(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Month: April, 2012

Counting castles

The castle of Fenis, from a webcam image on Saturday.

Most of the time, living in Italy isn’t a vacation. We’re here because Bob invented a job, and between that and Sarie’s junior year with online classes and conservatory, we haven’t gone on many adventures.

So I was delighted when Bob said, “Let’s go driving up into the Valle d’Aosta next Saturday.”  The original idea was to go hiking, but I didn’t even mind when all-day rain washed out that plan.  We were still going exploring.

Our rain-modified plan was to drive to Ivrea, a sort of far suburb of Torino, and then proceed to Aosta, between the mountains and near the Italian/French/Swiss borders.  For those of you from Georgia, I might as well say it:  This is the original Valdosta.  But other than that, there are no similarities.

Top: A geological map of Ivrea, posted in a shop window. (The Valle d’Aosta is the narrow valley off to the top left.) Bottom:  Ivrea’s main street.

Our first stop was Ivrea.  We stopped there because someone who works at Bob’s office lives there and said it was an attractive town.  (Some Italian suburbs are just outlying areas of cities with ugly new apartment buildings.) Ivrea had one main pedestrian thoroughfare, a Saturday market, a river running alongside it, and up the hill, a cathedral and a fort.  We got some coffee and walked along the main street, then bought some cookies at the market.  When the seller heard me explaining to Bob in English what was in all the types of cookies, he asked, “Are you German?”  Which means he didn’t speak any English at all.

Then, curious about what was further up into the mountains, we kept driving. Just outside of Ivrea, we saw a large storybook castle.

Terraced grape arbors on the sides of the mountains.

As we started to drive into the valley between the Alps, we saw more castles. Some looked ruined; others looked well-preserved.  We also saw grape arbors all up and down the sides of the mountains, many of them made of stacked stone.  And eventually we saw a sign saying that we had left Piemonte and were entering the Valle d’Aosta.  Signs were in Italian and French.  Roofs went from tile to slate.  All the place names were French.  We were obviously in a border region.

Aosta had a cobbled main pedestrian street similar to that in Ivrea.  We walked along it until we found a restaurant that looked traditional, but not ridiculously touristy.  We are aware as we walked in, however, that there was something about this town that drew tourists, because we sat between a French family and a Chinese couple, and our waiter spoke English.  Excited to be in a different region, we tried items from the menu that didn’t look familiar.  We found out that Valdostan cuisine means cheese, especially Fontina.  I had ham and cheese crepes and Bob had polenta with cheese.  Bob couldn’t finish his polenta, which says a lot.

Thus armed with calories, we continued to explore the town.  We knew that it had some extant Roman walls.  Those, in fact, were right next to the restaurant, with apartments built between them (above).  But then we saw a map with an amphitheater.  After walking down a couple of dead ends, we found it.  In retrospect, it would have been hard not to.  It took up most of the town!


Most of the houses in these photos are either the back side of the main thoroughfare or one block back. The third photo from the bottom shows the Tour Frommage.

The amphitheater was well-preserved, and there were medieval buildings built into it all around the edges. Some were still lived in, like the ones between the walls in the photo above, and others, mostly the towers, were now preserved as monuments.  Our favorite was the Tour Frommage, or Cheese Tower.  It was so named because the family who built it was named Casei, which sounds like casein, Spanish queso, etc.  Even though the Italians and French say formaggio and frommage respectively, the association wasn’t lost on them.  Nor on our family, who quickly invented a family tree using feminine-sounding cheese names like Velveeta.

By time we finished walking through the amphitheater, it was too late to explore any longer, so we started back home.  On the way back, Sarie decided to try to count and photograph all the castles. There seemed to be one on every semi-independent rock in the valley.  The photography was of mixed success, since we were now on the autostrada and opening the car windows resulted in tons of noise and a wet lens.  But she counted eleven castles. Below is Bard, a Savoy castle, one of the largest, and one of the closest to the road:

Of course, all these castles and ruins got us wondering what the story was behind them, so I did a bit of Googling when I got home.

