(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Viaggetto a Verona

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This is an “old people selfie” that Carlana and I took at the Castelvecchio museum in Verona. Neither of us really knows how to get rid of the fishbowl effect in the selfie-cam. But we didn’t let that stop us from having a good time!

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When an old New York friend, Carlana, said she and her husband would be coming to Italy but not to Torino, I took that as an excuse to drive to the closest meeting point, Verona, and see a new town. Verona is 3 1/2 hours from Torino by car and is part of the Veneto region. The people there are notably blond, even compared to the northern Torinese, and their “o”s tend to become “u”s, as in nui for noi.

You can also see Venetian influence in the local architecture–particularly the pinks and reds in the stucco, the slender columns, the conical brick bell towers, and the occasionally pointed windows (see below). The whole town started out on a Roman grid, with the original amphitheater still dominating the main piazza (above) and the Roman city gates still extant. But the main part of the Roman city center has long been overlaid with serendipitous medieval twists and turns.

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We had a great time walking around all the old streets, ducking into the characteristic Romanesque churches, sipping vin brulé from the market, and of course, eating and catching up! Carlana likes history too, so I had a happy and energetic touring companion.

Some things to note below: Renaissance frescoes on the sides of buildings in Piazza delle Erbe (which was the original Roman forum, used for chariot races), a plaque marking where a city captain was killed during a coup in 1277, and the conical bell towers.

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There was so much going on in architecturally in Verona that I plan to do another post. But before I end for today, what would a trip to Verona be without Juliet’s balcony? Actually, the only thing they know for sure about this house is that it did belong to the Cappello (Hat) family, from which the name Capulet derives. But that doesn’t keep the entire courtyard entrance from being covered with graffiti, the tourists from flocking to the balcony, or the shops nearby from bearing Romeo and Juliet themes. In fact, since we were there just before Valentine’s Day, the entire town was festooned with hearts.

Back soon with some more of Verona!

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Juliet’s balcony, or at least a house belonging to the Cappello family.

The attack of the furbi, Part 2

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Call it car shaming: This car I photographed in my lot today is not the one in the story, but his manner of parking is furbo nonetheless.

I said I’d tell this story once I knew the end of it, so here it is:

One morning back in early July, I went down to get in my car and found a large dent in the back.

I park it in a semi-private lot between my building and the neighboring one, fenced off from the street by an iron gate. Since it is a stone-paved area with no stripes, people frequently park askew (see above), but it’s best if everyone parks at a 45% angle, facing out, otherwise you may be obliged to make a 25-point-turn to exit. But in order to park facing out, there has be another space across the lot to nose into in order to back up into your space. So the last time I had parked, a week earlier, I had been forced to face in.

When I found my car with a basketball-sized dent in it, my first thought was, “However did anyone even have room to make such a huge dent? You’d have to be going pretty fast to achieve an impact like that!” Almost every car in the lot, including mine, has scratches on all the corners. But this was almost ballistically impossible! I made a flyer with a photo asking for information and put it on the door of each building that faces the lot, but then I had to leave, because I was trying to replace the contents of my stolen purse before I left for the US. The dent was so bad I could hear it scraping against the rear tire as I turned onto the street.

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My car on the day it was hit

When I got back from the DMV, one of my neighbors, who was leaving, said, “That was your car that got hit, right? The car that hit it was a blue one, either a Fox or an Audi. The driver was an old man who works for the accounting firm in the building next door, Mr. X. It’s the same guy who keeps knocking down the gate bar. He was hitting your car over and over again, but clearly he wasn’t all there in the head. I told him to stop, but he just ignored me. This was in the late morning or early afternoon, a week ago. I think [the car wash attendant for the garage in the alleyway] saw it too.”

I thanked him and went to take a look at the name plates on the building next door. Sure enough, there was the name he had mentioned. Later in the day, when the big building doors were open, I confirmed that it went with an office and buzzed at the entrance.

There was one problem with my comprehension of my neighbor’s story. I thought he had said,  “old woman.” The only difference was the vowel at the end. Also, unbeknownst to me, he had used a slightly disparaging term.

I told my story to the women behind the counter (all youngish and pretty) and they sort of looked at me and laughed. “Oh, there’s no old woman here,” they said. There’s the owner’s father, but he has been in the mountains since last week and he left straight from home.”

At that moment, the owner came out, and all the women gave each other a funny look. The man had an unctuous, condescending smile and a very natty suit. “There’s no old woman here,” he reassured me.

“Does your father drive a blue Fox?”

“Yes, but he left early in the morning on that day. It couldn’t have possibly been him.” And the women all closed ranks around him.

