Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Especially for JJ, who is incensed by all this non-Belgian hooha.

Taken at the Museum of Industry and Labor in Brussels before the trip. The museum also features a giant plaster cast of a statue of Abe Lincoln as a boy produced for an insurance agency in Indiana. In spite of its name, the museum is really only about the foundry that existed on the spot, which also created the elaborate gates to the Bronx zoo. In an attempt to shed light on some other local industries, they also have beer and chocolate-themed walking tours and for some reason boat cruises down the canal with live music.

I love museums with rusting piles of stuff laying around--we came across a great one in WV one time where you could ride on the decomposing farm equipment. The one in Brussels had a huge blackberry patch on the grounds, but I thought better of consuming any, given the contaminants that likely went into the soil there for a very long time. So much better when you don't know anything about the land, like in...ITALY!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Okay, okay, more on Italy.

Rome was great. We stayed in a private apartment near the Santa Maria Maggiore church, not far from the train station. We got the apartment through, and although it seems like it's a bit of a crap shoot as to what you're going to get, ours was very nice (and not surprisingly, on the more expensive end, although still on par with area hotel prices). I would totally recommend it to those who are looking for something a bit different: quiet and elegant, but no housekeeping and no breakfast. The people renting it lived in the apartment below: a father, mother, and teenage daughter. The father met me at the door to the building, asked me how my trip in was in very decent English, and I apologized for being later than anticipated. He then told me, again in good English, that he didn't speak English and his daughter would communicate with me. I guess he's been taught a few key phrases but can't go off the script.

The father, mother and daughter showed me around the apartment, and the mother chatted away at me as if I spoke fluent Italian, knowing full well that I couldn't. After handing over the funds I had the place to myself. I immediately availed myself of the bathroom and discovered the toilet wouldn't flush because the tank was either blocked or empty. I waited a few minutes for decency's sake and then called the daughter to report the problem, and the whole family came up again to investigate. They were apparently familiar with the issue and the father got on his ladder (the tank was set high on the wall) and solved it right away. As the mother nattered, the daughter explained it was because the apartment had been empty for a month, which was somewhat depressing knowing how cool it is.

Saturday I made some coffee in the tiny kitchen using the supplies at hand and set about to wait for Jack, who was supposed to get to the place around 10. At 12:30 I gave up went to meet up with my peeps for lunch. C&M had just arrived from Sicily following the wedding of a friend, and were staying about a kilometer away in a hotel with some other people with a baby and grandmother. It was nice to finally get to meet A, who was very cute and well-behaved. We had a seriously disappointing lunch at a place I had picked out, then went to look at the Maggiore church, which contained a dead pope in a glass case, a Masonic-looking all-seeing eye painting, and a piece of Jesus's manger that had been enshrouded in a giant silver box. I must say that I was impressed that the innkeeper had the foresight to save the manger. Perhaps he was a packrat? Maybe I should start saving everything in the hopes that someday, someone I came in contact with will turn out to be the Second Coming.

I got a call from Jack a bit later saying he was on his way, which was a major relief given that I was about to seriously start panicking. We spent some time chilling and then went out to dinner with the family. We went to a great restaurant that is apparently co-owned and run by a bunch of old dudes, who were all charming and patient. They started us off with free deep-fried risotto cheese balls, and then I had the porcini risotto and grilled artichoke, which was drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with salt. C. had the serve-yourself antipasto starter, and we all got to try the delectable choices. Afterwards I wondered if sharing was a no-no, as it would be if you were the only one eating off the buffet in the US, but no one said anything and she got a single plate so perhaps we weren't gauche after all.

We then waddled over to the Trevi Fountain, which Jack insisted we went to last time but I had no recollection of. It was very nice at night, with the water all glowy and such. On our way back to C&M's hotel, we discovered that the museum across the street from them was open for the White Night celebration, which is apparently something that happens all over Europe this time of year (Brussels' is this coming weekend). They were projecting art and trippy light patterns on their walls, and although the Numismatic Museum appeared to be open we decided to call it a night and head back to our respective abodes. I learned the next day that the stage in front was set up not for music, as we had expected, but some kind of speech or lecture that went on for two hours after C&M went to bed.