One thing I found was that every Roman colony town had a main road, a decumanus, running from east to west.  This is why both Ivrea and Aosta were split right down the middle by a wide  (pedestrian) thoroughfare. And the walls we had seen in Aosta were its Porta Praetoria, or military gate, facing the direction of barbarian invasion (the Alps).  And then I realized that Torino’s main pedestrian shopping street,Via Garabaldi, was once its decumanus.  Via Garibaldi runs straight west towards the Alps from the Palazzo Madama, which is built around the original Roman east gate.  And Via Palatina, which is one of my favorite streets in Torino, was probably its main north/south road, or cardo.

It’s a little harder to tell about the castles.  Border regions usually get left out of the sort of history you study in school.  Everyone learns about the Holy Roman Empire and Italian Unification under the Savoys.  But The History of the Medieval World annoyingly leaves Torino off every map until almost the last chapter of the book, so it’s hard to tell where it belonged when.

After the Celts, Romans, Ostrogoths, Franks and Lombards, it was ruled in the late 900s by Arduin of Ivrea, who took it after the Saracens were expelled. The Saracens?  What were they doing in the Alps?  Then the Burgundians. Then the Savoys.  No wonder they needed castles.

And thus ended our little reconnaissance mission into the mountains. I didn’t even mind the rain, because the clouds made the landscape look mysterious and fairy-tale like. But I can’t wait to go back and see the insides of the castles.


Daybook entry

I don’t think I’ve ever done a daybook entry for this blog.  In fact, I can’t remember for sure what the categories even are anymore, but here goes:

From the Kitchen, and into the Living Room

I have in hand my first caffe lungo since last September, excepting the ones my kind friend Jacqueline has made for me when I visit her kitchen.  I don’t make them much anymore because the stores near me only sell coffee ground for moka. But I went to the big Porto Palazzo market today and there I saw some whole coffee beans. It was somewhat awkward trying to explain to the store proprietor in Italian that I wanted coffee ground coarsely enough for a French press, and eventually he refused to go any finer, but I came home with 2 etti (200g) of freshly ground Arabica.  Tasting it now, I still think it’s a little too finely ground.

I made a cup for Sarie, too.  She took a look at the brown liquid in our thick, American restaurant-ware coffee cups and said, “Wow, that’s a lot of coffee. Did I used to drink two of those a day?” Now she’s sight-reading a Schumann quartet.  America is powered by caffeine.

The Schumann quartet was her friend’s suggestion for this summer’s IAM festival in Garfagnana. Yea!  We’re going back! And Sarie’s home schooled music friends from New York, whom we haven’t seen since we moved, are coming again, too. The Schumann is one of my favorite chamber pieces ever, so I’m all for it. Sounds like just the happy sort of music to play from the Bertolanis’ hilltop house.

Outside My Window

There’s a renovation going on in the apartment across the alley.  It has been going on for a month already, and knowing the Italian sense of time, it could be going on through the rest of the summer.  So I look at scaffolding and hear saws all the time.  Makes me feel at home, because the people across the hall from us in New York were renovating before we left. But there are no jackhammers involved, and someone has spray-painted a smiley face on the wall opposite the window.  It’s a friendly renovation.

My apartment also overlooks an upholster’s workshop and an auto repair shop.  With all the comings and goings, there’s also quite a lot of socializing.  I think I’m beginning to recognize the Piemontese accent, because one of the guys in the auto-repair shop sounds just like my butcher.  There’s a certain unusual tenor timbre to both voices.  And several times a day I am sure to hear a car door slam, followed by, “Ciao!  Angelo!”  I haven’t figured out yet which one is Angelo, but that’s mostly because I’m trying not to stare too much.  (And as if on cue, a door slams and the greetings begin again.)

And outside my kitchen window, there’s this:

I feel such satisfaction that these little plants from the market are already transplanted and starting to fill out their pots.

And the swallows are here!

Around the house

I am thinking it’s time to start fixing things up again.  I got extremely tired after the initial push to civilization last November and just gave up.  I didn’t want to buy anything else from IKEA and didn’t know quite where else to go that wasn’t one of the expensive antique shops near Balon.

And when I gave up, I really gave up.  As a result, there are still wires sticking out of the walls and boxes stacked up as lamp tables.  My clothes and all our coats are still hanging in cardboard wardrobes. And there’s no real furniture in the large entryway.  So, I’m on the lookout for inexpensive ways to make our home look a little better.


