Archive | May, 2014

Naked in Italy

27 May
That title should make the read-rate for this blog go through the roof.
The other day I was in the gym. Having finished my workout I went to the very small locker room, where my first act is usually to wash my hands since I’ve been touching all sorts of equipment. Right in front of the sink was a naked Italian woman, chit-chatting with a couple of other women while she donned her black lace panties. I was not going to ask permesso to go to into the very small area by the sink, squeezing past her naked self. As she went to put on her bra, her cell phone rang and – I kid you not – she took a 5 minute call with one boob in the bra and one boob out, still blocking the sink.  I changed my clothes and went on my way, shaking my head.
Venus After the Bath, a stunning nude by Giambologna, on display at the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

Venus After the Bath, a stunning nude by Giambologna, on display at the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

Body image and nakedness in Italy is a culture shock for American women I have spoken to. The attitude towards the body is much more open in Italy than in North America. Whether in the locker room at the gym or at the doctor’s office, unabashed nakedness is taken for granted.
Most North American men – or men from anywhere for that matter and as far as I know – don’t give a rip about taking off their clothes in front of other men. Man boobs or not, they change and shower openly from what I am told. Not so women in North America, right?
I respect the openness with which Italians treat the body. There is little or no modesty or self-consciousness, which is somewhat refreshing, but frankly I don’t know where to put my eyes when confronted with the naked conversation.  
Another time I came into the locker room to get changed before working out and a young woman came out of the toilet stall, naked but for her shower flip-flops. (God- forbid she should get a fungus while walking around the locker room naked.)  I tried to suppress my surprise but I am certain my jaw dropped a bit. As a hung-up Americana I don’t even potty at home completely naked. Naked is for the shower and certain bed-time activities. “Buongiorno! Come vai?” she said.  Where do I put my eyes?  I think I chose a corner high and to the right.
Is this narcissism? “Look at me! I am in your way and I am naked!” She may or may not have a body one wants to see naked…. And regardless, where the heck am I supposed to put my eyes?
I have become somewhat used to doffing my clothes in a medical situation, although luckily I have been able to take care that my mammographer is not a man. (Yup, many of them are in Italy. See Things Are Different Here.) When I expressed a desire to NOT have a male mammographer the nurse said to me “What do you care? They’re only breasts.” Yes, but they are my breasts, and I like to be the one to select who touches them.  After last year’s experience I made a point of selecting a facility where the doctor herself does the mammogram and sonogram. Still, when one gets a mammogram here there are no little pink capes over your shoulders. You enter the x-ray room, strip to the waist and belly-up to the machine. This is followed by a walk to an adjacent room where you get a sonogram, sometimes involving two specialists if consultation is required. And no one explains what’s going happen. In the U.S. one would expect the doctor to say “I’d like to call in Dr. So-and-So to have a look. Do you mind?” and she would buzz someone to come in. Here, a door to a busy hallway will suddenly open and someone you’ve not met while clothed will walk in and start examining your breasts with no introduction.  Thorough, though: No one is taking chances that they will miss anything. After the exam you sit there bare-breasted while having a conversation about what was or was not found.
Perhaps Italy's most famous nude, David.

Perhaps Italy’s most famous nude, David.

Whether for skin cancer checks, a visit to the cardiologist for an ECG, or to the vascular surgeon, one just slips out of the appropriate garments while chatting up the doctor and perhaps while dressing after the exam has a conversation about vacation, or family, or life in an embassy. Very convivial. Actually I like the system a great deal in that one has the full attention of the physician. But it took some adjusting to not having privacy for undressing and dressing and occasionally having a door unexpectedly open and others arrive on the scene unexplained.
The lack of privacy also extends to the pharmacy. Hell, there isn’t even a word for privacy in Italian.  Everyone hears everyone else’s symptoms and problems. You do not walk into a pharmacy and peruse the shelves looking for your own solutions or symptoms. You have to ask the pharmacist for whatever you might need. Everyone in the store will know what you came to buy. Sort of a different form of exposure.
In the U.S. we are so concerned about privacy. God-forbid someone would overhear the pharmacist give instructions on how to take an antibiotic or how to apply that anti-fungal cream! Once I had to sign a privacy statement when they gave me instructions at the people pharmacy on how to administer a medication to my dog. In locker rooms we are shy and at the doctor’s we expect gowns and drapes, introductions and explanations before anything is looked at, probed, or handled.  
It’s certainly not that either approach is wrong. It just takes some getting used to flaunting your “stuff” in public. And I still don’t know where to look when chatting up naked women in the locker room. 

