No Berlusconi but sadly still Barrique

November 9, 2011

Bartolo Mascarello’s famous label, “No Barrique, No Berlusconi,” a now iconic image that empowered wine as an ideological expression. Photo via Spume.

The great 20th-century novelist, poet, essayist, and politician Leonardo Sciascia employed Sicily as synecdoche for Italy in his novels Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl, 1961) and A ciascuno il suo (To Each His Own, 1966). The works were parables of what he would later call the “Sicilianization” of Italy: a phenomenon whereby the Sicilian model of bureaucratic and political bankruptcy and clannish self-interest had contaminated the entire Italic peninsula as the nation first tasted the sweetness of prosperity thanks to the “economic miracle” of that decade.

Today, as I joyously read the news that Berlusconi has pledged to resign, I am reminded of Sciascia’s parables. In many ways, Berlusconi’s 17-year tenure as Italy’s leading politician is a parable of the Italian nation’s overarching abandonment of the social ideals that emerged in the period immediately after the second world war, when social and economic equality, dignity, and liberty were paramount in the hearts and minds of Italians who had suffered through the tragedy of fascist and Nazi domination. The memory of those wounds was still vibrant in 1994 when Berlusconi first took power. Today, the generation that embraced the humanist ideals of Italian post-war communism has greyed. And the greed and moral bankruptcy embodied by Berlusconi will remain as the legacy that has reshaped Italy and swept away the renaissance of Italian greatness — in design, technology, fashion, cuisine, etc. — of the decade that preceded his reign.

His tenure corresponds neatly to the tragic Californianization of the Italian wine industry that took shape in the 1990s when scores of Italian producers abandoned the values of the generation that had made wine before them.

Berlusconi may be on his way out. But, sadly, barriques are here to stay.

In the face of the European debt crisis and the social and economic turmoil that has gripped Italy (my first love) and Greece (my new love) — “Crisis in Italy Deepens, as Bond Yields Hit Record Highs,” New York Times — it’s been difficult to write about wine here on the blog.

Tonight Tracie P and I will raise a glass of traditionally vinified Nebbiolo to Italy’s future… and tomorrow I’ll pick it up again…


NC-17 ruminations on Berlusconi & other Euro pols

August 6, 2011

WARNING: CONTAINS PROFANITY AND HUMOR.

When I saw Italian prime minister Berlusconi’s photo on the (virtual) cover of The New York Times this morning (above), I couldn’t help myself from inserting my own caption: “Ma… La Merkel mi sta facendo un culo così!” Translation: “Merkel is really tearing me a new one!” (Note the gesture whereby Berlusconi illustrates the size of the new ass[hole] that Merkel is tearing for him.)

Surely I am not the only Italophone who fell victim to this overwhelming urge.

As we Americans awake from the stupor of our congressional budgetary crisis only to find that the debt crisis is about to topple Western Civilization as we know it (first Greece, now Italy, etc.), there is no small dose of irony in the fact that German prime minister Angela Merkel and her husband are enjoying their Alpine vacation in German speaking Italy, in the village of Solda to be precise.

Yesterday, in any event, it came as no surprise to me when my blogging colleague J.C. brought to my attention (on the Twitter) the news that Berlusca “took advantage of a government press conference last night to push his own shares. He said if he had savings he’d fill his boots with Mediaset, which was now ‘utterly undervalued’” (via The Guardian).

For the best blog coverage of Italy’s emerging and expanding debt crisis, I’ll be following Avvinare, who use to work as a financial reporter in Milan.

I’ve never met Berlusconi, although I did breath the same air as he when I was working as an interpreter at the United Nations and was called into a meeting between him and Kofi Anan.

In all fairness to Berlusconi (evviva la par condicio [the Italian fairness doctrine]!), he did get a bad rap in a recent New Yorker profile (although I did love the photo from the piece). As well intentioned as the young author, Ariel Levy, may have been, she probably should have brushed up on her Italian before filing her article (where are the cocaine-snorting fact checkers when you need them, Jay?).

