Friday, June 18, 2010


Today we rented a car, a cute little Daewoo Matiz which has been christened Bianca, “Whitey.” Tomorrow we ‘damo uno giro’, make a tour, but first we’re off to the grocery to pick up some supplies and really prepare to settle in. Making a grocery list brings up memories of our first trip to an Italian grocery and also reminds me that even the most mundane of activities can be a lesson in culture shock when you’re living in a foreign country.

We were living about 13 miles west of Florence near a tiny village called Malmantile, which had a population of perhaps 500 and two groceries. Italian groceries seem to come in three basic varieties: the alimentari, the mom-and-pop which is locally owned and has a fairly good selection of staples and a few artisinal products but not much else. Think a more genteel version of a jiffy-rip. Still, this can be your best bet for really good locally made food, if you’re a bit adventurous. The supermercato is a small supermarket, usually locally owned but part of a chain, which has a good selection of foods at moderate prices but probably not much in the way of international fare. Then there’s the ipermercato, whose name presumably means supermarket as well, since super and iper (hyper) are the Latin and Greek prefixes for the same idea (like hemi- and semi-). But I suppose the use of the Greek implies super-duper. These are the big giants which are nationally owned and carry a huge variety of goods and all sorts of processed foods. Most Italians avoid them like the plague when they’re looking for really good food but flock to them when they’re looking for a bargain on such things as cleaners, paper goods, etc.

So, we quickly exhausted the limitations of our little alimentari that was within walking distance on the next ridge over, and took a taxi into the town of Lastra a Signa, down in the valley of the Arno. There we found the supermercato. And the fun began.

The first embarassment occurred when I tried to pull a shopping cart from the rack. “Chunka!” That’s a bit odd, this thing seems to be stuck. “Cachunka chunka chunka!” What the @#$#$ is wrong with this stupid thing? Sandy, more observant than I, pointed to the slot where I was supposed to have deposited 500 lire, about 50 cents at the time. Fortunately we had change, and we entered the store with confidence.

All went well until we reached the produce section. You understand, of course, that this was practically the first section in the store, just as in an American grocery. The produce was nicely arrayed and very pretty, but as I reached for a tomato, “Ssss!” I withdrew my hand in alarm and we both glanced around. Only a little old nonna. I reached again. “Ssss! Ssss, sss, sss!” Geez, did that sweet little old nonna just hiss at us? She did! We abandoned the produce in panic, retreated to the meats. Beautiful cuts of chicken, turkey, and veal, but no beef. Most of Italy simply doesn’t have proper pasturage for cows and they are not stupid enough to pay the exorbitant price for grain-feeding them. But veal is delicious if you can get past the ethical issues. Italian veal is overwhelmingly free-range, so I don’t really have a problem with it. I’d rather die at six months after ranging the beautiful hills of Tuscany than at two years of life in a feed lot.

Well, back to produce section. We really must have some vegetables. Fortunately this time a kindly local noticed our hesitation, cleared her throat to get our attention and nodded to a dispenser of little plastic gloves mounted on the wall behind the produce. Bingo!

The remainder of the shopping was uneventful. As we came to the checkout, the young checker, who acted not the least entranced by the joy of dealing with two rubes from Stati Uniti, snarled, “Nostri o vostri?” Whuh? Ours or yours? After several disgusted attempts the young man finally made me understand that I would be charged for any plastic bags that I used from their store, a nominal amount, to be sure, but enough to encourage us to precycle the next time.

As the groceries began to pile up on the counter, the young man looked more and more alarmed. There was no one to bag the groceries and a several people waiting in line behind us. “You bag!" he shouted in frustration, even condescending to speak English. We scurried to bag our groceries, and there may have been some squashed produce and broken eggs, but by golly we had ’em bagged by the time he was finished.

As we departed the store, we were about to put our cart back in the rack when a middle-aged gentleman came strolling up and, not realizing how clueless we were, thrust a 500-lira coin in my hand, took the cart and was gone. Properly chastened by our trauma at the supermercato, we retreated to the taxi which whisked us away to our haven in the hills. And we tried like hell to avoid the supermercato thereafter.

