nonalcoholic drink called “bitter.”  These drinks, whether alcoholic or not, cost the same—€2.50. With my drink, the staff will bring snacks at no extra charge.  These will include some form of chips, a small plate of tiny sandwiches, a little bowl of nuts, and perhaps a savory pastry or cheese.  If I’ve ordered iced tea instead, the snacks will be fewer, but will include some cookies. These little snacks accompanying drinks are commonplace in Italy. A few-not-so-friendly places may offer only a small bowl of chips, but the tradition calls for ample snacks.
            The bars offer other services as well. You can get lottery tickets, top up your cell phone credit, buy bus tickets or a candy bar. And it’s a quick place to buy a bottle of milk when you run out. Need directions to a local sightseeing point? Stop by a bar. Want to have a quick business meeting. Take your client for an espresso. Looking for a place to wait before cinema tickets go on sale? You’ll find other moviegoers at the local bar having a Coke.
            The staff takes pride in knowing the customers’ preferences. After only a couple of visits they remember that I prefer a slice of orange instead of lemon in my Campari and that I want brown sugar with my cappuccino. And because I linger, they always take away my used crockery or glasses and bring me a large glass of water—with ice and lemon.
            Caffe Paradisio has flat screens mounted high on the walls where music videos usually play, but at soccer time they are tuned in to the game, and it’s standing room only for Rome’s rabid fans. A small room to the back houses some slot machines. The sound of coins dropping when a player wins can drown out the music.
            Children are an integral part of Italy’s bar scene. A mother with a baby in a stroller comes in for her caffeine fix each morning. All the patrons speak to the baby, bending to greet her. In the afternoon, the barista and the cashier have their young daughter ensconced at a corner table, drawing pictures or playing with toys. Customers know her by name and stop to have a conversation. And frequently, the afternoon waiter has his toddler sleeping in the back room. On Saturdays, I see grandparents with grandchildren in tow for a weekend outing. At some point they’ll stop by a bar for ice cream, juice or the ubiquitous Coke.
            One of the real luxury services offered by bars is delivery. Businesses often call the local bar with a drink order (espresso, cappuccino, juice, etc.) In a short time, a delivery arrives, in real cups and glasses. The cashier will have prepared the bill; then the waiter will scurry off with the order and return with the money. Later he (or she) will amble back to pick up the empties. I fantasize about having a cup of cappuccino delivered to my home every morning while I’m still in my jammies, but then I’d miss the show.
The Afternoon Crew

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My September 11

I had no intension of writing about September 11, but this blog has been composing itself in my head.
            When I’m honest, I admit that I live in Rome now because of the events of September 11. I didn’t flee Washington, where I lived then, because of fear. In fact, I flew on September 21 for a long-planned weekend with my sisters. We agreed that the terrorists would win if we altered our lives as a result of the attacks. I remember our resolve each time I’m forced to remove my shoes at an American airport.
On September 11, 2001, I worked at an international language school one block from the White ouseHouse.  I arrived early that morning for a special project, a semi-private class for three Columbian sisters. They had come to D.C. to escape the violence terrorizing their country and struggled to learn English.
That lesson started at 8:15, earlier than the normal sessions, and extended beyond their usual start time. My boss covered the first hour of my regular class while I finished up with the Columbians and took a brief break. I was alone in the teachers’ room when a silly woman entered laughing. “Can you believe this?” she asked. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center. Ha. Ha. Ha.” That was my introduction to the horror.
The news came in dribs and drabs. Someone with a Walkman reported that one tower had fallen, then the other. A phone call from a worried husband revealed that a plane had hit the Pentagon. Another, that a fourth plane had gone down in Pennsylvania. Had it been headed for the White House? Was another plane now aimed at us? Would we survive?
School phones crackled with calls from around the globe as anxious relatives checked up on our charges. We scurried to help our students find ways back to their residences because public transportation had stopped. We felt great responsibility for these people with a limited grasp of English. A group of Saudi women in traditional dress posed a significant problem. Their embassy feared for their safety and urged us to keep them until transportation could be arranged. In the end, my boss drove them home with her.
When at last I could leave, I stooped under the yellow police tape that sequestered the White House and encircled the school building. Every vehicle equipped with a siren seemed to be blasting up and down Washington streets. I joined the human stream that flowed over the bridges to the Virginia and Maryland countryside. I lived precisely one mile from the White House front door, so I trickled away from the stream after a short while, but others trudged on for hours.
My apartment had a northeastern exposure that looked away from the White House and Pentagon, so I climbed to the roof where, in the past, I had watched Fourth of July fireworks and enjoyed meteor showers and celebrated other good times. That day, I joined a neighbor to view smoke billowing up from the stricken Pentagon. Fighter jets screamed overhead, so low we could read their identification numbers.
The aftermath was no less unsettling. My usual work day included morning classes at the school and afternoon private sessions at the International Monetary Fund. I had always walked from one to the other along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. That route closed after the attacks. One police officer might send me to H Street where another would tell me I couldn’t walk there. While overhead the fighter jets shrieked.
White SUVs bearing Kevlar-vested agents swooshed along Washington streets, bullhorns extended from windows, squawky messages to pedestrians blaring forth. And overhead the fighter jets continued to squeal.
Like other Americans I felt helpless and wanted to do something. Finally, I made a five-gallon pot of soup and dragged it around the corner to my neighborhood firehouse where fire fighters told me about what they had observed at the Pentagon.
The tension continued to rev. Then a tornado struck, a rarity in Washington. More death and destruction. One day a fighter jet swooped especially low as I walked near the 17th and S Streets park. I looked up, but the jet was long gone. Where it had been, soaring with wings outstretched, was a bald eagle. I think I made my decision then.
We all reacted to the September 11 events on a personal level. I saw—felt—how quickly life can be snatched away. I had been harboring a dream of returning to Italy to live since I had packed up in September 1971 and returned to the U.S. after three years in Tuscany. For thirty years, I’d thought, maybe someday. Now I realized that someday may not come, and that I must do it now or never.
In March 2002, I came to Rome to investigate living here, went back to Washington, and folded up my life. The day after the November elections, I boarded a plane with three suitcases and never looked back. So, in a way, I did alter my life as a result of the attacks. But for good reason.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Classy Lady Gets a Face Lift

