Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cleaning House

By Patricia Winton

I’ve spent the last two weeks having my apartment in Rome refurbished with a parade of workers coming and going. My place is quite small, and everything has had to be moved from place to place as the work progressed. I have lots of books and papers, and they all had to come down so the furniture could be moved. Below is the diary I kept one busy day at the midpoint of the process.

I’m sitting at my desk before my computer screen. Chaos reigns, even here, as two plumbers and one painter work their magic in my tiny abode. I slept last night on half my bed—the other half piled with sofa cushions and assorted pillows. I got to the bed via a small pathway between the chest of drawers that belongs there and the kitchen table that definitely does not.

I follow the same trail out of bed and into my breakfast spot where the painter has left me space to make coffee. I drink it sitting on the terrace which hosts the painter’s supplies, a refrigerator, two ladders, and three lamps plus the things that belong there like plants, a watering can, and assorted outdoor furniture. I’m surprisingly calm.

Maurizio the Painter
At the moment, the painter is rolling paint onto the ceiling. One plumber is assembling the base cabinet that will replace the rotted one under the sink in the kitchen. The other is on a ladder working on the toilet tank (they are high on the wall here in Italy).

The plumber discovers that I’ve left some things under the sink, and I go to remove them. The first thing I do is pick up the basin collecting water under an open pipe and promptly dump it on the floor. A bit of mopping, and I complete the task. The plumber rips out the base.

The painter takes a snack break with grissini (bread sticks); he offers me one and I accept. The plumbers take a smoke break while I scour the mess behind and under the old sink. What horrible grime! I spray it all with bleach and hope that I haven’t transmitted anything serious to some guest who’s eaten here.

Now the plumbers are fitting the sink over the new base cabinet—it has five drawers! The painter stands astride his ladder covering the horrible orange paint the the previous resident chose with my pale gray. He’s humming “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.”

Francesco the Plumber
The water’s turned off while the plumbers replace the kitchen faucet. I forget, go to the bathroom, and flush. Quite a noise comes from the water tank, but nobody chastises me. I skulk back to my desk.

The plumbers have gone now, taking a wad of my cash. The painter is humming a different tune, but he’s still cheerful. He says we may be finished by Tuesday. The air is so humid that the paint is drying slowly, and he can’t do the 12 hours of work he had promised me. Oh, well.

I’m alone at last. There are still more coats of paint to be spreadin Italian, a coat of paint is a mano (hand). This lull is relaxing with my new calm paint color. I'm sipping a glass of wine and mi riposo (I'm resting). 

This day turned out not to be the most stressful one. That came on the next-to-last day when I had two painters plus an electrician tripping over each other. Most of the work took place in the bathroom that day, so I had to shoo them all out when I needed the facilities. It became much more stressful when they took the bathroom door off. My sister says I felt stressed because it had been a long time since I'd had to ask permission to go to the bathroom.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Afternoon Drink

By Patricia Winton

My apartment is teeming with painters, plumbers, and electricians. I’ve finally put my office back together, but I haven’t written a post this week. I published this piece last year at Novel Adventurers when the topic of the week was “Beverages.”

This topic turned out to be a difficult one for me because there are too many choices in Italy! Coffee? Espresso or cappuccino, caffè macchiato or latte macchiato. Wine? Red, white, or pink, house or vintage. Water? Mineral or tap, fizzy or still. My mind swirled with the possibilities. I needed to clear my head, so I went for a walk.

The afternoon passeggiata is a time-honored tradition in Italy. People stroll down the avenues and window shop; they linger in piazzas and gossip; they admire babies in pushcarts; they greet friends and neighbors. And, if they don’t favor a gelato, they usually stop by a bar for an aperitivo before going home to dinner.

At my neighborhood bar, family and friends cluster around tables for this ritual. Many Italians rarely drink alcohol, just a celebratory sip of wine at birthdays and Holy Communion. For these people, bitter (pronounced BEE tare) is the drink of choice. This herbal-based brew is a refreshing carbonated confection that comes in red or white, like wine. Oranges give the red its color and strengthen its flavor.  Most bitter is bottled in 100 ml glass containers‒about three and a half ounces. Kept in the cooler, bitter is served with a slice of lemon or orange. These should not be confused with amaro (the Italian word for bitter) which is a digestivo and served after dinner.

For the people who want a bit of kick with their aperitivo, Campari reigns as the drink of choice. Also based on various herbs, straight Campari has about 20 percent alcoholic content, but it usually comes as Campari Soda at 10 percent. Sometimes served over ice, Campari Soda is also accompanied by a slice of lemon or orange. Campari is the key ingredient in a variety of cocktails rarely, if ever, served in my neighborhood bar. The best-known of these, Negroni, contains Campari, gin, and red vermouth.

Vermouth steps up as the next favored aperitivo. The vermouth that stars in the standard martini just doesn’t do it, either. Italian vermouth comes in sweet and dry, red and white. The choices never end. Yet another herbal-based confection, Italian vermouth varies by brand, the most popular being Cinzano. But, even the lesser-known can satisfy.

During aperitivo hour, children probably drink Cokes, and at least one person is sure to have a glass of mineral water. That’s a perfectly acceptable drink at the bar.

When the drinks arrive, the staff also brings snacks. These can be as simple as a bowl of potato chips and a plate of olives. Other times, there are small sandwiches and tiny pizzas. You might get fried potatoes or strips of prosciutto, rounds of salami or pieces of cheese. The same establishment may be generous with the snacks one day and stingy the next.

