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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A Travel Book For Unconventional Travelers

This week, instead of offering the usual wine and book reviews, I’m letting you know about my latest self-publishing project: Nomad, a short illustrated book about the ups and downs of living on the road, without a fixed home, as I’ve been doing for just about one year now. 

When I left New York, having given up my apartment, packed up my books, and shoved some clothes and my laptop into two suitcases, I knew I needed a change of scenery, badly. What I also found was that I was heading into a time of self-change. I learned to be more adaptable, less attached to material things, kinder and more empathetic toward others — all in very concrete situations. Most of these situations are things we do encounter in regular, daily life, but I found that they were more heightened while living as a modern nomad.

I felt the need to share these lessons by committing them to the page, and to do so with illustrations as well as a mixture of storytelling, advice, and even provocation. I’m guessing many of you dream of giving up your job or life and traveling for a year or moving to a new city, perhaps abroad. Or maybe you know someone like this, who needs a fresh start.

Moving or starting a journey without a concrete plan are difficult things to do, but sometimes they are the necessary path toward creative fulfillment or renewed happiness. Nomad is a book to support and encourage these dreams, and coax them into reality. I’ve made a Kickstarter (link here) which features a video of myself explaining the project in further detail.

I hope you can take a moment to check out the Kickstarter, and I look forward to sharing the book with you in just a few months!

If all goes to plan (i.e. my nonstop hustling results fruitful), I’ll have Nomad on sale in independent bookstores around the world — and I plan to donate 10 percent of those sales to the International Rescue Committee, an established non-profit organization that works globally to support displaced communities, help out in humanitarian crises, and engage in policy work — because not everyone chooses to be a nomad.

Back to your #apérohourweekly with the next edition of this blog!

xRachel

Spritzes, Birthdays, Knowing Thyself

This week, I turned one year older. (I’m not going to hide my age from you: 34.)

On my birthday, I was staying in a little house outside Rome, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards growing the red grape Cesanese. My boyfriend and I took a walk in the nearby town, which seemed straight out of an old Sophia Loren film, and where we shopped for veggies and cheeses and a cut of steak to cook for dinner, and then had spritzes in the piazza; after, we went back to the house we were staying in, to drink more spritzes and watch the sunset.

Often, people comment on my social media or in e-mails that my travels “look amazing” or that I’m really “living the dream.” I never quite know what to say in response. Should I deny that Italy is beautiful and I just had some spaghetti alla carbonara to die for at a little neighborhood trattoria in central Rome, or that spring wildflowers have surrounded us everywhere we’ve gone for the past few weeks, and that I spent an entire afternoon observing people and sketching in one of Copenhagen’s new coffee shops Andersen & Maillard because the energy in that space was just so nice? Should I not admit that I’m incredibly excited to return to Australia and taste the wine I made a few months back, and consider when it will be ready for bottling?

Or, should I reply mentioning how much my stomach hurts from the lack of exercise and stress of traveling, that it’s really hard to run a small indie magazine while living on the go, that my entire family had a gathering with all my nieces and nephews there and I kind of wish I’d magically teleported over to give them all hugs, or that on certain days, I would trade this transient existence for whatever their full time jobs are?

Well, this has gotten heavy, quick! This post started out as a way of introducing myself to many of you who have, for whatever reason, started following me in recent weeks. Whomever you are — whether you’re a seasoned magazine editor, a mother of five who enjoys reading, a winemaker, a friend of a friend who followed out of curiosity — I welcome you here very much, because without you I’d be writing into the void.

But I hope you’re not here hoping that I’ll only blog about wine! I do like to write about wine, of course, but sometimes I wish I could be a sort of superhuman Renaissance Woman, writing about wine, literature, modern art, and even politics with expertise and flair. I feel like the world we live in wants us to market one side of ourselves to the world, rather than confessing our multi-faceted natures. Some people manage to escape this monotony, I think — either they jump swiftly and surely from one project to the next, or they gracefully merge their interests into one place. For the latter, I’d note the newsletter from the California wine delivery service “Pour This.” Not being a California resident, I cannot order any of the wines, but I absolutely love the way the company’s founder Ashley Ragovin weaves personal stories and cultural topics into her wine updates. It was an obvious “yes” when she approached me wanting to write for Terre, and if you haven’t yet cracked open your copy of Issue 2, do it now and go straight to Ashley’s story about getting to know Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti. I love that I can work with such talented and unconventional writers!

But I’m meandering severely. What I wish I could somehow know, is who all of you out there are! Some of my readers, I’ve met and know well. There’s the natural wine fanatic in New York (hello, Andrew, glad you enjoyed Greece!). There’s my mom — and my mom’s lovely ex-boyfriend. There’s the aforementioned editor of an established magazine (you still out there?). Writerly types, I assume, are on the roster. Give me a shout on email sometime, or wherever really, if you feel like it. Let me know if you liked a recent post, if it made you laugh or prompted a question.

Et moi? Well, you already know my age. You may also know that I’m originally from the U.S. but left a year ago, two suitcases in hand, to let the wind carry me. You possibly know that I love wine, only natural wine, made from grapes with no preservatives added. I’m a long-term yoga practitioner, I love modern art, I have seven (or is it eight now?) tattoos. Currently, I am writing this in a hotel room outside Rome, wearing a towel and sitting on the floor. I’m staying up all night because we have an early morning flight and I can’t sleep when I know I have to be at the airport in three hours. I’d rather write.

I’ll have more to say soon, when I’m back in Australia, and I’ve processed the past few weeks. It’s honestly been an incredibly inspiring trip. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my own relationship to natural wine, and I’ve also — sort of unexpectedly — learned a bit about spring pruning, since that’s what people have been busy with in the vineyards we’ve visited. (That’s the vineyard of Le Coste in Italy, up there — one of my favorite natural wine producers.) Vines are really amazing and quirky plants — their instinct is to grow wild, but they have to be tamed to make decent wine. (Metaphor for humans? Hm…) The work of spring pruning involves trimming off the unnecessary shoots that come in all over the branches, and it is a massive job for any small grower to undertake. So much love and care is going into vineyards, all over the Northern Hemisphere right now, as berries begin to flower and turn into actual grapes. Here’s wishing a wonderful growing season to all of you.

And to those of you who have recently joined me here, stay tuned for a new project, which I’ll announce soon. It’s a project for dreamers and risk-takers and those who are fed up with life’s mundane routines, those who thirst for something new, even if they don’t know yet what that is. I’m guessing some of you out there are a bit like that. More to come. I think I’ll tackle a few emails before it’s time to rev up the rental car one more time and do the airport song-and-dance I know so well.

I’ll leave you all with a quote from the Surrealist intellectual Andre Breton:

“I have no desire to know myself. (Basta! I shall always know myself!)”

. . . Um, wow, if this little birthday is this existential, what will 35 be like???