So, what a crazy system, right? Well, not really, not when you give it some thought. How many times have you seen stray grocery carts all over the lot or even out on the streets somewhere? A little incentive to return your cart or at least put it in the hands of another shopper makes all the sense in the world.

And think about the produce section. How many dozens have pawed that beautiful eggplant before you chose to take it home and offer it to your family? And I think I know the sorts of places some of those paws have been! And, tell the truth now, do you always wash your produce as well as you know you should? It just makes sense to take the time to be considerate of others.

And Italian checkout too makes lots of sense. Why not encourage precycling monetarily? And who's paying that slack-jawed kid for the challenging job of putting food items in a bag while you stand there idle or yabber on the cell? Santa? Don't think so!

My students react to Italy in one of three ways. There are the wide-eyed innocents who think that absolutely everything in Italy is better because, well, because it’s in Italy! It’s just so...European! Then you have those who are so mulish that if the Italians don’t do it our way, they must be idiots. I’ve had students that we had to practically force feed because I refuse to allow our hosts to serve us chicken nuggets and soggy french fries every night. But I always encourage my students to reserve judgment either way. Some things in Italy still don't make much sense to me and probably never will. But many more things do. The point is that you can’t really judge until you’ve made the effort to see things from within a culture, not looking from without.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Good Eats

So, here we are in the land of good food. No, not Italy, although I’ve rarely had bad food in the other parts of Italy, except that cooked for American tourists. I mean our part of Italy, the Cilento. And I don’t just mean ‘good’ in the sense of delicious, although that is certainly true; I mean ‘good’ in every sense of the word. Out of the study of dietary habits in the Cilento have come some of the most revolutionary ideas about human eating habits in the last 200 years. And the hero of that story, at least in America and western Europe, was an unlikely fellow whom I dare say you’ve never heard of. His name was Ancel Keys.

Keys was a certifiable genius. Born in 1904 of teenaged parents who moved to California to seek a better life, Keys received a BA in economics and political science and an MS in Biology from UC Berkeley, a Ph.D. in oceanography from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and a second doctorate in physiology from Cambridge. At the University of Minnesota he established the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, which he directed for the next 35 years. It was there that he conducted several landmark studies on human metabolism and nutrition. During World War II Keys and his team were called upon to produce lightweight packaged meals that did not require refrigeration, and yet still delivered balanced nutrition, and out of that effort came the famous (and often infamous, at least among the GIs) K-rations, named after Keys. The butt of countless derisory remarks from soldiers, they also had their champions; there is a famous incident in which 10 men survived in a partially submerged P-38 for two weeks with nothing more than a little water and 25 K-rations.

It was in the aftermath of the war that Keys had perhaps an even more profound impact. Keys had done studies on the physiology of starvation diets, both laboratory studies among volunteer conscientious objectors during the war and population studies in the ravaged areas of Europe immediately after the war, especially in southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno. This was the same era as the onset of the Baby Boom, an epoch in America which saw the first generation in human history raised in affluence. But Keys noticed something quite ironic; while growing numbers of his friends and colleagues in Minnesota--doctors, lawyers, university professors--were dropping dead of heart attacks and strokes, the majority of people in those same ravaged areas of Italy were living to a ripe old age. Keys posited a relationship between the consumption of high levels of saturated fats, particularly associated with red meat and full-fat dairy, and the incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Many of Keys’ key conclusions are now controversial and he’s even been accused (posthumously, of course) of fudging his research results, but the basic structure of his work is as solid today as it was fifty years ago. Folks, it ain’t the fat that’s making us fat and ultimately killing us—in the Cilento Keys discovered that 30% of calories were derived from fat, and the figure rises to as much as 70% on the Greek island of Crete, which had the lowest rate of CVD in the Western world. And it ain’t the carbs. It’s the types and quantities of fats and carbs and our habitual lack of exercise—except for the famous American forklift exercise.

