Roma Holiday #pre-5(a)

I’m trying to get the food pix together in the midst of returning to normal routines, a grinding update of trash collection where we live, the most writing I’ve been asked to do in a long time, catching up like crazy with music, and so —


What I have to offer tonight is: when in Rome, eat the octopus. I don’t think it’s only the sensitive and nuanced preparations, I think the animal itself from the waters there is sweeter and a couple shades richer in flavor than the ones from the Northeast US. Very complex creatures.

Roma Holiday #4: Pleasant Surprises

(1) We got what I would call an ideal viewing of the Sistine Chapel.

We had long been warned to start a Vatican tour as early as possible and zip right to the Chapel in order not to be distracted and even overwhelmed by a sea of crowds. We went with the 7:30 AM tour done by The Roman Guy and indeed did motor pretty much right into the Sistine Zone. I expected the  groups to be as small and scattered as they were, but I worried that we would be more or less hustled through the room. Instead (though our guide said she was not allowed to say much, she would answer questions — I noticed a couple other guides kinda ignored the silencio requirement) we got absolutely enough time for a full examination. And no question, it’s a pinnacle of human achievement.

Three sub-points and I’ll move on. I’ve always thought “God Separating the Light From the Darkness” looked oddly murky and unfinished (even in the cleaned reproductions I had seen). Observing the work itself, it was plain Michelangelo intended this deliberately. The primal origin is the murkiest moment in the history of the universe — and I think every religion as well as science would agree on this truth. Next, no matter how many dozens and dozens of times I have scanned the “Final Judgement” I never appreciated how horrible and emotionally tempestuous is the figure of Minos. Nightmare.


Finally my favorite non-Michelangelo work in the Sistine is on the right of the back wall. Shows angels chasing demons away from the corpse (and soul) of Moses, who had a very sordid set of later years, of course. Very demony demons (as I say, you can tell when the artist believes) and a knockout presentation of the principle that the good you do can redeem the bad. I flopped attempts to track down who painted it.

(2) The modern art we saw offered serious competition in wonderfulness to the classical masters.

(And my biggest complaint is that you could do a well-researched visit to Rome and hear next to nothing about the Modern treasures.) The Time Out of Joint exhibition was a thorough treat — well, a few dull rooms — and we would say a must. One of the best aspects is that, while there are themed sections, there’s no right or wrong way to put together your path through the building. Just make sure you take in everything. The Hercules in the link, btw, is the only 19th century mythology-themed statue that rivaled the glory-years works. The others were warnings about how trapped in a wondrous past a country’s traditions could become. And even this Herk is an obscure if intense moment I had to look up to remember.

The Botero retrospective was a surprise treat among surprise treats. We got in during a special-discount late-hours session on Saturday and enjoyed a crowd with more art-devoted locals than usual. Particularly strong on showing how turning pre-existing themes into you own language is potent. The blow-my-heart-and-brains section was the one on circus performers. Only gripe: 80-year-old Botero oversaw the selections himself and chose to present his work as a bit more above politics than it is. Even one of these would have made it a perfect survey.

(3) Food and taste cheerys.

We had forgotten that not just eggs but milk — and cheese and ice cream and yogurt etc. — was richer and more complex in Europe than in the US. I yearn for one of those yogurt and fruit snacks to this minute. Also, sticking rigidly to my new eating schedule felt half deranged and half impossible. Especially as I caved on carbs for unforgettable pasta and even bread sometimes, I worried. We were quite active — walked at least two miles or more every day — I was sure I would gain.

Stepped on the scale the day after we returned: not a single pound added. Joy oh joy. The only change I’m going to make in my routine is to be a tiny bit more forgiving about an occasional slice of bread that seduces me. Should be offset by my reluctance to settle for the lesser pasta hereabouts.

Eternal question: where has Italian wild boar been all my life? Over there, waiting for me to flip out over it.

(4) The stunning clarity of the cleaned-off artwork banished all regret at taking so long to visit the Eternal City.

The freshened stone and canvas and even paper are what to see. An indisputable argument was the Coliseum — where you almost wish they would leave the grime-removal incomplete since the compare-and-contrast was so fascinating.

Speaking of the Coliseum, another pleasant surprise was the extensive temporary display that traced the history of the giant structure in reproductions and reconstructions, including representations in paintings and illustrations.

There was yet still more, but I’m outta poop.

Roman Holiday #3 — Cards

As I’ve indicated before, I collect tarot card decks (waaaay slowed down during the last 10-15 years — but cool decks have become increasingly rare over the same span). I wasn’t sure about the riches in Rome, but even New Age joints basically skip tarot nowadays, so I had modest expectations. As usual, among the things I found out was how little I knew. Cards in general and Tarocco in particular are sold in tobacco shops (no, I was not going to buy a Disney version from their damn store). I did know that the company Modiano dominates but did not realize how completely.

