Friday, June 11, 2010
Thursday, June 10, 2010
PA-RI-TAY! PA-RI-TAY! PA-RI-TAY!
No, not par-tay, but pa-ri-tay. And, no, I’m not freaking out, I’m obsessing about the exchange rate. Parity, if you’re wondering, is the point at which two currencies reach equilibrium, and the unthinkable might just happen. Only last summer the idea that the dollar and the euro could ever see parity again was laughable. That was when one euro would cost you about a buck fifty. Lo, how the mighty have fallen! In the last week the euro has hovered around $1.20 and there is serious talk that within the year we could be seeing a one-to-one exchange rate. Which is all nice but pretty abstract to most Americans, until they travel to Europe. Look, I’m not wishing anybody in Europe any hard luck, but I’ve been at the mercy of the exchange rate so often that I figure it’s about time I caught a break. Think about the implications of that .30 euro slide. My purchasing power in Europe has recently gone up by almost one-fourth. That’s no great shakes if you’re talking about a week and a few hundred dollars. But for five weeks, including groceries, transportation, incidentals, that’s pretty significant. How would you like to get a 20% raise out of the blue?
And the nice thing is that my good fortune doesn’t come at the expense of my Italian hosts. That’s what’s so weird about exchange rates, they’re so abstract and...what, mechanistic? It’s like some monetary deus ex machina is jiggering the nominal value of currency to see how we mere mortals react. Their prices don’t go up or down, but what I’m paying in real terms does. Really weird.
I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been in Italy when the exchange rate was just horrendous. We’re talking $18 American for a take-out sandwich and bottle of water. Granted, it was an Italian sandwich, and absolutely delicious. But, come on, you know? You find yourself obsessively calculating prices and trying to convince yourself that there’s some way to justify $40 for that widget manufactured in Sienna that you could buy in the States for $20, manufactured in...well, Sienna. Same item, same quality, it’s the friggin’ exchange rate.
But I’ve also been the beneficiary, let me joyously confess. I recall one of the most glorious meals I’ve ever eaten in my life, for which I would have gladly paid whatever was asked...but didn’t. We were leading a tour and had arrived in Rome on the day of our fifteenth anniversary, June 23. Many of the Italian restaurants run the tour groups through from 6 pm to 8 pm on a prix fixe menu, typically a primo, almost always some sort of pasta, a secondo, or entree, and a simple dolce. It’s usually not bad, but it’s usually not much better than adequate either. Then when the Italians come out to dine, beginning at nine, they’ve pretty much made their ‘nut’ as the restaurateurs say, and can focus on providing a premium dining experience for the regulars.
We were lucky that we had some wonderful kids along who didn’t have to be watched every minute, so we bailed on the prix fixe dinner and made reservations, through the good graces of our wonderful local guide, at a nice ristorante out on the Via Flaminia called “Da Benito”. Nina had passed along the word that this was an anniversary dinner, and when we arrived, there was already a table waiting with two glasses of prosecco, a delicious Italian sparkler made in the Veneto, and antipasti of melone e prosciutto, which I absolutely adore. Something about the sweetness of the cantaloupe in contrast with the salty funk of that cured porker is just perfect. It reminds me of how much Southern cuisine can mimic or at least parallel Italian; I love to salt and pepper my cantaloupe and almost sent one of my Food Nazi friends from the North into paroxysms the first time she saw it. No surprise, when I asked if she’d ever tried it before criticizing, she acted like I had proposed harelipping the Pope. But any good cook knows that nothing brings out sweetness like a hint of salt, and as far back as Roman cuisine pepper was being used with sweets as counterpoint.
Already by this time the two foodies were in transports of bliss. We ordered two pastas as primi and shared. One was excellent but the second was nothing less than spectacular, taglietalle con vodka ed’astice. After the first bite we were moaning softly and rolling our eyes to heaven. The pasta itself was handmade, of course, as it always is in a good Italian restaurant, preferably by a couple of nonne (grannies) who come in every day and are given their orders, so many ‘eggs’ of tagliatelle so many of tortelli, and so on. And that’s all they need to know to go to work: one egg per 100g of flour, plus salt, water and maybe a bit of olive oil, plus pure culinary amore. The astice is a type of spiny lobster that is common in Mediterranean waters. The sauce was exquisite, creamy, subtle, with vodka as a binding agent (the alcohol burns off and leaves a subtle funk which is irreplaceable. Believe me, I’ve tried to replicate it). By this time our moans were very nearly orgasmic and nearby patrons looked alarmed. The little shells of the lobster were incorporated into the sauce, and when the proprietor saw us greedily sucking the shells he began to beam. Needless to say it was pretty obvious we were enjoying our meal.