One of the seminal works of modern nutritional science was Keys’ Seven Countries Study, which provided the scientific basis for the promotion of the now-famous Mediterranean Diet, which Keys, along with his biologist wife, also popularized in a series of books, most notably How to Eat Right and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way. Keys believed, rightly, in my opinion, that the Cilentan diet, rich in fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates, in highly unsaturated vegetables fats, especially olive oil, in proteins derived mainly from legumes, with only moderate intake of animal fats and proteins, and with regular moderate exercise—these were the keys to Cilentan (and Mediterranean) longevity.

So taken was Keys with this beautiful area and its healthful lifestyle that he and his wife bought a house in Pioppi (“The Poplars”), a scenic little seaside town about thirty miles down the coast from Agropoli, and lived there for most of the last 28 years of his life. Keys died at 101. He did not die of cardio-vascular disease.


It’s the morning after an incredibly long day with an incredibly nice ending. I’ll try to keep it short and restrain myself from gushing.

We left RDU on schedule, flew to Philadelphia and made our connection with little time to spare. We boarded, pulled away from the gate...and sat. You know that sinking feeling when all is silence from the cockpit but you know that something is afoot. Finally the captain came on the intercom and announced that a navigational implement had malfunctioned during the flight check, but that it had been replaced and now they had to get a technician to do a ‘bite’ test (that’s what I heard, anyway), since this one was essential for navigation across the Atlantic. We heard afterwards that the southerly route we were forced to take (yeah, because of that darned volcano; it’s settled down quite a bit but is still going strong) leaves planes in the mid-Atlantic for over two hours with no communication with anyone else except other planes. Needless to say it was hard to argue with the delay. And the flight itself was probably the smoothest we’ve ever had, with only a few minor bumps in the road, nothing even to raise an eyebrow.

We arrived at Fiumicino only an hour late, but our scheduled transfer time was an hour, so we'd missed our connector. Unlike Air France however, Alitalia already had us booked onto the next flight to Naples, had rerouted our baggage, and had an agent literally at the foot of the stairs from the plane (Fiumicino and some other Italian airports still use the roll-out stairways) waiting to reassure us. We left Fiumicino about 1:40 Italy time, 7:40 am EDT, and a skip and a hop later were in Naples. The baggage was not only there, it appeared on the carousel in timely fashion and was intact (what a strange concept!), so we were out the door in good time. I should mention that Fabio had read us the riot act about how to act in Naples, and especially in the airport and train station. Lots of scam artists seem to use poor old long-suffering Naples as their stomping grounds. But our driver was not only friendly but honest and efficient and had us at the railway station in less than 20 minutes. Couple of small glitches. During the peak commute times, trains run south from Naples about every hour, but we were looking for something during the lull, and that meant a wait of almost two hours. But forget what you’ve heard about Italians and efficiency; the Italian train system puts our public transport system to shame (but then, which system in the industrialized world doesn’t?) You buy your tickets at a little kiosk which takes either cash or credit. Trains run all day long and much of the night and Italians make the most of that. All trains run on clean, efficient electricity and the tracks are designed for the bullet trains. An Italian espresso can easily do 160 mph (hence the name of the coffee) and the ride is smooth, relatively quiet, and dirt cheap. A ticket from Rome to Florence, for example, will cost you about 20 bucks. You can’t buy gas for that amount, particularly here where the price at the pump reflects the true cost of our oil addiction. Once you’ve bought your ticket (one ticket can be issued for as many persons as you care to pay for), you validate it at a little yellow stamp machine out by the tracks. Thus, no ticket taker and no lines. Jump on and off you go. But if you don’t have a ticket or if it isn’t properly validated, you’ll face a hefty fine. Thus it seems that most Italians work well on the honor system.

The problem today was that the track number kept failing to appear on the ledger board. Sweet Sandy checked with the information booth repeatedly, only to be told to come back closer to departure. Long after I thought she was making a nuisance of herself, she came scurrying up to announce that the train was on track 15 and departing in minutes! Never the first sign of a track number on the ledger. Thank goodness for her persistence. Off we went to Agropoli. The ride itself was pleasant if hot when the train slowed down, but our excess luggage was a pain; European trains are just not designed to accommodate fashionistas. No names mentioned.