I read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart recently.  The statistics were interesting, and I suspect he’s right, but the whole scenario of a class split in the US really bothers me, and Murray never explains to my satisfaction why it is occurring or what we can do about it.  The emphasis is on what an efficient job our colleges do of sorting the population cognitively. What seems to be missing is any discussion of how a person can live realistically, yet honorably, by manual labor, or any sense that you can, or would want to, combine manual labor with intelligence.  Meanwhile, the media (not Murray necessarily) seems to look at any efforts at voluntary simplicity as nostalgia. Jefferson would roll over in his grave.

I’m also still reading The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer. She moves along with such speed, trying to cover so much, that sometimes the book degenerates into a list of rulers (and by default, assassinations).  But occasionally her anecdotes are quite memorable, and her dry humor makes me smile. And every now and then I sit down and read a few pages to Sarie, whose Western Lit to Dante class sometimes intersects with my reading.  This week we were trying to figure out where the Volsunga Saga and The Ring of the Nibelungs fit into the historical picture.

Speaking of Susan Wise Bauer, she’s wanting to open an agri-tourism business to counter all those hours spent writing.  So there’s someone trying to combine manual labor with the work of the mind.  But notice, it’s not primarily a farm.

Thinking About

What it takes to prepare a child to go out into the world, especially when you just moved to a different continent and the child wants to go into an extremely competitive field that doesn’t suggest she could easily pay back US student loans.

Thinking about why even state schools are expensive now and why very few of them have good music performance programs, and whether it’s even worth it to enter a music program unless it’s competitive.

Thinking about what a very strange junior year this has been for Sarie.  For all of us.

Thinking God knows what he has in mind for us better than I do.


I’m excited that two moms in our church had babies last week. I’m following our New York moms’ group custom of starting a meals list for the new moms. Our old group was quite efficient in providing a month’s worth of dinners. We did this for dozens of moms during my fourteen years in the city. Only I’m not sure Italians are used to doing e-mail lists, because I’ve only gotten one response so far.  No matter, I’m making soup to take over this afternoon anyway, and if no one else responds, I’ll go next week, too.  That way I get to see the babies more.

And I’ve discovered that Belgian endives on toast with Fontina and a slice of prosciutto makes a nice, quick dinner.

My, this is a long post!  See what a cup of American coffee can do?

One of everything

One of the nice things about Italy is that there’s no end to the food discoveries.  The latest favorite Italian flavor combination in our home is pizza with gorgonzola and pears, which Italians tend to run together and call “gorg’ e pere.”

Sarie and I have been putting a half pizza dough into our little iron skillet and baking it in the oven for lunch.  We got this idea from the Piemontese style pizza baked in a brick oven, called a padellino (little pan).  Our oven is just an IKEA oven, but it still turned out nicely.

The people at the local market told me that another popular variation is gorgonzola and chocolate.  When I expressed surprise, they said, “Oh, yes! And there’s Nutella pizza, too! Only, you should wait until you take the pizza out of the oven before putting on the Nutella.”

Before Easter, I saw little panettone shaped like doves, called colombe, everywhere I went, and the windows were stacked high with chocolate and candy eggs. One window had a large chocolate egg carefully broken so that a little chocolate chick seemed to be emerging from it. There were also rows of white sugar lambs with red and gold flags, an obvious Christ symbol. And there were buns with a cross made of bread dough over a whole, unpeeled egg. More things for me to figure out next year, I suppose!

The Via Cernaia Grom on a weekend afternoon

When you hear Italians talk about food, you start to wonder why they’re not obese, and how they don’t spend their entire salaries on specialty foods. I think maybe they just enjoy the food they do eat more than Americans do. And they use it as an occasion to socialize. On any decently warm day you’ll find Italians of all ages lined up out the door at Grom (thankfully less expensive here than in New York), buying ice cream cones with wonderfully concentrated flavor. And it’s not just Grom. There are so many gelaterias here that on any given weekend afternoon, you’ll run into people with cones coming and going.

