Wednesday, May 20, 2015

7. Dignity in futility

Melancholy
Ostia Antica, May 20, 2015
THE INTENTION WAS GOOD: to make this a journal of a month in Italy, posting every day or two, writing about the roads, the hotels, the mood, the people we meet, the landscape, whatever comes to mind. But any loyal reader there may be will have noticed I’ve been silent for the last five days, and that this brings the total number of posts up to seven though we’ve been here twice that many days. And, worse, as far as I’m concerned, I still haven’t brought you up to date on the agriturismi visited.

It’s certainly not because there’s been nothing to write about. We’ve visited three or four Greek and Roman ruins, any number of fascinating buildings, and the three agriturismi. We’ve seen the trulli of Alberobello and the cave-houses of Matera. We’ve driven across the heel of the Italian boot twice, and today drove through another part of Italy we’ve never seen. I’ve taken, let’s see, eleven hundred photos, and that doesn’t count today.

For a long time I’ve noticed that you can either experience things or write about things; it’s hard to do both simultaneously. I do keep a journal of sorts, but it’s mainly a record of hotel addresses, expenses, the occasional note on a thing or person seen. I rely on my increasingly unreliable memory and, of course, the photos, which function as an aide-memoire and, thanks to the iPhone’s GPS, a record of when we were where. Or where we were when.

For the moment I”ll just write a bit about today, since, tired though I am, it’s fairly fresh in my mind. Last night’s hotel was a pleasant one, a couple of kilometers out of town and above the city (Campobasso), but its breakfast was one of the least adequate we’ve had: no bread, only cake and jam-tarts (though I have to say I do like those apricot jam crostate), and about the worst coffee we’ve had, with far too much milk and that, I suspect, the long-playing kind. So we got out fairly quickly and hit the road, using the iPhone app Waze to guide us to tonight’s digs.

Waze works amazingly well here in Italy, though it’s a good idea to verify the address before you enter it. In another post I’ll try to remember to tell you what happened when we relied on it to get us to our quarters in the Basilicata. I set it to avoid toll roads, which adds an hour to a three-hour drive, and takes you through any number of roundabouts and sharp turns, and small towns and industrial areas: but you drive slower, saving fuel; and you save a lot of money in tolls.

I’ve always liked driving in Italy — whether in cities or in the country. You make use of all the road, and so do the other drivers. You’ll come up behind someone driving 40 kilometers per hour in a 90 kmh zone, usually though not always because that’s all his wretched car will do on the climb. It’s a two-lane road, and someone’s probably coming toward you from the other direction. But the slow guy moves over toward the shoulder and you pass, knowing the fellow coming at you will also move over to crowd the shoulder, and everyone agrees this makes the world better for both fast drivers and slow ones.

The countryside after Campobasso was really beautiful; rather wild at first, with hardly any villages or buildings, just forest, occasional patches of snow lingering on the peaks of the Appeninines, now and then a manicured field. There are red poppies everywhere, and surprising pinkish morning-glories, and miscellaneous other flowers and thistles decorating the landscape. I forget who it was that said flowering plants prove the existence of God: I don’t agree, out of principle, but I know what he meant. Evolution could have come up with something else, and I suppose it might have been nearly as nice; but I’m happy there are flowers.

We stopped at a little roadside bar in Cervaro, near Frosinone, just over the border from Molise in Lazio, for our second coffee, to subdue the lingering taste of the breakfast coffee. The croissants were surprisingly good, and the cappuccinos were too. I listened to the incomprehensible conversation of two or three guys lounging in the doorway behind me, and took a picture of the view and my companion at the table; and posted the photo to Facebook, where now seventeen people have “liked” it — and then, before you could say Jack Robinson, came a “friend” request from someone I’d never heard of (I always ignore such requests) and it turned out to be the proprietor of the place!

Facebook and TripAdvisor, like Waze, have changed the way we travel. Word gets out about things much quicker now, and while the “critics” and “reviews” on TripAdvisor, to take only one example, are often far from reliable (and too often downright crude or snarky), Facebook, since it lets people one really knows trade information and comments and photos, can be very helpful. (It’s also a quick way to show people what you’ve been seeing, which I find, so far, a blog is not very good at.)

We drove through the Rome suburbs, some of them, and the increasing traffic, nosing our way through merges that would be impossible at home, finding our way across highways and the tangenziale, finally parking right in front of tonight’s bed-and-breakfast. Only to find it closed, and a sign on the door saying it would be open between six and ten pm. So we drove out to the beach, reasoning there’d be something there to eat even though it was nearly three o’clock; and sure enough there was a fish-and-chips shop that was quite adequate — you’ll be able to read about it over at my other blog, if you like.

And then we turned to the real purpose of tonight’s stay in this implausible town: the ruins of the Roman port city. I had no idea how extensive they were, and how easily the visitor (once he’s paid a healthy admission, which must keep out the careless) can walk at liberty amont the tombs and streets and ruins of apartments and public buildings. I’m attracted to these ruins because I like daily life, I like the sense that apart from technology humans seem always to have the same desires and the same approach to satisfying them, I like the confirmation ruins give that nothing lasts least of all human aspiration, and that there is a real dignity in futility. Ruins confirm in me my innate melancholy.

But all the time we were walking among the pines and junipers of Ostia Antica, eavesdropping on French and Dutch and Italian tourists, conversing with a clutch of schoolchildren from Normandy implausibly dressed (and so were there adult teachers) in Roman tunics and sandals and headgear — all that time at the back of my mind I was worrying about tonight’s lodging. The place had looked pretty sketchy when i parked there first.

We returned at six-thirty, and the iron gate outside the compound was still locked. A note permanently pasted nearby gave a phone number; I called it; a man said Ten Minutes! Ten Minutes! Yes? and I looked at the time and sat back and relaxed, well, a bit. And within ten minutes he was there, and led me through the gate, through a cluttered driveway sort of affair, and up a flight of outside stairs to the entrance of what had at one time apparently been a private home.

And you know? Our room is really nice, with the necessary bed and chairs, the armoire, good and fast WiFi, a perfectly adequate bathroom, and our own balcony, where I sit at a table typing out this dispatch. It’s twilight now; friendly dogs are barking about the end of their day; a blackbird is uncoiling his liquid song. I’m about ready for something to eat and a good night’s sleep before turning in our car tomorrow and resuming my engagement with Rome.

Friday, May 15, 2015

5. Agriturismi: La Vecchia Quercia (Salerno)

Quercia
Metaponto, Basilicata, May 15, 2015—
YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED, constant reader, if you’re there, that there was until today no chapter five in this series of travel dispatches from Italy. I had intended to write it four days ago, on the subject of Churches and Castles; but one thing and another. Not to bore you with excuses.

(I had intended a Chapter Seven, as well, on the subject of Flâner; and that too has gone by the wayside, though it will doubtless emerge when I least expect it.)

So, as Lucky says in Beckett’s indispensable play, I resume. We have spent the last three days driving from one place to the next, settling for the night in an agriturismo, eating dinner, sleeping, and then recapitulating the next day. This has taken us from Napoli to, so far, Metaponto, on the northernmost point of the Gulf of Taranto, the instep of the Italian boot.

The three chosen agriturismi have been quite different from one another, though all with two things in common: unforgettable, personable, helpful, truly sympathetic personnel; and settings close to the agricultural terrain. I begin, then with the first of these.

We first found the B&B La Vecchia Quercia in a travel article in, I believe, the New York Times&thinsp, when we were touring around by car for a few days from Caserta to Erculaneo to Paestum to the Amalfi cost. We decided more or less impetuously, as we tend to do, to give it a try, and we found it delightful. The setting is quite a few kilometri off the beaten path, back up in the woods at the edge of a regional park, wooded and hilly, though still agricultural — in fact on the edge of an apparently important vignoble, Montevetrano. (I have yet to taste their wines: a tribute to the more ordinary house wines offered at this table.)

