Impressions of Italy, Because I Miss It, a la Renata Adler

In my five-day “intensive Italian course” in Milan, we learned the difference between a “trattoria” — an inexpensive, family-run restaurant — and “osteria” — traditionally, where men would bring in their own food and drink the house wine, a privilege for which they paid a small fee, hence the origin of the ubiquitous “cover charge” now found throughout Italy, which today includes bread and filtered water.

The teacher, an energetic woman in her early thirties, responded this way when one student asked her what she thought about pineapple-topped pizza, which she had purportedly eaten the night before:

“Va bene, va bene, oh poor Italia. I think” — this is my translation — “that pineapple on pizza, it cannot be. No, this is not pizza. You ate that, here in Milan? Oh, it cannot be. I think that’s the end — poor Italia.”

Two nights later, a friend asked me to come with her to her new favorite local pizza place. From our table, we watched the pizzaiolo swirling dough in the air before topping it and giving it fire in the neapolitano oven. We wound up ordering a pizza with black olives, nduja, and provolone. What would my Italian teacher think? I wondered, feeling guilty as I ate a slice.

I went to the Fondazione Prada, mostly just to have the famous pink cake at Bar Luce. Then I decided to tour the museum. Every time I tried to go in one direction, someone stopped me and told me I was in the “special exhibits” section.

The “permanent” section was in a tall building, and I walked up many, many flights of stairs, only to find myself staring a collection of brightly-colored stainless steel shapes: the bouquet of tulips, a larger and more recent version of which Jeff Koons made as a commission for the city of Paris. The mayor rejected it upon the revelation that he was only “gifting the idea” of the sculpture and expected Paris to pay 3.5 million Euro for its installation. I huffed and puffed, exhausted from the heat and the labyrinthine museum, and wondered if I was the only person who felt that Wes Anderson’s cake was more interesting than the artwork.

At the apartment where I was staying, the floor of the building consisted of a mosaic of multi-colored tiles. The Italians, I thought — every day they walk on art.

*

 

Turin was the capital of Savoy, from 1563 until the risorgimiento, and then it became the first capital of Italy. My friend Gaba and I danced through the 16th-century Palazzo, craning our necks at the domed ceiling, pretending our shoes were good enough for those aristocratic floors. We left the building parched, and immediately ate gelatos, after which we felt much butter.

Late at night, we stood in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele, and read the late king’s Wikipedia entry. We shuddered at the way his reign handed itself over to fascism, imagining that moment like a dark cloud that hung over Italy for decades. Gaba and I had both recently finished Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels, and we recalled the scenes in which undercover fascist thugs cause communist gatherings to turn violent.

We often remarked over our 10-Euro aperitivo meals (artichoke crostini, horse tartare that only Gaba was brave enough to pick at, a spritz for me and a Negroni for her) that we were uncannily like the novels’ protagonists, Elena and Lila. But their friendship ended in silent, painful mistrust. Only novels, we reminded ourselves.

 

*

 

From our hotel in Castello we walked, pausing quickly at the little bakery for a frothy cappuccino, to the vaporetto stop. The boat came quickly and we boarded, crossing our fingers we had the direction correct. Twenty minutes later, we arrived to Lido. We headed toward the beach along a street full of restaurants and bars. I pointed at some neon-colored, frozen drinks being served out of a machine.

We asked for one of each color, with rum added. They were strong as hell, so we bought ourselves some tramenzzini, and the little crustless sandwiches filled our bellies just enough. At the beach, we paid 20 Euro for chairs under an umbrella, and then raced over the sand, which was scalding. We had to stop once in the shade of someone else’s umbrella just to generate more strength to run again through the hot sand.

We left the beach in the late afternoon to find a small lunch shack, where we ordered melon-and-proscuitto salad and piadinas. The abandoned Hotel des Bains, once luxurious beach-side lodging, now a vacant shell of previous times, owned by some distant Saudis, beckoned us to sneak over the fence and inside — but our sunburns had exhausted us.

We gazed through the gates at the hotel, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, and which inspired his novel Death In Venice. Would it still be here, the next time we returned to Lido, we wondered — or will it be torn down, replaced by something shiny and new?