Another thing I love about Italian trains is that they go through mountains instead of over them. Italians know that preserving the natural beauty of their spectacular land is not only responsible, it’s also good economics. Tourism is Italy's second largest industry. And their tunneling techniques are state of the art. Nothing like zipping through five tunnels in rapid succession at 160 mph, as we have done before, to clean out the old sinuses!

By the time we pulled into the Agropoli stazione, we were well on our way to falling in love. Agropoli has all the spectacular terrain of the Amalfi Coast, but is the country cousin of Positano and Amalfi. Don’t get me wrong, the Amalfi is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever seen, but it’s all high fashion and attitude. What’s the word, chi-chi? Agropoli, on the other hand, is a beautiful country girl with a bit of a frayed dress and maybe a bit of tomato stain on her bosom, but she has such an unaffected natural charm and beauty that the deshabille just makes her more approachable.

Fernando and Fabio picked us up and took us to the Astone’s home on the outskirts of the city. Guys, old Dave has fallen off a haywagon and into the lap of the gods. When the possibility of this excursion first came up, Fabio had said that the apartment was very basic, and that’s all that we expected and would have been eternally grateful for that. What he didn’t mention was that the apartment is in the basement of his parents’ villa. About a mile from the center of the town, the villa perches on a ridge, one over from the sea, overlooking a stunning semi-rustic valley to the west. In the distance are the imposing mountains of the Cilento. And all around are the fruits of the Astones’ labors, and I mean that literally. To the north, cascading down the ridge, lie an olive orchard and vineyard from which the Astones make their own olive oil, wine and vinegar, a sample of each of which was waiting for us in the cucina. To the west and south are the orchards and garden. Fabio proudly showed us lemons, citrons, oranges, black and white mulberries, cherries, pomegranates, peaches, plums, as well as pistachio trees and almonds. The garden is a bit bare at the moment; Campania is so temperate and fertile that it has been famous since antiquity for its ability to yield four crops a year, and, with the exception of some beautiful eggplant, the garden is between plantings.

The apartment is entered from a shady terrazza which overlooks that westward vista I mentioned. Obviously the Astones prefer the shade and privacy to a spectacular view, so it is screened by mulberries, palmettos, huge yuccas, and olive trees. The apartment itself is stunning, simply and tastefully decorated, with the cool, clean tile floors, those soothing Mediterranean colors on walls and drapery, a gorgeous, well appointed kitchen-dining area-den, a bedroom/study, the master bedroom, and a stylish bath. No roughing it here!

I promised not to gush and I guess I blew that promise, so I’ll just say that I sit at this moment on the terrazza at the table typing on the laptop, glancing up periodically to catch glimpses of the valley, listening to the cooing of doves, the clacking of a magpie, and the twittering of countless other birds (in Tuscany I once asked why there were no birds and was told, with tongue in cheek, I think, that they were there but didn’t dare make a sound or some Tuscan would shoot them and eat them), and smelling jasmine and the roses for which the area has been famous since Roman times, the scents brought to me courtesy of a ravishing Mediterranean sea breeze. If I can find work as a dishwasher in this town, I may never go home.

Monday, June 14, 2010


T minus one day till launch and the Thurmonds are scurrying. One of us more than the other, you understand. Please refer to blog on packing. We sent sweet Amy back to Richmond and a former student is holding down the fort here, all our financial ducks are in a row, school work is as done as it’s going to be for a while, and now all there is to do is pack and wait for the flight and hope for the best.

