Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Tale of Several Cities

I feel like a mother who is convinced that her child is the best, most perfect child, no matter how accomplished and good and attractive the other children might be.  Rome is extraordinary and Amsterdam, where we just spent five days, is charming and comfortable, but I miss Paris even after only three weeks away. 

With the weather going bad and rain forecast for the next several days we decided a couple of days ago that our planned stay at a friend's apartment on the Normandy coast was no longer a good idea, particularly as there was work being done on the roof, and I found my heart leaping at the idea of going back to Paris for the last week of our "vacation". 

Unfortunately it's the week of the French Open (known as Roland Garros here after the name of the stadium) and there is not a hotel room to be had in all of Paris.  I know, I tried them all.  Luckily some friends were able to accommodate us and after a flurry of emails we're heading "home" to Paris tomorrow.

I liked Rome more this trip than I ever had before, but still don't love it.  In trying to understand why I prefer Paris to Rome I came up with the Order and Control Theory.  Rome is wild and uncontrolled.  Its streets wander around and bend back on themselves, major arteries are narrow lanes, buildings are painted bright if fading colors, its inhabitants shout and argue, it's dirty and dilapidated and gorgeous and ancient.  It's not me.  I'm a control freak.  I'm drawn to the rational, the straight-lined, the broad streets and Haussmannian architecture, the cut stone and painted plaster walls, the order of Paris.  And even when they argue, Parisians are polite: "Madame, you are an idiot!" "No monsieur, it is you who are the jackass!"

But my theory fails to explain Amsterdam.  It is, god knows, orderly.  It's clean, it's rational, its residents don't scream at each other (although those gutteral sounds aren't very pleasing to the ear at any level), the preferred method of transport over the pretty bridges are bicycles, there are tons of cultural resources (we went to four museums and one concert), but it's dull nonetheless.

And I haven't mentioned Antwerp, where we are at the moment, which has many of the virtues of Amsterdam but none of louche attractions of Rome.  What none of them have, to my mind, is the rational yet sexy glamour of Paris, the expectation that you will always find something exciting to do or see and that walking in the streets will, for the most part, be a never-ending pleasure.  I find my reaction to most places is simple: it's fine, but it's not Paris.

My child is the best.

Monday, May 17, 2010


It's hard to believe that there can be any more marble left in the world after several millenia of Roman sculpture and building.  They didn't stint; those toes up there are about three feet long.  One can only imagine what the entire body looked like.  This head sitting around bodyless might help to picture it, and the hand just to its right, pointing heavenward:

The weird weather has had us wandering the streets and indulging in caffé sitting in between downpours, but this mutability of weather seems to reflect the mad mix of times, styles, histories in this city.

This morning we went out for coffee in the sun, came back to the apartment to change clothes and suddenly heard rain pouring from the sky.  Go figure.  Two days ago we had a walking tour of Roman architecture in the rain, beginning with the Richard Meier building housing the Augustinian Ara Pacis.  Go figure.

The Baroque churches butting up against the Fascist architecture of Mussolini, and the ancient Pantheon sitting among 16th century buildings.  Go figure.

There are hoards of people around, speaking every language I've ever heard along with some new ones.  It's extraordinarily frustrating not to be able to speak Italian, not to be able to ask for directions, talk about the weather, anything at all.  I've learned a few words and guessed others but I'd gotten used to being able to speak relatively comfortably in France and forgotten the feeling of being an outsider that lack of language gives you.  Learning some Italian will be on the list of things to do before my brain gives up the ghost.

Meanwhile we're part of the gaping crowds wandering from the Pantheon to Piazza Navona to the Borghese Gardens to the Spanish Steps.  Speaking of them, they're barely visible under the rear ends of the crowds sprawled from top to bottom.

I wonder what this fellow thinks as he looks out at the tourists crowding his piazza.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The View From Up Here

We’re perched on a hilltop in a village that boasts one Renaissance painting by Perugino, two bars and three restaurants.  The owner of one of the bars (the oldest in town) and one of the restaurants (the newest in town) is not speaking to the owner of the other bar and of one of the other restaurants and is not being spoken to by the owners of the third restaurant.  Loyalists of the various sides avoid or are barred from the opposing establishments. Life is lived intensely in this village.