She erroneously found irony in the fact that the Italian press refers to Berlusconi as il presidente. In fact, while we call him the prime minister, he is the president of the council (presidente del consiglio) that governs the two houses of the Italian parliament.

She also erroneously found hyperbole in the fact that the Italian press calls him il cavaliere (the knight). In fact, Berlusconi is a knight in the Italian Order of Merit for Labour. And because he is Italy’s richest man, he is — by antonomasia — the knight, i.e., the leading knight in the order.

Otherwise, I agree 100% with everything Ms. Levy said in her piece (and recommend it to you).

My band Nous Non Plus has recorded a song I wrote about Berlusconi. It’s called “Bunga Bunga” and will appear on our forthcoming album Freudian Slip.

I can’t play it for you yet but I can preview a line:

All over the world, on fait le Bunga Bunga.

Post script: check out this excellent article in the Atlantic about the origins of the expression Bunga Bunga. Philology at its best (and its funniest)!


A Puritanical Italy: has it come to this?

February 20, 2011

Above: On our last trip to Italy, this image — a winemaker’s daughter chasing a cat through a field — fascinated me. The cat, hoping to receive a treat, wouldn’t let the girl pick it up. But it never strayed farther than arm’s reach. She was a Pasolinian allegory of purity and innocence, the cat her serpent leading her to edge of the field where she would ultimately move beyond the farm’s borders toward the impurity of urban living and the pressures of modern society.

When we travel to Italy, Tracie P and I are very fortunate to find a host of characters gladful to share the flavors and aromas of the garden of Europe, the fair country, ancient Enotria and Esperya — the land of the setting sun, as the Greeks called it, the “Evening Land.” Blessed with a mastery of the language and endowed with years of experience there, we move seamlessly from the quartermaster of Marco Polo to the trinciante — the carver — of the osteria whom we bribe with veteran smiles and harmless guile, blank verse and syncopated song.

Don’t get me wrong: although we thoroughly enjoy every moment of it, those of you who follow (and have followed recently) along here on the blog know that we are keenly and acutely aware of how food and wine as text — as discourse — are just one red thread interwoven into the fabric of this ancient and fascinating nation.

Above: Most middle-class families by their daily wine at supermarkets or at dispensaries like this one in Favaro Veneto in the terra firma of Venice.

However joy-filled and wondrous our trips seem, we never lose touch with the challenges and ills that Italians and Europeans face every day, particularly in a world where the Italian state provides less and less for the middle-class Italian, while placing more and more pressures on her/him in finding and practicing civic and national pride and ownership.

I’m deeply saddened to report (for those of you who haven’t followed the meager coverage by The New York Times) that Italian society is on the cusp of a startlingly profound peripeteia. In bizarre twist of cultural roles, Italian prosecutors are on the verge of taking down Dr. Evil himself, Silvio Berlusconi… but not by means of legal action addressing his self-serving mediatic tyranny and corruption… He will be taken out, instead, through the application of a puritanical denouement.

In early April (it was announced while I was still there last week), he will be tried for paying a minor for sex.

Above: My last night in Italy, this time around, I shared a pizza and a beer with a colleague and friend (who happens to be a Berlusconi supporter). The pizza was decent but forgettable. Sometimes a pizza is just pizza.

Prostitution is legal in Italy, although organized prostitution is not. And even though the legal age of consent there is 14 years of age, it is illegal to pay for sex with a minor (under 18 years of age).

Believe me: although I am not Italian and have no civic stake in Italian society other than my personal interest in Italy and the many friends I have there, I am thrilled to see Berlusconi go (and I sincerely hope this is the final nail in his political coffin). His racist remarks about Obama or his belief that “Mussolini didn’t send anyone to concentration camps… he just sent them on vacation” provide ample reason to despise him. But the manufactured consent he has generated through his control of television and newspapers, orchestrated solely in the view of his open desire to become richer through the manipulation of Italian legislation (he stated so very clearly in a now infamous interview with historian Enzo Biagi, Italy’s Walter Cronkite), offer us indisputable evidence of what a menace he is to Italian, European, and Western Civilization. Good riddance, I say.

Above: Tracie P and I use all kind of electronic media to communicate when we’re in Italy but we still love postcards.