Weekend Miscellany

18 May
Friday night we undertook to make dinner for some Italian friends. I am still a bit nervous about making Italian food for Italians, so we built a “Mediterranean Menu,” incorporating preparations from Sicily and the Middle East, with a left turn to France for dessert. It turned into THE GREAT GARLIC DINNER: with the exception of dessert, there was garlic in every course. I had not planned the menu to be so. Only in the implementation did I realize how much the little wonders were incorporated. Luckily each person was a garlic fiend.
Gigi, Eleonora, me and Emanuela. Why do I always forget to take pictures of the food?

Gigi, Eleonora, me and Emanuela. Why do I always forget to take pictures of the food?

We started with pancetta-wrapped garlic, which must be tried to be believed. Our guests had never seen garlic nor pancetta treated this way. Even our vegetarian guest downed several of the savory cloves. Of course olives were present, also in a garlicky/spicy treatment. Antipasti included balsamic-roasted red-peppers, hummus, and Ric’s very wonderful Sicilian caponata, also with an adequate amount of the pungent bulbs. Served with hot, crispy-crusted-tender-inside focaccia we probably could have quit eating at this point. Ma è non finisce qui! (But wait, there’s more!) The garlic-fest continued with garlic-crusted rombo and rosemary potatoes with olives and –  you guessed it – garlic!
Rombo

Rombo

The rombo is a type of flat-fish, a member of the turbot family. I used to make this recipe with halibut in Portland. In fact it is a recipe our son taught me. Although Italian has a word for halibut, ippoglosso, you cannot get the fish fresh. So I asked at the pescheria what type of fish might work as a substitute and the rombo was the considered decision.  I was quite flattered at the fish shop to be asked how I would prepare scallops. There was another customer there contemplating scallops as they were on special and according to the fishmonger Italians only have one way of making them: baked with breadcrumbs, a sort of Coquilles St. Jacques. He knew an American (between my accent and my marginal Italian it’s easy to tell that I am) would have other preparations so we had quite a 3-way conversation about pan-frying, in cream-sauce with mushrooms, stir-fried in an Asian style, etc. This is constant conversation in Italy wherever food is sold: How are you going to prepare that? Everyone has an idea and the exchange is quite interesting and informative. I am glad my Italian is now at a level where I can participate. But I digress…. The fish is spread with roasted garlic, then sprinkled with herb-seasoned panko, and broiled for a very few minutes. Yum!
The potato recipe came from my friend Heather’s aunt, and is a real winner, perfect with this fish. New potatoes, two kinds of chopped olives, roasted garlic, herbs and olive oil = fantastic! No ketchup required.
We finished the evening with a very French pots di crème served with fresh whipped cream,the intense chocolate being a fine counter-point to the savory dinner.
At the very elegant Villa Taverna gardens. I was so wrapped up in the auction, wine and food, I forgot to take pictures. This was the cake-topper.

At the very elegant Villa Taverna gardens. I was so wrapped up in the auction, wine and food that I forgot to take pictures. This was the cake-topper.