We were back day before yesterday, five years later almost to the day. The woman in charge, Anna Imparato, looked at me closely but apparently did not recognize me: but she remembered my companion instantly. And warmly.

We were shown to our room: large, comfortable, with its own little terrace, and adjoining the lawn under the lemon grove. Beyond the structure containing our suite and the adjacent one, much the same as I recall since we stayed in it five years ago, and containing also an apartment on an upper storey, there’s a stretch of garden dominated by an amazing old mulberry tree, certainly a meter in diameter at the base, the trunk hollowed out, but the canopy full and thriving.

Our view looks west over agricultural land, and truth to tell it is a workaday landscape, but everything here is so well tended, planted and distributed with so astute and gifted an eye, that every detail confirms a kind of spirituality, a graceful marriage of idea and achievement, concept and realization. I love the place, because I love the values and intent of its direction.

I won’t discuss dinner — I’ve done that over at Eating Every Day. But I must discuss our hostess, which is something I don’t often do here; I don’t like writing about real people; they are always so much bigger, more complex, more interesting than I can convey, and then there’s always the fear one won’t please them with one’s report. But, fact is, such people have chosen a public life, and for better or worse (probably the latter), I am by training and, I suppose, by nature a journalist; I like to write about what I see, if only to fix it in mind…
Signora Imparata is perhaps seventy, well-built, handsome. She carries herself well: her posture is elegant but not stiff; her gestures are gentle but expressive. When she listens to you she looks at you frankly and directly, with interest; she has an impressive way of focussing on what you intend to say. Every part of her bearing is quiet, well regulated. When her well-formed hands move gently and gracefully apart, turning at the wrists to let the palms face one another, her fingers spread just a little, as if instead of punctuating a statement as to how something is she is carrying a small invisible but probably beautiful and fragile container of fact.

My mother was a very good women, but very strict, she said. I was sent to a religious school in Rome, where we learned to hide our attractions to things that were forbidden. I was very unhappy, not because of that, but because I could never learn to turn the sheet under properly when making the bed. It was a very strict upbringing: we walked with pieces of wood on our shoulders, and our heads, and another piece of wood thrust down behind the neck, to teach the proper way to carry ourselves.

My sister was a gifted musician; she practiced the piano ten or eleven hours a day; she lived for music and the piano. But when she asked if she could be a concertista, No, she was told, young women do not do that. We weren’t taught anything about money, about business. A frl lived on her parents’ income until she married, and of course she did marry; then she lived on her husband’s money. She was taught to run a household, to be cultural, to manage that side of life; no more.

But we knew the kitchen, the garden; plants; everything about the household. We knew sewing. When a double sheet — which was always very fine, highest quality — when there was a thin place coming, or it split; then we cut it and made it into single sheets. Then still smaller: serviettes; bandages. Finally it was only big enough for blowing the nose. But it was used as long as possible.

This was not because we were poor; far from it. It was simply the way things were done; it was a respect you paid to the things you had, to their quality. It was a completely different way of living. Can that way of living come back? No; I don’t think so. And yet, who knows, perhaps it will. Perhaps in the cycle of things it will come back; we will lose interest in life as it is lived now, we will realize the fullness of life consists in work, in attention, in appreciation of things as they are, of life as it comes to us.

When we began here, the people who help us asked why there were so many forks at the table; why does everyone at the table have two glasses, that is not the way we do, we have one fork, we need only one glass, but we quietly continued to put the proper number of forks and glasses at the settings because that is how we were taught things are done, and now I notice the people who help us they too at home have one glass for water another for wine; they too have the correct forks.

Signora Imparato — few people can be so well named: imparato means “taught” — speaks passable English and, I think, fairly fluent French, as well as Italian. The night we were there there was a Dutch couple, say twenty years younger than us, staying there; she and they spoke English together, and got on well. Her sister — perhaps the former pianist, perhaps another — has become an apparently well-recognized winemaker, and lives next door. There’s another woman who, I believe, cooks and certainly serves the breakfasts, which are copious and tasty. I suppose we will return; I can’t imagine driving past Salerno without stopping; the bed is so comfortable, the room so delightful, the dinner so rewarding, the conversation so pleasant.

The morning we left a young man was mowing the lawn under the lemon trees. Another couple of workmen were getting the small swimming pool ready for the season. Everything here is in order, calm, reassuring, pleasing. Nothing is out of balance. The contrast with the busy city that is Naples couldn’t be bigger — and yet Anna loves Naples, it has heart, as she says; it’s a performance; one forgives it its faults for its warmth and generosity and spectacle. These are exactly the virtues of La Vecchia Quercia, minus spectacle I suppose: but there comes a time one wants tranquility, even gentility, to enjoy the emergence of utilitarian sufficiency into beauty and order..

•La Vecchia Quercia, Via Montevetrano 4, Località Cantina di Campigliano, San Cipriano Picentino (Salerno)

Writing like this appears in three of my books: Roman Letters, two month-long stays in Rome; Mostly Spain, a month touring Madrid and Andalucia; Venice: and the idea of permanence, reflections on a couple of month-long sojourns in that city. Look for them in iBooks or simply by clicking on the title.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

6. Pizza e gelato!

IMG 9827
Antica Pizzeria da Michele
Corso Vitt. Emanuele, Napoli, 12 May 2015—
OF COURSE I WRITE about our meals just about every day; I’ve been doing that for years, at Eating Every Day. And so I rarely write about eating here, on the theory that this blog is reserved for really consequential matters, requiring really serious attention on my part, and even more dedication from you, gentle reader, if you’re there.

But it’s time to record the results of our short but scientific survey of pizza and gelato, matters of considerable significance to certain members of my family and therefore perhaps of more general interest. Naples is considered, I’m not sure why, the origin of pizza. I think this may be partly because of its importance as a center of Allied occupation in 1944, after the first Allied invasion of the European mainland, at Anzio, not that far from here. Pizza was of course already well established in Naples at that time, a staple at a time when foodstuffs were in short supply, and very tasty to the American G.I., who was heartily tired of G.I. fare by then, I’m sure.

Pizza is of course nothing more than flatbread, and flatbread’s been around for millenia. There isn’t a Mediterranean cuisine that lack it; hasn’t been since recorded culinary history. (You can probably find pictorial representations of it from prehistoric times, if you’re academically inclined.) It’s absurd to think that Naples “invented” pizza, any more than China “invented” pasta, pace Marco Polo.

But Naples is proud of its pizza, proud and even a bit purist. At Da Michele, for example, two large signs on the walls present literary — well, poetic — admonitions on the subject:

           Don Michele
cu l'aglio, l'uoglie e arecate      
oppure a pummarola
pare na cosa facile
ma a pizza e' na parola

n'ce vo na pasta morbida
s'adda sape' n.furna'
o gusto i chi a prepare
pe nun ve n'tusseca'

a pizza e' nata a napule
ma poche indo' mestiere
ve ponne da' o' piacere
i farvela mangia'

surtanto don michele
che' fino pasticciere
ve fa na pizza spendida
ca ve fa cunzula'
      —A. Galante

      A Margarita
a quanto sta' o benessere
a gente penza a spennere
e mo' pure o chiu' povero
o siente e cumanna'

voglio una pizza a vongole
chiena i funghette e cozzeche
cu gamberetti e ostriche
d' ‘o mare e sta citta'

al centro poi ce voglio
‘n'uovo fatto alla cocca
e co liquore stok
l'avita annaffia'

quando sentenne st'ordine
ce vena cca na stizza
pensanne ma sti pizze
songo papocchie o che'
ca se rispetta a regola
facenna a vera pizza
ch'ella ch'e' nata a napule
quase cient' anne fa

questa ricetta antica
se chiamma margarita
ca quanno e' fatta a arte
po gli ‘n'anza a nu re

percio' nun i cercate
sti pizze cumplicate
ca fanne male a sacca
e u stommaco pati’

—G. Esposito
A. Galante’s poem is little more than an ode to Michele, the eponymous original pizzaiolo of one of the most highly touted pizzerie in Naples: “pizza was born in Naples, but few are given the mastery… above all don Michele, whose pastry skill developed that splendid pizza…”

But G. Esposito’s lines, from what little I can make out from the napolitano dialect, go further into the question. It’s not pizza that the Neapolitans invented, but authentic pizza, which has only four ingredients: the dough, the tomato sauce, the garlic, the oregano. When you’re poor, you may dream of clams, mushrooms, oysters, shrimp; a cooked egg, salt-doc broth, and all that: but you make do with what you have, and what you have, if you’re lucky, is tomatos, garlic, and oregano. And just as well: because those complicated pizzas will only wreck your bladder and leave your stomach swollen.