I had a familiar, infuriating feeling that I remembered from being a young woman in the Southern US. It was the feeling of working for a sexist boss or having to take your car to a repairman you didn’t trust. I could tell I was being lied to, but I didn’t quite have the mastery of Italian to catch him out and confront him. Nor, I suspected, would it do any good. It might even put him on guard. Better to approach this from another angle, I thought, and I left.

I went to my neighbor for more details. When he heard that the accountant had denied the story, he suddenly developed a very imperfect memory. And my other neighbors said, “Of course they lied. They also lied when the old man kept breaking down the gate.” One person even told me about an old woman (they used a different word this time!) in the other building who stood on her balcony watching the accountant’s father swipe cars as he tried to exit the lot. “Hey! You missed one!” she yelled after him.

The blue Fox, meanwhile, remained conspicuously absent.

So I went to the car wash attendant. He didn’t seem to know anything either, but explained my mistake about the “old woman” and pointed me to someone who actually had seen the whole thing. Someone who was willing to sign a statement. I took the statement to my insurance agent, spent my last day in Italy waiting for four hours at the immigration office for my last replacement document, the permesso (green card) I needed to re-enter legally, and then left to see my family in the US while the entire country of Italy closed down for Ferragosto.

Then, in late September, there was the Fox, with a rather interesting circular formation on its front fender. But by this time I had been assured that the insurance company had the situation under control.

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I finally received my insurance check in October, but by that time I needed to use the car daily because I was helping Sarie to move. So I got it repaired in November, four months after the hit-and-run. The repairman put a nice new bumper on it and my car was shiny and clean.

The next week, someone scratched the back bumper again. But at least it wasn’t a dent the size of a basketball. And I’m well on my way to having four matching corners again.

Etching

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It’s exam time in Italy, and though I’m not taking any, two of my classes are finishing so today I spent the entire morning printing.

The Accademia gave us continuing ed students a rather raw deal this year. Our two classes (model-drawing and etching) were scheduled for the same time, making it impossible to attend both. And etching only lasts until next week. In addition, I have been taking a medieval art history class on Wednesday afternoons, making that time slot triple-booked. Then again, this is Italy and no one seemed particularly surprised. Also the etching teacher pretended not to know things were such a mess, but that’s also pretty typical.

The fact is, when I signed up for the continuing ed course last year, I didn’t even know about the etching part of it, but I ended up enjoying it a lot. This year, not only was the time slot double-booked but the room was impossibly crowded whenever I tried to attend, so I mostly worked at home. Working at home, naturally, meant that everything else came first, so as February approached, I realized that if I didn’t finish at least one plate, I really would have wasted the whole opportunity. And so I finished it. Here’s how it looked when I took it in this morning:

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I had covered the zinc plate with a waxy coating, smoked it to give it a smooth finish, and etched it with an engraving needle. When you draw, you have to think light for dark, and mirror image. Hatching is typical for this particular process, but there are many other processes. The drawing is based on a series of cropped medieval images, of which you can see others here.

Once the drawing is ready, the plate is bathed in acid to etch it, the wax washed off with turpentine, and it’s ready to ink. I didn’t take any photos of the inking process, because it’s very messy, and it’s also crucial in determining how your final print looks. Last year, I’d spend practically an entire session inking each plate, partly because everyone had a slightly different way of doing it and I was learning from the other students at the inking table. There are spatula stages, newsprint stages, gauze stages, tissue paper stages, and Q-Tip stages. But now the inking process is one of my favorite stages, partly because it’s so social! Here was my plate this morning when I finished inking it:

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The next two photos show some students carefully placing wet printing paper over a woman’s plate, and my own plate emerging from the hand-cranked press. We have one press for forty or more students. This is part of what I meant about the room being crowded. It’s also why I arrived as the doors were opening this morning.

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I made four prints from my plate this morning between 8:30-1:00, including time spent waiting and talking to other students. Below is a detail of one of the finished prints. It wasn’t easy fitting in printmaking with everything else I’m doing right now, but I was glad I did! Now my living room wall has one more image and I can catch up on some other things. Mission accomplished.

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One last presepe

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In the US, all traces of Christmas have been put away, and the nativity scenes are wrapped in boxes awaiting the end of the year. Many have been stored away in Italy as well. But I overheard someone say that the official end of presepe (nativity scene) season isn’t until February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when a friend and I stumbled upon this lovingly built presepe in a church in Avigliana yesterday.

This is not the only elaborate model-of-an-entire-town presepe I have ever seen, of course. Almost every church in Italy seems to have some sort of presepe with surrounding village, as do many homes. And in the US, I used to make a point of going every year to see the Angel Tree at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which features an enormous 18th-century Neapolitan presepe. But that one is, well, literally a museum piece.

