Thursday, January 19, 2006

A bar is a bar, right?

As many of you know bars in Italy are quite different from bars in the US. Italians will come to a bar for a glass of wine, or a beer for lunch and of course for an aperitif later in the day before dinner, but the bar is the hub of morning activity in Italy and is where everyone (it seems) goes for coffee (“caffe”).

Of course every bar is quite different from every other bar in layout, space, design and so forth. And each bar carries one particular brand of coffee: Hausbrandt, Kimbo, Sandy, Jolly are just several of the brands widely seen throughout Italy. And many bars will even bear the name of the coffee it carries: Bar Sandy, Bar Jolly and so on. And virtually every bar still grinds their beans fresh every day.

Bars also use different machine systems, although nearly all of these machines are pretty much fully automatic today with microprocessors as the core of the unit. It is quite rare to see the large, heavy fully manual piston systems such as La Pavoni. They simply take too much time to produce too little coffee and in many bars, particularly during the morning rush also during much of the working day as well, time is money. Systems such as Faema can produce a half dozen different types of coffee drinks at a given time with just a twist of the wrist and push of a button.

Bars certainly vary widely in their overall design: some are quite frumpy dating back to the 1960s (the rustic side of the 60s in fact) while others are the epitome of chic design, stainless steel, art deco glass and the fanciest of cups. Most are simply nice places to spend a few moments of your morning getting yourself together before starting the day or a pleasant place to sit and sip a prosecco at the end of the day.

And yet no matter what their style or design philosophy most bars share a certain unique common layout, one that concerns something many of us often forget about: washing all those little cups and saucers, spoons and glasses. Through the typical cleaning system widely seen throughout Siena for example dozens and dozens of glasses and cups and various other used dishware can be easily washed and recycled by the barista alone if need be. And the system is really quite simple to use.

Built into the stainless steel counter which is located below and behind the actual bar counter (which is where everyone stands to drink their coffee and eat their morning “brioche”) are usually two circular receptacles into which fit rubber-coated baskets. The baskets are filled up with dirty dishes and glassware – there is a drain in the bottom of each receptacle – and as a basket is filled it is then lifted out of the receptacle and put into a specially designed dishwashing unit about half the size of a typical US automatic dishwasher where it undergoes a cleaning and sterilizing cycle. From what we can tell no soap is used. After a short cycle the basket is removed the dishes are clean and basically dry and then stacked near the coffee machine ready to be used. The basket is then placed back into the receptacle. The cycle begins and continues all day long.

Is there really a different from one bar to the next, you might ask? Well certainly to many Italians although for them the bar can also be a social gathering place. But is the coffee different? Are the pastries in one any better than another?

Glad you asked because we decided to run our own little “coffee tasting” to see if there are in fact significant differences in quality from one bar to another in a given area.

We decided to begin our tasting at one of our favorite bars, the Quattro Cantoni (“Four corners”) on Via di Citta and work our way down the street trying out several of the other places along the way. We stopped at Il Bargello, then Fiorella no. 3 and finally Il Bibo (on Via Banchi di Sotto).

Each used a different brand of coffee: Sandy at QC, Jolly at Il bargello, Cellini at Il Bibo and their own propertary coffee at Fiorella no. 3. Of the four we tended to prefer the Jolly Grancaffe at Il Bargello. It seemed richer and smoother than the others; our least favorite was the Cellini brand used at Il Bibo (it seemed the most bitter tasting).

Il Bibo and Fiorella no. 3 used “Faema” machines, QC used a “Vibiemma” and Il Bargello used the “Wega” brand; all microprocessor. QC’s was the largest with four portafilters able to produce a maximum of eight different cups at a time. (The portafilter is the handle and basket that holds the coffee while it’s in the machine.) Fiorella’s and Il Bargello’s were the smallest with only two portafilters each (for a total of four cups maximum).

