(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Month: December, 2011

A little last minute window shopping

I was going to post about something a little more meaningful, but I’m behind in packing and it required too much thought.  Besides which, these Christmas windows won’t be around for much longer!  The first picture is just for my New York friends, and it’s the photo that got me started taking pictures of Christmas windows again yesterday afternoon.  Look carefully at the back of this little cable car, and I think you’ll see something familiar.


And doesn’t it just figure that Italian Barbies would dress better than their American counterparts?

Speaking of which, these red shoes are almost enough to make me want to go clothes shopping, and that’s saying a lot!

I suppose the top window must be in English because it’s an English or American store.  I kind of want one of those Postmodern faux-fancy lamps, only I’d rather have it as chandelier, since chandeliers are so Torino. The bottom window is even cooler, though, and it’s from an Italian store.

And these are just cute.  They remind me of Pylones, but they’re not.

As we started to walk back down Pietro Micca and Cernaia under the portici, I saw one of those typically Torinese pasticceria windows, all outfitted with elegantly wrapped panettone, a white squirrel, and a golden sequined reindeer. Why not?

Also, I love the way all the neon shop signs look as it starts to get dark.  The white balls are part of Grom, the famous gelateria that also has a branch in the Village (and I just now discovered, another on W. 76th and Broadway!).

And finally, here’s my favorite of the winter light displays, the constellation one.  Some friends of ours wrote the designer, and asked why they didn’t recognize all of the constellations.  He replied that it was because he made some of them up!  I really like the crenulated towers silhouetted against the dusk sky, too.

Tomorrow we leave for the US, specifically Georgia.  It’s a very different place.  Maybe Elvis will come by and Blue Christmas in his spandex suit again!  But whether he does or not, we’ll be happy to see all our family and friends.

Merry Christmas!



Christmas serendipity

Michelangelo Buonarroti Madonna con il Bambino/Madonna and Child/ Vierge à l’Enfant 1525 circa/c.1525/1525 environ matita nera, matita rossa, biacca e inchiostro/black chalk, red chalk, white lead, pen and ink/ crayon noir, crayon rouge, céruse et encre Firenze/Florence, Casa Buonarroti

I went to see this drawing yesterday at the Palazzo Madama (Queen Mothers’ palace). The only thing separating this drawing from the busiest piazza in Torino was a double velvet curtain.  You could just walk in for free and look at it, even take photos of it.  Wow!

I’ve long admired this drawing, which is on loan from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence.  Affinity for Michelangelo is one of the main reasons I liked to draw as a child.  And as with so many other works of art, it looks much more alive in person.  The Christ Child really pops out of the background, brought to life with sepia and white chalk.  A commentary I found on You Tube says the Madonna looking away suggests the suffering she knows will result from bearing the Christ Child.

While I was at it, I went ahead and bought a year’s subscription to the city’s museums.  It’s good for the castles around the city, too.  And Sarie can still go for free to most museums for one more year.  I really look forward to getting out of moving mode and really living in this city once we return from our Christmas trip.

I hope to do another post this afternoon, but if I don’t have time, Merry Christmas!  We have reason to be merry.  Christ has dealt with the one thing that could truly harm us. Suffering remains, but he is with us.

Italian Christmas–part II

Top to bottom: 1. Nativity scenes in the window of Il Bazar di San Francesco (note card players at bottom right) 2. Close up, showing mechanical chickens slamming their beaks into the ground so hard that you can hear them through the glass 3. Alpine ski scenes that we think Bob’s sister Elizabeth would like  4. Cakes in a pasticceria window on the main thoroughfare at Via Po  5. Artisanal panettone, the traditional Christmas dessert of Italy, at Amici Miei.  6. & 7. Nicely arranged stationery shop window on Vinzaglio, with Mickey Mouse’s Christmas in Italian.

On Sunday, Sarie and I went out to find a particular Christmas gift.  We walked all the way up the diagonal street Pietro Micca into the heart of Torino, Piazza Castello.  Then we swung by Il Bazar di San Francesco, where we found the nativity scenes from the last post.  Serendipitously, we also found an ice-skating rink!  After that, we walked back to the main street, Via Po, across the river and up to Monte dei Cappuccini to get a view of the Alps on a rare clear day, and to sit in the church. As it started to get cold and dark, we walked back down the hill and took the old-fashioned, orange-painted 13 tram down Pietro Micca towards home. In the twilight we watched crowds of people leisurely strolling past the shop windows and enjoying themselves. Finally, we got off the tram and walked down Vinzaglio towards home, tired, but happy.

Italian Christmas–part I

We got a late start on Christmas this year.  And Italians get an early one. While we were still getting our kitchen into working order, they were apparently out buying trees and preparing for The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major Italian holiday which falls on December 8th.  By the time we figured out the logistics of tree-buying in Italy, there weren’t a lot of trees left or much time to enjoy one, so we decided to do something different this year.  We focused on our nativity scene.

