Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Happy Fertility Day!

There is a huge detonation slowly transpiring in Italy, and it has nothing to do with terrorists.  But in some ways it is far more acute than any terrorist bomb.  Because it is not an explosion but a painfully slow implosion that threatens the economic future of the whole country.  Italians are simply not producing enough babies.

That’s right, in the country world famous for amore and litters of children around Mama’s feet, young Italians are just not getting with it enough to produce bambini.  And when they are, they’re using various methods to ensure that no bambini result.

The implosion has been slowly, quietly unfolding for almost fifty years now.  A little demographic background  Italy has a population of roughly 60.6 million people, about 1/5 that of the United States.  But Italy is a much smaller country; that population represents a density of 201 persons per square kilometer; compare that to the US which has on average about 33 persons per square kilometer.  

You would think that Italy is overrun, wouldn’t you?  And, in a sense, you’d be right.  It’s always a shock to our American sense of ‘personal space’ our first week or so here to adjust to  all the warm bodies jostling about.  Roads are jam-packed, there’s never a parking space where you want it, strangers move right into you comfort zone to conduct mundane business, the narrow streets are packed with cars and pedestrians… it’s enough to make you run screaming for some open space.  But it’s a bit deceptive.

In the twentieth century, Italy’s population basically doubled.  That was due primarily to two factors, better hygiene and health care on one hand, and the so-called ‘Economic Miracle’ on the other.  In effect, Italy went from a late feudal society to one of the most industrialized countries in Western Europe.  But the miracle was very localized.  Roughly 90% of industrial growth arose in the North, especially in the Po River valley.  Most of the rest occurred in the environs of Rome and a bit in the Naples area.  Thus today about half the population lives in one of these three areas.

When you consider the appalling toll that two world wars took on Italy’s youth and the staggering amount of emigration she has experienced, her fertility rates were especially impressive.  Up until about 1970, Italians were breeding like rabbits.  But then the tide changed, and in the last 20 years the fertility rate has fallen to alarming levels.  Today Italy’s fertility rate, that is, the number of live births per adult female, has fallen to 1.38 kids per mother.  Compare that with the U.S., where the rate is 1.82 per mother.  The ‘replacement rate’, the rate which produces a stable population, is 2.1 children per mother, the extra tenth, sadly, needed to account for infant and child mortality.

So what’s the big deal?  If it’s so crowded here, surely they can do with a few less warm bodies.  The problem is that Italy, as has the U.S., has made a social contract to support its aged population in their last years, and Italy has a huge aged population.  A recent study reveals that Italy has more oldsters—6.5% of the population—over 80 than any other European country, and those who make it to 80 can expect to live on average another 10 years.  Centenarians are everywhere here.  Roughly one out of five Italians is over 65 and most rely on the Italian equivalent of Social Security for subsistence and health care.  All us oldsters in the U.S. need the young’uns to keep working to fund the huge deficit created when our brilliant legislators ‘balanced’ the budget by ‘borrowing’, i.e., stealing, from the Social Security Trust Fund.  But if you think our pols are larcenous rogues, well…you’re right, but their Italian counterparts could teach them a thing or two about grand larceny.  Now, if you’re astute, you may be thinking about that figure of 1.8 relative to the replacement rate and becoming a bit concerned for your own welfare.  But the U.S. fertility rate is offset by a healthy dose of immigration.  We can argue about how they should come and maybe where they should come from, but, friends, we need those young people and the vigor they inject into our economy.  And, as an aside, if you could experience the kids of first and second generation immigrants the way I have in a highly multicultural high school, you’d be thanking God they were here and praying for more brown and black and yellow ones, as well as the white ones.  Those kids have been the light of my life for the last 10 years.

Italy has the fifth-highest life expectancy in the world and a truly remarkable number of centenarians.  The climate is salubrious, the diet is good, though eroding, health care is universal and free…. and young people are just not having babies.  Look, I don’t have a clue what this means and I certainly don’t mean it as a slam on the Roman Catholic Church, but here’s a bald fact:  Italy has a population that’s 87.8 Roman Catholic and yet she has the highest rates of birth control and abortion of any European country.  And Italy desperately needs young people working to sustain the social benefits of a rapidly aging population.