“Since when did the Italians become puritanical?” That’s what my bandmate Verena asked rhetorically in an email thread the other day. In fact, as Verena knows well, the Italians haven’t become puritanical. Indeed, one of the things I love and cherish about Italy is the fact one is not constrained by the yoke of bourgeois and Victorian attitudes there.

But it has come to this: short of taking to the streets and squares the way the Egyptians have done, Italy must resort to a Republican-inspired puritanical Bill Clinton-era tactic to oust the country richest and most despicable man from its most powerful office.

Above: If you look carefully at the wrought-iron adornment of this well (near Buttrio in Friuli), you’ll see that it is made of grape bunches, leaves, and tendrils.

I hope and pray that gourmets and gourmands of English-language literature will appreciate the allusion with which I have chosen as congedo of this post, a few lines culled from D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Grapes.”

Buona lettura, everyone, and buona domenica. Thanks for reading…


But long ago, oh, long ago
Before the rose began to simper supreme,
Before the rose of all roses, rose of the all the world, was even in bud,
Before the glaciers were gathered up in a bunch out of the unsettled seas and winds
Or else before they had been let down again, in Noah’s flood,
There was another world, a dusky, flowerless, tendrilled world
And creatures webbed and marshy,
And on the margin, men soft-footed and pristine,
Still, and sensitive, and active,
Audile, tactile sensitiveness as of a tendril which orientates and reaches out,
Reaching out and grasping by an instinct more delicate than the moon’s as she feels for the tides.

Of which world, the vine was the invisible rose,
Before petals spread before colour made its disturbance, before eyes saw too much.

Dusky are the avenues of wine,
And we must cross the frontiers, though we will not,
Of the lost, fern-scented world:
Take the fern-seed on our lips,
Close the eyes, and go
Down the tendrilled avenues of wine and the other world.


Beauty (and ugly) in Italy

September 27, 2010

Above: A wasp feasts on newly picked Ribolla at Venica & Venica.

A quick post today, on this autumnal Monday back at my desk in Austin, comprised of photos from my trip, some of the most beautiful things I saw through my lens while in Italy. It was an incredible journey, replete with felicitous confluences, some serendipitous and delightfully unexpected, others grounded in epistemlogic contemplation and convex self-reflection.

Above: Pancetta offered to weary travelers, also at Venica.

In the days that follow, I’ll begin posting in-depth accounts of my conversations and tastings with winemakers and restaurateurs in Tuscany, the Veneto, and Friuli. I am so grateful for all the comments, emails, Twitter mentions, and Facebook notes encouraging me and sharing insights into what I photographed, smelled, tasted, drank, and masticated over the course of the nearly three-week trip. And I am especially thankful for the incredible hospitality and generosity of spirit of my (literally) myriad hosts and guides.

Above: A view from one of the dining rooms at Trattoria al Parco in Buttrio (Udine).

Immense and extreme beauty is offered to the willful traveler of the Italic peninsula: from her generous landscape to her innate and intrinsic humanity (both historical and topical), Italy continues to inspire me (and hopefully you) by revealing some of the mystery and joy of life through her topographic, aesthetic, and sensual pleasures.

Above: A view from the Abbazia di Rosazzo in the Colli Orientali del Fiuli.

While I thoroughly enjoyed her bountiful intellectual and sensorial gifts, I was however acutely aware of the seemingly insurmountable societal and cultural issues and turmoil faced by the inhabitants (Italian and otherwise) of this profoundly gorgeous land.

Above: Hay for Chianina cows near Pienza, Tuscany.

Whether it’s Berlusconi patently using one of his media outlets (in this case, Il Giornale, a top national daily) to sling mud at his rival Fini (now embroiled in a sticky familiar real-estate scandal) or the impending expulsion of Roma (following the highly controversial and contested model employed by Sarkozy), Italy and her peoples find themselves in circumstances eerily however distantly reminiscent of the “era between the two wars.” When I commented on the recent changing of the guard in the political regime of the region where she and her family make wine, one winemaker observed wryly but not inronically, “we were better off with the fascists in power than the [newly instated] separatists.”