The presepe, or nativity scene, is more the focus of Christmas in Italy than a tree anyway.  We saw this dramatically illustrated one day when we were following a lead on buying a live tree.  When we arrived at the given address, we found instead a shop window that was alive with dozens of not-all-exactly-Biblical, but very charming moving figures.  There were shepherds and fishermen, of course, but also weavers, shopkeepers, cooks, and some wonderful anachronisms, like a group of old men whose robes folded gracefully as they laid down playing cards.  When I suggested that this year we might consider adding to our nativity scene instead of buying a tree, Sarie eagerly went along with the idea.

Our nativity scene is really Sarie’s. My mom started buying Fontanini figures as Christmas presents for her early on, so by now we have long had figures most of the main people who make up the Christmas story.  And we also have a few figures who seemed like odds and ends at the time we received them–one camel without any pack or bridle, a pregnant woman, and a man inexplicably carving a relief bust of a centurion.  We decided that the man and woman should be a couple, and we’ve stood them next to each other in our scene for several years now, the young woman no doubt asking her husband when he’s going to be finished with the portrait so they can get paid.  Having been a portrait artist once myself, it seemed a likely enough scenario.

But as we stood in the Christmas shop last week surveying the Fontanini selection, whom should we see but a centurion!  We saw a couple of them, in fact.  We knew we wanted to get one in order to make sense of our scene, so we ended up choosing the one who was holding a scroll as though proclaiming the tax by Caesar Augustus.  We decided that an Italian figure with a bureaucratic document was an appropriate “Welcome to Italy” commemoration. So now he’s standing for his portrait in our scene.

But Sarie was most fascinated with the scenes that moved, blinked, and poured water.  Unfortunately, most of them were well over our budget. But we finally located a modest brick structure with some shrubbery and a little flickering light bulb fire that we decided could be the start of a second focal point in our nativity scene.

And then, just as we were about to leave, we spotted a little wooden bridge. To know what the bridge means to us, you’d have to know about our thirteen-year history of visiting the Angel Tree and Neapolitan Creche at the Metropolitan Museum. Every year, when Sarie was small, we’d  circle the tree for at least half an hour trying to figure out whether the curators moved the figures around or not.  One of our favorite checkpoints was a little bridge behind the tree.  It was easier to get close to the back of the tree than the front, and eventually we noticed that the bridge usually had a pig somewhere in its vicinity.  Was the pig on the bridge last year, or under it? we’d ask each other.  This was how we finally figured out that the curators did indeed change the scene a little every year.

So we had to have the bridge. It wasn’t that much. And the first thing we did when we got home, of course, was to put the Pink Pig right in the middle of it for Bob to discover in the evening.  The pig didn’t stay there after the first night, as she looked a little silly and changed the focus of the nativity scene, but she still plays a minor role in the scene.  (I know she’s a bit out of character for 1st century Judea, but so is the printing press!)

So this year we are treeless, but we now have an interesting new dynamic going in our nativity scene.  Whereas once the wise men stayed properly away from the stable (facing a plausible delay due to a stubborn camel), now we have shifted the time frame a bit so that they are approaching the baby Jesus, and the shepherds are back in Bethlehem, telling the townspeople about what they saw.  Nativity scenes are always a bit compressed in time, and this Christ Child has never quite looked like a newborn anyway, so it makes a certain amount of sense.

I like the practice that some people have of not putting their Christ Child into the nativity scene until the 25th, but we haven’t ever spent a Christmas Day at home, so our advent time line is usually a bit compressed too.  Bob has now left for the U.S., and we will follow soon.  But meanwhile, we are enjoying our advent, and I hope to get in at least one more Christmas post before we leave.

Gli uccelli

You knew it was coming, didn’t you?  Yes, it’s a bird post!

I was drawn to our current apartment partly because it had a tree outside the bedroom window, like our old apartment. This new tree doesn’t have spectacular rainbow foliage in the fall like our old one, but it has something else the old one didn’t: birds. The old one had the occasional House Sparrow or pigeon, but House Sparrows are the street urchins of the bird world, and pigeons look really awkward perching in trees. Here we have songbirds.

I had noticed since we moved here that shortly before sunrise I’d hear an occasional loud and rapid burst of song.  It sounds like the birdsong equivalent of gunfire–what’s that?!  But then it’s gone. And since it’s dark, I still have no idea what it is.

But earlier this week I heard a happier song, and went to the window to find two pairs of chickadee-like birds, different species, in our bedroom tree. They even gave me time to find the binoculars, so I got a good look at them.  Then I looked them up.  They are called cinciallegra and cinciarella. I’d seen them both before, in Garfagnana, but not up close.  And they seem to live in the cortile, or courtyard. The cinciarella spends a lot of time hanging upside down, like a chickadee, and is about the same size. But it’s plumage is more like a Blue Jay. The cinciallegra is slightly larger, and despite its happy name, it’s slightly more sedate. Their calls are not unlike those of their American cousins, the chickadees and titmice.