So dire has the problem become that the government recently tried to initiate National Fertility Day, to be celebrated  September 22.  The campaign featured TV spots and magazine ads, one of which featured a happy young woman clutching her swelling belly with one hand and holding an egg timer in her other hand as the sands quickly run out and exclaiming, “Beauty has no age, but Fertility does!”  Another featured a rotting banana peel and the caption for men, “Male fertility is much more fragile than you think!”  Another shows a handsome young swain smoking a cigarette and the caption, “Don’t let your sperm go up in smoke!”  You know, the subtle approach.  The kicker was one featuring a stork on the edge of an empty nest and the admonition to surfers, “Get a move on!  Don’t wait for the stork!”

Well, young Italians were not amused, and the images quickly went viral, as did the outrage they caused.  Most of the clever ripostes focused on such trivial matters as terrible job prospects among youth—unemployment has shrunk from a high of 47% to a mere 35% among those under 25— as well as terrible job protections for young women on maternity leave.  Young professional women are often asked to sign—completely illegally—an undated letter of resignation, so that if they become pregnant, their employers can claim they have ‘resigned’ and will not be responsible for maternity benefits or obligated to rehire them.   And there are poor guaranteed family leave provisions to boot.

Granted, not as abysmal as ours.  The U.S. has no government-mandated family leave provisions, the only Western economy that does not.  And this despite a mountain of evidence that paid leave for parents, especially moms, the first three months of a baby’s life pays huge financial dividends in lowered medical bills and higher productivity when the parents return to work.

So how is it we still have a higher birth rate?  The secret seems to be that most young people in the U.S., especially those college educated, have a reasonable shot at a decent job and financial independence.  Young Italians do not.  To personalize that a bit, I have a wonderful young Italian friend who recently graduated from college.  This young man is truly outstanding—intelligent, articulate, hard-working.  He’s even published several scholarly articles, as an undergraduate!  I recently asked Fernando if he had found a job and Fernando revealed ruefully that he was unemployed and living at home with his parents.  “An Italian college diploma is nothing more than a piece of paper!”  That is sadly typical.

So intense was the backlash from the Fertility Day campaign that Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin has pulled the spots and protested that no offense was intended.  The most effective viral Instagram in protest was no doubt one which shows a young female hand holding a positive pregnancy strip.  But the positive result is indicated, not by color but by the message, “Time to go abroad and find yourself a job!”

I won't translate this one since it's pretty crude.

Acciaroli's Centenarian Club: An Update

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Food Fests

 On Sunday we made our way down to Agropoli's Sports complex for the Agropoli International Street Food Festival, organized by 'Buongiorno Italia', a quasi-government agency that promotes all things Italian, especially food, throughout Italy and in various cities around Europe.

   The festival was originally scheduled for August 26-28 but was postponed to show solidarity with the victims of that terrible earthquake.  The event was organized in three sections, one for truck foods (it seems that truck food eateries are increasingly popular in Italy too), one for traditional Italian foods, and one for international foods.  There was also a section for beverages, featuring a number of craft brewers, another trend which is popular here, though hardly as much so as in the U.S.

    Fall is the time for such festivals in Italy, and they usually revolve around food.  The traditional form, an outgrowth of the Medieval fairs, is the sagra, a festival that celebrates some traditional food or craft that is associated with a town or region.  There are literally thousands of sagre in the Fall all over Italy.  A quick check on the internet for just our local festivals reveals a Sagra of the Wild Boar in Sasso Cilento, one for the Cornish hen in Prignano, one for antique pizza in Giungano along with two other local towns, another for artisan pasta in Omignano, and one for the local Zeppoli in Rutino.  Zeppoli are Italian donuts, but they take dozens of different shapes.  Our local ones tend to look more like funnel cakes and are made in much the same way and often even sprinkled with powdered sugar.  There are also feasts for figs, especially the white figs famous in the area, for buffalo products, no doubt especially mozzarella di bufala, one for onions, another for grilled meat, two for wine, others for eggplants, potatoes, plum tomatoes, bread, beef products, and pasta, including one in the little town of Felitto which we visited last year (and almost starved) for the particular form of fusilli that was allegedly invented there.  There's one at San Mango for sfriunzolo, a dialect word which refers to a dish with pork products and peppers which coincides with pig butchering.  Based on my hick upbringing I'd speculate that the pork products involved will be organ meats, the most perishable of pork products; down home the locals made a virtue of necessity and fed the hearts, kidneys, spleen, and such to their neighbors who helped with the slaughter and turned the event into a real feast.