Above: Sunset in Montalcino (Tuscany), viewed from the estate of Il Palazzone.

Perhaps it’s this precarious balance of salt and sweet that makes Italy always taste so great and greatly on our tongues. Thanks for reading…


Italy vs. Google

February 28, 2010

Above: The night we stayed in Bologna on our recent trip to Italy, my friends (some of whom I’ve known for more than 20 years), shared this Youtube video of Italian politician Francesco Rutelli butchering the English language. The video has been the subject of much ridicule and parody in Italy, a country with a rich history of biting satire that stretches back to the Renaissance and beyond. My friends said it was an example of their culturally and morally bankrupt government.

Between our re-entry into civilian life, our move into our new home, a ride-with with a rockstar winemaker in northern and eastern Texas, and the mountain of thank you cards that Tracie P and I have just begun to chip away at, an interesting news story slipped through my cracks this week: according to a story published on Wednesday by The New York Times, an Italian court convicted three Google executives for “violating Italian privacy laws.” (For more detailed background on the case, see also this Reuters post.) Many see the ruling as part of the Berlusconi government’s attempt to curb freedom on the internet and part of an over-arching plan to maintain control of public opinion through the cultural hegemony of television (as head of state and thus chief executive of public television and owner of the major privately-owned television channels, Berlusconi has a virtual monopoly on what is televised in Italy).

Above: To appreciate this parody of the Rutelli clip, you need hear the “interpreter’s” markedly Roman accent. The short film is indicative of Italians’s embrace of the internet as a viral medium for satire. And again, I can’t underline enough the centrality of satire in Italian culture. Just think of the pasquinades of 16th-century Rome — same idea, different medium.

If you’ve visited Italy in recent years, you know that connecting to the internet can be a daunting challenge there. At least one restaurateur explained I spoke to in 2008 said that this is because the Italian government holds the internet providers responsible for what their users and customers post on the internet. It’s simply not worth the hassle for restaurateurs, for example, to provide internet access to their customers (and this guy was an entirely hip and successful winemaker in German-speaking Italy, who has a sleek, contemporary restaurant in the Alps). When you can get online in Italy, some businesses (like hotels) ask you to sign a written document stating that you are fully liable for what you publish on the internet.

Above: A quick search on YouTube quickly rendered an example of the type of virally circulated clip that might bother Berlusconi.

Does any of this have any bearing on the world of wine? Yes, in my opinion, it does. Now, more than ever, Italian wineries need to use the internet as a medium for viral marketing of their products to English-speaking consumers. This is especially true right now when the enosphere is shifting radically to the internet as its preferred medium of communication.

Okay, time to get down off my soap box… If you made it this far into the post, thanks for reading!

Buona domenica a tutti…


Who cuts Jim Clendenen’s unruly hair? (and Dr. J in the Statesman)

October 8, 2009

felice partida

Above: You wouldn’t believe it but rockstar winemaker Jim Clendenen and I have the same hair stylist, the rockin’ Felice Partida. The only difference? Jim has hair…

BrooklynGuy is not the only guy who gets to go to cool tastings this week, during our industry’s fall preview season (although I have to confess I wish I had had a chance to check out the Jenny and François portfolio in New York with him).

Those highfalutin New Yorkers might be surprised by the caliber of wine folk who come out to visit with us down here in central Texas. ;-)

Yesterday, I tasted a lot of great wines, including current releases from some of my favorite Italians from importer Dalla Terra — Selvapiana (07 Chianti Rufina was KILLER), Marchesi di Grésy (05 Barbaresco was stunning), Tenuta Sant’Antonio (05 was great, always one of my favorite expressions of Amarone).