(In case you were wondering about the language thing, by this time I had successfully sprinkled my extremely spotty Italian [good for ordering and buying train tickets and not much else] liberally with French and Spanish on several occasions.)

Sunday those guys went off to check out Vatican City while we investigated some wandering around. After breakfast we went to find something Jack had seen from the train, which turned out to be some ruins of a Temple to Minerva in an advanced state of decline. I upset him by pressing the intercom-doorbell on the decrepit structure. Thankfully, no one stepped out from behind a pillar complaining that I had interrupted their lizard-watching, or whatever it is you do when you live in a place without roof or doors.

We happened across what was billed as the oldest gelateria in Rome, which Jack convinced me to check out in spite of the fact that it was 11 a.m. and I was in no mood for gelato at that point. Man, was it amazing. He got a small cup with tiramisu, rice pudding, and something with nuts. The rice pudding sounds kinda gross, but it was excellent. Definitely worth veering off course for (in our case, the veer was from the sidewalk in the door, so not so far).

Then we headed in the direction of the ghetto on the other side of town. This was apparently the real deal, and when we got in the vicinity of the huge synagogue there (closed to the public except for guided tours due to terrorism), the dulcet tones of 70s cheese greeted our ears. And then Hava Nagila. And then more crap. It was a wedding reception, and so reminiscent of home! The illusion was shattered by the Catholic church placed prominently across the street, which featured text in both Latin and Hebrew urging the Jews to convert to Christianity, complete with a large and bloody painting of Jesus being crucified on the front. To the uninitiated, was the picture saying "join or else this might happen to you", or "join and you can be part of our grand tradition of martyrdom"?

As if to one-up this church, right across the way was an island in the middle of the Tiber that seemed to be comprised mostly of religious buildings, including a church that had just let out, if the crowds out front and the clouds of incense within were any indication. This church appeared to be the home of some religious order not known for its subtlety. Two of the side chapels featured photos of priests that were assassinated, one laid out in a coffin and the other with his head resting on his desk, a bullet hole in his cranium and a trickle of blood down his neck.

We were going to go to the Mouth of Truth after this, but catching sight of the line was enough to make us turn tail and descend towards the Cloaca Maxima, one of the points where the sewage exited the city and entered the Tiber in ancient times. It was enclosed in an arch in the retaining wall that separated the city from the river. Although no longer used, it has bloomed in its neglect and is now a comfortable residence for a homeless person, who eyed us warily as we snapped pictures. We decided to walk along the river for a while, and it was a stark contrast to the Seine in Paris, although both are enclosed in walls and seem to have severe water quality issues. The riverbanks were wild and unkempt, and we had only a dirt path for promenading. Various encampments cropped up in the weedy place between the path and the water, as opposed to the organized-looking tent town occupying space by the paved path on the Seine. Blackberries abounded. Wildlife couldn't be far behind, although I can't recall seeing much.

Eventually we walked off the edge of our map, meaning we were pretty darned far away, and it was time to make our way back. We took a set of stairs up to the street level and on the landing were two women giving haircuts to two other women. They had chairs and smocks and a whole line of stuff set up on the ledge, and it all looked very legit. There even seemed to be some additional customers waiting. I couldn't think of a nicer place to get shorn, sitting in the shade overlooking the water.

We grabbed some panini in the working-class neighborhood we found ourselves in (Jack claims there was a self-service beer tap in there) and ate and walked back towards the known lands. It was hot. We ended up on a wide boulevard with very little shade, and at the far end, near the Circus Maximus, as we were withering down to nothing, was our savior: the watermelon vendor. It was a serendipitous location, for us anyway, although they didn't seem to be doing much business. We went and sat under some umbrella-shaped pines and spit the seeds all over tarnation.

After a long slog and a couple more churches and a stop off at a grocery store so prone to thievery there was a security guard at the door who made us leave our bag on the floor of the entryway, we arrived back at the apartment. A plan was crafted to meet up for dinner again, and this time it was going to be the whole crowd of 7 adults and 2 babies. A fruitless search ensued to find a nearby pizza place housed in a former church, and eventually we ended up at a basement tourist trap kind of place, which was probably for the best given our gargantuan crowd. I got a creamy pasta dish featuring arugula, one of many arugula-consuming opportunities on the trip. It was pretty good, all things considered.

Once another quick trip to the Trevi Fountain was completed, we all went over to the Spanish Steps, descended, and then made our way back to the hotel. On the way, we passed by a shop called the Man Store and saw a very uncomfortable-looking thong thing for men that we spent some time discussing. And with that, the Rome portion of our trip concluded. We meandered back to the apartment, took Jack's photo in the lobby looking like a Vegas showgirl, hit the sack, and woke up refreshed for our train ride to Naples and onward the next day.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Italy (or rather the Sorrento Peninsula), in no particular order.

Things I ate, which were clearly growing over the property line and therefore free.
- Blackberries.
- Ripe green fig (shared with the resident bugs in the interior).
- Green seeded grape.
- Hazelnut crushed underfoot with a questionably clean shoe sole.
- Tiny purple grape with one big seed inside.
- Swiss chard or beet green.
- Ripe purple fig.

Things I tried to eat.
- Underrripe purple figs.
- Inedible orange variety of passion fruit, mealy and tasteless.
- Ripe purple fig that I held in my hand for a while and then decided to use as a waymarker for those who came after us on a mostly imperceptible trail by placing it on a dead stem of a plant.
- Various green and black olives, just to see if the wrinkly ones were less bitter than the plump ones tasted in Malta (they are not; lizard on olive-catching net shown).
- Persimmons, because the only ripe ones over the line were out of reach.
- Walnut, figuring it would be too difficult to open it without totally destroying the nut using the shoe method, and plus we were on a busy road so I just bowled it towards some car's tires.

Things that were given to us by strangers when we were totally miserable after only having completed 2/3 of a hike with night falling and ominous clouds rolling in.
- Underripe-looking but really perfectly-ripe, decidedly delicious peaches. And then it turns out we didn't miss the bus after all, so we took it down the hill towards our town as the rain descended, and it all worked out fine.

Aromatic plants growing wild, picked and crushed for the scent.
- Bay.
- Fennel.
- Rosemary.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


- Black beans, finally, from a pan-hispanic grocery in Anderlecht. (You are surely asking yourself at this point, "do they have all the good stuff there?" The answer is "pretty much.") Although in dried form rather than canned, they were very tasty when cooked up with some cumin and garlic and bay leaves. (Naturally I spotted them a couple days later at a much closer grocery store serving the immigrant community.)

- Jack's favorite green-scrubby things, from a kitchen supply store in the same neighborhood as the above. So what if I had to buy a gross of them? Individually they were very cheap, and we can give them as gifts to visitors.

- Candied chickpeas, apparently a Turkish treat, which look for all the world like tiny brains. If only they came in pinkish-grey. I can't decide if I like them or not, but nonetheless I can't stop eating them.

- A great pizza shop nearby, where they make the rectangular kind, cut your selected slice with scissors, and charge by the kilo. Fantastic array of toppings, and greasy but divine crust.

Jack's off to the US for work, so I'll spend the next week trying to keep my one-sided conversations at a level that will go unreported. Then it's off to Italy to meet A. (and those people he brings with him wherever he goes, C. and M.), and then on to Naples, arriving in the middle of their pizza fest, and the Amalfi Coast for some hot sun to tide us over until next June.