    There are other sagre for bocconcini, the little 'mouthful' sized mozzes that we love so much on pizza, for fish, and for anchovies specifically.  Then there are the towns which just cut to the chase and celebrate whole categories of food, like Trentinara, which celebrates bread, and my favorite, Pattano, which celebrates FOOD!

    Italians have a wonderful talent for celebrating life, and you will notice that most of the sagre celebrate humble peasant food and not haute cuisine. Good, simple food and the solidarity of close friends and family have sustained the locals in this economically disadvantaged part of Italy for centuries.  With good food and friends, the party is ON!

     Truth be told, this festival was a bit disappointing.  I'm afraid many of the participants had other commitments, or else they knew that the tourist season in Agropoli was over precisely at midnight on August 31, and looked for greener pastures.  In any case, the food segment of the festival (there was also the inevitable carnival) had basically been collapsed into one zone, a large parking lot around the perimeter of which were food and beer stands of every sort and in the middle of which were numerous picnic tables for the diners.  There was a DJ up front playing mostly electronic music, too loud, as in most of Italy, but not obnoxiously so.
The fried seafood stand

Sandy's anchovies, shrimp, calamari and 'zeppoli'.

Stirring the pot


We scanned all the food vendors, then Sandy settled on an assortment of deep-fried seafood and a soda, and I went for a dish of paella and a beer.  Sandy's dish contained fried calamari, anchovies (the real ones, fried and eaten whole, not the little fillets you get in the tin), shrimp, and the Italian version of hushpuppies.  The stand consisted of a series of deep-fat fryers being manned by several burly Italian men, periodically dumping various sea critters out on a draining board and loading up with more.  Meanwhile a squirrelly little ragazzo ferried the hot food over to deep chafing dishes and doled it out into paper cones and aluminum trays.

      My paella was being cooked in a huge paella pan, easily 5' in diameter, and consisted of shrimp, mussels, calamari and what purported to be lobster but was in fact lumps of that artificial crab meat you find at the grocery.  The rice was a brilliant yellow, artificially colored, I'd wager; no way they could afford enough saffron to color at least 50 pounds of rice such a brilliant hue.  Little fresh peas set off the color nicely with their bright green flecks.  Not great, but not half bad.

     One stand was selling all sorts of fritture, 'deep-fried foods', which seems to be a theme in fairs the world over.  Another stand served pork ribs which we saw being barbecued on a huge wood-fired grill in the shape of a flattop.  Elsewhere juicy portions of pork were being cooked on a large circular grill suspended by chains over a red-hot tray of embers and swung around in looping circles by a grill man who periodically turned the meat and moved it from hot spots to a cooler spot.  Further along there was a strange little food truck with a long row of skewered meats attached to rotating spindles.  The meat looked like thick bacon cut into squares of about 1/2" and threaded onto bamboo skewers and slowly rotated before a tray of embers.  Beside this was a variation on curly fries, a clever little device which cut potatoes into a long spiral.  These were threaded onto large spits, about 2' long, and the whole inverted into deep fryers and cooked to a golden hue and quickly salted.  A sort of continuous potato chip, as it were.

Fritture, including seafood and veggies

Mixed grill, fair style

And here's the grillmaster

Italian kebabs

A new kind of curly fries

     Another stand had various Italian specialties, including a huge selection of arancini, 'oranges', not really oranges at all but balls of cooked rice wrapped around a variety of fillings such as cheese, meat sauce, or peas, then dipped in an egg wash and covered in bread crumbs and deep fried.  The same stand sold a selection of Italian dolci, sweets, the most beautiful of which were various brightly colored candied fruits.

Pizzette and arancini

Beautiful cannoli

Candied fruits

And lots of biscotti

    The piece de resistance was the stand which purported to serve American barbecue and 'hamburg' with cheese, cooked in the Italian way, whatever that means.  The barbecued pork smelled delicious, but was sliced thin like beef barbecue (harumph!) and served on huge buns topped with lettuce and with french fries on the side.  Customers were offered little packets of barbecue sauce, the kind you get at Arby's, and mustard.  Elsewhere a ragazzo was tending huge slabs of ground beef on two large charcoal grills and the sign claimed that these were 8 ounces each.  I suspect few Italians have a clue what a half pound is, since everything's metric here, but they appeared to be just that and were served on equally humongous buns.