Of course that was only Friday. The gastro-fest continued at the annual embassy auction at the ambassador’s residence, Villa Taverna.  Because U.S. government procurement law does not allow taxpayer money to be spent on employee functions, each year the Community Liaison Office holds an auction to raise funds to allow a couple of parties for staff, morale-boosting efforts for the Marine Security Guard, such as visits by their parents, and so on. The auction is a big deal, with great food and an opportunity to spend money. So of course we did. It looks like we have a couple of weekend trips ahead, including 3 nights at an agriturismo in the Brunello di Montalcino region.
Ric and me in our little risciò, perfect for touring the park. V.B. is the largest public park in Rome.

Ric and me in our little risciò, perfect for touring the park. V.B. is the largest public park in Rome.

Sunday we decided it was finally time to rent a risciò in Villa Borghese. A risciò is a pedal-cart for two-to-four adults and two little ones. It is power-assisted so you don’t kill yourself pedaling, but it does take some thigh power to get around. We have a mind to take our young great-nephew and great-niece for an outing when they are here in August, so we thought a trial run would be a good idea. What a fun way to see the park! We walk through V.B. almost daily, but there are parts of the park we never get to see. So Susan and John, when you two are off seeing the Vatican Museums, we may be cycling your kids through the park.
Anyone who knows Ric knows that pizza is a weekly menu item, usually on Friday night. Since we had company Friday and the auction Saturday, we had to push pizza to Sunday night, so very shortly we’ll be off our local pizzeria to feed the need. Great way to wrap up the weekend!
The lake in Villa Borghese. Very small, but quite sweet.

The lake in Villa Borghese. Very small, but quite sweet.

Hope you all had fun this weekend too!

By the sea

6 May
We are drawn to the sea. I guess growing up in the land-locked Midwest made the sea particularly mesmerizing to us. When we moved to Portland in 1987 we became frequent visitors to the Oregon Coast, and were especially fond of going to Cannon Beach with the dogs. Yet we are not beach people, per se. We are ramblers and hikers who enjoy the fresh sea air and great seafood. So we gravitate to the coastal areas not in the height of summer with normal people, but in the shoulder season, and occasionally in winter. We made a trek to “CB” each fall and very early spring for many years. Never got close to getting sunburned at CB.
Early morning view from our room in Porto Santo Stefano.

Early morning view from our room in Porto Santo Stefano.

And so we a passed a long weekend in Tuscany. “Tuscany?” you ask. “Isn’t that hill towns, Renaissance art, sangiovese and wild boar?” Yes, it is all that, but it also sports a fabulous coastline in the Maremma area. It’s a little bit like the Cinque Terre, but closer to Rome, easier to get to, and less well-known among North Americans.
Ric’s contractor friend Dario recommended this area, particularly Porto Santo Stefano, as he knows our interest in hiking and our affection for the Cinque Terre. Isola del Giglio,  which has intrigued us since the Costa Concordia capsized off its coast more than two years ago, is only a short ferry ride from Porto Santo Stefano. Lacking enough time to make a Cinque Terre trek, and always interested in places our countrymen seldom visit, off we went. After talking to some Italian friends it seemed we might have been better off actually staying on Isola del Giglio instead of in PSS, but by the time we came to this knowledge, it was too late to secure a room that was both acceptable and affordable on Giglio. This was a holiday weekend – the third in a row! – for Italians. So we stayed in a quaint B&B in Porto Santo Stefano, with a fine terrace overlooking the sea. The price we had to pay for the view is a four-floor walk-up. Ugh.
Cute little Giglio Porto. The ugly shipwreck is behind me, just outside the harbor.

Cute little Giglio Porto. The ugly shipwreck is behind me, just outside the harbor.

It’s been a chilly spring in Italy, but the lack of oppressive sun makes for good hiking and small crowds. An hour-long ferry ride took us across the channel. Giglio is part of the Tuscan Archipelago, a national park. We secured a map and a brochure and a little information from the guy at the Tourist Information Center who knew slightly less English than I know Italian (always a rewarding moment for me). We wanted a hike of 60-90 minutes, leaving time for lunch and to return to the harbor to catch our ride back. “Up to Castello,” he said, confirming what we’d read online and heard from a local diver the day before. “It’s steep, but go slowly. And there’s a restaurant. You can take a bus back down.”
It is difficult to imagine the industrious people, probably Romans, who built this path over the island so very long ago ago.