I also enjoyed tasting with Jim Clendenen, whose wines — especially the high-end bottlings — are always fresh, elegant well-balanced expressions of California Pinot Noir. And I couldn’t resist the above photo op moment: Jim and I share the same hair stylist, Felice Partida! She and I met simply because I booked an appointment last year with the first stylist available at Tracie B’s salon, James Allan, in the Rosedale neighborhood of Austin where we both live. Felice is simply the coolest and as it turns out, her big sis’ Susana is also one of the coolest wine brokers in Texas, AND Felice’s boyfriend Ronnie James is one of the town’s hottest bass players (who plays and tours with the likes of Booker T, Gary Clark Jr., and Jimmy Vaughn — not bad eh?). I highly recommend Felice: being her client comes with “fringe” benefits! ;-)

bin 36

Above: Restaurateur and winemaker Brian Duncan is one of our country’s most dynamic food and wine experts. He’s also one of the coolest guys in the biz.

I also got to catch up with rockstar restaurateur and winemaker Brian Duncan from Chicago. I thought his Pinot Noir show beautifully and the packaging alone made it worth the price of admission. The back label reads: Sexy Pinot Noir seeks short term relationship with recipes that include mushrroms, pork, beef, or poultry (No strings attached).

In other news…

Check out Mike Sutter’s excellent article in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman, “Messages in a bottle: The mystique of the restaurant wine list.” I was thrilled that Mike interviewed me for the piece and was glad to make the point that you shouldn’t “go into a restaurant with the presumption that people are going to try and take advantage of you… When you pay for a glass of wine in a restaurant, you’re not just paying for the wine. You’re paying for the restaurant’s cellaring of the wine. You’re paying for the service of the wine, and you’re also paying for the expertise.” The other wine professionals interviewed for the piece give some great advice about how to decipher a wine list. The bottom line: go out and enjoy restaurants and their wines. That’s what they’re there for! :-)

In other other news…

Above: Tracie B and I tasted 1988 Bertani Amarone with our friends Charles and Michele Scicolone and Frank Butler earlier this year when we were on tour with Nous Non Plus.

Today, Franco published this great interview with our mutual friend (and one of my mentors) Charles Scicolone. It’s in Italian so if you’re not Italophone, check out Charles’s blog. Charles started drinking and collecting fine Italian wine in the late 70s and early 80s, long before the current renaissance of Italian food and wine. His insights into how the Italian wine industry has evolved over the last 40 years are invaluable.

In an unrelated story…

Is Berlusconi’s number finally up? The Italian courts have revoked his immunity.

Buona lettura!


Vintage anti-Berlusconi propaganda and other relics

September 4, 2009

Above, from left clockwise: “I have to stay outside,” “You’re poor? It’s YOUR damn problem,” “We are voting for Berlusconi” (they’re dressed as Freemasons), and “this car has been de-Berlusconi-ized” (a play on denuclearized). These stickers were printed by Cuore (a magazine supplement to the leftist daily L’Unità) in the early 1990s during Berlusconi’s first campaign to become Prime Minister.

When I first traveled to Italy in 1987 for my junior year abroad as part of the University of California and Università di Padova exchange program, Italy and the outlook of Italians seemed much different than it does today. When I attended my first academic year there (and there would many years to follow, later at the Scuola Normal Superiore in Pisa, study at the Vatican Library, three summers in the Dolomite Alps where I earned my keep playing cover tunes, and summers in Montalcino where I first began to appreciate wine), the Italian Socialist Party still dominated Italian politics. In spite of the inconveniences posed by the legendarily lethargic Italian bureaucracy, health care was free for all (that first year, I badly sprained my ankle playing basketball and was amazed when I wasn’t even presented a bill at the emergency room) and a year’s tuition at the university cost roughly 300,000 lire, about $250 at the time (in 1989 I returned to Italy and re-enrolled at the Università di Padova).

Above: My junior year dorm room at Monte Cengio where I roomed with Steve Muench. We’re still close friends today (scroll to the bottom of this post).

That was before the Mani pulite investigation and the subsequent Tangentopoli scandal that brought the Socialists to their knees. And it was before the rise of Italy’s richest man Silvio Berlusconi as the most powerful politician to emerge in post-war Italy. Berlusconi famously told journalist and historian Enzo Biagi (think of him as our Walter Cronkite) that he entered politics because existing laws did not allow him to make even more money. If the law doesn’t allow me to grow richer, he decided one day, I’ll just rewrite the law.