We’ve had about the best and worst of flying, I suspect. Probably the worst experience was compliments of Air France. We were flying out of Hartsfield in Atlanta. Many of you have been there and know that it’s right on the edge of the piedmont and flatlands and you can see forever looking west. We had all the kiddies checked through, all were waiting at the gate, the departure time came and went, there was no announcement and all the AF staff seemed happily oblivious. Meanwhile we were looking out the plate glass windows and watching an angry front approaching from the west. No problem, it’s at least thirty miles away and we’ll be heading northeast. More delay, more smug insouciance from Air France, and the storm is ever closer. Finally, one hour and ten minutes late with a huge thunderboomer bearing down on us, we board . We queue, move to our position at the front of the line, prepare to taxi...and all hell breaks loose.

For thirty minutes things were hot! Finally the storm seemed to abate, and we taxied and took off... right back into the heart of the storm. Child, we were rockin’ and rollin’, and I mean that literally. Even the seasoned travelers were showing signs of concern. And, since we had given the storm a head start, and were flying through it, it just seemed to go on forever. I should explain, Sandy’s seat was separated from mine by two rows and an aisle, and Sandy is, shall we say, not an enthusiastic flier. Suddenly the plane was hit by a bolt of lightning, an event, I am assured, that happens not uncommonly on flights, but it sounded like a nuclear explosion. Lots of screams, and when I looked back poor Sandy was ashen, holding the hand of the woman next to her with her right hand, and fingering a tiny slip of paper with the other. The woman and her husband next to her were both praying assiduously and fingering their rosaries. After things settled down a bit I went back to check on Sandy and discovered that the kindhearted couple with her, she a Pole and he an Italian, had given her a tiny image of St. Theresa (which she treasures to this day) and assured her that since they both went to Mass every day, they were guaranteed not to die a violent death. Folks, at that moment and for some time after, my hard-core Southern Baptist wife joined the Catholic church!

The rest of the transatlantic leg was uneventful, although we arrived in Paris three hours late, had missed our connection to Venice, endured a six-hour layover, and had to sit on the tarmac again for two hours at Orly because the pilot (good old Air France again) thought he detected a weird vibration in one engine. Happily, the trip across the Alps was calm, the skies crystal clear so that the view below was spectacular, and when we arrived in Venice, for the first time we were treated to transport via water taxi from the airport to our hotel on the Lido. It was late dusk, almost fully dark, and the lights of the city greeted us on the west while a huge, amber gibbous moon floated over the lagoon and led us toward safe haven. Not a bad end to a pretty horrendous trip.

But there have been some wonderful flights as well. Look, I’m a hick, one with perhaps a veneer of sophistication thanks to education and travel, but the veneer is thin indeed and there’s lots of hick showing through in places. I still am awed by the whole experience of flying—the rush of taxiing, that feel of g-force at liftoff, the kick of that bank and roll, soaring up above the cloud deck, seeing the terrain below like some petty god. I still just love it and always request a window seat and end the trip with a crick in my neck from rubbernecking. On our last flight we took off from Newark around six pm in clear blue skies and followed the coastline northeastward along the New England shore, past Nova Scotia and P.E.I. I was in heaven. I saw the St. Lawrence Seaway for the first (and probably last) time, those thousands of watery islands that make up northern Quebec, saw a bit of western Newfoundland just below and the coast of Labrador off to the west. About two hours later appeared the southern coast of Greenland, with those towering cliffs overtopped with a solid sheet of ice. I may be kidding myself but I think I even saw an iceberg calving. And all the time a beautiful golden sun skirted the western horizon, smiling at me. By this time it was 11:30 pm, and the sun finally disappeared on my left. I snoozed fitfully for a couple of hours, still thrilled by what I’d seen. About an hour and a half later I was awaked by the warmth and light of, what? I roused from my grogginess to behold, Old Mr. Sol, looking at me again from the same window! Now, folks I know I’m a nerd, but you’ll have to admit it’s a pretty cool thing to see the sun set and rise on the same side of the earth! Mr. Sun had been playing peekaboo, he skirting the western side of the arctic circle, our plane the eastern side.

I was able to see a bit of the Outer Hebrides and northern Scotland before the earth disappeared beneath a solid bank of clouds. But I will always remember that flight as the one where the sun was kind enough to work overtime to show me a huge swath of the Atlantic Rim and then amused himself (and me) by playing hide and seek.