The secondi were veal cutlets with roasted potatoes and a veggie, excellent, but pretty anticlimactic after that pasta course. All accompanied by the simple, clean, delicious white wine from just south of Rome, Frascatti. Dessert was accompanied by more prosecco and was delicious frutti di bosco (wild berries) on panna cotta, a type of Italian flan. By this time I was so enamored of the chef that I asked to speak to him and proposed marriage if he would only agree to shave his legs, and Signore Benito was positively misty-eyed with pleasure. When we asked him to call us a taxi he refused and insisted on driving us back to the hotel himself, and to this day we treasure the pictures we have of him leaving us, stuffed but ecstatic, at the hotel door.
So, as I said, I would have happily sold Amy’s birthright to pay for that meal. But when I received the statement on my debit card a month later? Sixty-eight bucks. Sixty-eight shekels for a four-course meal and two bottles of wine, plus a very generous if well deserved tip and chaffeur service! I felt positively guilty! Exchange rates!
Of course, calculating those rates has become exponentially simpler since the adoption of the euro, but I have to tell you, I sort of miss the dear old lira in a perverse way. How often does an American have the luxury of paying $113,000 for dinner? Makes you feel like a plutocrat, I’m here to say, even if it was only about $75 American. But the lira sure made paying for things a challenge. Imagine an assortment of $100, $500, $1000, $5000, $10,000, $50,000 and $100,000 bills...not to buy a new villa on the Amalfi Coast but to pay for groceries. And the coins! God as my witness, I once received two one-lira coins in change. I kept them as a souvenir. You think the penny is a useless inconvenience? Amen, bruthahs and sistahs! But imagine dealing with a coin worth $0.0007. And yet making change was such a pain in the tuckus for cashiers that they always asked if you had anything remotely approaching correct change. I finally gave up and just started extending my hand with all the change I had in my pocket, allowing the cashier to fish around for whatever he or she wanted from that seemingly random assortment. Did they cheat me? I seriously doubt it. Four times before I started this new system I had the humiliation of receiving back some of the coins I’d so proudly offered up as ‘correct’ change.
So I’m looking for parity. But even at $1.00:1.20, the mental gymnastics of paying the bill in Italy will be a whole lot more boring this year. I think I can deal with that.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
How to Pack for a Month in Italy
1. Check passport for expiration. Notice the passport photo. Scream in terror. Sit quietly until hyperventilation subsides. Then remember that, if you really looked as bad as the photo would indicate, you’d be too sick to travel anyway.
2. Check the exchange rate. Laugh sadistically as the Euro continues its slow descent into oblivion.
3. Check the weather forecasts. Let’s see, RDU:
Thursday: 92° and insufferably muggy
Friday: 92° and insufferably muggy
Saturday: 92° and insufferably muggy
Sunday: 92° and insufferably muggy
Monday (cold snap): 90° and painfully muggy
Ok, ok, let’s try Agropoli:
Thursday: 82° with low humidity and a sea breeze
Friday: 82° with low humidity and a sea breeze
Saturday: 81° with low humidity and a sea breeze
Sunday: 78° with low humidity and a sea breeze
Monday: 76° with low humidity and a sea breeze
Sweet Jesse, get me out of here!