There is a Burger King now, in Venice. People eat their American fast food hamburgers while walking in sneakers over streets that are over a thousand years old.

 

*

 

Mostly, when I feel this strange sensation that I deeply miss Italy, a place I have only traveled and rather briefly, it comes to me as a smear of all these moments, brushed together into a blurry combined memory, like Renata Adler’s Speedboat, like a gelato with too many flavors. You have to lick it up before it melts.

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What Does It Mean To Be A “Critic” In Wine And Food Writing?

the store Uncommon Objects, in Austin, TX

Most of the time, writing on this blog is like dancing alone in my living room; nobody sees me except, perhaps, a few dozen onlookers clustered in the apartment across the way, who casually glance over as I flail around clumsily, to some tune they can’t hear, or the proverbial beat of my own drum.

In other words, I write here for the small group of readers (for whom I’m extremely grateful) that are interested in my voice, my writing. I am not, by any means, the most authoritative perspective on wine and food in the world; my writing here is often diluted, or hastily composed due to the fact that I am far overworked, and it’s also probably a bit snarky from time to time, which might be derived from my overall neurotic composure thanks to almost nine years of living in New York City. This blog was never really meant to be a blog; I always saw myself as a journalist, and used this site as a portfolio for prospective editors. When an audience came, I was glad, but it wasn’t something I’d fished for, and I also wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Which is all to say: it’s very startling to, suddenly, have large numbers of people watching me dance. All my awkward moves are revealed, my lack of formal training and my imperfect sense of rhythm. An artist would have to navigate such an impromptu performance with only the highest level of confidence, or she would fail immediately; weakness would take over, she would be booed offstage.

When I wrote a response to Bianca Bosker’s piece last week, I was very emotionally moved, as if her article had somehow been affront to me personally. That said, my response wasn’t entirely impulsive; first, I let a few days go by after her article came out, and I read what other people had written and asked myself if I really wanted to chime in, as people were already posting rebuttals. But then what I wrote came out so quickly, and it just felt right. It was like those moments on the dance floor when you’re just in the flow and your body knows what direction to move in, you don’t need to guide it. 

It may have been impassioned in a good way, and people do seem to have appreciated my take on the Times article (and I do stand by what I said–I really, really do love natural wine and it’s important to me that people are at least aware of its presence, if they are in the slightest bit interested in such things) but I don’t feel like I gave the most elegant performance. I feel there could have been a slightly more . . . rehearsed way of doing it, perhaps?

Sweeping aside the dance analogy for now (although I’m having fun with it), I want to reflect on the role of criticism within wine and food writing. Typically, the idea is that we, the writers, are all out here critiquing the producers and the makers, the winemakers and the chefs, the restaurants, and so on. Criticism, in this vein, is sort of the highest form of service journalism; we’re directing people who already have some level of good taste (because they are reading food or wine writing in the first place) to the experiences and things they will probably appreciate. The same goes for art, music, film criticism.

But what about criticism amongst us writers? How best can we approach this?

Tonight, triggered unsuspectingly by a photo (above) that I took in a shop in Austin, Texas, where I was visiting for an assignment last week, I went rummaging through my old college and grad school books. God, it’s been a long time since I read some of this stuff. After poring through a few sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Baudrillard’s America, I found my dog-eared copy of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, a canonical study of Marx by the late Marshall Berman, who taught at CUNY. As if by magic, I opened to a page where I had underlined this quote:

“Criticism, as [Marx] understood it, was part of an ongoing dialectical process. It was meant to be dynamic, to drive and inspire the person criticized to overcome both his critics and himself, to propel both parties toward a new synthesis. Thus, to unmask phony claims of transcendence is to demand and fight for real transcendence.”

I read this, and it sank in: my response to Bianca felt wrong because I hadn’t proposed any kind of synthesis. Instead, I’d been defensive and polarizing.