"American skills, Italian style

    Apparently the thing which makes food 'American' to the Italian mind is the fact that it is served in such ridiculously large portions.  Sadly, based on my experience with American 'Italian' restaurants, there is a great deal of truth in that stereotype.

Monday, September 5, 2016


Our kitchen, with the trusty little Moka ready to deliver the good stuff.

Filo's espresso maker.  The concept of the Kuerig cup was actually invented by an Italian company called Lavazza.

The espresso machine at Bar Anna.

Outdoor seating on the piazza.

Another favorite bar, Bar Okay.  Cappuccino and a cornetto.

Cappuccino and pastry in Paestum.

Marocchino and gelato.

Twin baristas, beautiful and professional.

The crystalline waters off Isola Licosa.

Isola Licosa with its lighthouse,

Talk about service,  caffè delivered by watercraft.

       An Italian coffee shop is a beautiful thing, with its sleek bar, its sparkling chrome machines, the ranks and files of glasses and cups neatly arrayed before the mirror at the back of the bar, the lovely wooden glass-fronted cabinets with those ravishing pastries spotlighted, always freshly made at a local pasticceria that very morning, and the baristas with their cool, efficient demeanor.  In Italy, coffee is not so much a habit as a religion. And one, I have to say, that deserves all the veneration it receives.

      In his delightful little book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, (from which I am cribbing shamelessly here) Tom Standage makes the case that the Enlightenment, that eighteenth-century intellectual ferment which saw the end of slavish adherence to the tenets of ancient Greek science and philosophy, was fueled by good old coffee.  Much as I venerate Greek thought, I suspect he’s right.  And it should be noted that no one would have been more chagrined by that slavish adherence than the Greeks themselves.  Modernists take Aristotle to task for relying on dualistic, Aristotelean logic, but they don’t take the trouble to discover that Aristotle himself knew perfectly well that his clever little intellectual tool had severe limits.  Heck, the guy thought it was hilarious to set up a perfectly constructed syllogism and prove that a goat was a type of bird!  In any case, think of all the ideas we owe to the caffeine-powered Enlightenment, not least our system of government here in the US.

     But that was a long time coming.

     My first book started with a very simple question, namely, how did Rome, a city of over a million souls, manage to feed its population in an era without refrigeration and sterile canning and with a very primitive system of transport.  I nattered on for another 250 pages and never really mentioned the most basic reason, namely that Rome provided the one most essential element of the human diet in glorious profusion.  That nutrient is safe drinking water, something we modern Americans take for granted, and shouldn’t.  The human body can endure for two or three weeks without solid food, and some of us, sadly, probably longer, but if we go without water for more than two days, we’re in serious trouble.  I was interested to learn that sailors stranded at sea in open boats who survived to give us an account of their travails report that it was not so much hunger that tormented them, at least not after the first few days.  It was ravenous thirst.  In fact, British sailors had an unwritten rule called “The Custom of the Sea” which was understood to mean that when a stranded crew was up against it and it became obvious that without sustenance they were all going to die, it was acceptable to draw lots and kill one of their companions so that the rest might have some chance of living.  Terrible, I know, but who is to say what we ourselves might do in similar circumstances?  But the thing which really astounded me was that they also drew lots for various portions of the corpse, and the two prized portions were the liver and the brain, for the simple reason that these two organs retain the most fluid after all the others begin to wither.  Imagine the bitter irony of floating in a sea of water and thirsting to death.  As Coleridge has the Ancient Mariner declare, “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!”  and ravenous thirst has driven some shipwrecked tars to madness, so that they began drinking sea water.  Sadly, salt is so hypertonic that it simply dehydrated them more, upon which they would repeat the cycle until they killed themselves in a raving fit.

All that by way of saying that throughout human history, various civilizations have devised ways of making impure water potable by creating staple beverages which purified it.  Thus the Egyptians and the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent were great beer drinkers, the Greeks and Romans great wine bibbers, and so forth.  Beer wort is, of course, boiled and therefore safe, and it has been experimentally proven that wine mixed with water in the proportions the Greeks and Romans prescribed kills all sorts of pathogenic microbes in brackish water, most especially typhoid and paratyphoid organisms.  The fact that alcohol in moderation has some delightful psychotropic effects as well hasn’t hurt their popularity either.  But when Islamic people, who by Koranic proscription are teetotalers, introduced distillation to the West and some bright spark figured out how to turn the process to distillation of wine and beer, the consequences were in may cases catastrophic.  Cheap gin was the bane of the poor in many cities, for example.  