After drinking and snacking, I’m not sure that I really need dinner.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Notes from Florence

By Patricia Winton

I visited Florence last week. Here are some brief observations that I made. I’ll write more about some of these topics a bit later in the year.

Bicycles rule. Although I’ve been to the city many times, I’d never noticed so many foot-powered two-wheelers. My Florentine friend tells me that with increased restrictions on motorized vehicles, bicycles are the way to go. 

There are many places where motorized traffic is limited to taxis, emergency vehicles, and busses. There are lots of bicycle rental stands for tourists, and bicycle parking racks are among the biggest I’ve ever seen.

Florence is much cleaner than Rome. There’s less litter on the streets—even cigarette butts. And even though Rome—at least in my neighborhood—has daily garbage pickup, there’s always piles of trash lying outside the dumpsters, including the recycling bins. Florence is experimenting with a new collection system called Trashcube. The bins are actually underground. Above ground chutes, that close after use, guide the trash into appropriate receptacles for organic matter, recyclable material, and non-recyclables. And I came across municipal workers hosing down bins after they had been emptied.

The weird house numbers. The first time I visited Florence looking for a specific street address, I despaired of finding the place. The numbers read, in order, something like this: 24, 26, 28, 30. Suddenly the next numbers were 127, 129, before reverting back to 32.

I’ve since learned that the original numbering system, dating back for centuries, assigned black numbers to residential buildings and red ones to commercial properties. Over time, some of the distinctions no longer apply because a former residential building may have become commercial and vice versa. The original numbers have been retained. Florentine addresses are given as Via ____ 34n (the “n” for nero, black) or 127r (rosso, red). Today, the black numbers are often blue, and in large properties that have changed purpose or have been subdivided, the colors may no longer ring true.

I dodged a bullet. One afternoon I sat in the tranquil piazza in front of the home of the late Magdalene Nabb, mystery writer extraordinaire. Friends were chatting on benches; a crazed drunken woman sat on the edge of the fountain, spouting a litany of complaints; children ran around chasing pigeons. Suddenly, I felt a thud against my chest. I thought a pigeon had landed until I saw a young girl kicking around a rather large rock. She’d hit me then went merrily on her way. I’m lucky the rock hit the purse I cradled instead of my face. What an ignominious end that would have been!

Language lesson. On my first night, I had a pizza at a pleasant cafe. A little girl sitting at the table to my left kept flirting with me. She didn’t speak—possibly hadn’t yet learned to talk, but she practiced her gestures. She pointed; I pointed back. She waved; I waved back. She clapped; I echoed her. She gestured, ‘come here;’ so did I.

At the table on my right, three college-aged guys kept switching languages. One spoke primarily German, though he appeared to be Japanese. Then he’d speak in perfect English. One appeared to be Italian, but his English was quite good.The third appeared to be American, but he could switch to Italian mid-sentence.

When the waiter brought their bill, they calculated what each owed and asked to pay each part with a different credit card. The poor waiter, who spoke very little English, became somewhat confused by this turn of events. The American student gave the amounts, in English, and the waiter repeated in Italian as he wrote down the amounts. I heard the American say, “Fifty for this one,” and the waiter say, “Quindici per questa.” The waiter had understood 15 for 50, a common error—even for mother-tongue speakers.

I didn’t want to jump in to a conversation that was clearly none of my business, but I learned later that they got it all sorted out at the register. When the waiter brought my bill, I asked him about it and gave him a mini-English lesson: Dov’è l’accento, c’è la cifra. (The digit is where you hear the accent.) FIFty is 50; fifTEEN is 15. He was very pleased and asked I teach English in Florence. Too bad I had to say “No.”

Thursday, July 4, 2013

All Roads Lead to Rome

By Patricia Winton

The Appian Way
We all know the phrase. It means the same as “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” That is, there’s more than one way to reach a goal or to get what you want. But did you know that the phrase has an historical origin? That at one time, all roads—at least in the known Western world—did lead to Rome? From ancient times, Romans constructed a network of paved courses going south to ports leading to other points on the Mediterranean and north to points over the Alps. These arteries originally provided efficient modes for troop movement but eventually became trade routes as well.

Construction on the first road, Via Appia (the Appian Way), began in 312 BC and eventually proceeded 122 miles southeast to Brindisi—a port town for ships heading for Greece and Africa. Other roads followed including the Via Flaminia, the Via Cassia, the Via Aurelia, and others, radiating from Rome like sunbeams. Some of these early roads take their names from the builder.

Fragment of the Golden Milestone
Emperor Caesar Augustus consolidated road-building and established the Milliarium Aureum (Golden Milestone) in the Roman Forum. From this point, distances along roads throughout the Roman empire were measured and milestones were erected. Eventually, the network included 400,000 km. of roads throughout the republic.

The network throughout the Italian peninsula has proved to be so valuable that modern roads have been build parallel to the originals. The Via Appia has become the Appia Nuova (New Appian Way) but most of the others simply retain the old name while the old road is called, for example, the Flaminia Originale (Original Flaminia). Railway lines often follow the course as well.

Via Flaminia and Flaminia Originale
Many of the roadways still exist in Italy. There’s a section of the Appian Way that hosts limited traffic, but other parts make beautiful walking or bicycling tracks. Recently, I wandered on a section of the Via Flaminia still in use by a limited number of residents living along that stretch. It apparently gets visits from local garbage trucks, too, because I saw trash bins awaiting pickup! And sections of Roman roads have been unearthed throughout the reach of the empire.

With all these roads leading to Rome, is it any wonder that the city has some of the worst traffic congestion in Europe?
Traffic near the Golden Milestone fragment