One thing I like about these local presepe is that they show the typically Italian talent for local craftsmanship. In the US, people decorate their yards with store-bought lights and inflatable Santas. Sometimes these displays approach work-of-art level in their own way. But in Italy, I am forever surprised at the almost-professional level of artisanship that ordinary people display. I suspect that one reason for this is that many people here treat their jobs as sustenance. Then they go home and do what they like, perhaps maintaining traditions that they inherited from their grandparents or other people in the town. I don’t know everything about how they manage their lives, of course, but I do notice the consistent ability to craft, even, and perhaps especially, among the men.

Things I liked about this particular presepe:

First of all, my friend and I had just come from the Santuario della Madonna dei Laghi, which is the yellow church in the first photo below. It’s just outside of the town, but here the view is compressed and representative, so you see it squashed up against the other buildings.

There’s a bit of everything going on around this building. The don is greeting visitors are the entrance to the church. On one side is an old man (not pictured) of the type you see in every town square. On the other is a group of musicians. The back of the church flows into a local scene with a woodworking shop, a chicken coop, neighbors visiting, a miller, women doing laundry in a field complete with one of the local persimmon, or caki, trees (note the fallen persimmon), and children playing on a playground (not pictured).

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Moving on to the next group of buildings, which are very typical of the area if not exact copies of some block in Avigliana, we see a panetteria, or bread bakery (as opposed to pastry shop or pasticceria). It’s very typical for medieval buildings to have been stucco’ed over at some point, but frequently during subsequent renovations someone will excavate a bit of the original brickwork and leave it showing, as in the arched windows below.

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Next to the panetteria block is the block of private houses which includes the medieval Torre dell’Orologio. We had just passed the (misnamed) clock tower on our way up the hill. It never included a clock, and in fact was entirely gutted by fire during some (no doubt French) invasion or other, but the tower and houses forming a courtyard still stand pretty much like you see them here, complete with traces of a fresco. The open holes at the top of the yellow building are very typical in the small towns around Turin. They allow air to circulate in the summer, and I think they may have been used for hay storage, if not animal storage, as well.

I was charmed both by the alleyway with lanterns in the following photo, as well as by the use of a bendable straw, sprayed with copper-colored paint, to make a drain pipe in the photo after that.

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On the far side of the townscape is the Romanesque Chiesa di S. Pietro. The church which houses this presepe, S. Giovanni, was not included this year (we did see a photo of it from a past year). Surrounding the church are an artist, a shepherd, a friar standing at a side door, and most charming of all, the entire altar, complete with frescoes, visible from the front door of the church.

My friend and I had been marveling over this scene for quite some time before we discovered that you could push a button which animated it. The shepherds next to the Holy Family bowed, Mary rocked Baby Jesus, the streetlights came on all over town, smoked wafted from a chimney, Silent Night played to a chorus of lowing cattle and a crowing rooster, and best of all, gentle snow fell from above.

People here are always telling me that it used to snow a lot here, but now it doesn’t. Which is their way of, like the Narnians, saying that it’s always winter but never Christmas. Now I feel like it has finally been Christmas. Happy 2016!

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Here goes…

Why did I stop writing? It’s more a question, in my mind, of how I kept writing. I don’t share everything publicly, and I went through a long period (about three years) during which almost everything fell into the un-bloggable category. Eventually, however, I realized that the blog wasn’t going to make much sense if I didn’t explain at least a few things, so here I go:

I’m living alone for now. Same place. I’m attending the Accademia delle Belle Arte, teaching children English, volunteering at the merenda, and trying to figure out what’s next.

Sarie is living on her own nearby, teaching children English (at a school), still playing concerts, doing photography, and she’s still with Alberto. Alberto is still very active as well with his concerts, music composition and movies.

Bob is working, a lot. I hope it won’t always be this way.

I am Catholic. My conversion was a long process, during which I did a lot of reading and talking to people. This isn’t an apologetics blog, so I won’t be defending my decision. But if I hadn’t found the same closeness to Jesus in the Catholic Church that I had as the Protestant, rest assured that I would not have converted. And if you were my friend before, you are my friend still.

As I get my energy back a bit, I realize that I still have bloggable things to say, though I’m not sure how often I will post. Also, I have realized that blogging was more fun when I visited other people’s blogs too. I couldn’t do that for a while, but I hope to get back to it. See you soon!

 

 

 

Another Passion excerpt

Here’s a new, recently-released excerpt from Alberto’s Passion According to St. John, performed April 25-26th of this year. It’s the finale. I’ve also inserted it into my original excerpts post, so they’ll all be in one place.