     But our Muslim brothers more than compensated when they introduced coffee.  Before its introduction, most people in western Europe drank ‘small beer’, weak beer, for breakfast and lunch, since it was so much safer than municipal water supplies.  But coffee is boiled, and not only is safer, but leaves its drinker alert and energized instead of dazed and confused.  Coffee was introduced to Europe in the 1640s, and by 1674 an anonymous London poem heralded it as

…that Grave and Wholesome Liquor
That heals the Stomach, makes the Genius quicker
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad
And cheers the Spirits without making Mad!

Actually, coffee had been known in the Islamic world for several centuries by this time.  The legend is that Arabic shepherds noticed goats eating coffee beans and becoming extremely frisky, ground up the berries and infused them in hot liquid, and were delighted by the buzz they got.  Coffee as we know it from roasted beans was evidently introduced from Yemen, and was known in Arabic as qahwah, pronounced as KAH-va, ergo our words kava and coffee. The word java, meanwhile, derives from the island of the name, where colonial powers introduced the plant in order to break the Arabic monopoly.   Coffee at first had its detractors in Islam, since it also has psychotropic effects, albeit the opposite ones in many ways from alcohol.  But eventually it was accepted as healthful and proper and became (and remains in many parts of the world) the ‘Wine of Islam’.

    Coffeehouses became popular in London in the 1660s, and a short but by no means exhaustive list of new ideas launched in these centers of egalitarian intellectual discourse would include the Glorious Revolution as well as the Restoration, the Tatler, the insurer Llloyd’s of London, Pepys’ Diary, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and the London Stock Exchange.  Coffee was embraced just as fervently in Italy, where it fueled the intellectual ferment that resulted, at long last, in the Risorgimento and the belated unification of Italy in 1861.

    As with everything else, there are arcane unwritten rules for consumption of coffee in Italy.  Most startling for most Americans is the fact that java is probably not your beverage of choice first thing in the morning.  Italians love to let their systems wake up slowly, so a light breakfast and perhaps some fresh juice is de rigueur  Then along about 10 am, everyone heads to their favorite bar for a little jolt.  Sadly, that is one Italian custom that Sandy and I have not assimilated.  I’m usually up thirty minutes to an hour before the night owl, so I stumble to the kitchen and fire up the trusty little Moka which produces a scant four cups of espresso.  I’ll sit and peruse the news and social media on the computer while sipping my two little demitasse cups, and when I hear Miss Sandy stirring, I fire up a half cup of skimmed milk in a little stainless steel tankard so she can enjoy her caffè latte.

     But often we will head down midmorning to our favorite bar in Agropoli’s centro, Bar Anna, or to another of our favorite bars, for some professionally produced go-juice.  Understand, when you see a sign for a ‘bar’ in Italy it will be a coffee bar, although they frequently have various liquors as well for the late afternoon crowd.  Most Italians drop into their regular place, where they’re greeted by name, and stand at the bar to get their caffeine fix.  It will cost about a buck and a half, maybe two and a half if you sit.  And if you order a caffè, you will automatically get a shot of espresso, unless the barista recognizes that suspicious touristy look, in which case you’ll get a tentative, “Caffè espresso?”  Also appropriate at this time is a good cappuccino, a shot of espresso mixed with warm milk with skim-milk froth on top, the perfect way to start a work day, according to many Italians.  And, if you insist as does my beloved on ordering one in the afternoon, knock yourself out, but don’t be surprised if the barista shudders on hearing the order, because any form of coffee with milk after noon is JUST NOT RIGHT!!!  At Bar Anna we sit out at the tables under the umbrellas on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, drink our coffee, take advantage of municipal wi-fi, watch the passing parade, noodle on the computer, grab a pastry or gelato, and just pure lolligag.  Which you can easily do, because, just as at any good Italian restaurant, you will never, ever be rushed.  You can sit there the whole day and never once be asked, as in American establishments, “Is there anything else?” by which is meant, “Beat it, old geezer, I want my tip.”  What a remarkably civilized way to enjoy your coffee!