Ambiences also differed widely: Fiorello was by far the smallest of places we tested today – and it could get crowded fast -- and had radio playing in the background. Il Bibo was probably the largest with even as large side room for overflow and also had either the radio or Italian muzak playing.

All places served pastries (“paste”) but Il Bibo and QC had the largest selections. (This is only a tentative observation since it was late morning by the time we finished our tasting and so many paste would be gone to be replaced by panini for the lunch crowd.)

The next challenge: the breads of Siena.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A word or two

Here it is nearly the middle of January and still one sunny, warm day follows after another. It’s been a week since we returned to Siena and have had absolutely grand weather. The wind can be a bit brisk and chilly, particularly in the shade, but otherwise it’s definitely sunny Italy.

We have really done very little since our return. We spend our time relaxing, walking, and just basking in the simple pleasures of living here, at least for the moment. One more week and the quiet life I suppose before we move to Florence.

We have spent much of the past week at the Cantina in Piazza, working on our Italian, eating great food, talking about wine and enjoying being with Aimone and Alessandra. David Schapiro used to tell us last March about the enjoyment he derived from just hanging out at the Cantina and he certainly knew what he was talking about.

For those of you thinking of traveling to Siena anytime soon bear in mind that this is one of the more quiet times of the year right now. Many shops and businesses are either closed until early February or on restricted hours. Also the number of local events is reduced, or so it seems to us.

Well the foreign students have arrived and are in force as school begins here in Siena. Earlier this week we came across numerous herds of American students receiving their city orientation and afterward they were seen all about town in small groups of twos or threes checking out the postcards, calendars, etc.

In just a couple of weeks Susan, too, will be starting school as she starts a wholly new chapter in her life. And quite a change it will be, too. Just think. For her entire adult life Susan has been connected with and worked in medicine, and as en ER physician she worked in one of the most stressful fields of medicine. Now she is going to, in simple terms, “do something else.” Not for a week or a month but for the rest of her life. Absolutely amazing.

As for me, if I can just get this Nikon camera repaired somewhere, sometime, I might be able to take a photo or two. In the meantime I have our interview project to work on and think about future projects for the internet.

Take care, stay cool and keep warm.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Italy Italy

We are back in our apartment in Siena after an uneventful and somewhat relaxing return trip.

We closed on our house 30 December and spent the next two days getting ready for the movers who came on 2 January to pack everything up. We then moved what few things we had to the nearby Best Western hotel and that night had dinner with our realtor Winnie Denis. The next day, 3 January, the movers returned to start loading everything up and after running a few errands (like shipping three more boxes of stuff to Italy) we signed the paperwork for the move and storage (in Rutland) and headed off for Massachusetts.

The weather was quite nice in Rutland but farther south they were getting hit with a small snowstorm and fortunately since we had to wait for the movers to finish most of their loading we got in behind the storm.

We spent a warm and cozy evening with Dick and Dorothy (Susan’s brother and his wife) and then Wednesday morning drove into Boston to pick up Susan’s visa, which went off without a hitch. We then commenced to get lost in Boston – a first actually – but enjoyed the fact that we were in no hurry to get anywhere and ended up seeing places we had never seen before. We also tried an Audi dealership in Natick, MA to see if they might be interested in buying our A4. Oh they were interested but they were less than willing (or able) to give us anything remotely close to what the car is worth. So we decided to pass and hold it for a few months longer and store it down in Massachusetts. One or both of us will likely return later in the spring to try and sell it then.

So we spent an extra day just relaxing and trying to get a handle on what it was we had just done: selling our house and putting all of our things into storage (aside from what we had shipped back this trip) and the fact that our only “home” was now in Italy; a strange but exhilarating feeling.

Sister-inn-law Dorothy took us to Logan airport early Friday and upon checking in we had the good fortune to get upgraded to what British Airways calls "World Traveler Plus". This essentially gives you a bit wider seat and moves the seat-to-seat room from 33 inches to 38 inches. Very smooth trip and Susan in fact dozed for part of it. We arrived in London on time and took the Heathrow Express train into Paddington station and checked into our hotel, the Quality Crown Paddington, which was just across from the station. Our room was quite small but very new with a nice bathroom and there was a huge flatscreen TV on the wall, which was used to run much of the room's services. Pretty hi-tech.