Top to bottom: Cinciallegra, cinciarella and pettirosso.  Images from Wikipedia Commons, by Marek Szczepanek, Sławek Staszczuk and Andre Karwath, respectively.

A few days later Sarie and I saw a pettirosso, or European Robin. That’s the one in all the British story books!  It was a little bit like meeting Rat or Mole. Sarie and I decided that European Robins are much cuter than their American counterparts. This one flew away quickly, and we haven’t seen it since.

We also have some strange and enormous black and grey crows that have cries like wooden rattles and startle me every time I hear them (Why are ducks in our courtyard?), and of course we have the ubiquitous pigeon as well, but I’m really happy to see songbirds in Torino.  I’m looking for a bird feeder now, and wondering what other birds I can possibly attract to our window?

Cucina, again

It has been three months and change since I had a kitchen of my own.  I’ve thrown away, given away or stored every item that I didn’t absolutely have to have, moved seven times, cooked toast on stove eyes, washed dishes in the bathroom sink, learned that you can’t shop for bread and milk on Sunday, researched everything you can imagine about European appliances, realized belatedly that you can’t run an American food processor on a travel converter, repeatedly relit a pilot light at night while standing on a kitchen chair in a cold wind, been to IKEA five times, waited three weeks over IKEA’s promised delivery time, discovered how to prevent and clean calcium buildup from hard water, spent four days trying to figure out how to get an appliance website to take my credit card, sent emergency text messages in Italian to my long-suffering landlord, negotiated to have 1980s plaid chicken tiles  painted over, taken an hour-and-a-half to boil water on a camping stove, learned dozens of Italian words, figured out how to light an Italian gas cooktop, eaten out, given myself a cut that probably needed stitches but didn’t get them, mopped up from burst pipes, hired an extra plumber, gotten yelled at by a deliveryman, taken dozens of cardboard boxes to recycling, sorted through a pile of extra parts and read instruction manuals to figure out whether I needed them, served my parents Thankgiving dinner from a kitchen without plumbing, swept up enough piles of sawdust to start my own sawmill, made unsuccessful attempts to purchase a vacuum cleaner to vacuum up said sawdust, and tripped switches more times than I care to count.

But now I have a kitchen.  I am so utterly delighted.  Now I think I’ll go have a moka and some Nutella on toast.

Baby steps towards Piemontese cooking

There’s an excellent vegetable vendor across the street from me.  People come from all around to shop in this tiny store, and that helps to make up for the fact that I’m now too far from a market to shop at one when I’m busy.

A youngish woman who works in this little shop considers me her pet project, I think, just because she speaks a little English and she once visited Boston.  A couple of weeks ago when I was looking for watercress, the other people who worked in the shop pulled her out of the back room to figure out what on earth I was talking about.  When I remembered enough Italian and she enough English to make the connection, I heard cries of “Brava!”  I looked up and no fewer than four well-dressed middle aged housewives were watching us eagerly, eyebrows raised, to see if we could figure it out.

Yesterday I was early enough (right after the shops reopened) to be the sole customer, so my mentor had time to explain things.  “Do you want to try something Piemontese?” she asked. A rhetorical question, for me. She pulled out a roasted beet. I’d spied the wonderfully ugly things in a box near the entrance and thought they must be special, but I really had no idea what you did with them.  Then she went to the back shelf and got a jar of bogna cauda, which is not Italian, but Piemontese dialect, for warm sauce (actually, it sounds like hot bath to me).  She showed me several vegetables that you could eat it with, including a kind of knobby and silvery celery that I’d never seen before, but I stuck with the beets for the first try.

It was easy to prepare, which is a good thing, because the plumber (I would get sidetracked if I explained) was still in my kitchen at 7:00 p.m.  The roasted beets are peeled, sliced, and eaten cold.  All you have to do with the sauce, which is made of anchovies, garlic, and oil, is to stir it over low heat in a saucepan.

I know.  You’re thinking, “Anchovies and beets?”  It is an acquired taste, I admit.  But the Piemontese seem to specialize in such combinations, and they’re surprisingly good.  Another surprising combination is vitello tonnato, or veal carpaccio (thin, almost raw slices of veal) with pureed tuna sauce. If done well (which is to say, it’s not well-done), it disappears quickly from the common appetizer plate.  There seem to be many combinations involving small doses of a heavily salted food (anchovies, sardines, olives, tuna, or various kinds of cured ham) with something more neutral or even sweet.  I’m not even sure whether this is a local cuisine, or an Italian one generally, especially since the Piemontese didn’t originally have olives, but used butter, like the French.

But I’m very much in the beginning stages of learning about Piemontese and Italian food.  This experiment involved little more than opening a jar.  And at this point I’m more likely to get my Italianate recipes from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food than the classic Italian cookbook Artusi. But when I get a fully-working kitchen and can read enough Italian to learn from Artusi (which I just now realized has been translated!)  I hope to share more.

Buon appetito!