And as you’d expect, the Italian grandmas take any hesitancy to eat as an indication that you just need more persuasion. Yesterday Sarie and I visited a mom friend with her new baby boy, and received a little bundle of candied eggs (blue, naturally) wrapped in sheer fabric. Our friend’s in-laws, the new grandparents, were visiting from the Naples area. Despite our insistence that we didn’t need anything to eat, we were fed cookies, accompanied by a bitter soft drink with sugar around the top of the glass and a lemon perched on top, and then another plate of the candies, which were sort of like M & Ms with almond paste.  (“The ones from Naples are the best kind,” they told us.) When Sarie tried one candy, the grandmother insisted that it was good luck to have three.  But Sarie, whose Momann verges on Italian when it comes to offering food, was ready. “Oh, but I had two cookies already, so that’s perfect!”

We love food. But it will be some time, I suspect, before we master the art of eating everything Italy has to offer.

On knowing

This post is really a response to the comments on the last one. It’s about Italian learning and the way things work–or don’t.

First, the schools: I thought some of you, especially teachers and homeschooling moms, might enjoy seeing the syllabi, which are in the following links. The two most challenging types of high school, traditionally, are the liceo classico, which, at least on paper, is a Classical educator’s dream, and the liceo scientifico. If you want to see some of the other types of schools offered, you can find the whole list here.

These syllabi are, naturally, in Italian, but since there are so many cognates and many people know at least some Spanish or French, it’s not that hard to make at least basic sense of them. Scroll past the ginnasio parts and look at the specific lists under classes I, II, and III, which are the last three years.  All Italian high schools follow a five-year syllabus, from the traditional American ninth grade year up to what Americans generally study in the first year of college.

Most interestingly, considering my last post, and the comments, logic is offered in many high schools, as a part of the philosophy syllabus.

And in fact, there is a certain kind of logic to the Italian system. It’s just that there are two different types of it, running counter to one another. The first says that everything should be done rigorously and strictly to reward hard work, encourage fairness, and discourage corruption. The second says that life is just too hard, people will take advantage of the loopholes, and so everyone needs to find ways around for himself and his friends because everyone else is cheating. Then someone passes a new and even stricter set of lawson top of the first set, to close the loopholes. Soon enough people find new loopholes, and everything is back just like it was. After rounds and round of these overlapping laws and workarounds, you get Italy today! (Being a newcomer, I could be wrong, but I don’t I think I’m far off.) There’s even a word for these loophole finders: furbi.

It’s interesting how a whole society can operate under a set of cultural assumptions. Now that I’m here, I realize just how idealistic Americans are. And being American myself, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. But I wonder sometimes if we aren’t changing, and changing fast. And of course, college is one part of the idealism/reform equation that’s on my mind a lot these days.

Just a thought, which I can’t stay on the computer to develop at the moment. But I do appreciate all your comments.  Thanks for the well-wishes, and Happy Easter!

On not knowing

I hesitated about writing this post, but it’s time. Because European countries are profoundly different from one another, and also profoundly different from New York City. That’s the main lesson I’ve learned here, and it’s time to tell something about how I’ve learned it.

I could start anywhere, but I’ll start with the conservatory that Sarie attends. It took over five months just to figure out how to enroll. When we asked from New York about procedures and deadlines, the secretary (a sweet girl, in person) kept sending us curt, uninformative e-mails saying that we needed to talk to the Italian consulate. The consulate, meanwhile, said that this was the school’s responsibility. And we couldn’t find Sarie’s teacher at all. So from January until May of last year, we went round and round and got nowhere until a New York friend introduced us to a young man from Torino. He took a look at the website, found the appropriate deadline buried in some document, and walked me though filling out the forms  (not intuitive), which I then overnighted to the conservatory.  By the time we found the deadline, it was four days away.

Even after we sent in the application, the secretary continued to insist that we’d have to go through the consulate.  Until one day in mid-June we got an e-mail saying Sarie was scheduled to take language and entrance exams in September.  So she did.

Now Sarie attends the conservatory Mondays and Thursdays–depending on what’s changed this week.  It’s not uncommon for her to show up for a lesson or class and wait for the teacher thirty minutes, or even even find out that the lesson has been cancelled altogether. If we’d known that her piano lessons, in particular, were going to be so spotty, we might have kept records for the fun of it. But my hunch is that she gets about 60% of the lesson time she’s scheduled for.