If you were a fund contributor and wonder where your recording is, they are still waiting on someone who promised to help them do the job. And that person too has a job. This is the way things happen in Italy sometimes, especially when you don’t have much money, but it will eventually get done!

A catechism in frescoes, along with chaconnes

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Yesterday Sarie and I drove to Bastia Mondovì, about an hour away in the Langhe region south of Torino, so that she could play in a concert entitled L’Età delle ciaconne (Age of the Chaconne, which is the 17th century). The ensemble included two Baroque violins, a Baroque cello, a theorbo, and a harpsichord.

First a word about the music: The chaconne derives from a Spanish dance and has a distinctive basso continuo line that encourages improvisation. You can hear an example of one such line (which varies somewhat depending on the piece) in one of my favorite Monteverdi madrigals, Zefiro torna. La Folia is another common chaconne and may be one of the oldest European musical themes on record. If you know the Suzuki violin books, you’ve probably heard a basic version by Corelli.

Anyway, the rehearsal started early in the afternoon, and the church wasn’t within walking distance of the town, but I didn’t mind hanging around, because there were frescoes. Shortly after I had taken a preliminary look around, a docent arrived with a group and started a guided tour, and soon I found myself listening in. What I discovered was that the walls were a veritable catechism, with surprisingly empathetic lessons for the people of 15th century Bastia.

To begin with, the church of San Fiorenzo* is named after a Roman soldier from the Theban legion who survived an imperial massacre of Christian troops in the third century, came to Piemonte, preached to the people in the Roman crossroads settlement which once occupied the vicinity, and was eventually martyred and buried on the spot where the original church stood. An archeological excavation in the 18th century uncovered an early grave upon which the original church was built.

The tomb of San Fiorenzo became associated with miracles and attracted pilgrims, especially the lame (maybe they had some help?). In fact, when the saint’s tomb was discovered, it was said that the locals had to cart away three loads of no-longer-needed crutches!

The history of the site is complex and shrouded in the mists of time, but we know that a small Romanesque church on the site was expanded and renovated beyond the point of recognition, and was eventually placed into the care of the noble Della Torre family, who commissioned the main fresco cycles. They were not only rich, but genuinely pious, which may be one reason for the particularly free expression in some of the frescoes.

During the 18th century excavations, a Baroque side chapel (painted pastel blue and pink, glimpses below) and a pink bell tower were added, but since they aren’t very visible from the nave, they don’t intrude much into the rustic warmth of the main part of the church.

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Some of the frescoes from the original Romanesque church (part of which has now been demolished) are still visible on the walls just outside the presbytery of the present church. In the foreground you can plainly recognize an image of St. Christopher, patron saint of pilgrims, by the Christ’s child’s foot draped over his shoulder. There are also traces of older frescoes inside, along the back wall of the presbytery.

These outdoor frescoes are just outside the right hand wall in the photos of the rehearsal below. Now let’s start our tour of the inside. But first, let’s note that intricately decorated period instruments are a nice addition to the already warm ambience of the church, especially when they are playing!

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All the later frescoes are in what is now called the Gothic Alpine style, and they have iconographic and aesthetic cousins in many other area churches. The artists’ identities are uncertain, but there seem to have been more than one.

In the photos above you can see the presbytery, which has the most elegant and best preserved of the frescoes. One reason for the superior preservation is that the artists used lapis lazuli instead of vegetable dye for the deep blue of the late medieval heavens. The black skies you see in the photos below were once a similar shade of blue, but they have since oxidized. Another reason for superior preservation may be that the presbytery has windows to allow in light and warmth. In fact, all the frescoes on that (southwestern) side of the church are generally in much better shape than those on the other side. The other side is facing uphill and would have accumulated more snow as well.

The middle fresco along the back of the presbytery shows San Fiorenzo and San Martino (the patron saint of Bastia) with the Virgin and Child. The Virgin in the Crucifixion scene above is being held up in the shape of a cross because she is sharing in her Son’s sufferings, as prophesied by Simeon in the temple. There are several other themes on these walls, including a large panel of St. George and the dragon. Underneath the back wall you can also see remnants of an earlier fresco cycle.

Surrounding the groin vault above the presbytery are the Four Evangelists. Two are sitting together because the fourth panel has an image of Christ Pantocrator (ruler) blessing their work. If you look closely, you will notice that one of the two young evangelists sitting together (Luke) is left-handed. This is pretty unusual when you consider that, according to the superstition of the time, left-handedness was from the devil. I quickly formed my own theory that the fresco looked more balanced with each evangelist’s outer arm resting on the table, but still, someone must have noticed that Luke was a mancino and allowed it. A quick Google search brought up some tantalizing hints that showing Luke as left-handed was an iconographic tradition.