            First introduced in 1957, the Fiat 500 became a symbol of post-war growth and prosperity. For the next eighteen years the little car flitted along with imperceptible exterior design changes and few interior ones.
            Measuring just under ten feet long and fifty-two inches high AND wide, the original Fiat 500 was known as the utilitaria, the useful, or utilitarian, thing—a word that has come to mean “economy car” in Italian today. It’s two-cylinder, rear-mounted, air-cooled engine chugged up hills and coasted to the coast. The cars often carried racks on top, piled high with luggage or picnic gear. I know from personal experience that, despite its diminutive size, the old Fiat 500 could hold at least five people, more if you were young and chummy.
            A favorite color for the old cinquecento (500), or cinquino as they were lovingly known, was red, and a surprising number of them are still on the road today. I even spotted one parked in Washington, D.C.’s tony Georgetown neighborhood a few years ago, although the owner didn’t want to talk about it. I suspect that he had imported it illegally in defiance of U.S. safety standards. The one pictured above belongs to an auto mechanic in Rome.
My character, Professor Nino Nardo of the Caroline Woodlock series, drives one, red of course. It underscores his commitment to Italian history and traditions.
My first experience with the cinquecento came in 1970. A group of journalists had organized dinner at a restaurant on Rome’s Appia Antica (the Appian Way). I soon found myself in the back seat of a cinquecento with two guys. I was married to one of them at the time, but the other, a well-known journalist, was a complete stranger.
It’s impossible to sit three across in a car that’s only fifty-two inches wide, exterior walls included. The two men entered the back seat first, my husband behind the driver, the well-known journalist behind the front-seat passenger, a very pregnant woman who had moved as far forward as possible—not very far.
I wriggled into the back seat, plopping my derrière onto hubby’s lap and extending my legs over the well-known journalist’s. But, alas, there wasn’t enough room. If I bent my knees, they approached the roof and my heels dug into the w-k j’s crotch. Most uncomfortable for all of us. We solved the problem by rolling down the front window. I took off my shoes and extended my feet through the opening, bypassing the w-k j’s lap. We zoomed, as fast as a two-cylinder engine can zoom, down the Via del Corso, around the Colosseum and onto the Appian Way. My feet have never felt so free.
In 2007, fifty years after its initial appearance, Fiat introduced an updated version of the Fiat 500. It’s a little longer, higher and wider than the original and a lot more powerful. A hatchback reveals a surprisingly roomy trunk, and the back seats fold forward to create ample cargo space. A Gucci version is in the works with the telltale stripe and a hand-stitched steering wheel cover.
On my recent visit to the U.S., I rented a car to take me on the 1,500-mile trip I planned to drive. The rental agent assigned me a 2012 Fiat 500—white, not red. I laughed out loud when he told me, but I loved it! It could really zoom, with a power booster that let me climb the Smoky Mountains with ease and outrace trucks on the interstate. It turned out to be a great conversation piece; complete strangers approached me to ask about it. But I never got to put my feet out the window.