     More signs of civilized life:  Your caffè will typically be served in a pretty ceramic cup with a cute little spoon and a packet of sugar as well as a glass of water, unless the place is for barbarians.  Italians love their espresso black as sin and sweet as young love, and it is a joy to watch them carefully pour in the sugar, then slowly, carefully stir and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, and then throw the whole cup back like a shot of whisky in a bad western.  I’m telling you, there is real flair and panache there!  Meanwhile, I am so impatient that I always seem to knock mine back too early, and therefore suffer the humiliation of residual sugar goo on the bottom of the cup.  So I’ve decided to make a virtue of necessity and have adopted the habit of mixing a bit of water from the glass in the espresso cup and swirling it about a bit before a second knock-back so I can achieve the full caffeine-sucrose rush.

Unsurprisingly, I suppose, there are numerous variations on the basic espresso and cappuccino duo.  Instead of a cappuccino, you might care for a macchiato, a good shot of espresso with a small dollop of whole milk in the center.  Or perhaps you’ll want your caffè ‘ben caldo', ‘really hot’.  Since Italians don’t sip their espressos, they don’t want a scalding cup, but if you prefer to sip, the barista can set you up with an ‘extra-hot’.  Or just for variety, you might want a marochino, a cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa powder.  There’s even caffè d’orzo, not really coffee at all, but a substitute which poor Italians made from dark roasted barley during the world wars because coffee was unavailable.  It seems some of them actually became inured to the taste!  For the love of God, please don’t order an Americano thinking you’ll get a good cup of American coffee.  What you’ll get is a shot of espresso mixed with a ridiculous amount of hot water, a truly disgusting concoction which, I suppose, gives you some notion of how Italians regard American coffee.

    But if perchance you imbibe this foul abomination, do not despair.  What you need to remove the horrid aftertaste is a caffè corretto, a shot of espresso with a shot of booze on top.  Unless you specify, the liquor will be grappa, fiery Italian brandy.  But you can also specify ‘con Sambuca', Sambuca being a liqueur flavored with anise and elderflowers, or ‘con Cognac’.  These are particularly popular with commuters in the late afternoon, and that reminds us that Italians love a good shot of java along about 5 pm.  In fact, many of the train stations here have little coffee kiosks right out near the boarding platforms, and you’ll often see a harried commuter rush up to the bar, order a quick espresso, throw it back, and rush off to board his espresso.  Yep, the espresso train lent its name to the typical little cup of Italian coffee.  Both are going to have you speeding along.  But please, whatever you do, don’t call it an “EK-spresso’ as many Americans are wont to do.  Good coffee deserves more respect than that.

    My all-time favorite coffee experience occurred when our friend Franco Castelnuovo took us and Fernando by boat to see the beautiful island of Licosa, about 15 miles south of Agropoli.  As we motored down, Franco slowed the boat to a crawl to show me the crystal-clear view of the bottom of the sea and then pointed to the depth-finder radar:  12 meters!  The waters and beaches of this areas are famous all over Europe for their clarity and beauty.  We anchored about 30 yards from the island (the rocks were too difficult to navigate inshore), swam to shore, and explored the footprints of a Roman villa, quite a treat.  Franco’s lovely wife Adriana Zammarrelli had remained on the boat with Sandy to tend the boat.  As the three of us gents were swimming back to the boat we noticed a small craft driven by a handsome young fellow approaching the boat.  When we arrived, he was just serving the ladies iced coffee and soon produced from a small espresso machine caffè for the explorers as well.  Great coffee in one the the world’s most evocative places!

     I read recently that Starbucks intends to open its first concession in Italy in the northern city of Milano some time in early 2017.  Ironic, since Danny Schulz, founder of the chain, drew his inspiration for what was at the time a radical new way of serving coffee from a trip he took to Italy.  Now all the pundits are trying to predict whether an American coffee shop can survive in the land that worships coffee.  Stranger things have happened, perhaps; McDonald’s is eking out an existence in the country which venerates good food.  How do you explain that?  But, for what it’s worth, my prediction is that the venture will not end happily.  The first time a Starbucks barista serves coffee in a paper cup, the lot of them will be tarred and feathered and flogged out of Lombardy and the establishment will be torched.  And justifiably so; some things are so sacred, you mess with them at your peril.