After visiting several shops I also concluded that the era of arty-fancy Tarot is more or less over, even in the country where they first took off. I looked at several decks that had aspirations, but they seemed far cheaper and more perfunctory than many decks I already had. Asking the friendliest tobacco store guy (I noticed the cards were almost always sold by their own person) what I could do to get a truly Italian deck — he uncovered another spot of my ignorance and informed me there was such a thing as Sicilian Tarot:

tarot sicily

with some fascinating variations: The Tower remains intact, there’s a card called “The Unfortunate” that is not quite the Beggar, The Sun includes two people fighting viciously under it and the Hanged Man is, yeah, literally hanged from a tree. (Draw your own conclusions about Sicilian consciousness.) A serious treat — the prime gift to my collection.

Next I got a regular double-deck Modiano set of playing cards — very cleanly printed with sharp detail, a little pencil and scoring pad and a lovely metal box. This is the one I would get out if my Mom’s ghost came for a visit to play Bridge.

[Before I go on, I should note that two of the pervasive 2018 calendars on sale everyfreakingwhere where (a) cutie-pie/studly young priests and (b) cutie-pie/studly guys dressed up as gladiators.]

At the Coliseum gift shop itself I snapped up a 54-cared playing deck done with Coliseo-related themes, including battles with men and beasts and armor and musicians and rituals and architecture and various moments of construction and supply. Small, but exquisite pictures as you would want from an excellent illustrated kids’ book. Not expensive. Includes essential bonus cards that explain what the images are — in five languages. Prime gift to my non-Tarot collection.


Oddest Food Recommendation on “Miles To Go”? Well — Up There

It’s a lunch discovery in Washington DC. I am exploring the same unfamiliar neighborhood where I ran across the lovely non-profit book-and-music store. Chance on this place called Stone Fish Grill which I check out because I think Stone Fish are cool and the menu looks intriguing. So here’s what makes this pick odd:

Place seems to be primarily an Afro-Caribbean disco that serves lunch from 11-2 and dinner from 5-9. So the lighting and decor is, well, not suited to relaxed narfing.

I only ate one dish.

But it was the most exquisite crab cake and veggie side I can remember.

The side was green beans cooked to perfect firmness with what tasted like a Southern-style sauce (Carolinas or Caribbean I couldn’t tell).

But the cake itself — oooh. About the size of a hardball and done the right way — all crab meat with spice and a bit of sauce and no sinful filler stuff — with the right crab, Maryland, which I find deeper flavored and more delicate than even fresh Maine.

Completely satisfying. A full meal. Only. 10. Bucks.

And I was the only person in there eating lunch. You people are missing out.

If in the area, don’t join the missers.

Death OF Venice

When we went there a dozen years ago, this all had been a terrible problem for a long, long time.

We were fortunate enough to spend a lot of most days with a couple of high-school teachers who were native of the city. We got a real tour of the canals in the family motorboat, not some gondola or package-tour rip. They were sad about the population decline and none of their own children elected to live there.

Here are my two favorites of the insider-scoops we got:

  1. Venice seems to pretty much close up after dark unless you go to the casinos or the very few theaters. The serious night life, we found out, is at private parties in palazzos. The two we attended were easily among the most wonderful get-togethers we’ve experienced. Really was like you were living in a movie with literary characters come to life.
  2. Our male host confided in me that when he was growing up in the ’50s, getting his first powered boat was exactly how he could understand teens getting their first shiny Chevy in the United States.

San Francisco/Berkeley Swag, Pt. One: Books

Yeah, been Out West for almost two weeks. Get with it, NY — these two towns make you seem like a money-mad artist-fan hellhole nowadays. Serious record stores, serious book stores (not nearly as many as in the past, but not teetering on extinction, either), with eager customers dropping cash. Learn. Change. Use Paris as a model if you must.

This is basically in order of purchase:

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Led Zeppelin by Benjamin Darling. Sure, kinda silly that it’s a riff on those insipid “Golden Books” series, but, you know, Zappa-like sassy. Finest bathroom-book addition in years.

Trust by Jim Marshall . Copped for a knockout low sum at Half Price Books, a hugely recommended spot in Berkeley. Somebody(ies) has a helluva eye for out-of-print and cut-out. Very very little junk. Marshall is fundamentally a B&W guy, but the color shots are key to making this his most overall collection. There’s about a dozen shots in here that are little-known that a serious music fan has to have. (Marshall was in the karma mix in the area. I was shown a wondrous, rare photographer-signed shot of John Lennon backstage at the last concert — Marshall was the only one allowed — and then this book turned up.)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams (Signet-paperback movie version with eight pages of photos!) I love these cheesy but dreamy old editions. Found at the recommended Alexander Book Company in SF. It’s got class and taste and spirit. But I can remember when indies like this were not so unusual.

[Another Post to Come]