Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Venice Transformed

36 years is a long time. That's how long it's been since I was in Venice last. Back then, Venice seemed filled with North American and European tourists. Every restaurant was too expensive for me. Today, Venice feels more like Las Vegas in some ways. It must be the cruise ships. The whole place has turned into a theme park shopping mall.
Not Casanova's Bridge of Sighs!
Souvenir vendors galore
Gondola traffic jams!

The dreaded cruise ships...
...but you can still find quiet canals 
And early in the morning, you have the whole place to yourself!

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No Baloney!

"They eat and eat and eat and yet I have not seen one Morbidly Obese Italian," I emailed Big Dog.
It was a mystery. (Actually, the bigger mystery is how there can be so many morbidly obese people in the US!)

Everywhere around me, people seem to be eating all the time. There's breakfast, of course, though not a heavy one like you'd find in the States. It's generally a milky coffee (with sugar, though!) and some kind of bread. Then, there's the mid-morning snack. Like a pastry with more coffee. Then a substantial lunch. With wine and maybe even dessert. A gelato is good any time of day. Then, there's a pre-dinner munch with drinks. A giant multi-course dinner. More wine, more dessert. Maybe even a digestif.

No one talks about carb-free or fat-free or gluten-free. Not in this country of pasta and cheeses and olive oils.

So how can the Italians pig out like this and not get fat like Americans? Sure, there are fat Italians, just like there are fat Japanese, fat Filipinos, fat anybodies. But not like the grossly obese men, women and children you see everywhere in the US.

Here are some differences:

* People eat a lot of cured meats but they are not as salty as the processed meats of the US. And they are made the old, traditional way. Not in a modern factory with tons of chemicals. There is no baloney in Bologna.
* They don't eat fast food. Yes, there are a few McDonald's and Burger Kings but not as many and far fewer customers. (I can't help but wonder why the handful of people inside a fast food outlet are there.)
* Sugary soft drinks are not consumed much. Colas are more expensive and, like cola products in many countries, use sugar, not corn syrup.
* Most things are made from scratch and the ones that aren't are still made from scratch, just by someone else.
* The diet is varied, with a good balance of meat, carbs, vegetables and fruit.
* No GMOs.
* No growth hormones.
* People take their time eating, enjoying every bite.
* There is less car use, more walking. Lots more stairs.
* Italians love to yak. (My theory is that you have to eat slower when you talk that much. Also I believe talking aids digestion.)

It's probably a combination of any or all of the above, what as well as how you eat, but I am convinced that if we live and eat like Italians, we could end this obesity problem for real.

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Michelangelo's Ghost

The last time I was in Rome and Florence was to cover the Mille Miglia races in the early 90s for a Japanese TV station. Just a few hours and a short night on the outskirts of Rome to interview the racers. Before that was in the late 70s as an impoverished student doing the Backpack-Through-Europe-On-As-Little-As-Humanly-Possible Thing. (You were supposed to able to travel on $20 a day. I didn't have that much money then.)

"The people have changed, but Roma is still Roma," said Sergio, the owner of the little residenza across from the Lago Argentina ruins.

Yes, they have. In 1977, the place was filled with tourists, but now, it is absolutely jam-packed, and with the kinds of people who weren't even traveling back then. Everyone behind the Iron Curtain, the Chinese, Koreans, Southeast Asians, Indians, Middle Easterners, South Americans...

But with the influx of tourists, Rome has also changed. Every place charges a hefty admission. (I remember much being free for students back in the 70s.) There are long lines for everything. Spots like the Fountain of Trevi and Spanish Steps are a zoo of humanity.
Overlooking crowds from the top of the Spanish Steps
The biggest shock was waiting for me at the Vatican. And it wasn't the throngs either.

I was last inside the Sistine Chapel pre-restoration project. That happened sometime in the 80s when Japanese companies had too much money to waste, including Nippon TV who underwrote the project.

After tiring ourselves out trying to see everything inside the Vatican Museum, my mother and I were swept along a human river to the Last Spot. The Sistine Chapel. Guards are shouting "Silence!" trying to quiet the murmur of hundreds of people, shoulder to shoulder in the famous Chapel.

Oh my god. The colors are nothing like what I remember. It's all too vivid, too...colorful. But the most shocking aspect of the "new" Sistine Chapel was that in removing centuries of soot from the frescoes, they seem to have taken away some of the charcoal shading. Things look flat. Some figures lack eyes. Faces have lost detail.

This was not how Michelangelo painted the celebrated ceiling. At least, not in my relatively uneducated opinion.

Some say this is due to the misunderstanding of the restorers who thought Michelangelo painted on wet plaster, buon fresco, and did not come back to add details to the dried paster, so everything on top of the original painted plaster was removed.

I imagine Michelangelo rolling in his grave. Until I remember how even during the painting of The Last Judgement, he had conflicts with the clergy about nudity. I think clothes were painted on some of the figures later on, by an artist who got the nickname "Breeches Painter." Michelangelo's ghost has been rocking and rolling for a loooong time. If it stayed here at all. Nah. Why would it. Why would it stay here when there's...West Hollywood?

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Land of Armani

A few days in Rome...or Milan, or any other major Italian city and you will see how Italy is tops in the men's fashion world. Sure, the French have their designers, as do the Brits, Japanese, Americans and so on, so forth. But in terms of consumers, this is the place.

In most cultures, I think there is a sort of prejudice towards men who take care of how they look. I flash back on the little comment the DogFather made after he watched Big Dog spend a few too many minutes trimming his nails -- a far too recent thing given that he's been a lifelong nail-biter. Something like, wow, you're spending a lot of time on your nails. A simple comment that was filled with irony, embarrassment, maybe a little disdain.