4. Check exchange rate again. Chortle derisively.
5. Pack bags. There are two basic systems, the Dave system and the Sandy system. The Dave system is based on the theory that you can’t haul enough for a month so you needn’t even try, plus there’s a remote chance that there’s a laundromat somewhere in Italy south of Rome. Pack four pairs shorts, seven polo shirts, one button-down shirt, one pair of jeans, a lightweight sweater, a lightweight poncho, deck shoes, seven pairs of underwear, four pairs of athletic socks, one pair dress socks. Neatly fold and roll up each item, and then pack it in the bag vertically. This has three advantages. First, it takes less room. Second, if you will be living out of your suitcase, so to speak, you’ll easily be able to identify each item to co-ordinate your outfits. Third, if you do it carefully, the clothes come out virtually wrinkle-free. You will wear on the flight a pair of khakis, a polo, a belt, sneakers. Sneakers are much better for hiking through airports. Screw fashion. Your only essential fashion element—and hear me well, it is absolutely essential— is a money belt, to be worn under your skivvies, on the theory that, even at your advanced level of decrepitude, if someone sticks his or her hand in your underwear, you’re probably going to notice. You will leave all other ID and credit cards at home except your driver’s license and one debit or credit card, both of which you will keep in your money belt at all times except during use. You will also store here the bulk of your cash, except as much as you think you can afford to lose without spoiling your whole day. I have walked the streets of Rome at 1 am with my wife and daughter and felt perfectly safe, but petty crime is rampant almost everywhere in Italy, even in churches. Lots of people there want your money; the legitimate ones are called the tourist industry, Italy’s second largest industry, and God bless ‘em. The illicit ones are various pickpockets and purse snatchers. And, by the way, Italians adore ATMs, so don’t feel that you have to bring a money vault or travelers’ checks. Just be sure your ATM card is linked to several of the major international systems such as Interlink and Plus.
Don’t forget toiletries, including OTC medications still in their blister packs, but don’t go crazy; there’s a farmacia on every corner in Italy (look for the green neon cross), and most pharmacists when queried will insists they can barely speak English and then proceed to speak it better than you. Furthermore, remember that in Italy pharmacists are your physicians of first and second resort and can prescribe for you all but the most serious of prescription drugs.
Take a good but not expensive camera; Sandy and I have been shutterbugs for 30+ years, and these new little cameras with their microchips make better pictures in more challenging circumstances than we were ever able to do with the best SLR cameras and a world of calculation. Humiliating, but true. Take your laptop, absolutely yes, but remember to take an adapter for your charger. The laptop is essential for communication with home, for uploading pictures when your camera is full (Italy is a gorgeous country; trust me, it’ll be full after two days), and for keeping a journal. Take your cell phone. Much as I despise the accursed things, they are essential in foreign countries where the landlines are unreliable and operators incomprehensible. Either sign up for an international plan which you will cancel a month after you return home, or buy a cheap prepaid in Italy. Don’t forget to check on roaming charges; I recently heard of an Aussie couple that was so enchanted by the GPS capabilities of their cell phone while here in the States that they used it everywhere in Europe (they made the loop to get back home). When they received their bill they had over $3,000 in roaming fees.
The Sandy system is based on the theory that you can’t possibly pack for a month, but, by God, you’re gonna try anyway. In fairness I will allow her to detail the particulars, but let me just say that this system does involve the packing of rollers (not the portable kind, the clunky box) and a small microwave oven. Good luck with that 55 pound weight limit.
6. Check the Euro. Giggle fiendishly.
7. Decide on the dreaded blowdryer issue. Remember, if you take your own, there is a 100% likelihood that it will blow the circuits in your room and then you will be dark and wet at the same time. You may prefer to use the Italian blowdryer provided in almost all hotels, in which case you may expect all the turbulence of a fairy’s sigh or a butterfly’s wing. But you will not be in the dark, and in a couple of days your hair will be dry.
8. Don’t forget to take your positive attitude for the flight over. You’ll need it. There are going to be travel glitches, it’s a dead certainty. Especially if you travel Air France and/or go through any of the New York-area airports. You can either drive yourself nuts or roll with the punches and consider it part of the adventure.
9. Take a small carryon with a change of underwear, small bottles of contact solution, etc. (don’t forget the 2 oz limit) and a toothbrush and toothpaste. Remember you’ll probably be in transit the better part of a day, what with the time difference (Italy is six hours ahead), so prepare to clean up a bit. Nothing makes a weary traveler feel better.
10. Check the exchange rate. Begin to chuckle, but then remember that, as the Euro goes, so goes your retirement portfolio. Screw it, you won’t need retirement money for a few more years. Go ahead and chuckle.
Monday, June 7, 2010
T-minus one week till Dave and Sandy will be winging their way to the land of good food (oh, yeah, and some research on ancient Roman wine) for five weeks. Already I'm so psyched that twice in the last two weeks I've awakened for my usual 2:35am pee and, in that twilight of semiconsciousness as I'm drifting back to sleep, I've begun thinking about the big event and become so excited that I literally can't get back to sleep. Both times I've finally succumbed about 4:30am...and then the blasted alarm rings at the usual 5:04. Just a wee bit hyper about the whole deal.