When Bianca’s article came out, a lot of people brought it into the current political context by calling out, “fake news!” And then the other day, someone commented on a blog post about my writing (ugh, yes, we’re all blogging about each other’s blog posts now), again: “fake news”–!! We’re pointing fingers at each other, rather than looking for transcendence. We’re of the misguided belief that to critique means to be “against” someone; and that the only other choice is to “like” someone (literally, to give them likes on Instagram, etc, to be a follower/supporter). In other words, we think we either have to be nice, on someone’s “team,” or we are against. I don’t want that, and I don’t think it’s productive if we as a group of writers, focused on food and wine, or any group of writers, are to achieve anything with our efforts. I’m not really happy with the way it came out that you had, on one side, the “natural wine defenders,” and on the other side, supposedly, Bianca and all the supposed “natural wine haters.” This doesn’t seem like the right configuration, and it makes the phrase “natural wine” (which I use all the goddamn time, lacking a better signifier for the genre of wines I enjoy and want others to know about) seem even hollower than it already is. (Thank you, Blake, for pointing out this pointless dichotomy.)

Criticism, more so now than ever, should serve to make us better at what we do. It’s not about pinpointing “fake news” and scapegoating the author of such prose. Antonio Gramsci famously spoke of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” How can we better apply an effectively critical mindset when regarding other writers’ work?

I don’t know, quite yet. But I’m thinking about it. What I do know is, if my super left-wing grad school professor–who wore all black and knew Das Kapital the way some Master Somms know their vintage charts–knew that I was using Marx and Gramsci in this context, he would probably try to revoke my M.A. in anthropology. As long as I get my money back, I would be totally OK with that. Then again, I do still appreciate these books.

Writing About Women In Wine

Arianna Occhipinti, who I shared some pizza and Cerasuolo with in Sicily this fall
Arianna Occhipinti, whom I shared some pizza and Cerasuolo with in Sicily this fall

Recently, PUNCH (one of my fave websites about booze) published a really thoughtful essay on how female winemakers are portrayed differently than their male counterparts. Specifically, the author is talking about so-called “rebel” winemakers, who are working independently (no corporate funding), and often making low-intervention, natural wines.

The author is pointing out that, when it comes to female winemakers of this ilk, instead of calling them rebels, the focus is on their community-building efforts, or “an intense focus on their own projects rather than an attempt to fit themselves into a larger, more epic narrative — a sense of being not so much anti-establishment as not-of-the-establishment.”

Two of my articles are linked in this piece; one, a round-up of natural wine restaurants across the country, which included bottle recommendations from their wine directors, is called out as an example of how rarely female winemakers are acknowledged — because only one of the wine directors chose a wine made by a woman. This, of course, has nothing to do with my writing, but I will just say that I don’t really think wine directors focus very much on the gender of the winemaker, as much as how the wine actually tastes, its price point, and so on. When you see an amazing film, you’re not more impressed by it if it was made by a woman, right?  Read more

Poem of Lines From My Diary, inspired by Sheila Heti

A clean slate.

Afterward, I met people at Jimmy’s, put on a good face, drowned out the sorrow.

Afterward we ate and then headed to Superfine in DUMBO.

All such a blur!

An eye for an eye.

And how long it took me to see that they are my demons, not the world’s.

And I don’t want to change that, it’s who I am.

And I think it really helped her.

Aren’t mine just silly anxieties, puffy clouds that dissipate when you touch them?

Blah, overall.

Boom, boom, boom.

But anyway, it’s only temporary.

But good food, great sex.

But I will miss him so much.

But it also felt like that supposed moment right before death, when your entire life flashes before your eyes.

But maybe that says more about me than about them.

But whatever.

Classic Gemini.

Completely and totally broken, for good.

Every moment now feels very full and I love that.

Everything is like a blur!

Everything is so intense right now.

Fiercely independent but also loyal.

Find something to do there?

Generosity is important, work toward this.

Give it up.

He drank three beers and ordered French fries; I had one beer and apple pie.

He hasn’t cooked for me in a long time.

He was so strong and reassuring and encouraging in a way I’ve never seen him be before.

Here’s one: me sitting in a café in Paris, dressed in a nice blouse, skirt, bare legs, wooden-soled sandals, lipstick.

Hungry, restless.

I am only now realizing what I have, what is here for me.

I am paralyzed without a laptop.

I can’t stop writing!

I feel uptight, tense.

I hope it’s not cheesy but it probably will be.

I leave for India on Sunday.

I liked it but not loved.

I loved it; was exhilarating!

I must be submitting myself to this in order to avoid tackling something in my life.

I’m almost too tired to write.

I’m doing everything, all at once, and it’s confusing.

I’m glad to be alive, I want it all.

I’m so fucking tired of being on schedule, all the time.

I can’t believe how I can go on loving him more and more, despite all his faults.

I can’t imagine running a marathon and losing my legs.

I feel sad.

I must learn to be a more relaxed person: softer, gentler.

I need a new setting, new places to explore, new things to learn.

I think I know, but maybe I don’t really know.

I think so.

I want to read more poetry.

I write by candlelight.

Instead of working on that, I’m sitting here complaining into this adorable leather-bound notebook like a spoiled little girl.

Intense week.

It comes naturally to me.

It makes me so happy.

It refreshed my desire to do journalism.

It was a very strange day for me.

It was strong and it will send me forward.

It went very well, felt natural.

It’s a scary thought, in some ways.

It’s posh, chic, beautiful.

It’s selfish and stupid and disgusting.

Kind of staring into space.

Let it go!

Life is full.

Listen to yourself, work hard, stop making excuses.

Love/hate him.

Many cocktails.

Maybe I should just let myself be wild.

My body feels open and good.

My consciousness is stimulated, active.

My house feels crowded, strange.

Nature is perfect.

Nice, but kinda boring, same old.

Noise bothers me.

Now, a new thought: am I bored, done with New York?

OH, feeling a little better.

Or am I stuck?

Or should I stop expecting because it is more realistic that they may never come?

People are strange obstacles.

Rose early to get to New Jersey for my great-aunt’s funeral.

Snowstorm on country roads after visiting the Norman Rockwell museum.

Someday that will be me.

Tension immediately.

That was an interesting, thankfully brief glimpse of the murky, networked, literary machine.

The bombs went off in a section of the race that had been dedicated to Newtown families.

The food was dismal but the gathering was worthwhile.

The important stuff has been said.

The moon is full tonight.

Then again maybe I should just dive in.

Then came home, made Passover dinner for twenty people!

There is agency, and divine will, too; they are not separate.

Then just before she made a move to get a divorce, he came at her with a baseball bat.

There was a sinking feeling, and jealousy.

There will be attitude change.

There will be dancing.

They are strong, brilliant women, teaching by example.

This country, everything drying up.

Today’s lesson was, don’t try to be in two places at once.

Typing furiously on my laptop with a glass of wine beside it.

Use less mind.

Very intense.

We are having a spell of very cold weather.

We need to make the most out of this experience.

We were laughing and yelling so much that the hostel owner had to tell us to go to bed.

Went for a long run after babysitting.

What do I hope to accomplish?

What will be said about me in the future?

What’s holding me back?

Where could I possibly fit in in the literary world?

Will be challenging and rewarding.

Will I cry, feel lonely?

Will I ever get myself out of this mess?

Work is going well.

Wrote a blog post.

You know how to do this.

Hello to All This

“In an era when rents are spiking, book advances shrinking and magazines shuttering, New York may no longer be a necessary destination for the young writer, she acknowledged. It may not even be a feasible one.” – NYT

*

Growing up, my theater arts teacher was my mentor. She was a beautiful, hardworking woman, a single mother and creative genius, and role model to us all. Her theater was a haven for those of us who didn’t fit in: the freaks, the homos, the artsy types. We found ourselves in her rehearsal space, in the scripts we wrote.

Although our teacher knew that she did so much for us, gave us a place to come out of our shell and use our talents, she resented her position in life as a mere public high school teacher. She always wished she’d tried harder, been more. She definitely had the talent. So what was it that she’d done wrong?

I remember so clearly: the look in her eyes when she talked about living in New York City, taking workshops with Uta Hagen and trying to get professional acting gigs. And when she said that she’d always regretted leaving New York City too early. That if she’d just stayed longer . . . who knew what her life might have become?

*

I could leave. Read more

All the Single, Scrappy, Ambitious Ladies…

437285_024Last night, I finally saw the movie of the summer, a black-and-white pic about an anti-heroic, sterotypically-unfeminine woman in her late twenties, living basically hand-to-mouth in New York City (but not abstaining from $14-packs of American Spirit) while pursuing her artistic dream, to be a professional modern dancer.

No, it’s not “GIRLS: The Movie,” although at first glance one is struck by the parallels between the world of Frances, the aforementioned protagonist, and Hannah Horvath of Lena Dunham’s “GIRLS”: both are frumpy but somehow quite homely, both are talented yet not sure how to achieve success, both are obsessively reliant on one or more female best friends for camraderie and security, and both seem relatively indifferent to normative ideas of middle-class American romance such as steady relationships or marriage and parenthood. Rather, these women more or less stumble through life, operating on a short-term basis instead of a five-year plan, and magically making a good impression on people despite their essential lack of social graces or nepotistic connections.

And yet, in “Frances Ha,” as opposed to in “GIRLS,” we have a character whose stoicism is remarkable: she is unemotional almost to the point where she seems stereotypically masculine rather than feminine; not once in the film does Frances weep, break down, or consult a therapist when the going gets really, really tough. Nor does she, as does Hannah Horvath, beg her parents for money–in fact, her pride prohibits her from admitting to them, or her best friend, when her career has hit the gutter and nothing seems to be going right in life, at all. And very unlike Hannah, Frances does not once grab the nearest decent-looking man and drag him into bed (perhaps because, at points in the film, she doesn’t actually have a place to live). In other words, Frances is slightly more grown-up, stronger, more adept than Hannah.

But these differences are rather slight; what is important is the similar territory they cover–young women from undistinguished backgrounds and of imperfect character, trying to make it as artists in the big city–and the novelty of this subject matter appearing in mainstream cultural production. And I would piggy-back on recent writing by Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker‘s television critic, which points out the huge impact made by the HBO series “Sex and the City,” by saying that that show opened up space for this new, incredibly important genre of young women who unapologetically pursue their individual visions of a successful life, whatever that may be and by whatever means. Throughout “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw wrestles with changing career goals and romantic needs in a way that no previous female character had. In fact, the only work coming to mind that, prior to “SATC” addressed these issues is “Annie Hall,” in which Diane Keaton is a woman motivated by writing and effectively unconvinced of the need to devote herself to a male partner, to Woody Allen’s character’s dismay. (As a side note, my film-viewing partner and I last night both noticed Allen’s influence in Noah Baumbach’s directing style, with approval.) But “Annie Hall” depicts this kind of femininity ultimately from a male perspective, whereas now we have women writing (the actress who played Frances co-wrote the film), directing, and producing these shows and movies.

It’s infinitely invaluable to young women to have these cultural products, whether or not we find them to be “accurate” representations of our lives (notably, the criticisms abound that the women portrayed in these instances are white and middle-class or upper-middle-class, or living in “privileged poverty”). They are fodder for self-analysis and critical discussion, as I have written before about “GIRLS.” And they also prod us, as writer Kate Mooney has done excellently for Brokelyn, to examine the numerous success stories that come out of this post-third-wave-feminist ethos of pursuing art and career goals at any cost. In Frances, Hannah, and Carrie, we see the challenges and mistakes that appear in our own personal and professional lives, and we can’t help but use these reflections to become stronger, better versions of ourselves–and we become writers of our own series, crafting our imperfect yet admirable selves into the protagonists we really want to be.

A Divine Hug

SAM_2730
Amma’s main ashram, in Kerala

Amma is big; She is, literally, larger than life. She is the Mother Goddess, the Universe, a Living Embodiment of Grace in a human (and female) form. Enlightenment did not happen to Amma–She was born completely aware of the Divine Self, which at first caused her family and community to ostracize her, regarding her as crazy. But if you know the law of karma, there is only one reason why anyone would be born enlightened. Only souls with latent desires (and built-up karma) are re-born, according to Hindu cosmology; so, Amma was born as an incarnation of God, put on earth to spread the Divine Light.

She does this through hugs. Amma tours around the world, cared for by a group of devotees, giving hugs to all Her children. In this dark age of Kali Yurga, She says, what we need most is human touch and unconditional love–and selflessness.

Seva, selfless work for others, is an immensely important part of life at Amma’s main ashram, in Amritapuri, Kerala. All international visitors are required to do two hours of seva daily;this may involve sweeping and mopping the stage where Amma gives “darshan” (blessings/teachings/hugs), or sorting compost and trash for recycling, or washing dishes in the kitchen. Seva, Amma says, is “the soap that truly purifies”; it helps us to forget ourselves and our petty desires when we work for no reward other than service to humanity.

And Amma is the Ultimate Example of this selflessness–because She literally imageshas no self as normal people do. She cares only for her Divine Children and helping them to reduce the suffering in their lives. On Darshan days at Amritapuri, Amma is onstage offering hugs from 11am to midnight or later, with perhaps one short break to use a bathroom, sip coffee, or take diabetes medicine. A live band plays spiritual music to keep her and everybody going. Assistants are constantly at Amma’s side onstage; like a well-oiled machine, they operate as an assembly line, moving bodies along the queue, rolling bundles of chocolate and package of ash into “prasad” (blessing) packages and taking turns placing them (“quickly but gently”) into Amma’s hand for her to give away during each darshan. They also take the bowls of fruit and nuts, or flower wreaths that people bestow upon Amma and store them away in bags, and make sure that people coming for darshan have clean faces and know the rules (no leaning on Amma or grabbing at her) and are modestly dressed.

Amma is big and her following is big; she may be the most famous living Indian saint. But her bigness can create difficulties. The ashram at Amritapuri can at times feel like a circus where all the performers are competing for Amma’s attention. Everybody wants to be close to her, to receive her grace. And Amma’s worldwide fame has led to a kind of peaceful, voluntary apartheid at the ashram. Never before or in any other place have I heard so many times in one place the word “Western”–if you’re “Western,” go here, do this, eat that, etc. There are separate dining options for Indians and Westerns (the one free food option is mediocre Indian ashram food like rice and sauce, whereas the other options include fairly cheap “Western” and “Indian” canteens and a “Western cafe” that serves sandwiches, pizzas, etc). A result of this system is that, if one is a “Westerner,” it is possible to mix very little with people from India; another result is that Westerners here are fairly happy because they can enjoy familiar, tasty, healthy food as well as cappuccinos and filter coffee. So, it works, though it divides (Westerners of Indian-origin usually get to play both roles, it seems).

Darshan, too, is not given equally; the Indians get their hugs first (they usually come in for the day or a very brief stay, whereas Westerners stay longer) and often stay onstage with Amma for several minutes, talking in Malayalam, while Westerns are quickly shuffled through their meeting and hug.

The ashram emphasizes simplicity and purity; devotees wear clean, white, body-covering clothes that neutralize class or sociological differences and prevent lustful feelings. People greet each other with “Om nama shivaya,” which also serves as “excuse me” and “thank you” and is often said quickly – “m’nama shivaya.” People stay in the most basic accommodations – three people share a dormitory with one unsightly bathroom, sleeping on mattresses on the floor with plastic pillows–but no one cares, because it’s all about being with Amma, doing seva in Her community, and absorbing as much of Her Divine Grace as possible. The goal is to become, over time, a little more like Amma–less selfish, more unconditionally loving, more generous (Amma runs various orphanages and schools around the world, and provides refuge to the poor and prosecuted from everywhere at her ashrams on a case-by-case basis), a guiding Light and Mother to all, a model of divinity that transcends cultures, nations, individual beliefs, and all the divisive human categories that obfuscate the Pure Consciousness of which we are made.

After five days at Amma’s ashram, I feel changed. Her Presence creates a challenging atmosphere that calls upon people to act as our highest selves, with compassion for ourselves and others, keeping emotions in check, letting go of the ego. The crowded state of the ashram requires constant patience and tolerance. Everybody wants to sit close to Amma and have a good view of Her during satsangs, and many have traveled far or put in a lot of time at the ashram for this opportunity, or known her for many years. In some moments there seems to be a sense of entitlement or an air of competition because of these factors. But Amma’s Love is for all beings, because She sees us all equally as Her children. When we fight for Her, we are contradicting Her teachings.  She wants us to understand that Her Light is not limited or proprietary; it is boundless and inclusive, available to all, at once unknowable and already known within each of us.