Well: I’m a little confused here. Esposito is writing about Pizza Margherita, and it’s aready unnecessarily complicate, secondo me, in my opinion, because it adds cheese to the classic Pizza Marinara, the tomato-garlic-oregano pizza. There’s a story there, too, of course: Queen Margherita was slumming one day in Naples, and wanted a pizza: the pizzaiolo, thinking she deserved something special, entirely new, added dollops of mozzarella to the classic (and in fact only) version, thus adding white to the otherwise red and (barely) green colors. Red, white, and green are of course the national colors of Italy; Margherita was the first queen of the newly unified nation; the result was as patriotic as Verdi. (Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia; get it?) So jingoism interferes with the true course of cultural necessities, like opera and cuisine.

In any case while my companion reached into other corners of menus, even as far as salt-cod-and-mushroom pizza, I remained true to scientific principle, comparing apples only with apples, oranges with oranges. I have tasted only pizze Marinara, and when it’s come to gelato, I’ve been loyal to fior di latte (crema when there is no latte) and limone. And the results have been absorbing.

•7 May: Pizzeria da Michele, Via Giuseppe Martucci, 93; +39 081 1957 6887: The pizza menu here begins with Marinara and Margherita, and while there are other, more complicated combinations listed, we of course went no farther. We split a Marinara "Maxi", about twenty inches across says my Contessa, beautifully leopard-spotted on its bottom side, a little soupy in the Neopolitan style, edgy and pointed with good tomato flavor and delicate oregano and garlic. Oh: there was basil involved too. Not authentic.

•8 May: Starita, Via Materdei 27,28; +39 081 5573682: This one was perhaps just a tad better. I think the reason was the nicely cooked little basil leaves — okay, maybe that is authentic — and the sweet thoughtful tiny chunks of garlic. The tomato was a little mellower than yesterday’s, which is nice, though I did also like, just as much, the assertiveness of yesterday’s: each version is first-rate, smooth, rich, nicely balanced.

My Contessa, always fond of baccalà, ordered the "stock" pizza: stockaffisa, the Italian version of dried cod, black olives, capers, garlic, chopped parsley, and cherry tomatoes. It was very very good, delicious in fact, an inspired combination. The cod, or baccalà, or brandade, or whatever you like to call it, was very smooth, deep-flavored, set off nicely by the perfect tomatoes. The waiter told me it was strictly local, made here in Naples from locally caught merluzzo. I want to believe that, and I think I do.

•11 May: L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Via Cesare Sersale, 1/3; +39 081 553 9204: Here there are only two pizzas: Marinara, which is tomato sauce, a little garlic, and oregano — no basil! — and Margherita, which adds mozzarella to the mix. And there are three sizes: small, medium, large. To drink you choose Coca-Cola or beer or water. The pizza arrived almost immediately. I think perhaps it arrives too quickly, and while I’m no pizzaiolo I think the pizza may  not have been cooked long enough. The bottom of the crust is nicely blackened, but the spots are too big, leaving whiter spots that also seem too big. I’m sure the oven was up to temperature, but as we left I watched the pizzaoli at work: there were two working the one rather large oven, one shoving uncooked pizzas in, the other dragging cooked ones out. It’s probably a mistake to go to da Michele during rush hour.

The tomato sauce was fine, though perhaps not as dense as at Starita. The dough was very hard to cut with the table knives we were given. (I should explain: in Naples one eats one’s pizza with knife and fork, and they arrive at table innocent of any kind of pre-cutting: you don't lift a wedge already cut and eat it from your hand. Non si fa: it isn’t done.)   Anywhere else this would be a marvelous pizza. In my opinion, here in Naples, it wasn’t quite up to its closest competitor — and I do like a glass of red wine with my pizza!

Fabio, whose restaurant Partenope we went to one evening, up in Vomero, has an uncle who is a pizzaiolo. They were both horrified when I admitted that we’d had our first pizza here. Yes, Starita and the real (Antica Pizzeria) da Michele, they’re competent enough. But Fabio says, reasonably since it’s in the family, the best pizza in Naples is made by his uncle, at Acunzo Pizzeria Vomero (via. B. Covenzio 4/6; Vomero Napoli; +39 081.0491868). Unfortunately for one reason or another we never got there. Next time.
ON THE SUBJECT of gelato I’ll have less to say. In spite of our best intentions, I only sampled four or five gelaterie, maybe six; and so irresponsible am I I took proper note of only four, and even then misplaced the name of one — which is of little consequence.

We’ve been sampling gelato for years, and I have developed my own approach, which is to taste the simplest flavors, some might say the blandest, if I’m intent on making comparisons. I love certain other, bolder flavors and textures. Perhaps my favorite is riso, gelato based on rice custard, but that is now very rarely found. It used to be common: I recall delicious ones in Venice and in the small southern Tuscan town Capalbio. Those days are apparently gone.

I like chocolate, of course, and some nut-based gelati, and licorice, and some really odd ones like the tobacco-flavored and whisky-flavored gelati you can find on Rome, where we’ll be in a week or so. But when I’m on a scientific errand I stay with two flavors: Crema and Fior di latte. Crema is what Americans might think of as “French vanilla,” except that there’s little if any vanilla, and it isn’t French. It’s simply a cream-based custard, and it can be absolutely wonderful.

Fior di latte — well, I’ve never been sure what that is. It’s lighter than Crema, of course; it’s undoubtedly flavored with a bit of vanilla; but principally it is milk. My companion could tell me a lot more about this, if I asked her, but she’s reading the newspaper. In Naples I never saw Crema, so I abandoned my usual procedure and substituted Limone for it, thinking of Carlo Ponti and his marvelous song “Gelato a limon.”

We began the survey our second day in Naples, at a shop that came readily to hand after our pizza at Starita. Gelosità, like most of the other gelaterie sampled, is a chain of shops; a franchise in fact: but we’d happened upon the mother ship, you might say, and the young woman who served me said, when I asked, that the gelati were all made on the spot.

I had Fior di latte and Limone, and thought them both good, but not exceptional. The flavors were clean and direct, the textures smooth with no graininess at all; but the finish seemed short to me — but then, I’d just eaten a very good pizza.

The next day we put my new friend Fabio to the test. We’d read that one of the best shops in Naples was Fantasia Gelati, but when I mentioned that to him on our walkabout in Vomero, he said — quietly and without contradiction, as is his style — yes, many people like it; personally, I prefer (and he pointed to it, across the street) Casa Infante.

Both are on the Piazza Vanvitelli, and there we were: so we went first to Casa Infante, where I had Fior di latte and Limone, and my companion substituted the Nocciole (hazelnut) for Limone.. Then to Fantasia for the same, my companion by now abstaining altogether. She thought the Limone slightly better at Fantasia, but I disagree: it was less intensely flavored at Casa Infante, but it was also deeper, less superficial, and had a cleaner finish. And the Fior di latte was much creamier at Casa Infante. I have to agree with Fabio.