Saturday morning we took a taxi to Liverpool St. station and got aboard the express train to Stanstead airport where we boarded a Ryanair flight for Pisa. We left gray, cold London with a few snow flakes falling about a half hour late -- spending the time sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off -- and landed in warm, sunny Pisa. A few minutes after reclaiming our bags we got on the train for Pisa Centrale station where we connected for Empoli, then changed trains for Siena where we arrived about 6:30 PM. We took a taxi to our apartment and after unpacking and changing shoes headed to our favorite haunt, Cantina in Piazza for something to eat. I also needed to drop off the prints Aimone had asked me to make before the holidays. I also had a book of prints for him as well as for Alessandra both of which I had arranged to be made via Apple before we left Siena in late December.

It is an odd feeling which both of us are experiencing right now. We are happy to be back here and feel quite at home here although we are getting ourselves emotionally if not physically ready to move to Florence two weeks from this coming Tuesday.

But things caught up with us at last and we slept until well after 10 AM Sunday morning. But what a gorgeous, sunny and warm morning it is!

After showering and putting fresh clothes on we walked down to another of our favorite places, Antonio Betti's Peccati di Gola for our Sunday morning caffe and dolce. Naturally I also had to pick up a small package of Ricciarelli.

So it's a day of relaxing and going to the store to stock our rather depleted larder for the coming week. Much of the city is still in it’s post-holiday phase – Epiphany was just this past week which is a major event here in Italy – so some shops and restaurants are closed for the next week or two.

We hope you are all well and enjoying a great New Year!



Monday, January 02, 2006

A New Life for the New Year

The movers are here and everything is just about all packed up. Tomorrow they will load the boxes and furniture and put our “home” into storage. When we will see any of this stuff again is hard to say: maybe next summer, or maybe not for a year or longer. Who knows? (“Chi sa?”)

Much of last night was spent finalizing the things to be stored, the things to be taken to Italy now and the things to be shipped in the next couple of weeks. What do we need? What can we do without? And if we can do without it, why do we have it in the first place? All vital questions last evening but now behind us. Or rather packed up and put away. So we will bring back one large rolling bag of the last of our “necessary” clothes (underwear which is pretty important) and packed up some household items, especially kitchen stuff (for baking of course) for shipping to Florence.

Wednesday the new owners move in and give the house their own character, style and personality. Ours will quickly fade into history.

Tuesday we drop off our cable modem box at Adelphia, drop off our boxes to be shipped at Mail Boxes Etc., check our mailbox, finish a couple of banking chores and as soon as the movers are gone so are we, down to Massachusetts to stay with family until Friday. And we hope to sell our car there as well.

It’s an odd feeling we are having right now: homeless, putting our “stuff” away and soon to be without a car. All the accoutrements of American life it seems are slipping through our fingers. Willingly mind you but still. . . .

A part of this off sensation, this disturbance in our normal sense of place, lies in the simple statement that we are heading “back” to Italy. Usually during a trip abroad we would of course say at some point, “we will be heading home soon”, or “heading back to Vermont” or “heading back to the States.” Now we feel like travelers in our own country and will be heading “back” soon to Italy. As they say, “home is where the heart is”.

The key is we are together. In all kinds of weather.

Ciao for now.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

As the title says, "Happy New Year" to you all! And may the coming year be as good to you as you want it to be. As for us, I think it will be a very good year indeed.

We returned from Italy just before Christmas and Susan’s brother Dick picked us up at Boston’s Logan airport. We then spent three nights with Dick and his wife Dorothy (they live just south of Worcester) since we had a second appointment with the Italian consulate for 23 December.