For chamber music, she was finally placed with a coach in about mid-December. The teacher then told the self-formed group that he didn’t have time for them, so they could meet every other week.  The first few weeks they showed up, the class either got cancelled or they’d have to wait so long for it to start that they only got to play for a few minutes.  Then the coach told the girls they couldn’t do the piece they’d chosen, so they hemmed and hawed about that for a while.  There was also some confusion as to whether Sarie had to take a chamber music exam at the end of the year, which apparently limited the number or type of pieces they could prepare.  Finally, Sarie went to the other coach, who said that yes, she had an exam, and put her with a different group to prepare a piece for it. This was in March.

Last week Sarie attended a masterclass with Vadim Brodsky. She had heard about the class, was excited about it, and requested to sign up to audition for it, but was told that she was too young and the places would go to college students. Then one day last week, her accompanist was looking for some info on the bulletin board at the school and found Sarie’s name on the masterclass list with a time next to it.  So she went, and enjoyed the class thoroughly. Brodsky even asked her to come back for the next session in May. At the end of the class, another young man came in and requested to be allowed a session, because he had been out of town at the sign up time. He was told no.

Sarie and her accompanist preparing for a performance of Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata at the conservatory Friday before last.

But the most baffling situation of all concerns the maturità. The maturità is the exit exam Italian students take to graduate from high school. It’s a three-day exam, with an oral component, covering a five-year high school syllabus. Subjects include Italian literature and composition (graded very strictly for grammar, I’m told), Italian history, similar science and math subjects to those we take in the US, philosophy, religion, and in some schools, Greek and Latin. And naturally, classes are in Italian. It’s an intriguing syllabus, and perhaps if we’d moved to Italy when Sarie was in eighth grade, I might have considered it, despite what I’m told is the rote nature of it. But she’s a junior.

Why is this important?  Because you need it to graduate from the college-level conservatory. When we arrived last fall, they faculty were pleased with Sarie’s audition and said that once she had piano and European-style solfege, she could audition for the college level and easily get in.  When I asked the staff what they would accept as proof of graduation from an American, they’d just shrug. Finally, two weeks ago, and because it was time to make a decision about next year, I had a friend call the Ministry of Education to get to the bottom of this. The man there told my friend they accepted no substitutes at all.  The next week, Sarie and her teacher visited the school’s director, and she said the same thing.  Across the board, they all say that Sarie should just get started studying for for it, though maybe she’d want to just do a vocational school version of the test.  Either way, it means at least a year in an Italian high school, or attending a cram school where they do two years at once. Never mind that she couldn’t attend the conservatory at all if she did this.

We’d originally liked this dual attendance scheme because it gave Sarie time to finish high school while getting used to life in Italy, learning Italian fluently, and preparing for an eventual conservatory audition somewhere else. We even thought that it might be possible to do all of undergrad this way, which would make it lots more affordable to eventually attend graduate school in the US.  It might take an extra year, but she would be able to study both music and English literature, her other favorite subject, at a high level, while learning Italian language, history, and culture by immersion. Knowing that some schools in Europe will accept four APs as a substitute for that fifth year of high school, we were planning those out, too. But now the government is saying it won’t accept that.

What’s in the back of my mind, of course, is that this is Italy.  I have a strong suspicion that there’s some way, regardless, to make it work. As I learned from the five-month enrollment process, much depends on whom you ask, or perhaps even on what you assert. And there are exceptions, like that Brodsky masterclass. Yet, not being Italian, I don’t know the workaround for this one. And I confess to being a little exasperated, and wanting to be a not-so-gracious guest in my host country. I confess to wanting to point out that if they’re so serious about requirements and rigor, why don’t they hold half the classes they schedule?  And a few other things, which I will keep to myself. But none of this surprises or even seems to bother Italians, who are remarkably patient, if a bit obstructive.

So instead, I shrug, and we plan the best year we can for Sarie next year under the circumstances. She’ll stay in the high school-level conservatory. She’ll keep studying at home.  And eventually, we’ll figure out a solution for her college education. I don’t know what it is yet, but what I’ve learned from seven months of living in Italy is that I don’t have to. We’re not in New York.