A couple of days later we found ourselves walking past the one shop on everyone’s list that is apparently one of its kind, not a chain, not having opened a branch office anywhere. On the other hand, Gay-Odin is not simply a gelateria; it is primarily a cioccolateria specializing in chocolate candies of various kinds, running its gelato operation on the side.

Nothing marginal about its quality, though. I thought the Fior di latte more or less average, but the average is very high; it was easily up to those I’d had earlier. And the Limone was smooth, clean, rich; a very beautiful thing; a semi-frozen lemon custard managing the difficult marriage of citrus and cream and egg with no awkwardness at all.

As I say, the average in Naples is high. We stopped at an ordinary run-of-the-mill commercial gelateria with no pretensions to artigianalità that I could see, across the street from the Duomo — strange that no art gelateria had staked out real estate here; perhaps it’s simply too expensive — where my two gelati, you can guess what flavors, were as good as anyone could decently demand. Not breathtakingly superb, perhaps, as I think Casa Infante and Gay-Odin can achieve. But very very good.
Writing like this appears in three of my books: Roman Letters, two month-long stays in Rome; Mostly Spain, a month touring Madrid and Andalucia; Venice: and the idea of permanence, reflections on a couple of month-long sojourns in Venice. Look for them in iBooks or simply by clicking on the title.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

4: Gates and gatekeepers

Hillside
Corso Vittorio Emanuele, May 12, 2015—
OUR BUILDING is on the right in the photo, to the right of the entrance to the funicular: the second-highest, just below the rounded one. The more handsome because somewhat older one just in front of it, with rounded bays at its corner, is the one we take the elevator through, bottom floor to top, to get to the front door of our building. Each of these palazzi, as the Italian quaintly calls apartment buildings, has its concierge, and at the cancello at the street, where the residents drive in, there’s another, a guard really, not a concierge, who sees to it, presumably, that none but residents and visiting professionals come in through the gate.

Well, not the gate, really. There is a gate, but it seems always to be open; instead, the vehicular entrance is barred by a simple barrier, a pole hinged at one end that lifts from its crutch when someone needs to drive in. What the Dutch call a slagboom, a striking pole, like those you see in parking garages. There’s a pedestrian gate there at the cancello as well, also perpetually open as far as I can see, though I haven’t been out late at night.

Our concierge is a woman who sits at the window of the front door of her apartment on the ground floor next to the elevator. It’s the only apartment front door with a window. She is visible from the waist up, and she is always on the telephone, but she always takes not of our arrival or departure, usually with a smile. If she doesn’t smile she must be preoccupied with her telephone convesation; perhaps the news isn’t so good. It can’t be terribly bad, though, because her default expression seems relaxed and benign.

The day we arrived everyone cautioned us on the proper use of the elevators. The cage has a door, of course, on each level, to prevent one’s falling into the slevator shaft; and the car has a door, split into two leaves vertically, I suppose to keep one’s limbs from harm while the car’s in motion. If all these doors aren’t closed quite shut, the elevator does not operate. If we were to leave a door the slightest bit ajar when leaving on the top level, a person at the bottom would have to climb a number of flights to get the elevator. By the time she got there she wouldn’t need it, of course, but she’d be in a temper.

I knew that, of course, I wasn’t born yesterday. Nevertheless the elevator was stuck on our floor shortly after our arrival. I know it couldn’t have been my fault, but the concierge wasn’t convinced. I heard her toiling up the stairs and calling out, and opened our front door, just three steps from the elevator, and saw the problem immediately, and clicked the door shut shut shut. She began lecturing me, in Italian of course, and I countered that since I knew perfectly well how the whole thing worked it couldn’t possibly have been me who left the door ever so slightly not completely shut. But she wasn’t buying.

Still she smiles now when she sees us. I’ve never seen the concierge in the front building, and there is no window on any apartment door on its ground floor; but I know she’s there, probably looking at a video monitor while making her telephone calls. Perhaps she isn’t presentable, and the apartment direction — a committee, I think — prefers to keep her hidden; or perhaps the idea is to keep residents and visitors in a state of uncertainty. But we all know she’s there, and act accordingly; though I never know in which direction to smile as I enter; the camera, if present, is well hidden.

I like the men in the little cabin at the cancello. Their big front window is always open and they frequently stand in the roadway in front of their cabin. They’ll call a cab for you, if you seem incapable of doing it yourself even though they’ve provided you with the number. They aways say Buon giorno or Buona sera, to let you know they’ve seen you and recognized you as permissible. Usually there’s only one man, but sometimes, especially apparently at noon and the next couple of hours, there are two, perhaps to keep one another company at lunchtime.

The other day as we walked out an alarm was going off somewhere, a particularly annoying one, and they were discussing this between themselves, and with anyone who chanced by. The question was, where was the offending alarm? One of our buildings, here at Parco Eva, Corso Vittorio Emanuele 167, or one of the buildings in the adjacent park, whose name I do not know and whose number has escaped my attention? If one of ours, clearly it was their responsibility; and clearly this troubled them; it would be very nice if we could determine the alarme was going off next door.

An old man, even older than I I think, was convinced the alarm was coming from one of our buildings, perhaps even his own. He kept pointing up and to the left. I walked up the roadway, cupped hands behind my ears, and slowly turned my head from side to side as I walked, like a traveling radar antenna; and I was certain the irritating warble came from next door. Hard to be sure, I admitted; there were many surfaces reflecting the sound; the place is full of echoes. It’s a bit like wandering among rocky landscapes in the Alps, where sometimes you must listen very intently to figure out which direction a voice is coming from, or a distant cowbell; and sometimes you begin to understand the irritation a peasant must have felt at the mischievous ventriloquy practiced by local gnomes and sprites.

We were standing there waiting for a taxi we’d called — we’d called the one at 8888, and while we waited many 2222s and even a 545 or two drove past, empty. Surely, I thought, only four 2222s would come by in the time one 8888 would take, but it wasn’t that simple; no arithmetical processes here. And in fact a 545 picked us up, and when I told hm we’d called an 8888 he said it didn’t really matter; he was going by anyway.

By then the alarm had begun to weaken, as if realizing no one was going to take it seriously, it was a bore and an annoyance, nothing more. And when we returned, hours later, it was quiet.

Lst night, though, just as I’d fallen asleep, there was a tremendous series of explosions down the hill in front of our building. I went to the window to see an amazing display of fireworks, nothing going very high into the sky, but many things going off nearly at once, say three storeys above the street. It reminded me of the scene in Les vacances de Hulot, when all the fireworks in a storage shed are accidentally set off at once. I actually saw that happen a number of years ago at a private party in the French countryside on Bastille Day, when as night fell the host was so drunk he decided to set off all his feux d’artifices simultaneously, with the result that it was soon over and everyone was laughing at the consequent anticlimax.

Today I asked the watchman at the cancello what it had all been about, and he shrugged: some Saint’s day, he speculated, or perhaps a wedding. If a wedding, I said, the bride must have been a little nervous. They always are, the watchman replied.
Writing like this appears in three of my books: Roman Letters, two month-long stays in Rome; Mostly Spain, a month touring Madrid and Andalucia; Venice: and the idea of permanence, reflections on a couple of month-long sojourns in Venice. Look for them in iBooks or simply by clicking on the title.

3: Funicular

FuniculareCorso Vittorio Emanuele, May 9, 2015—
BECAUSE STEEL CABLE has a certain elasticity, the car comes to its stop very slowly: then, once stopped, drifts slowly backward, then forward, gradually shortening its drift until completely at rest. In the meantime a few riders have got out, others have entered. The Funicular is like a diagonal elevator, bringing riders from the Piazza Amedeo in Chiaio at the bottom to the via Domenico Cimarosa in Vomero at the top.