Above the arch just outside the presbytery is the Annunciation, and below it, Saints Dominic and Francis (shown in the brown habit on the right), who as founders of the two main mendicant orders of the day and opponents of a heresy common in the area, were “pillars” of the church. I particularly liked the free and beautiful brushwork on the cloth below St. Francis’ feet.

On the inside of the archway are Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, who are patrons of childbirth and lactation. So women, as well as the left-handed, had sympathetic intercessors near the altar. But even these woman saints are dressed as nobles, because that’s what the people would have expected.

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As you travel down the right side of the nave from Saint Francis, along the southwestern wall, there is a series of frescoes representing the life and miracles of San Fiorenzo. The scene above depicts an episode in which the people of Bastia prayed for intercession from San Fiorenzo against a plague of serpents and wild boars (both real threats). The saint is shown above the white Alban hills announcing to the people that God wants to save them. A particular type of eagle native to the region, recognizable by its protected lidded eyes, came and killed the serpents. (I love the arrow-straight pinwheel formation of eagle feathers!) In additional to a literal interpretation of the episode, the local literature allows for a couple of different metaphorical interpretations, one involving a local invasion of Saracens and another involving an outbreak of the plague. This story may even be superimposing a later San Fiorenzo onto the earlier one. But the tradition is so old by now that it’s hard to tell.

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The next cycle is the depiction of Heaven and Hell, complete with the works of mercy based on the Gospel of Matthew (the detail above shows feeding the sick and burying the dead) and the seven deadly sins. You can see the orderly nature of The New Jerusalem in the first photo, which I included to give some idea of the context. The central scene is the Coronation of the Virgin, in which the placement of each saint along the sides has its significance. If you click to enlarge the image, you can see that music in Heaven is also played on period instruments! I’m sure Sarie and her friends would approve. In fact, the church once hosted a concert played on the kinds of instruments shown in the frescoes.

Heavenly order would have appealed greatly to the people of the 15th century, but many contemporary visitors are fascinated with the chaotic depiction of Hell, which includes a monstrous Satan devouring some local magistrates and lawyers, the French and Milanese butting heads, and even some errant clergy. Some of these representations are derived from literature, but they may have also served as a reassuring message directed toward the common folk of Bastia–Don’t fret when corrupt rulers prosper! Our guide, who grew up in the area and occasionally attended this church as a child, said none of the kids she knew wanted to sit near the Hell cycle. They all sat up front! I don’t blame them.

I chose this depiction of Envy to represent the Hell cycle. She is wearing green, of course, and she has no face of her own, because she always wants to be someone else. The animal she is riding on is labeled as a leopard, but it looks more like a monkey, no doubt because the painter was simply told that a leopard is an exotic African animal. What amused me was that the leopard/monkey’s face looked so much like Gollum’s!

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The next cycle, which I didn’t take photos of because of the dark, depicts the life of St. Anthony the Hermit. He is often depicted in churches of the period because outbreaks of St. Anthony’s fire** (ergot poisoning), a hideous toxicity caused by grain fungus, were at their height. The monks of his order were particularly successful in treating it.

Along the back wall are Biblical and traditional scenes from the birth and infancy of Christ. In the nativity scene, St. Joseph seems to be outside the stable enjoying a bowl of soup while the Blessed Virgin is on her knees adoring the Christ Child, to whom she has just given birth. The guide had a more sympathetic explanation: He is fixing her some chicken broth, a natural antibiotic, and the particular cheese hanging from the stable is also known for its antibiotic properties. A nearby scene, a legend involving the Flight into Egypt, shows the Christ Child picking his mother some dates off of a palm tree (once again, the artist wasn’t so knowledgeable about his exotics), as a worried looking St. Joseph, carrying an empty food pot, looks on. I really like these tender and sympathetic depictions of Jesus’ earthly father.

And finally, below, I’ve included one panel from the Passion of Christ (from the damaged northeastern wall). It depicts Christ’s appearance before the high priest, who is tearing his robe according to the gospel account. In the tradition of the time, the face of a saint (and especially the Son of God) would often be painted in a very refined, almost feminine manner, while the face of a villain would be exaggeratedly ugly. A quick glance at the faces of Christ and the soldiers confirms this. In the Crowning with Thorns scene a couple of panels down, a man with a goiter appears in the doorway, about to join the mockers. He is a local piemontese, malnourished from eating mostly polenta.

If you want to see more frescoes, click here and here.

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(This last photo of the rehearsal was taken by the harpsichordist’s father, whom I only know by his last name, Stefanelli.)

At the end of the tour, I went back to my seat at the front pew and watched the rehearsal, refreshed by a breeze that came into the side door near the San Fiorenzo frescoes. The little church soon filled with some very literate present day locals, and the historical concert, presenting music from two-hundred years after the fresco cycle, began. The music, the warm evening colors, and the stories behind the frescoes, all combined to create a serendipitous evening. And then the musicians and their parents went out for salumi, fresh tomini,  purée di tonnoinsalata russa, gnocchi alla bava, and good company.

*In most of this post, I’ve translated the names of the saints into English. But since I don’t know of an English translation for Fiorenzo (Florentius, maybe? Florence?), I just left it! And then it just seemed silly to write St. Martin next to San Fiorenzo, so I left that too…

**Confusingly, another well-known St. Anthony, the Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua, also died of ergotism.

Finale Ligure

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(Above: A beach club in Finale Ligure. I’m drinking a rare Italian iced coffee. The waiter asked if I wanted it shakerizzato. That means what it sounds like, shaken with ice, but I was amused that the concept was so foreign they had to appropriate an American word to describe it.)

Since I mentioned going to the sea with my friend Stella in my last post, I thought I would do a short post on the town we visited, Finale Ligure, as well.

Finale Ligure is near Savona, which is to say it’s roughly halfway between Genova and Nice. It’s one of the shore cities closest to Torino. This area of the coast is called the Italian Riviera, and it’s easy to see why: The water is blue, the towns are elegant, the the beach is lined with palms and beautiful rock outcroppings edged by narrow sand beaches.

The beaches are almost entirely taken up by permanent beach chairs with umbrellas, which you rent by the month. There are clubs all along the shore that rent them out. And the clubs have restaurants and bars open to the beach where people spend the afternoon in various states of dress ranging from elegant shifts with jewelry to not much at all. Life is more casual than in the interior cities, but it’s still a far cry from the Jimmy Buffet culture of northern Florida.

Stella and I went down just for the day, but many people rent a place for a week, own a place, or even go to Sardegna for a month.

One day at the shore by no means makes me an expert on Italian beach culture, but I know the sea is a big deal here. Italy is a peninsula, after all, and has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

But I still prefer the mountains. And Italy has a lot of those too.

(Below: the façade of one church and the ceiling of another, plus the main shoreline piazza in Finale Ligure)

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It’s air! It’s moving! (I wish.)

Last winter I wrote about Italians’ attitude towards cold weather. (Short version: They don’t like it.) Given the unusually hot temperatures this summer, I figured this might be a good time to write about Italians’ attitude towards hot weather. (Short version: They don’t like it.)

To be fair, this July has been unusually hot in Europe. That is to say, it’s sort of like the weather in New York City, where we used to live, and cooler than in Georgia, where I grew up. The temperatures range from about 75-93F (24-33C). But the difference is that Italians don’t believe in air conditioning. Air conditioning falls under the same category as many of the Italian fears about winter: It’s air! It’s moving!

I’m sure there are other reasons that Italians don’t have air conditioning. It’s expensive. And in our home, it would trip the switch. Turning on the oven and the hot water at the same time trips our switch.

So instead we have two large fans. And shutters. And a routine with the sun.

It goes something like this: Wake up as early as possible and open all the shutters to let in the not-quite-so-hot air. Get something done. Anything at all. Run to close the shutters on the east-facing side as soon as the sun starts hitting the kitchen (8:30am). Close up everything after lunch and then sit immobile by the fan like a Victorian lady receiving visitors in the parlor, while drinking lots of water and looking for the least energy-consuming means possible to accomplish something. (Though being shut up in a hot room in dim light is a great temptation to grumpiness.) Around 4 p.m. start cautiously opening things up and trying to resume movement without becoming dehydrated. Move the fans back into the bedrooms before sleeping and close the shutters once again, but leave the windows open.

Does it work? Not really. I confess we’re not getting much done at all. I think this is why Italians go to the sea. If you aren’t going to get anything done anyway, you might as well be in some scenic location, so one day I went to Finale Ligure on the train with my friend Stella. But I prefer the mountains. And my car has air conditioning. So whenever I can find willing accomplices and a free day, I try to go.

And even here in Torino, some offices and stores have air-conditioning. It’s not turned up very high, but it’s still a great incentive to leave home.

Unfortunately, in the process of battling the heat, I’ve also discovered that I have raging summer dust allergies. Every morning after sleeping by the fan (positioned carefully to avoid my face) I wake up with red eyes and a stopped up nose. So I spend a lot of that precious daily movement washing everything (and using antihistamine eye drops). I think this new dust aversion is probably part of the Italian justification for their air-current phobia, but I do prefer having allergies to not sleeping at all, so I will continue to use the fans.

There is one great blessing in all this: Since Italians don’t have screens, either, many people get attacked by mosquitos at night. We have been incredibly lucky that the mosquitos have been few. I have no idea why.

And finally, during the last two days, the temperatures have improved, the skies have cleared a bit from their Po Valley haze, and I feel like the end to the heat wave may be in sight. I’m getting some stuff done again. And besides, I’m going to Georgia, where the air conditioning will be on full blast. I’ll be packing a sweater.

The attack of the furbi

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(No, not this kind of furby.)

This has been a summer chock full of bureaucratic mishaps, which, as you know by now if you are a regular reader, are one of my favorite themes. That’s because, once having wasted so much time doing things no one should logically have to do, I figure should at least get some redeeming value out of it by making it into a story. So let’s begin…

It all started when my purse got stolen. I was arranging grocery bags in my car, very proud of having planned out and bought a week’s worth of meals. The problem was that one of the bags, the one all the cans were in, was my huge purse. It was too heavy to keep on my shoulder, so I put it in the front seat and opened the back door. I was right next to the cart rack (no one hidden inside) and there was no one around. I never saw anyone. Nor was I ever more than a couple of feet from the car. And yet it happened.

I realized what had happened right away and ran into the shopping center, to the Apple Store, to try to trace my iPhone. Too late, it was already turned off. Then I went to security to block the credit cards. I was able to block the Italian ones (a good thing, because there’s no theft protection on cards in Italy), but I couldn’t make an overseas call from the security office to block the American ones. So I drove home, without a driver’s license. Everything was in my purse. It was, naturally, a Friday evening. That’s when things you need to remedy right away usually happen, right?

As soon as I had blocked the American cards using Skype from home (we don’t have a land line), I went and took care of the first and most essential part of Italian theft bureaucracy, the police report or denuncia. The police told me that the anagrafe was open on Saturday morning, so I could take a of my denuncia and a copy of my old identity card and go get a new one, then come back and get a provisional driver’s license. By the time I got home, it was 10:00 pm. At least we had groceries, though some of them had to be pitched after spending an extra hour in a hot car. And of course, all of the canned goods were in my stolen purse.

For the next few days, there was also the problem of the keys. Since the thieves had the keys and also my address (everyone’s address is on their identity card), someone had to be in the apartment at all times to keep it bolted from the inside. And Sarie had to go to Milan the next day for work. I called my neighbors and thankfully one of them volunteered to sit in my apartment the next morning while I tried to get the document replacement process under way.

On Saturday morning when the phone store opened, I was there with my ancient cell phone and some cash I had borrowed from Sarie, ready to transfer my old number to a new SIM card. Outside I met the first of many people who responded to my story with their own stories of having purses and billfolds stolen. It seems to have happened to about 80% of the people I’ve talked to. This man said it had happened to him three times. There’s a word that everyone uses to describe thieves in Italy: They’re furbi. The literal translation is something like clever or sneaky, but in Italy it’s taken to a whole new level. To start a conversation on thievery in Italy is to enter a complicated discourse on the downfall of a country. Obviously not everyone in Italy is a furbo, but those who are, are furbissimi.

Once I had an operational phone in hand, I was off to the anagrafe. We don’t have anagrafi in the US, but it’s a sort of civil registry. It’s where the identity cards come from, which you need to do just about everything in Italy. And on Saturday morning, the anagrafe is apparently open literally only for life and death. That is, they only do paperwork for births and deaths.

I was, however, able to get a prepaid credit card from the bank before it closed at noon. Now there was nothing I could do but stay home in my barricaded apartment and wait until Monday.

On Monday morning, the locksmith showed up and gave the dreaded diagnosis: Our entire Ft. Knox-like system of locks (necessitated by the furbi) would have to be replaced. They’d be back on Tuesday, because they aren’t open on Wednesday.

I went back to the anagrafe during lunch, because the woman at the bank told me that was a good time to go, since everyone would be eating. It was not. Of course, once there, the people at the anagrafe told me that no, I couldn’t just get a new identity card with a police report, a passport, and a copy of the old card. As an immigrant, I’d have to bring a receipt proving that I had a valid permesso di soggiorno (like a green card). Not knowing what was required to get a stolen permesso replaced when all my other documents were stolen as well, I went directly to the patronato, a charity agency that helps people with bureaucracy. (These don’t exist in the US either, so far as I know.) There I waited for two hours, but at least they were able to put my package together the same day and send me off to the post office to wait for another hour and pay a hefty sum for my replacement permesso. (Post offices in Italy are where you pay all bureaucratic fees. You didn’t think they’d actually take the fees at the bureaucratic office itself, did you?). But by the end of the day, I finally walked away with the all-important red bolletino receipt from the post office.

On Tuesday, I went back to the anagrafe first thing, got the identity card, went to the police station, got a provisional driver’s license, and then went to the public transportation office to get my permanent bus card replaced. Meanwhile, the locksmith sawed and drilled right through dinner, but at least at the end of it we could leave the apartment unoccupied.

On Wednesday, I waited in line for an hour just to get to the information desk to ask which line to get in for my tessera sanitaria, or national health service card. You get the picture.

And so it went, in addition to some other stuff, like waiting for hours to replace a car part and my computer. My patience was wearing a bit thin by the end of the week. But I was making progress. Most of all, I was happy that I could drive again.

Meanwhile, I was also planning our summer trip to the US. When I went for my slated permesso di soggiorno appointment at the unairconditioned, cement-with-a-glass-roof immigration center (an ingenious form of punishment—the place literally used to be a prison), the woman had a look at my requisite red bolletino receipt and other documents and fingerprinted me. Then she said, “You should be able to pick up your permesso card in a month.”

“And in the meanwhile, I can travel to the US with this receipt?”

“No. You have to have the original.”

Knowing that no one ever asked for the thing unless I traveled through Germany and that the card would be waiting for me upon my return, I gave her an imploring look. She backtracked. She asked the woman at the next desk. Finally, she came back with, “You can enter Italy as a tourist.” Just to make sure, I called the patronato to clarify matters. And then I bought a return flight with a plane change in the US instead of in Europe. I’m not taking any chances with the Germans.

Once I bought the tickets, I called the Georgia DMV to find out whether I could drive with my provisional Italian license. They too said I’d have to have the original. (My New York State license was, naturally, stolen.) I called Rome, where the police had sent my paperwork, and they told me, in the typical Italian way, just to show up at the local DMV and ask for a rush. You don’t call ahead in Italy. It’s useless. You won’t get the same information twice anyway.

So yesterday morning I got up early, packed my police report, provisional license, and a few extra pieces of paper for good measure, and went downstairs to drive to the DMV. When I got to my car, there was a huge dent in it, but that’s another story which will have to be continued later.

When I finally got to the motorizzazione (Italian for DMV), I sat patiently with my high-numbered ticket until I could talk to the lady behind the window. She told me everything I had to do, which, of course, involved going to a post office to get another red bolletino receipt, and also making some extra photocopies. (This is another rule of bureaucratic offices. They never make photocopies.) She didn’t know the address, though, and since I was in the suburbs, snarled in a labyrinth of access roads 25 minutes away from the center  of Torino where I live, I didn’t know how to find the nearest post office or copy center. I played around with the (replacement) GPS, set off towards the nearest town, and I found the post office anyway. But the copy shop was harder, and before long the DMV was closed. So it was all the way back home to make the copies and wait until 2:30.

When I arrived back at the DMV after lunch break, there was, of course, a long line outside, with the people at the back pretending not to be cutting in line, while, of course, cutting. I stood in the sun, sweat rolling down my back, watching the furbi like a hawk. Once inside, they all swarmed the same counter I needed. I took my number, 14, and sat down with a book, because the number displayed was 4. But I did ask the man next to me what the swarm was about. “Oh, they’re picking up their licenses,” he said. “It’s a typical Italian mess.” The word he used to indicate a mess, casino, literally means brothel. It’s not an obscenity, but it’s not quite polite, either.

The swarm died down a bit as people started leaving with their shiny new licenses, but an unruly blob remained at the counter. Then the number suddenly shot up to 15. I got up and made my way to the yellow “proceed no further” line. “What’s your number?” I asked the man standing there. “Oh, this line is a bit of a mess,” he responded evasively. Meanwhile, my neighbor had stood up as well. I started looking around, and all at the people standing in a blob near the line, about to advance to the window once the current occupants left, were holding numbers in the 20s. “Wait,” I said to Mr. Evasive Furbo. “You have 28. This man has 12 and I have 14. He’s going next, and then me.” And we brushed past the whole casino. For possibly the first time since I moved to this furbissimo country, I didn’t let someone didn’t take advantage of me just because I am a foreigner who actually expects for things to work.

I presented my copies and my red post office bolletino receipt to the man behind the window, explained the whole situation for the thousandth time, and he told me to come back to pick up my license in ten working days. And he never even looked at any of the missing copies that had caused me have to go back home during lunch. I think I’ll show up in eleven days just to make sure.

UPDATE (July 27): I went back this morning (after ten days, because I realized I was cutting it close) and there is was!! Now if only I can get the permesso before I leave…