Today in Italy, vigilante posses comb the streets at night harassing immigrants; doctors have been asked to report illegal immigrants (extra-communitarians, as they are called) to authorities when they request medical care; there have been cases where emergency health workers have allowed immigrants to die at the scene of accidents by delaying medical attention; Berlusconi’s agricultural minister has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants; and Lucca has outlawed “ethnic” food in its center… The list goes on and on.

It’s a different Italy than the one first encountered by a bright-eyed U.C.L.A. junior who had a knack for languages in 1987.

Above: The last summer I played at the Birreria di Pedavena, my band and I stayed in the mountain pass village of Croce d’Aune.

I recently found the stickers and the photos in a shoebox that arrived last week in Austin from a storage space in Manhattan. They brought back memories of a time when the outlook of most Italians I knew didn’t seem rosy but was certainly instilled with a resilient humanitarian and humanist spirit. That attitude endures among most of the Italians I know but a dark cultural hegemony has taken hold there in the Berlusconi age.

Yesterday, an article in The New York Times reported how Berlusconi forced the resignation of the editor of the Italian Bishops’s Conference daily newspaper. He did so by publishing front page features in his own newspaper detailing the editor’s rumored sexual preferences. He did so because the editor had written an editorial about Berlusconi’s widely publicized (and in many instance self-propagandized) lasciviousness.

What’s this world coming to?

In other news, Agnelli heir and playboy Lapo Elkann has publicly announced that he is converting to Judaism.

What IS this world coming to?

Boccaccio’s tale of the conversion of Abraham comes to mind…


Drinking great at the G8? No great moment in history without Spumante

July 8, 2009

tony the tigerYou might remember my post White, Green, and Red All Over: Obama to eat patriotic pasta at G8 from a month ago. The G8 summit began today in L’Aquila in Abruzzo and the Italian press is relishing the Obamas’s every move with great gusto.

As Franco pointed out today at Vino al Vino, there was even a post today at the ANSA (National Italian Press Association Agency) site that includes not only the official schedule for today but also the official bottles of wine and spirits to be given to Italy’s “illustrious” guests. G8 members will receive a “magnum of Amarone Aneri 2003 in a wooden box on which the initials of each of the presidents or prime ministers present has been engraved. All official lunches will begin with a toast with Ferrari spumante, [a wine] which is never missing at great appointments with history [sic; can you believe that?]. As an official gift for the illustrious guests, a highly rare ‘Ferrari Perle’ Nerò has been chosen [sic; the wine is actually called Perlé Nero], together with ‘Solera’ Grappa by the Segnana distillery. 1-3 p.m.: working G8 lunch on global economy.” (The post at ANSA’s English-language site did not include the wines or plugs.)

The American press doesn’t seem to be taking the G8 Summit and Silvio Berlusconi’s carefully choreographed hospitality as seriously as the Italian press corps. “Inexcusably lax planning by the host government, Italy, and the political weakness of many of the leaders attending, leave little room for optimism,” wrote the editors of The New York Times today.

With more humble tone, I was forwarded an email from the Dino Illuminati winery announcing that one of its wines had been chosen as the official wine for the luncheon and another for the closing dinner tomorrow. “We are sure You’ll like to enjoy,” it read, “the very good news with us: Our wine ZANNA Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG 2006 has been choiced as official red wine for the G 8 lunch of Wednesday July, 08. Besides, our wine LORE’ ‘Muffa Nobile’ will be the dessert wine for the G 8 dinner of Thursday July, 09.”

I guess Dino didn’t make the ANSA deadline.

In other news…

Check out our post today at VinoWire: Barbaresco producers speak out on Giacosa’s decision not to bottle his 2006. Giacosa claims that the rains of September ruined the vintage but our post reveals other points of view.


Some of the more beautiful things I saw in Italy

April 11, 2009

The caliber of my photography never rises above the amateur (in the etymologic sense of the word) but sometimes I get lucky. I guess it’s about place and time.

Tasting with the Marquis Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga at the Tenuta San Leonardo in Trentino. I was moved at the thought of shaking the hand of a descendant of one of the most influential families of the Northern Italian Renaissance.