A temple to the goddess Caffeina in Florence.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

First Day in Agropoli

Woke this morning from a restful sleep at 9 am.  Understand, I’m usually up when we’re here by 6:30 at the latest.  Sandy woke shortly thereafter.  Tired, tired, tired, but what a wonderful rest.  I stumbled to the kitchen and almost had heart failure when the gas stove wouldn’t fire up so I could get the Moka rolling to produce some of the magic elixir.  But finally through the fog I remembered the cut-off valve under the counter and all was well.  Almost exactly when I began to hear that wonderful burbling sound which means the Moka is almost finished I saw Sandy stumble from the bed and so fired up some milk for her caffè latte as well.  We luxuriated as we sipped our morning brew on the terrazza, enjoying a beautiful azure sky and that ravishing mountain breeze which we love so well. Breakfast for me was a no-brainer, leftover pizza.  Just didn’t have an egg to fry to put on top and make it the perfect breakfast, which Fabio tells me is called a ‘Bismark’ here.

The view from the driveway

The beautiful Villa Astone.  Our apartment is on the bottom right.

At eleven Fernando showed up to take us to the Centro and serve as our interlocutor in the great matter of the wi-fi.  I should explain that wi-fi in Italy is a very big deal, or rather the difficulty of obtaining it in any dependable form.  Almost all routers here are connected to phone lines which are still not fiber-optic and are intermittent at best.  But last year Fernando introduced us to a nifty little portable modem which basically creates a hot spot that covers a circle of about 20’ in diameter.  Not perfect, but so much better than what we had before!  Plus, we can take it on adventures and hop on-line when we’re sitting in a small cafe in some remote hill town.  And, to reiterate earlier comments, having access to reliable wi-fi is absolutely essential to making a long stay like this in a foreign country possible.  Unless, of course, you’re prepared to break all ties with your home country and move home, bank accounts, utilities, and social contacts to your new one.  Which we definitely are not.  We had to wait in line for 20 minutes while a saintly store clerk in the TIM store patiently explained to an elderly Nonna what her options were for her tablet.  And never showed the slightest sign of frustration as a long queue built up behind us.  That’s the best of Italy, friends.  As one whose mom suffered from Alzheimer’s but was able to function independently for far longer than she should have, all thanks to the patience and kindness of neighbors, friends and her saintly sister, that sort of thing touches my heart.

Fernando discovered that the SIM card we purchased last year is expired but scoped out the best deal for us on a new one, three months and 20 GB for only 24E, so we are happy campers.  Afterwards we strolled on up the Via Gaspari and around the corner to Bar Anna where we all got coffee and Sandy a cornetto, the wonderful local form of croissant.  We sat out on the piazza and just basked in the weather and the relaxed atmosphere.  Earlier, when Fernando had parked in the municipal lot we were amazed at all the vacant places on a Saturday morning.  Fernando’s response, “Yesterday it was still August in Agropoli, today it’s September.”  Translation:  the tourists are gone and life will be a lot calmer around here for the next 10 months.

Our favorite stop mid-morning, Bar Anna

And here's why:  delicious pastries and gelato, great coffee, all out on the piazza.

As we idled away, Fernando spotted our pal Nunzio Mastrolia on his way to the bookstore across the piazza and trotted over to speak to him. After a quick visit to the store (Nunzio and his wife Teresa Sanna are the brains behind our Italian publishing house) Nunzio came over for hugs and some catching up, then off he went to book train tickets to Rome.  We strolled over to the Banco di Napoli Bancomat and all three got some cash and then Fernando took us by a cute little hole-in-the-wall paneficio for a beautiful loaf of bread and by a new mozzarella shop where they also sell all sorts of artisinal foods.  We scored a half-kilo of the little ‘mouthful’ mozzarelle, bocconcini, then puttered on home. Fernando said his good-byes and Sandy and I sat out on the terrace to enjoy our exquisite little bocconcini and bread doused with some of Rolando’s luscious olive oil.  If there’s a more luxurious lunch, I can’t imagine what it would be.

Delicious fresh-baked pane

The Oro Bianco, a new shop for artisinal foods

A selection of Cilentan cheeses

Sandy's happy:  1/2 kilo of bocconcini.

A huge, aged scamorza

The afternoon was devoted to life on the internet, a quick nap and a trip to the Maxxi Futura Ipermercato for basic groceries.  It’s odd how relaxing and enjoyable taking care of the basics can be after the stress and tension of the trip.

Fresh seafood at the Maxxi Futura supermarket

A perfect lunch:  fresh bread and bocconcini with Rolando's nectar of the gods.

 And then home for a quiet dinner and more rest. Not the most exciting day, but just what tired bodies and sprits needed.