It’s amazing anyone speaks to anyone here, but as far as I can tell the English-speaking community speaks to everyone (except the opposing restaurateurs).  In the last week we have had dinners or outings with people who appear to see each other on a nearly daily basis, eating at each others homes, exchanging tips for where to get various items, exchanging plant cuttings and fresh eggs from their chickens, etc.  It may simply be a very generous welcome for us visitors, but I get the impression it is typical of daily life here.  We’re social folk, but we’ve had to skip a couple of get-togethers for a quiet night at home.

And between the visits and dinners, we have been driving all over Tuscany and Umbria, taking pictures of the glorious countryside, the churches and villages and medieval fortress cities, and eating pasta wherever we can find it.  I had lost weight in Paris because we walked so much and ate fewer snacks.  In Italy I’m in the car a lot more and eating more carbohydrates.  I fear for my waistline but can’t resist the tagliatelle al tartufo and the stops for gelato, something that rarely tempts me anywhere else but has become irresistible here. 

We visited the gardens at La Foce near Pienza and La Scarzuola, by the architect Tommaso Buzzi, near Montigiello.  This sacred and profane “ideal city” is built at a smaller-than-real scale and contains multiple theater spaces that form the profane balance for the restored Franciscan convent representing the sacred.  Add to this the usual trips to Montepulciano, Montichiello for lunch at the divine La Porta, Todi, Perugia, and heaven only knows where else and we feel like we’ve left no corner of the countryside unexplored.  Until we get in the car the next day and find some little gem like Spina or the teensy tiny Pieve Caina.

Next stop: Rome.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Benvenuto al Italia

I've got very little bandwidth here so no photos for the moment...if things get better I'll re-post.  sorry!

I think I should just skip over our final week in Paris, packed though it was with Paulette’s visit, Gene’s birthday dinner on the terrace at Le Saut du Loup in the Tuileries Garden, the super exhibition of the fantasy furniture of Francois-Xavier and Claude Lalanne, the Willy Ronis photography exhibit, and several “goodbye visits” to le Comptoir du Relais and l’Avant Comptoir with bises and handshakes all around.  We were able to congratulate the charming and talented Dai at l’Avant Comptoir on his promotion to the kitchen at le Comptoir itself.

No, I’ll skip to our poor choice of a weekend to spend in Milan.  We arrived late on the Friday of May 1 weekend, when the entire city shuts down until Monday afternoon.  Our train out of town left at 1:15 on Monday.  Suffice it to say my planning skills failed me nearly completely on this one.  We did have a few successes however.  The Poldi Pozolli Museum was open all weekend and we visited twice to see this entire house museum and collection built by a very wealthy 19th century Milanese.  And we had several very good meals, the highlight of which was at Bebel’s in Brera. 

Run by the amiable Sergio, Bebel’s is apparently patronized by the well-to-do, bling-clad Milanese, but it was the least expensive and best meal we had.  Sergio simply asked us what we wanted, suggested a few things, offered half-portions, switched the wine mid-bottle so we could taste a local one and generally treated us as if we were longtime patrons whose pleasure concerned him intimately.  We wound up chatting with our next-table neighbors, a Venetian couple often in Milan to visit their grown children, who were indeed regulars, bises and all, and exchanged contact information for when they are in Paris or we in Venice next fall.

And so the train to Panicale, where we are staying with Paulette at her apartment built into the walls of the medieval cittá.  Had we not run into a traveling Australian family with a strong son we might have been sitting between cars on our suitcase. There are no longer spaces at the end of railroad cars to put your luggage; everything must fit in the overhead slot.  When you are me and traveling for a month, the suitcase isn’t light.  Gene has been doing back exercises on the floor for the last two days.  Suffice it to say it wasn’t fun.

Transferring in Florence to a local train, we watched a young woman miss her station because she couldn’t open the railroad car door, which apparently requires you to push an unmarked button on the side at the same time you tug a reluctant handle on the door itself.  None of this is explained in any language anywhere near the exits.  Neither is the name of the upcoming station.  Getting off, and at the correct station, was a test of coordination and agility which we barely passed.

A wonderful dinner in the village trattoria with Paulette and her friends made up for it all.  Tiny gnocchi with truffles, papardelle with white ragú, chicory with garlic and oil, roast pork with porcini…happy travelers.