Real men aren't supposed to spend TOO much time on their looks. Sure, you want your shoes polished, your hair slicked back with Brill Cream or the salve of the moment, your pits protected from too much BO, your mouth protected from  BB (has that become part of the lingo yet? it should.) More than that is...well, either narcissistic or effeminate. Never mind that I am so proud of Big Dog for having been able to conquer his nail biting after FIVE DECADES.

None of that sort of prejudice seems to have permeated the psyche of Italian men. They are free to primp and gussy. Make themselves as tidy, stylish, attractive as they can.

That old man in a suit that no longer fits his shrunken body, still has impeccable footwear. The young peacock struts in his Armani.

Elsewhere, designers create clothes that are seldom worn or even noticed by their countrymen. Only a handful of Japanese men even know who Yoji Yamamoto is, let alone what his current collection looks like. Newer designers like Mihara? Fuggedabawtit! Is it the same in the UK, home of some top notch menswear designers? Do American designers envy Dolce and Gabbana?

From a woman's point of view, I suppose it's just a matter of taste. Some women like sweaty guys in baggy jeans. There are probably women out there who find plumber's cracks the height of masculinity.

I'm not saying I want my guy to be a fashion hog but I do feel that taking care of your nails is going in the right direction. And if I were a menswear designer, I know I'd be happiest in a world filled with Italian men.
Those Ancient Romans weren't too shabby, either.

A merman suit might be fun, too.

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Eat, Eat, Eat

Just before leaving for Japan to pick up my mother and take her to Italy (yes, this is the year of Enabling Aging Parents) I picked up "Eat, Pray, Love" at Goodwill along with a black blazer I thought would be handy on the road in Italy. Maybe the "Eat" section would give me ideas for where and what to eat in Italy.

I'd avoided the book, thinking it was a silly novel. It turned out not to be a novel. It was far worse. Despite the author's introduction, explaining that the book was divided into three sections about three countries and the first one would be about Italy and the pursuit of pleasure, especially the pleasure of eating, I realized while slogging through the first section that it was all about this woman whining about her life and relationships. What a sorry excuse of a book. I thought I'd be reading something to stimulate my appetite before the two weeks in Italy. Instead, it was giving me a headache.

During my short 2 weeks in Italy, I had no time to whine. I was too busy eating. Pizzas and pastas, artichokes and fresh porcinis, parma ham, salami, dainty little clams and graceful prawns, nutty asparagus and tasty tomatoes, creamy gelatos, fluffy pastries, rich cheeses and lots and lots of wine... The prayers were thanks to the Divine for this bounty. And with all this luscious food, how could there NOT be amore in the air?

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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

D.C. Cool

In Washington D.C., as we visited all the monuments and memorials and cemeteries, I came to understand that this is the Holy Spot of the US. The place where the shrines are. It's no coincidence that the structures are classic or neoclassic buildings that look like Roman and Greek temples or European cathedrals.

The United States of America was created as an ideal, a utopia. What is great about it, and the essence of the country, come from what wise and noble men THOUGHT UP. The ideals that many of the monuments expound are so noble, so pure. Martin Luther King's "dream," F.D. Roosevelt's "compassion," Jefferson's "liberty." Washington's "freedom," Lincoln's "equality." The heart of America is not really in the heart but in the mind and maybe this is what creates the huge rifts between ideas and reality. (I think of race riots, the internment of the Japanese Americans, the abuse of farm workers...)

I thought of Japan and how I could "feel" the identity of the country at Ise. Japan was not created by man. Not the way the US was. It evolved, through prehistoric times, shifting, changing, morphing. Ideals also changed with the times, but the heart, the core, is something that one can barely describe in words. It is in some mythical past. I think European nations and other ancient civilizations share this, though many were conquered by other powers, morphing the "heart" even more.

But DC is more than just a Holy Spot for America. It's a vibrant, happening Capital with a capital C. People are friendly without being sloppy and unprofessional (which happens too often in California...) And there are many cool things. I made a short list:

Cool Thing about DC 1: Taxi cab drivers (and probably nail salon workers, grocery clerks, et al) all talk politics. Our driver was also well versed in what was going on -- much more than I!!

Cool Thing about DC 2: Pedicabs! Rickshaws are not only for the third world anymore! And how green can you be? Human powered taxis, yay! Every city should have them.

Cool Thing About DC 3: Foxen! In the woods near the Korean War Memorial, there was a mama fox and 3 suckling fox cubs. Awwww. And they don't give any mind to the small crowd of tourists with cameras. That such wild animals live in this very urban (albeit park) environment is soooo coool!

Cool Thing about DC 4: Beautiful black people! (I know that the politically correct term is African American but for me, it is not at all correct because many are Carribean American, or not American at all, so please do not get offended when I talk about "black people.") I could not believe how many really stunning black professionals there were in DC. Every other person looks like Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett. Or whoever. If you are a young, good looking black person seeking the same, this is the place for you! They are well dressed, well poised, well coiffed... 

Cool Thing about DC 5: The Botanical Garden/Conservatory. WOW WOW WOW. A beautiful glass-encased building with separate zones -- "jungle" "desert" "rare and endangered" "medicinal" "southern exposure" etc. -- and they have lectures etc. It was quite awesome, even though it wasn't that big of a place.

Cool Thing about DC 6: A small square patch of grass surrounding a tree -- you know, those plantings on sidewalks -- with a duck mom sitting on some eggs. She created her nest here, in the middle of downtown, a few feet away from our hotel entrance. People leave water and some food for her and she seems pretty happy there. Crazy and cool.

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