Chiaio and Vomero are districts, I suppose you would say, of Naples; newer extensions of the old city, less scruffy (especially Vomero), but not really suburbs, but also not really quartiere — what the French call quartiers and we anglophones know as neighborhoods: they are too large for that, and if Naples were to disappear, as other cities at the foot of Vesuvius have been known to do, then both Chiaio (which would probably disappear too, engulfed by a tsunami of one kind or another) and Vomero (which might not, as it is considerably higher) would go on independently perfectly well, though with neither train nor air terminal.

As I say, Vomero is quite higher, and our Funicular, which is called Chiaia, is really quite useful for getting up there. Or, for that matter, down to Chiaia. Our street, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, starts off down in Napoli like any busy thoroughfare; but up in our neighborhood it takes on the nature of a corniche, winding along relatively flat on the face of what amounts to a cliff. It makes me think of the Avenue de Cimiez in Nice, or Euclid Avenue in Berkeley: it links two or three quite different zones and aspects of the city, taking on the qualities of each as it does, while respecting geography and, paradoxically, facilitating the handling of traffic.

The Napolitani know how to build on the sides of hills. On the faces of cliffs, even. I’ve mentioned the geography of our own apartment building, one of seven I think in our own little residential neighborhood. It is a vertical geography, measured by stair-steps — two hundred twenty-one — or elevators — five floors in one, two in the other. And then the sloping ramp of the private road. According to the app on my iPhone, there is 180 feet difference in elevation between our apartment (which itself is nearly four hundred feet above sea level) and the cancello, where our private street disgorges onto the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. And the cancello is far above the Piazza Amedeo, and far below the via Dominico Cimarosa up in Vomero. (I’ll check those elevations later, if I think to.)

As trams or streetcars inspired suburbanization in the United States shortly after electrification, say in the early years of the 20th century, by facilitating fast and inexpensive commutes downtown, so these funiculars — there are three of them in Naples — opened up the heights. Vomero, the plateau well above Naples, had been agricultural; its name is said to derive from an old Italian word for “ploughshare”, and it’s still called “the broccoli patch,” a little derisively, a little fondly. It reminds me of Prati, the Roman district just north of the Vatican, a wealthy bourgeois district that was built up early in the 20th century, when apparently much of Italy, or her cities at any rate, enjoyed a degree of complacent prosperity. (A good fictional portrait of the result, in terms of social and family lassitude, can be found in Alberto Moravia’s wonderful first novel, Gli indifferenti, translated most recently into English as Time of Indifference.)

Well: one euro buys you a ticket on the funicular (a euro and a half if you forget to buy it ahead, at a tabacchii or edicula), and they arrive every ten minutes throughout the day, and take you in no time from Corso Vittorio Emanuele where we live down to the bustling Piazza Amedeo, and in only a slightly longer time (because there is one stop between) up to the via Domenico Cimarosa in Vomero. And Vomero is where I spent the morning yesterday.

The evening before we’d dined at a newish restaurant, Partenope, an enchanting little place, and we’d conversed with one of the owners, and hearing of our interest in the restaurant business he invited me to join him in the morning as he went about his rounds shopping for Partenope’s kitchen. I was quick to agree.

Fabio is a young man, nearing forty I’d say, lean and handsome, good-humored and I think patient but with a watchful eye, a good thing in his profession. He took me first, of course, to his favorite cafe, around the corner from his restaurant; and there I had the finest macchiato I’ve ever tasted, rich, dense, chocolatey without a trace of chocolate, balanced, aromatic. And then we hit the markets.

We went first to the local covered market where there was a small fish stall. He introduced me to the proprietor, a man about his age: His grandfather sold fish to my grandfather, he explained. There were small displays — shallow buckets, I suppose you’d have to say — of tiny clams, of mussels, squid, a few eels, and the cleanest, most delicate, shiniest and tiniest alici, fresh anchovies, that I’ve run into. (We’d had some, fried, the evening before: unbelievably delicate and sweet.)

From there, a walk through the Piazza Vanvitelli toward a small street market, open every morning Fabio said, where he looked over the vegetables on offer and engaged in a short conversation whose import was subtler than my defective Italian could catch. We left empty-handed, but that didn’t surprise me; he hadn’t brought anything from the fishmonger either — I suppose deliveries are made later in the day.

Next, the enoteca. The proprietor, Danilo Marra, opened a little late this morning; no one seemed to mind, or think it irregular. He has an astute selection of wine from other Italian provinces and an imposing selection of spirits and apéritifs, but what was really impressive was his selection of local wines, and his knowledge of them. Well, not impressive, perhaps; after all, it’s his métier. I know nothing of these wines, and was surprised that Ischia, for example, barely four by five miles yet housing sixty thousand inhabitants, is a locally important wine producer.

Danilo and Fabio were immersed in a long, subtle, and apparently serious conversation, and I stepped outside, where a lean man in faded blue worker’s coveralls, with a sallow but cheerful face, was carefully but slowly sweeping up a few scattered cigarette butts — yes, there’s still a bit of smoking in Italy, though only out of doors, at least in public. We had a short imperfect conversation. Finding I was from California he mentioned he’d been to Florida for a few months, visiting someone in St. Augustine, but hadn’t found work, and in any case wasn’t able to extend his visa. Why were the Americans so afraid of foreigners, he wondered; wasn’t there plenty there for all? I tried to explain the present mentality about immigrants, foreigners, and terrorists, but he’d been persuaded that Americans are brave and generous, and felt, I think, that his problem in Florida had somehow been his own fault.

Walking on with Fabio I asked about the man. How does he make a living; what does he do when not sweeping Danilo’s doorstep? Fabio shrugged. Is he, I asked tentatively, a factotum? Oh yes, Fabio quickly agreed; and I thought of men like him I’d seen years ago in Sicily, directing me to a space in a parking lot, say, or helping with a package, or something, and then gracefully and subtly — interesting how often that word is necessary to describe an ordinary event on an Italian sidewalk — extending a hand, palm up, for a small coin one will never miss.

There’s no embarrassment in these moments, these transactions, and if a request for a coin is denied, there has seemed to me to be no ill will. We walked past an old woman sitting in a doorway with a shallow cardboard tray: in it, a few coins. Fabio automatically found a coin in his pocket — I wasn’t able to see its denomination — and dropped it into the tray.

Of course it’s his neighborhood; he lives here, maintains his business here. We stepped into the Friggitoria Vomera, where his mother stood behind the display case, and an uncle was frying graffe, big doughnut-like pastries, so light and delicate you almost forget you’ve eaten one, and want to have another. Another uncle is pizzaiolo in a family pizzeria.

We ended our tour in the basement kitchen of a pastaficio, a short, muscular fellow with an amazingly sunny smile, who stood at a big basin of polenta, stirring it with a wooden pole whose upper end was held loosely in a hole cut out of a metal strap extending a short way from the wall. The smooth yellow polenta bubbled softly. and he left off stirring for a while, moving to a work-table on which lay a pile of cooked rice. He tore a good-sized chunk of rice away, slammed it on the table a few times, then stretched it out between his hands, slammed it back down again, and began rolling it into a cylindrical loaf, from which he tore off pieces the size of a small orange, shaping them into balls. Ah: these would be arancini, perhaps to be finished upstairs at the Friggitoria.

Fabio looked at me conspiratorially: You have to see this, he said, and led me down to another room where the pastaficio had somehow preceded us. A huge mound of dough was on the work-table. Again he stretched and shaped a cylinder of dough, a slim one this time, maybe an inch in diameter, and then in a marvelous quick ballet of hands continued rolling it back and forth with his two hands, pinching off a piece with his left hand, rolling it into a stubby cylinder with both hands, and flipping it into one of three shallow pans with the right. Croquettes, Fabio explained, and the pastaficio looked up and smiled his radiant smile, never breaking stride, and the pieces flew speedily and unerringly into the pans…

Later in the day I returned to Vomero, with my companion this time, and we inspected the vast and sober Castel Sant'Elmo: but that's a story for another day. I'll only report now that on our walk back to the funicular we encountered the pastaficio striding briskly in our direction. He flashed me his sunny smile…
Writing like this appears in three of my books: Roman Letters, two month-long stays in Rome; Mostly Spain, a month touring Madrid and Andalucia; Venice: and the idea of permanence, reflections on a couple of month-long sojourns in Venice. Look for them in iBooks or simply by clicking on the title.

Monday, May 11, 2015

2: Museo with children

Museo
Corso Vittorio Emanuele, May 8, 2015—
I DO NOT NECESSARILY recommend you see the Museo Nazionale Archeologico this way. A four-year-old girl makes a capricious and unpredictable tourguide. But there was little choice: a granddaughter had impulsively flown into town with her husband and two children — the other only six months old or so — and this was our one chance to connect with them before they continued, by bus and train, to Pompeii, the Amalfi coast, Rome, Florence, Venice, the Cinqueterre, and back to Naples to fly home. (All in three weeks. Ah, the stamina and impetuosity of youth.)

We met at the entrance to the Museo, exchanged kisses, and quickly agreed sitting down to breakfast trumped culture for the moment. I wanted to introduce them to cappuccino and cornetti, that curious Italian version of the croissant. But first, a lesson in crossing the busy street.

Down the via S. Teresa delgi Scalzi sped the cars, motorcycles, mopeds, taxis, the occasional small truck, the more occasional bus. It’s a major thoroughfare, and everyone’s in a major hurry. I don’t think Saint Teresa of the Barefoot would approve. I’ve been in her apartment in Avila; I’ve seen her papers, covered with her small neat handwriting. She seems a very orderly, very much focussed woman.

But there is order and focus to this flow of furious traffic. Years ago an acquaintance of ours was posted to a job in Rome, where after only a week or two his wife announced she hated the city, didn’t understand the Italians, had nothing to occupy her own time, and wanted to leave. He was unsure: she wanted to leave Rome, merely, or him? But just in time the shipping container arrived with all the things they’d be needing for the next couple of years, among them their little car.

I’m going for a drive, she told her dubious husband, and off she drove. After a few hours he began to worry, but she turned up in time for dinner. I love this city, she burst out; now I understand the Italians; I’m going for a drive every day. It’s wonderful. You look straight ahead, you’re aware of things around you, you never look back, you take the space you need and give the rest to the others, it’s like a river, it flows.

And that is how you cross a busy street full of fast-moving traffic. The four-year-old riding my chest, her arms around my neck, I stepped into the street with firm intent, eyes right, announcing my purpose to any oncoming driver. Of course one does not step in front of a car too near. The idea is to allow oncoming drivers the time to prepare, to make the slight accommodation needed to adapt their trajectory to the one you are evidently following.

The indispensable requirement is clarity of purpose. One mustn’t hesitate; hesitation or uncertainty communicates unpredictability to the oncoming driver. If you don’t know for certain what you’re doing next, how can he? How then will he know whether to swerve gently left or right, to accelerate slightly or to let up? And how will his resulting uncertainty affect the cars and taxis and motorbikes around him?

Crossing the street like S. Teresa degli Scarpi is like dancing on a crowded floor. You’re all going in the same general direction, though each couple does its own maneuvers within the flow. One clumsy man, one drunk or stumblebum, and the whole thing clogs, slows down; dancers collide; good humor gives way to annoyance; what had been a beautiful poem of motion turns dull and prosaic. (Though perhaps comic, if you don’t have money of your own in the game.)

Same thing in the little bar across the street. Oh, it’s very small, I said with some disappointment, as we approached it: but one of the baristas was at the doorway, No no, he said, not at all, plenty of room. And patrons standing at the bar shifted a bit, others on stools at the ledge moved a little, or finished their coffees and left.

All of them smiled at the children. Touring Italy with a small child is a delight; the children open virtually every door. The customers beamed at them; the baristas beamed at them. The little middleaged lady who inevitably stands between the cash till and the pastry display, keeping track of the customers and the cornetti, she beamed too, and smiled at the baristas’ beaming, and with her own smiling eyes seemed to conduct the little gestures and repositionings and facial expressions that made the whole thing work.

But we couldn’t put off the Museo forever: one must have Purpose as well as pleasure when touring. So we practiced our street-crossing once again, the four-year-old riding the prow, her mother following with the baby strapped to her front, the father next carrying the push-stroller with one hand, the bundles of baby necessities with the other; my own constant companion last, glancing up the street with some apprehension I think; and finally we were back at the Museo, just behind a pack of schoolchildren all wearing yellow baseball caps and little backpacks full of pencils, papers, pamphlets, and perhaps the occasional piece of candy.

The ground floor of the Museo was given over to a celebration in stone of the power and presence of the Caesars. Huge blank-eyed statues of men and women, men mostly, standing mostly, rarely clothed with anything but a beach-towel carelessly thrown over a shoulder, stood at respectful distances from one another, on boxes just about as high as a four-year-old’s eyes. I wondered what she would make of all these bare toes, not to mention the apparatuses a few feet higher. I pointed out the toes, and she counted them on two or three bare marble feet: but you could see that she quickly lost interest in these presences.

I think children prefer the living to the dead, and to the representation too. It’s interaction theat interests and rewards them. No matter how powerful and imposing a presence the statue suggests — and after all that’s the intent of these monuments — the intended effect only takes place within a context in which the onlooker knows and (preferably) subscribes to the power relationship. It’s a political maneuver; and it’s an abstract politics at work.

Children intuitively understand politics, Jupiter knows; they engage in it themselves as soon as they can, before they’re six months old they’re manipulating parents and baristas with chortles, whimpers, dimples and scorn. But they like these relationships confirmed by interaction. They are immediately interested in other babies, who look back at them; in greatgrandfathers, who carry them about and otherwise indulge them; in baristas and museum attendants, who seem to worship them, at least casually. But stone caesars mean nothing to them, because they don’t change their expressions. Children won’t buy these politics: you have to train abstract respect and submission into them.

So the four-year-old tugged at me, urging me from one vast, high-ceilinged, rather empty room to the next; and I enjoyed the tour, taking in not the statuary (though I did glance at it, and admired a portrait-sculpture of a rare matron amongst all these men) but the physical qualities of the rooms — their proportions, their shapes, their light and shadow, even their subtle aromas of stone, plaster, occasional fugitive scents.

And, of course, their acoustics: four-year-olds delight in the sounds of voices, and delight in contributing their own. In fact I think she shared my delight in each of these aspects of the rooms, and enjoyed my own enjoyment. Old men have much in common with four-year-olds, who are quick to recognize this — we have a common opposition (though a gentle one) to the generations in between. Our purpose is pleasure; their pleasure is purpose.

(And yet I think there is purpose in our pleasure. Awareness of space — of proportion of ceiling-height to floor area, of the fall of light through window and doorway, of the timing of echoes and the directionality of sound — is imperative to survival skills in, say, crossing the via S. T. d. Sc. This is probably why a delight in spatial games is instinctual in young animals.)

Of course there was the problem of the others. Not other museumgoers; there were few of them — the yellow baseball caps had moved on, immersed in their training in cultural politics no doubt. And certainly not the occasional museum guard, who looked up from his newspaper or telefonino or meditation with a quick recognition of the presence of a child, triggering the immediate Italian response of a smile, a beaming awareness of innocence and enthusiasm, qualities long since exchanged for a stable position within the social context.

No: it was my own family I was thinking about: my granddaughter, her husband, my wife, all dispersed in various galleries, looking I imagined more assiduously for one another than at these presences. Four-year-old seemed entranced with staircases, tugging me up one, down another; I thought with a little concern of my contessa’s gimpy ginocchio, for she’d hurt her knee the other day and was having trouble with all this walking and stair-climbing.

When her father hove into view I had the idea of suggesting she hide from him, and she immediately found a niche behind newel-post and balustrade where she stood motionless for quite a long time. She’d learned after all from this statuary. From then on, for quite a while, she was no trouble at all: as we moved from one room of Pompeiian frescos to the next she preceded us, finding a hiding place in a corner or behind the rare bench, in some cases even hiding in plain sight by sitting motionless.

Still, these frescos, not to mention their bilingual explanatory labels, require time and attention, and our guide was after all impatient and, let’s face it, a greater responsibility. And her family had an agenda: having just finished the flight from New York to Naples, they had their train to catch to the bus that would take them to the night’s lodging. I cast another regretful glance at a particularly interesting painting, of a king arrested in shock at seeing the one-sandalled hero who would be his overthrowing; and we walked back through the rooms filled with Caesars, and out into the bright day; and down to the Metro station, where we sent these four youngsters on their way.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

A month in Italy: arrival in Naples

IMG 9701
Corso Vittorio Emanuele, May 7, 2015—
A month in Italy 1: Arrival in Naples IT WAS A LONG flight, and tiring. Nearly eighty, we don’t do this as easily as we once did. Older, slower, and stupider: let me begin by cataloguing the mistakes:

First, we got the departure time of our bus to the San Francisco airport wrong by fifteen minutes, and arrived at the terminal to watch the bus depart. Thankfully our neighbor down the hill is a good sport. She immediately followed the bus onto the highway, drove past its next stop to give us time to get ahead of it, and set us down the next stop down the road — an extra 25 or 30 miles for her, and an extra forty minutes, but a game-saver for us.

Then, when we finally boarded our plane, we took the wrong seats, as a very polite German fellow pointed out. We should have taken the row ahead. Oh well, I suggested, we’re already settled; wouldn’t you like simply to exchange seats? But no, they would not; it was a question of the names attached to the seats. Well, I suggested, we could exchange names as well. Mine is Charles; what is yours? Florian, the fellow said, a bit confused. A nice name, I responded; I can imagine you mightn’t want to exchange. So up and moved, and resettled everything.

The flight was long and straightforward. Lufthansa’s Airbuses have good in-flight entertainment, but I chose only a Mozart album to listen to before dinner. What a performance! I’ve since downloaded it to hear it again: the young Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang playing the first and fifth concerti and, with the Ukrainian violist Maxim Rysanovk, the Sinfonia Concertante. I have rarely been so moved — perhaps the surroundings contributed, but a second and third hearing confirm what I felt in the airplane: delicacy, restraint, pacing, intonation, everything was just what you’d want. Silences and thoughtfulness in the slow movement; short notes throughout; very little vibrato. Marvelous.

Arrived in the unfriendly architecture of the unfortunately named MUC, the Munich airport, we found our way through mazes partitioned with glass walls sometimes functioning as mirrors, at other times revealing equally frustrated and confused travelers in the hall we need to be in but cannot reach for lack of doorways. Passport control. Yet another security check, and this time I cannot untie my iPhone case from my beltloop. If I only had my pocketknife, I point out to the security guy, I could cut it; but of course you will not let me carry my pocketknife, so I can’t. With good Bavarian humor he chuckled and bent to untie the knot, while I stood old, slow, and stupid, like an aging horse being unharnessed for perhaps the final time.

On the airplane finally we again of course sat in the wrong row. This time names and such no longer seemed to matter: we were with Italians, not Germans; and not only Italians, but southern Italians, and good humor and resignation prevailed. As did the generous Lufthansa alcohol policy: free and repeated.

Then there was the taxi situation in Naples. Our plane landed on time, but our checked bags were the last off the airplane, and by the time we got outside there was a long line at the taxi rank. Cabs came and went with remarkable efficiency at first, but as we drew nearer the head of the line there were fewer taxis. One tried to cut into the line by driving wrong way through the gate, and a delicious Neapolitan argument broke out. The Italian word is imbroglio, and it is often useful.

We’d been warned not to ride with a driver who forgets there is a standard fare to our quarter, Chiaia: twenty-three euros. Doesn’t apply with this consideration and another, our driver said in loud and quick Italian, mentioning baggage, distances, the time of night (it was nearly midnight), and other matters far too complex for my flagging interest. Thirty-five euros, he said, not twenty-three; it’s thirty-five euros now to Chiaia.

Can’t be, I said pointedly, it’s twenty-three. No, he said: thirty-five. Well, thirty. I countered with twenty-five, and we settled at twenty-eight. In the end, of course, I gave him a twenty and two fives, and got no change. But what can you do? I asked his name: Rosario.

WE LIKE OUR APARTMENT. We chose it for its location: not in the historical center, but close enough by public transportation, or, when we’re up to it, a twenty-minute walk. Sticking our head out the bedroom window reveals a fine view of Vesuvius across the bay, as you see above. It’s quiet, except for an occasional barking dog or a worker hammering at a stucco wall. I’ve found, on many Italian sojourns, that stucco walls seem to need a considerable amount of percussive adjustment. But here in Naples, so far at least, this work seems sporadic, even laconic, and I think they’ve already forgotten about the whole thing.

We have a fine big sitting room serving also as our dining room; a fine big bedroom with its closet, and between them a fully equipped kitchen and a small but perfectly suitable bathroom: all this at the price of a cheap hotel downtown. The two large rooms are roughly cubical, ten feet or so on a side; and they are light and airy, though there are windows only on one wall, facing south.

The apartment is carved out of one side of the second of perhaps five floors in the building, which is one of a number of early 20th-century palazzi on a private driveway, whose gate to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele is watched by a watchman, what else, in his little office. We’re high above the street — uncharacteristically, I forgot to count the steps when I walked down to the street this morning. A couple of hundred, I imagine. Fortunately there are elevators: one through the six storeys of the building in front of us, another in our own building.

A hundred steps or so from our cancello, the gate onto Corso Vittorio Emanuele, you come to one of the Naples funiculars which, for a euro, takes you up to the top of our hill — the oddly named Vomero (the word probably derives from the Italian word for “ploughshare”) — or down to the bottom taking you to the Piazza Amadeo. That’s about all I can tell you now; we spent most of the day settling it and sleeping. Well, eating, too, of course; and I’ve already posted the day’s meals to the other blog. The pizza was really quite delicious, and we managed a nice little supper back home. But it’s been a long day, and that’s it for now…

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Library matters

IMG_9147.jpg
Eastside Road, April 27, 2015—
I returned yesterday from a five-day trip to Oregon, there on a sad assignment: assessing the library of my friend Bhishma Xenotechnites, also known as Douglas Leedy, who died just over a month ago.

A composer, performer, scholar, writer, traveler, and in his last years recluse, Bhishma lived in a pleasant two-bedroom house in the college town Corvallis, to whose Oregon State University he intended his books to be given. I thought it important to have at least a catalog of his collection before it is distributed, and if possible some kind of inventory of its marginalia, because, as I say, Bhishma was among other things a scholar: his reading was extensive, intensive, and careful; and many of his books, I thought, would contain evidence of both the range of his interests and the development, perhaps, of the major themes preoccupying his fine creative mind. I was not prepared for the extent of the assignment: two weeks would hardly have sufficed.

In the meantime, another volunteer, younger, more diligent, and better trained than I, was going through the papers, separating and sorting correspondence, manuscripts, fair copies of completed work, and beginning what promises to be a considerable but clearly organized catalogue of the literary bequest. For that catalogue I prepared the following



Note on Leedy's Library


Leedy was a dedicated but careful reader with a relatively small library, whose books were generally shelved in rooms in which they were used. The largest number were displayed in the large sitting-room bookcase, five vertical arrays of eight shelves each, two by eight feet: Here were many books of Greek and Latin writers — more of the former — in the Loeb editions as well as others; here too were many books and sections of books he had photocopied, folded and stapled for his own purposes.

Here too is a small but imposing collection of facsimile editions; some of music; others of texts. Reference books include two editions of Grove's Dictionary, the compact edition of the OED, and a number of foreign-language dictionaries.

There are perhaps four feet of musical scores in this room, which had also housed his harpsichord; and a few biographies of composers, Will and Ariel Durant's eleven-volume world history, and some miscellaneous literary works, including six volumes of the Library of America (Thoreau, three volumes of Melville, one each of Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein).

The kitchen contained four two-foot shelves of cookbooks, many of them devoted to Indian cuisine, many others to baking; and another shelf divided between books on gardening and on home maintenance.

In the study were a number of scores, in particular many of choral music, as well as ten or twelve feet of books on various subjects — architecture, mathematics, history, medicine, philosophy, popular philosophy. In the bedroom, perhaps thirty books, apparently mostly recently acquired, on a variety of subjects, many having to do with classical antiquity; and three shelves of videotapes and DVDs, again on a variety of themes, again many related to the Hellenic world.

Many of these books are annotated. There are three usual kinds of annotation, nearly always in very faint pencil, in a very small hand, resisting reproduction. Often there is a kind of index of page numbers on issues of interest, pencilled onto a flyleaf. At other times marginalia are written directly into the book's pages; and often these express either disagreement with or an amplification of a statement the author has made.

At other times, though, slips are inserted between the pages, with more extended comments, or memos to himself. In rare cases such slips bear notes having nothing to do with the book: perhaps his reading was interrupted, he made a quick note and used it as a bookmark. In a number of cases pages are apparently saved with such slips, or with blank bookmarks, or by tucking the flap of the dust-jacket between pages. One can't always be sure the reading was interrupted at those points. A blank slip or bookmark seems often to have been placed in a newly acquired book, presumably against the time it would be wanted. Pages of particular significance to the reader were generally noted in pencil on a flyleaf.

Until some time in the last few years it had been Leedy's habit to inscribe hi name on the cover, inside the front cover, or on a flyleaf. Over the years the form changed from "douglas leedy" to "d.leedy", sometimes with a date but usually not. (Capital letters never appeared in these inscriptions.) Books acquired on travels frequently bear the place of purchase: Bergen; Warsaw; Madras.

Leedy read in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Polish, Latin, and (ancient) Greek, but except for facsimile editions and books by Latin and (especially) Greek-writing authors, very nearly all the books are in English. In recent years many seem to have been bought as remainders. It is surprising that the majority of the books appear not to have been read: bindings are tight; dust jackets when present unchipped and bright -- yet in many cases faint pencil annotations appear throughout.


coffeetable.jpgLet me suggest the nature of his interests by noting the contents of the coffee table by his sofa, where I believe he did a fair amount of his reading when not at the worktable in his office. The coffee table was left apparently as it was on March 13 when he left his home for he last time:

Two blank notepads.

Manual for a Scenario scientific calculator.

Georger Brookshaw: Pomona Britannica, the complete plates. Taschen. 

Aeeschylus: The Oresteia.  tr. Robert Fagles. At p 144, slip with note: "Scarcely reflects [[[illeg] in 30 yrs / DIVIDINES ?SPRING"

Simon Blackburn: Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2005. bookmark at p. 40.

ed. Tamara Levitz: Stravinsky and his world. Princeton. bookmark at p. 142.

Howard Zinn: A People's History of the United States 1492-Present. Revised and updated ed. 1995. At p. 200, note on slip: "symphonycast.org / Org. / b'cast 21 Apr / Carnegie Dec 1/2 concert / Chavez/Orbón/Revueltas / [horiz. line] [upside-down:] 789 June"

R.K. Narayan: Under the Banyan Tree & Other Stories. Viking. Flap tucked in at p. 82.

Namita Devidayal: The Music Room: a memoir. St. Martin's Press. Flap tucked in at ch. 2.

Arthur A. Macdonell: A Vedic Reader for Students. Madras: Oxford U.P., 1972. note on flyleaf: "meter xvii". bookmark 98/9. swn p. 164: "Vedic Meters in Macdonell" [hor. line] [list of 6 entries with page numbers]"; also, on nine of ten staves on scrap of paper, "TWO VERSIONS OF USHA (Macdonell USAS, p. 93-9) / started ca. 1987-8   8/2009 

Cassell's New Latin Dictionary. Funk & Wagnalls, 1959. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Letters in Gold: Ottoman calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci collection, Istanbul. 1998.

La Libia Antigua: Ciudades perdidas del Imperio Romano. Photographs by Robert Polidori; text by Antonino DeVita, Ginette DeVita-Evrard, Lidiano Bacchielli.  Paris: Editions Mengès, 1998.

A green pencil; a red crayon-pencil; a glue stick; a fingernail scissors; a tuning fork; a plastic soprano recorder; a tin whistle; a thumb-piano; a round lens on a handle; a small black plastic Grundig radio (YB-305) with case; a transparent plastic 12-inch ruler (also metric); a Scenario calculator (Model SC-110); the remote control for the Heat-N-Glo automatic gas fireplace; a rubber band; three braided-straw coasters.


And, on the floor at the coffee table:

Michael Grant: Atlas of Classical History. NY: OXford UP, 1994.  No marginalia, but Index of proper names considerably annotated, corrected, and expanded. At p. 22/3, slip: "HUDOR / OL 685-91 / [in list form:] Cities Thebes Athens Corinth Mytilene Sardis Susa Acroyas Syracuse Taras Cyrenee Jerusalem Miletus Crete

Atlas of Oregon. Univ Oregon Pr, 1976


Finally, for the moment, I note the few items on a very short shelf intended for horizontal books, apparently used as a through-the-door depository, and containing items he had with him at the end:

Sibelius: Symphony no. 6. W Hansen. Score. Inscribed on cover, "dleedy"

flyleaf.jpgGildersleeve and Lodge: Latin Grammar. Macmillan. At p. 52/3, on "Peace" postcard, note: “QVID AVTEM ALIVD IN NOSTRIS LEGIONIBVS CORNVA AC TVBÆ FACIVNT? QVORUVM CONCENTVS QVANTO EST VEHEMENTIOR, TANTVM ROMANA IN BELLIS GLORIA CETERIS PRÆSTAT. / Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 1.10.14 / And what else is the function of the horns and trumpets in our legions? The more assertive their sound, the more does Roman military glory dominate the world. / tr. D.A. Fussell, Loeb edition”.

Атлас Мира [World Atlas]. Inscribed inside front cover: "dhleedy / Warszawa V/66 / Miedzynasodowy Targ / Ksiaiek"

Pindar: Nemean Odes; Isthmian Odes; Fragments (Loeb). Notes on flyleaf: NB / ext. music ref N.9.1-10 / youths’ voices N.3.65-6 / immortality in song N.6.28-38 / also 53-4 / N.7 12-3 / N.9 48-0 + / bad singing N.7.71 / (!) χρὔςόν Ν.7.78 / wer fr 110 p342 .

Stravinsky: Apollon Musagète. Revised 1947 edition. Score: Boosey & Hawkes. Inscribed on cover: "doug leedy 1960".

Coqt, Jean: Skagen.

Coqt, Jean: Tarifa.

Mary Renault: The Praise Singer.

Douglas Leedy: A Venerable temperament rediscovered. Perspectives of New Music, 29/2 (reprint)