I photographed this bee at the highest point in Cartizze, the top growing site for Prosecco. Matteo Bisol of the Bisol winery opened his family’s Prosecco Cartizze and we tasted it right there among the vines. It was fun to return to Valdobbiadene where I spent so much time during the summers of years at university in Italy.

The baroque basilica at the Abbazia di Novacella was most impressive. That was the farthest north I’ve ever traveled in Italy. Driving through the Alps, I couldn’t help but think of the line from Petrarch canzone 128:

    Nature provided well for our safety when she put the shield of the Alps between us and the Teutonic rage.

The incipit of the song is one of Petrarch’s most moving and appeals to the then divided and bellicose Italian states:

    My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds of which in your lovely body I see so many, I wish at least my sighs to be such as Tiber and Arno hope for, and Po where I now sit sorrowful and sad. (translation by Robert Durling)

I’ve been traveling to Italy for more than twenty years and as in years past, I took time to catch up on my newspaper reading and to ask people about their outlook for the future. In my view, the Italians’ “tenuous sense of nationhood” seems more fragile than ever (between the jockeying of Berlusconi, Fini, and Bossi) and the balance of Po, Tiber, and Arno all the more precarious.

But the beauty of this country has always been accompanied by peril — the one seemingly unable to exist without the other.

I’ll begin posting about my trip and other developments next week. Stay tuned and thanks for reading…


Che due marroni! and more thoughts on the Berlusconi gaffe

November 14, 2008

Above: this morning, my college friend Steve Muench sent this pic of chestnuts roasting in Piazza della frutta in Padua, where he and I attended university in 1987-88 (my first year in Italy). I played my first Italian gig in that square, at Bar Margherita.

There’s a saying in Italian, che due marroni!, literally, what two chestnuts! I’ll spare you the figurative meaning and its reference to the male anatomy: it can be translated as what a pain in the butt!

I spent the better part of the morning getting my gmail back online. I know a lot of people had email bounce back but it seems to be working properly now. Sorry for the hassle.

In other news…

Today, Cristiano left this insightful and thoughtful comment on my Berlusconi gaffe post:

    The fact is that Berlusconi, and a lot of people in Italy for that matter, don’t seem to be able to see the fact that the pun is indeed a racist one and feel offended if this is pointed out to them.

    I really wonder how Berlusconi really is viewed by people out of Italy.
    Cristiano

It reminded me of a passage in a book that I read over and over again as a teenager, The Big Sea by Langston Hughes (btw, I referenced a Langston Hughes poem in my post-election Harlem post from last Wednesday). In the 1920s, the young Hughes traveled to Italy and visited his friend Romeo in Desenzano in Lombardy. Note that in Italian, vino rosso can be referred to as vino nero or black wine:

    The night we arrived was Sunday and the whole village had gone to the movies. There was no one home at Romeo’s house and he had no key, so we left our baggage piled in the doorway and went to the movies, too. It was one of those theaters where the screen is at the front of the house beside the front door, so you come in facing the audience Just as we came in, the house lights went on between reels, as they were changing the film. The place was crowded, but as we entered and the people saw us, the whole crowd arose and began to make for the doorway. Soon they became a shouting, pushing mass. I didn’t know what they were saying, for they were speaking Italian, of course, and I didn’t understand Italian. But Romeo and I were swept into the street and surrounded by curious but amiable men, women, and children. Finally, Romeo’s mother got him through the crowd and threw her arms about his neck. I gather that almost all of the people of the village were Romeo’s friends, but I didn’t know why so many of them clung to me and shook my hands, while a crowd of young boys and men pulled and pushed until they had me in the midst of them in a wine shop, with a dozen big glasses of wine in front of me.

    Later that night Romeo explained to me that never in Desenzano, so far as he knew, had there been a Negro before, so naturally everybody wanted to look at me at close hand, and touch me, and treat me to a glass of vino nero. Romeo said they were all his friends, but hardly would the whole theater have rushed into the street between reels had it not been for me, a Negro, being with him.

I’ll leave the exegesis of this passage up to you…


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