Everything went swimmingly I might say. It was a beautiful day and there was virtually no traffic going into the city. We parked and had a cup of coffee at a nearby Starbucks and arrived a bit early for Susan’s appointment. There were quite a few college students with their parents there this time and many seemed to be confused about what they needed to have in the way of documents and what the actual process was. Needless to say the Italians don’t make it easy and their websites are really quite confusing.

Anyway Susan got called early and after a couple of minutes she was told her visa would be approved and that it would be ready in about a week or so. Our plan is to return on 4 January to pick it up.

And now for the kicker.

Now we had returned on our unplanned trip in mid-November to apply for a student visa at which time Susan’s application was rejected for lack of complete documentation. (The Italian bureaucracy, like bureaucracies everywhere love their documents.) So we rescheduled for late December as we were planning on returning for the holidays and then left to go back to Italy the next day, Well we come to find out that when you get a visa they keep the passport in order to attach the visa to it. Sooooo since we had tickets to return to Italy the very next day if Susan’s application had been accepted in November we could not have left the country!

Whoa was that bizarre good luck or what?! Plus we learned some valuable bureaucratic lessons to boot. Was it worth the extras plane fare for the November trip?

You decide.

So after the fiasco at the Italian consulate in Boston we returned to Italy and had a wonderful time back in Siena enjoying the coming holiday season. We took a day trip to Florence to see the lights and window shop of course. In early December we flew up to Frankfurt to see a niece and her husband (he’s a captain in the US Army) and although the weather was lousy we enjoyed the festive lights and Christmas markets which seemed to be in every city and town. Our last night in Italy was spent in Rome wandering the city streets and spending some quality time in a few of our favorite haunts.

Anyway after we left the consulate on 23 December we drove to our house in Vermont and began the daunting task of packing things up for long-term storage all the while trying to decide what to bring back with us when we return in early January and what to ship to Florence for next year.

As of Friday afternoon (30 December) we are officially homeless and will be out of our house completely by Tuesday.

The house is pretty much a mess right now but that will all change within the next 48 hours. While much of our stuff has been sold, given away or packed up we trust the movers when they come on Monday will finish the job in quick order. The new owners have been extremely gracious and generous in not only waiting so long to close but also in letting us stay several days after closing. They are very nice people who seem to fit right in with here in Vermont and we hope they will be happy here.

As for us all that remains now is to sell our car. Once we leave Rutland we will spend three nights with Dick and Dorothy down in Massachusetts and will spend Wednesday and Thursday trying to sell the car at a nearby Audi dealer. We are not terribly sanguine about getting a good deal but at this point we pretty much need to unload the thing. Sad. It is a damn fine car.

So come early Friday morning (and I mean early) Dorothy will take us to Logan airport in Boston for our morning flight to Heathrow. We then spend the night in London and Saturday morning (7 January) catch a Ryanair flight out of Stanstead airport for Pisa. From there we take the train to Siena and hope to be back in our apartment there by early evening.

After that we relax for a couple of weeks before we have to move all our stuff up to Florence on 24 January. In fact we will probably schlep our stuff by making several trips on the bus. Hiring a moving service is too costly as is renting a car so we figure we would just make a few trips on the bus and do it ourselves the awkward way. But it’s good for us to be flexible and willing to be more self-reliant.

In any case we will be settled in (we hope) by the time Susan has her orientation for school on 26 January and classes begin on 30 January. And let me tell you that girl is so excited! Imagine, two semesters in Florence, Italy, studying to become a pastry chef! Now is that too cool or what!? After spending more than 20 years dealing with so much human pain and suffering this will come as a tonic for both her mind and spirit.

As for me I will continue to take my photos and in fact just finished one commissioned series for an enoteca in Siena. I will also continue to work on my Tuscan Voices project of interviews, which I began last March and April in collaboration with Roberto Bechi of Siena. I hope to get the first of several of these out into cyberspace in the form of podcasts sometime in the next couple of weeks.