It is difficult to imagine the industrious people, probably Romans, who built this path over the island so very long ago ago.

Steep it was, and deserted. We only saw four people during 90 minutes, quite a different scenario than the Cinque Terre. We trudged up the mountain, glimpsing the castle high above us, and rewarded with beautiful views below us.  Wild flowers as one can only find in spring are abundant. We traversed oak woods, through scrubby pine, and finally some classic Italian Cyprus, emerging 1300 feet higher at Giglio Castello. Not bad for old people. We weren’t even panting (too much). And there was a restaurant. Not just a “restaurant” but one serving fabulous food. We got ourselves into a very fine lunch indeed! In the U.S. in all of our hiking for years and years in Oregon, we could never have dreamed of such a lunch at the end of a trail! Maybe a stale granola bar, or perhaps a hot dog at the Dairy Queen in some small town on our way back home, but fresh seafood pasta? A Tuscan salumi platter? Fine, crisp vino bianco? Yup, here at the highest point of a tiny Mediterranean island, alongside a castle from the 13th century, after hiking a path used for millennia to cross the island, we find superb cuisine.
Ric on our steep steep hike at Isola del Giglio.

Ric on our steep steep hike at Isola del Giglio.

The castle high above us. The hike was from sea level to about 1300 feet.

The castle high above us. The hike was from sea level to about 1300 feet.

After 90 minutes of uphill hiking, we are at the last bit before achieving Castello. Lunch is in range!

After 90 minutes of uphill hiking, we are at the last bit before achieving Castello. Lunch is in range!

Don't tell Dr. Rosa what we had for lunch! Lovely Tuscan salumi platter. I like to think the hike caused us to wear off the fat before we even ate it.

Don’t tell Dr. Rosa what we had for lunch! Lovely Tuscan salumi platter. I like to think the hike caused us to wear off the fat before we even ate it.

As we hiked to Castello, we were seldom out of sight of the Costa Concordia. We are probably at 800 feet taking this photo.

As we hiked to Castello, we were seldom out of sight of the Costa Concordia. We are probably at 800 feet taking this photo.

We found Isola del Giglio interesting enough to return a second day, allowing us to check out the windward side of the island at Giglio Campese. An efficient bus ferried us from the port, up-and-over at Castello, down the opposite side to the beach.  Here we found an almost Hawaii-like locale, but not so posh. Also, Hawaii lacks 19th century turrets as far as I know. Our planned ocean-front hike turned into an inland trek when the rock climbing became a bit challenging. Not wanting to risk a broken body part, we opted for forest, wild flowers, and bees. Once again our efforts were rewarded, this time with fresh salads and crisp Ansonaco, (the local wine) on the beach.
The beach at Giglio Campese, a little like Hawaii.

The beach at Giglio Campese, a little like Hawaii.

A little like Hawaii, but with a 19th century tower.

A little like Hawaii, but with a 19th century tower.

Wildflowers are abundant in May, and the bees made industrious.

Wildflowers are abundant in May, and the bees industrious.

Porto Santo Stefano is a very peaceful location with a number of good restaurants at all price levels, a fantastic lungomare and piazza with a 5-star hang-out factor. We could see the stars from our terrace and nights were so quiet that our sleep was uninterrupted. Bliss.
Porto Santo Stefano sports many restaurants along a fabulous lungomare, prime for the passagiata.

Porto Santo Stefano sports many restaurants along a fabulous lungomare, prime for the passagiata.

Lovely piazza in Porto Santo Stefano. Great hangout factor.

Lovely piazza in Porto Santo Stefano. Great hangout factor.

%d bloggers like this: