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Culture, Europe, Food

3 Macabre Stories that Capture the Essence of Napoli

Climbing hundreds of stairs for a good view, as per usual.
Thursday, 1 September, Napoli, Italy

The weather was a bit mercurial, and we took shelter from a sudden downpour in a nearby cafe. As the storm passed and we prepared to continue on our way, my friend (a Napoli native) informed me that we were about to cross an invisible boundary. 
The police don’t come to this part of the city. It’s controlled by a powerful family (think mafia). Recently, three young men from a different, neighboring family were shot dead as they walked down the street.
Suffice it to say, this was not a safe neighborhood. At least, unlike most tourists, I was acutely aware of the risk involved as we ambled onward on our quest for the best sfogliatelle in Napoli (and thus, seeing as it’s a Neapolitan specialty, the best sfogliatelle in the world).
Go fish! Can you find this famous Napolitano bakery? 🙂
Now, if you’re thinking it’s insane to risk your life for a pastry, you’ve never eaten sfogliatella.
Flaky layers of crisp pastry, artfully shaped to resemble a seashell, filled with sweet ricotta cream lightly flavored with local orange, and dusted with powdered sugar—one is already too much, too rich, and yet I bought four just in case.
Napoli has a bit of a reputation as the more dangerous, more sordid Southern cousin of the well-frequented tourist destinations to the North (Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan). And indeed, the crowded warren of twisting streets layered atop a cavernous subterranean void (in turn layered atop the lava fields that fuel Vesuvius) is not the Italy many tourists may imagine.
It may be better.
As we walked from one end of the city to the other on our quixotic pastry mission, my friend, uniquely knowledgeable about Napoli’s architecture, history, language and culture, regaled me with stories—many macabre—that endeared me to this dark gem of a city.
Here are three of them:

Rub a skull for good luck.
The Old Ladies and the Catacomb Skulls
Twenty years ago, the old ladies of Napoli still maintained this tradition, originating in the plague years, or perhaps the war years (regardless, years of extraordinarily high mortality rates). Each would “care for” a particular skull in the catacombs beneath the city, bringing it flowers, offering it prayers, and grieving the death of a stranger who perhaps had no family left to mourn their passing. Sometimes, vicious arguments would break out over a particular skull when more than one woman lay claim to it. Questa è la mia testa! No! È la mia! (This is my head! No! It’s mine!) Talk about macabre.
San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), Patron Saint of Napoli, and the Curious Affair of the Keys to the Church
San Gennaro is not officially a saint, but don’t try telling that to the citizens of Napoli, who are particularly dedicated to their patron. A vial of the saint’s blood purportedly resides in the main church of the city, and twice a year, the miracle of the liquefaction takes place, in which the dried remains turn to liquid once again. Interestingly, the remains of San Gennaro do not belong to the church, but rather to a mysterious ancient sect with a centuries-old history in Napoli. They allow the church to hold the remains in exchange for the keys to the building. If you’re picturing creepy Satanic rituals in the catacombs of the cathedral, yeah, I’m right there with you.

L’Ospedale delle Bambole (Doll Hospital)—a whole different kind of creepy.
The Hospital of the Incurable Ones
In medieval times, when pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a popular undertaking, Napoli occupied an important step along the journey. In plague years, and other times too, pilgrims would frequently fall ill and find themselves unable to complete their pilgrimage. Many of these stopped in Napoli, and the city became their final resting place. The Church built a thriving business around this occurrence, constructing buildings to house the sick and dying—partially out of Christian charity, surely, and partly because dying pilgrims, unable to reach Jerusalem, proved particularly disposed to leave everything to the Church instead. One of these, L’Ospedale deli Incurrabili (Hospital of the Incurables), still operates today, although I believe it is more concerned with saving lives than saving souls.

This dark and fascinating history lays a particular foundation for the vibrant crush of life filling Napoli today. Young people sporting dark 70s-style fashion, 80s-style hair, lots of attitude and even more tattoos loiter outside cafes, nightclubs, pizzerias and bars. Crowds line up outside the best gelateria, stroll along the waterfront and press into the narrow streets of the Old City. The Napoletano language is alive and well, spoken by many if not most locals, changing and adapting as any healthy, living language should. Musicians play tarantela in the streets, and motorcyclists and pedestrians weave past, seemingly unaware of one another, in a seething dance. 

There is life here. Tons of it. And maybe that’s the point of all the macabre underpinnings; they tell a story about all the living happening now.

***
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Olive Oil on Everything—A Gastronomic Diary of Italy

Sicily, 2013—where I first learned about putting olive oil on everything.
Florence, Tuscany
Gnocchi with fennel, mint and gorgonzola. A generous drizzle of olive oil (the frisky, green, good quality kind) on plain, unsalted bread.
A lake near Rome somewhere
Tiny fried fish, fresh marinated anchovies, mussels, salad with potato and octopus. Gnocchi with clams. Zucchini with mint. A drizzle of olive oil.
Perugia, Umbria
Hands dry from chalk after climbing. Spaghetti with shrimp, zucchini and tomatoes. Olive oil from my host’s grandmother’s home. On the pasta—and on my hands.
It was in Italy that I learned you can truly put olive oil on everything. 

This most recent visit was no different.
I mean the good stuff, of course. The fresh, tangy-green and gorgeous kind. The kind with bite and soul that tastes like it came from somebody’s grandmother’s farm (it probably did).
Here is a short list of ways I have seen olive oil used to perfection:
  • Drizzled (well, poured, really) into tomato sauce after it is cooked and off the heat.
  • Applied to dry hair, skin and lips—best directly after the shower while skin is damp.
  • On a plate with sea salt and balsamic vinegar, for dipping (soaking) bread.
  • Drizzled over pasta, salad, cut vegetables, meat, pizza—everything, I’m serious.
  • Straight from the jug—just a taste, a drop.

Olive oil is everything. Condiment and cooking base. Start and finish. Salve for the body and soul. I suspect it could heal a broken heart, too, though I haven’t tried yet.

In the North, butter features prominently in many recipes—but in the South, it’s always olive oil.
And that’s really it. I mean, I could keep listing mouthwatering Italian meals. That never gets old for me… but I suspect others might have a shorter attention span.
Olive oil. On everything. My time in Italy, in a nutshell.
Try it. Don’t be moderate. Italian grandmothers never are. 
Find the good stuff. Apply liberally. Buon appetito!

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What Makes this Mountain Different from all other Mountains?

Villa Borghese Gardens, Rome
Valle Aurelia, Rome, Italy
This could be any street in any city.
Mixed-era apartment buildings. Imposing stone architecture at turns. Cobblestones and pavement following no particular logic. Crush of cars and scooters. Cafes. Hairdressers. Passerby dressed in scales of gray.
So, what makes this different from any other street—any other city?

***
As we made our way along a dry riverbed, through native South African fynbos vegetation, toward a spectacular (but, again, arguably nondescript) stretch of shoreline, my friend put to me a similar question. Not quite verbatim, it was this:

Most mountains are pretty similar. Most cities are pretty similar. There are trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. There are streets and cafes and passerby in scales of gray. So, what makes these mountains different? If we can go hiking at home, why ever go anywhere else? And if we do go, how do we choose? 

Why these mountains?

The question was philosophical in nature. My friend is nearly as avid a traveler as I.
I would like to offer three answers to these questions—one of which sounds nice, one of which I believe most strongly, and one of which I feel, irrationally, to be true.
It doesn’t matter which is which.
First, terroir. Terroir is a French term I fell in love with while studying the anthropology of food. Essentially, it claims that taste is deeply rooted in place—territory. The elements unique to a given locale—water, specific bacteria, culture, human traditions, soil, weather, everything—combine to create the particular circumstances in which a given food item is produced. And we can taste it. While terroir is a culinary concept, I believe it can just as easily apply to cities, landscapes and really anything else.
Thus, these mountains are made unique by an intangible yet undeniably meaningful agregate of water, culture, air, bacteria, soil, and human idiosyncrasy. 
Why go anywhere? Terroir.
Second, intuition. Some part of our deepest self knows where we need to be. It doesn’t make sense, and it can’t be proven, but those who have experienced will swear that the voice of intuition is real—and that it is always right.
So, how do we know, how do we decide where to go? Instinct.
Or third, the difference isn’t out there at all. It’s us. The mountains are, more or less, all the same. Trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. The cities, too. We, however, change, and we can understand that change by observing its reflection in the places we visit—or rather our experiences of them.
What makes these mountains different from all the rest? We do.
Or, most probably, the answer is some combination of the three.
What makes these mountains different from any others? Nothing, or precious little. Yet, they will be different, because we will change—always.
Why go anywhere else? Terroir. 
And if it’s all the same, how do we possibly decide on one mountain, one city, one street over another? Oh yes, intuition.
Maybe this could be any street in any city, but it isn’t. It’s this one—the one I’m in. And it is utterly unique, both for its composition of individuals, elements and other intangibles, and for my experience of it, in this particular moment. No other street in any other moment will ever be this. I don’t know why I’m here—and not in another street, city, mountain—but I trust the voice that called me.

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Africa, Culture, Food, U.S.

Coffee Culture, Slow Food, and Why Cape Town Has Both

cape town coffee culture slow food

A side alley off Buitenkant Street, Gardens, City Center, Cape Town

The first sip is bitter, sour, almost acrid, before my palette adjusts and the taste mellows into a more complex configuration of nutty, earthy, sweet and rich.

This is good coffee.

I’m sitting at my favorite Cape Town cafe, Deluxe Coffee (also called YARD, the Dog’s Bollocks and the Bitch’s Tits), where motorcycle parts, vintage bicycles and canvas sacks of wholesale coffee beans make for original decor.

I’ve occupied this stool at the counter for well over an hour now, and nobody cares. Par for the course.

Cape Town has an exceptional coffee culture. (The reason I’ve consumed more coffee in the past three months than probably the last three years prior—well, that, and the fact that a cappuccino costs a bit more than a dollar.)

What is “coffee culture”?

Well, to answer in negatives, the U.S. does not have a coffee culture—or a cafe culture, to be more precise. A coffee culture does not “run” on coffee (like Americans run on Dunkins), but rather stops. Sits. Stays. Connects.

And when you stop to taste your “cup of joe,” quality matters. Deluxe Coffee may be my favorite spot, but easily half a dozen others tie for second. There is a lot of good coffee in this city.

To-go cups are more rare, too, and at least among my friends, “going for coffee” is an hour(s)-long undertaking—not a five-minute quick fix.

Cape Town generally moves more slowly. Less rush, less stress, none of the high-powered, shiny, corporate velocity of New York, London or Hong Kong. None of the humorless, chain-brand cafes, either.

Starbucks hasn’t made it to Cape Town, yet, but I hear it’s coming. When it gets here, I hope Cape Townians will put it out of business.

In a cafe culture, independent roasters, brewers and purveyors of coffee thrive. Character and personality matter—or maybe that’s just me.

And I think there’s a common denominator between coffee cultures and Slow Food. Shared values. An appreciation of quality, and a willingness to wait for it.

Many of the cafes where I go to do work have some of the worst service I have seen anywhere in the world. Friendly, but extraordinarily slow.

But, good food. Good coffee.

See the connection? I do.

I am more than a little bit enamored of the Slow Food movement—and of Cape Town’s coffee culture.

I like the pace, the time for detail, the space for real connection. This is what a cafe should be, in my opinion.

This is how coffee should taste. This is how life should move.

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Snapshot: Bar Willy

8:30a.m., Trastevere, Roma — 24 August 2015

I begin the day with that most Italian of concoctions… il bar.

Bar Willy sits at one corner of a busy plaza in Trastevere—at the edge of Rome.

Its staff are a typically diverse mix, representing Asia, Africa and “the Continent” too. (Rome is a massive epicenter for immigrants to the country.) They joke about regional linguistic variations, for which Italy is famous.

At 8:30 on a Sunday, the bar (anywhere else it would be a “cafe”) is buzzing with activity. The tables outside, however, are mostly empty, for—in typical Italian fashion—most of the patrons prefer to take their morning coffee and cornetto (croissants, but, sorry, not as good) standing up.

And so the bar pulses with the ins and outs of customers on their way to the Sunday market just outside.

They order a caffe’ (espresso), cappuccino or latte macchiato (hot milk with a touch of coffee), and the sounds of their orders rebound from barista to cashier to my ears and back. The clatter of tiny spoons on plate, plate on bar, cup on plate; the rustle of pastry on napkin and hands on newspaper; the din of shouts, greetings and laughter—all combines to a decibel of energy to which I am unaccustomed so early in the morning, but which, for some strange reason, pleases me.

It is good-natured—all of it. It is pleasant, honest cheer—a thing the Italians (I find) do better than any others. It is the thing that pulls me back to this country again and again. It is the lushness of fresh pressed olive oil on green figs (speaking of which, the food I’m eating will have to wait for another day…).

It is magnetic, for me—and clearly I’m not the only one.

***
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Food

Just a Little Bit of Culture Shock

Piles of fruit in Malindi, Kenya.
***

I’ve always scoffed at the concept of culture shock.

I go somewhere; there I am. Okay. I go back to the U.S. There I am. Great.

Depending on where you go, toilets smell worse or better. Water is more or less potable. People stare openly, or pretend not to. Buses leave on time, or they don’t. I could go on and on. Yes, everywhere is different–sometimes exceptionally so. Still, I maintain: What’s the big deal?

We may be creatures of habit, but we’re also highly adaptable. This is, in my opinion, one of humankind’s greatest assets.

Meetings and discussions to prepare for “reentry” (offered by any self-respecting study abroad program) struck me as mildly ridiculous. “You might be overwhelmed at the supermarket… blah, blah blah…”

How could anything top the embodied chaos that are foreign marketplaces? Food shopping in Kilifi replaces my exercise for the day as I lug bags of fresh produce through narrow, narrow lanes between food stalls. Attempting to haggle in my limited (though growing) Swahili, I am rewarded by an incomprehensible verbal assault from the usually serene, matronly mango vendor. Dust and flies and sweat hold court in a small room filled with giant sacks of grain.

Shopping, much to my delight, is an adventure in other parts of the world. And I’m supposed to be overwhelmed by an American supermarket?

Street food in Shanghai.

Now. Here I am in Southfield, Michigan to visit my grandmother. (Sorry to everyone everywhere else in the U.S., I’m here for four days and then I’m flying back to Kenya. I’ll catch you next time.) I arrived yesterday to the shoddy basement International Arrivals hall of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. I used a payphone to call my Uncle (When’s the last time I used a payphone?!) and, as has become our routine, we stopped at Plum Market to buy groceries on the way to my grandmother’s house, her fridge being very full of a very limited variety of foods.

Now. I will happily eat my own words if you would be so kind as to serve them to me, because I was, indeed, overwhelmed.

I thought I could get pretty much anything at Nakumatt or Tuskys–two Kenyan supermarkets boasting aisles of imported foods.

Market in Barcelona.

I was wrong.

This supermarket truly had everything

An entire aisle devoted to bottled juices, smoothies, kombucha and specialty water of dubious benefits.

Floor-to-ceiling (almost ceiling, anways) choices of canned beans and bagged chips.

Another whole aisle of cheese. Cheese! I missed cheese much more than I realized. As I stood frozen before the bright display of savory abundance, a man came over to ask if I needed help finding anything. I replied that I was simply overwhelmed by choice.

He smiled knowingly, but he didn’t know.

Produce three times larger than what I am now accustomed to teetered at eye level. Onions bigger than baseballs and elephant garlic of the same proportions. Fat eggplant and butternut squash, and apples to feed giants. And these were, supposedly, the organically grown foods!

How many brands of pasta could there be in one place? I grabbed the first pack in sight, worried that if I stopped to examine my options I would be standing there for an hour.

And let me not start about prices, because when you live someplace where just about everything seems to cost fifty cents or less, a dollar for a lime is obscene.

One-stop (one-person?) shopping in Nepal.

I love to go food shopping. I love to take my time selecting produce and comparing options. I love to wander through piles of promises–ingredients waiting to become meals–anywhere I go.

But yesterday, for the first time, I understood how a simple supermarket could be overwhelming–the lights too bright; the prices too high; the air too cool; the clientele too calm; the selection too bewilderingly massive.

I rushed through my list, knowing that if I took the time I wanted to look at everything I would be there until nightfall. Such an overabundance of everything! I was–almost, but not really–in shock.

I still feel culture shock is too strong to describe my experience. Shock is a sudden death or a push from behind. Shock leaves you paralyzed… I’m still functioning, breathing and standing on two feet. I’m just a few hairs shy of indifferent.

How about “culture pinch,” that slight twinge of strangeness we experience when we show up someplace new, or return somewhere that used to be familiar but now doesn’t quite fit. Or “culture” bewilderment,” when we’re just kind of confused, but dealing with it all the same. Or, better yet, “culture wonder,” when everything inspires a mild form of awe with few symptoms beyond wide eyes.

(Any other “culture shock” alternatives to offer? I’m all ears!)

I’m starting to think that all of those lectures on culture shock and “reentry” shock weren’t wrong; they were just exaggerated and alarmist. So extreme were the warnings that I could never take them seriously. This isn’t an illness we need to carefully monitor and shield against. It’s not a disease that will lay us up in bed for months. But it’s not entirely delusional, either.

I suspect that we (I) could learn a lot about ourselves (myself) by paying attention to when we feel uncomfortable, overwhelmed or bewildered, and why.

Food for thought.

Vermont summer blueberries. Now there’s another thing I miss.

More importantly though, cheese! So much cheese.

***
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A Picnic Revolution

I’m starting a picnic revolution! Here’s how it came about:

Yesterday, my friends invited me to an outdoor concert at Lincoln Peak Vineyard (about 3 miles north of Middlebury, VT). After a busy day at work, this seemed like the perfect way to spend my evening.

Sunlight dripped like honey into the Adirondacks on the horizon, and its warmth melted away the constant action of the past few days of work. Vibrations lifted from violin strings. Blades of grass sprouted between my toes while Bluegrass music washed over my nose. For the first time in some days, I felt totally at peace. (I’m realizing that I need to step back from work, ‘other work’ and other ‘other work’ far more often.)

Due to my new-found engagement with social media, I snapped photos of my friends, lively grape vines, and, of course, our new picnic innovation and the subject of this post…

Naturally, Lincoln Peak Vineyard offers glasses of wine for sale during their outdoor summer concerts. Now, my parents, and probably many others, own special wine stakes meant to hold your wineglass in place while you use your hands for other things, like eating your beautiful picnic food. These stakes are somewhat unruly, however, and regardless, I don’t have any.

Feet, I discovered yesterday evening, are equally, if not more, effective, and you never run the risk of leaving them at home! How had it taken me so long to stumble upon such a simple solution? In no time, all four of us were holding our glasses up with our toes while we feasted on tomato basil and feta salad, millet bread muffins, chicken, cherries, and chocolate.

I suggested that this idea could revolutionize picnics, and I was only sort of kidding. Rise up with me against the tyranny of wineglasses over our picnic fun! Join my picnic revolution and take back your two-handed freedom! But seriously, give this a try and you may never picnic the same way again!

~

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Waiting for the Invisible

I expect this garden will teach me many things this summer. Though garden is perhaps too tame a word to describe it– too civilized. No tidy rows or neat squares here. On all sides of my house the land extends outward and upward in near vertical lines, and the eye loses track of the boundaries between the cultivated and the wild. Pockets of arable soil dot the landscape, reclaimed from the hill by sheer determination. Vines tangle with maples and violets fraternize with garlic chives and clover. Beans that were planted in one patch willfully assert themselves in the neighboring one– “volunteers,” as my friend Rae calls them.

Nine days now have passed since I planted what remained of these plots. (The owner had already planted beans and peas, chives and thyme some weeks prior.) I contributed squash and zucchini, cucumbers and collard greens, turnips, parsley and arugula. Nine days later and I begin to lose patience. Where are they?

The herbs and tomatoes I bought as starters stand strong in their pots by the driveway. Turnip shoots emerge from the earth in droves; the zucchini begin to display a few shy leaves; and the rest… the rest remain hidden, continuing along a mysterious, underground journey that I can only guess at. Well, thanks to high school Biology I can do more than guess, but even so, where are all the rest? I ask, exasperated. I don’t even like turnips!

Calm down, I remind myself. Breath. In and out. These are seeds, not magic beans, and they don’t in fact grow overnight. When I ‘woofed’ (worked on an organic farm) in Sicily, I arrived in June, at the start of a lengthy harvest season. Zucchini already a foot long and figs falling off the trees. There was no waiting; I enjoyed an instant gratification of food production matched only by… supermarkets. And fairy tales.

But in the real world of dirt and seeds and seasons and cycles, there is a germination period: 4-12 days for cucumbers, 7-14 for squash. That’s a lot of days. Nine days in, and I have to remind myself to have patience; to quiet the pessimistic, doubtful voice in my head whispering, they’re never coming.

Where are those darn plants? They’re coming. Are we there yet? No, but we’re on our way.

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I Drank Yak Blood


 I drank yak blood. Really. Yesterday, after eight years of not eating red meat. The flavor had a quality surprisingly similar to raw milk, a bit salty and, of course, metallic.  It was still warm. I won’t go into details about the chewy bit that I couldn’t finish. 
I stood at the top of a stone wall with two other Americans and a small crowd of children to watch the slaughter of three yaks from above.  The kids, none older than eight or nine, passed around fruit candies, shouted at us in shrill voices (the general belief being that if they spoke louder we would understand) and clambered onto rooftops and ledges to acquire prime seats for the show.  A woman sat behind us scraping creamy cheese off a flat stone, occasionally whacking me with a stick for blocking her sun.
I had decided that watching this event, commonplace to life in Mustang but wholly absent from my prior experience, was something I should do.  The longer I sat above the courtyard, watching the men turn bodies into carcasses, their hands turning from brown to deep red, the more comfortable I became.  Maybe desensitized is a better word.  I have long rejected the part of my own nature that is programmed to hunt, kill and eat meat.  Now, as before, I have no desire to order a steak, but I found it valuable to acknowledge that side of myself, and humanity at large, in such a manner.
When Tenzin, the owner of the Red House Lodge, beckoned to me, I made my way down the stairs on autopilot, having already committed myself several nights ago to trying yak blood.  “It will make you strong,” he had insisted, just as raksi(local alcohol), buckwheat, and nearly every other local product are said to do.  “You will try it, I think so.” And in the bravado of a moment I agreed.  I wasn’t about to back out later, and besides, what better way to go back to eating meat? 
I passed through the doorway into the arena.  Tenzin’s mother and another woman were already at work in the corner turning intestines and other innards into sausages.  Someone handed me a mug with rivulets of brilliant red liquid running down the sides. I drank, but could not finish.  On my way down to the river to wash out the remainder, I slipped on the muddy steps and almost fell.  The men in the courtyard laughed and joked that I was drunk from the blood.  I don’t know if it was the adrenaline or the shot of nutrients, but I did feel jittery for quite some time after.
That night before dinner, over cups of raksi, Tenzin and his friend lamented that they had not taken any pictures (sorry to disappoint) of me with blood smeared on my nose and teased me about falling down.  I felt I had proved my mettle to them and joined some secret boys’ club, at least temporarily.  There is nothing savage or bizarre about the process I witnessed.  Animals are butchered every day, everywhere; that is a part of life.  There is nothing disgusting or barbaric about the tradition I took part in; it made sense in its place, surrounded by others doing the same thing, with gusto.  Still, having proved myself to both the locals and to myself, it is unlikely I will choose to repeat the experience.  I am, however, glad that I did it.
~

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