Sunday, August 20, 2017

Remembering Dick Gregory in our Trumpesque World

I woke to the sad news that Dick Gregory--a favorite comedian and activist--had died at 84. 
"We don't serve colored people," said a waitress to Dick Gregory. "That's okay, I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken." I remember, as a child, laughing in front of our family's black-and-white TV as Gregory revealed the ludicrousness of race prejudice:

 

Dick Gregory nudged the United States toward racial harmony using tactics similar to the delightful Tom Lehrer, who is thankfully still among us but, alas, silent in the age of Trump. Lehrer's 1965 classic, National Brotherhood Week (“Step up and shake the hand / Of someone you can’t stand. / You can tolerate him if you try”) lacerated the absurdity of trying for racial healing with a single week's devotion to tolerance and "brotherhood: 



Return the worst to laughter: that's what these comedians teach us. Don't react to Trump or Nazis with rage and despair: laugh them into the ground. Trump deserves our constant ridicule. If we must fight, we should fight over statutes, not statues. Statutes, the ones that prevent gay people from getting married or transgender folks from using the restroom. True, statues are fun to pull down--the satisfying clonk of Saddam Hussein's metal counterpart hitting the ground in Baghdad back in 2003 was an occasion for joy--like the dismantling of the Berlin wall, pieces of which you may still buy as a souvenir. Walls were made to be breached, not built, and the likes of Dick Gregory and Tom Lehrer were made to send that message entertainingly. Ellen DeGeneres, get busy. 
In one of his last interviews, Gregory became a prophet who wears his gravitas lightly, like the fool in King Lear:



But we're still not really listening. We're in despair, we're sending petitions, we're marching in the streets, we're doing everything but laugh. Trump is ridiculous, and the more we see him as the two year old misbehaving, the more the powers that be shake their heads and chortle, the better off we'll be. It took months for senators to abandon Joe McCarthy, months to see the nuttiness of the man and his paranoid claims. What fools we mortals be! We need magic--someone like Remus Lupin, waving his wand, shouting, "Riddikulus!" to remind us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, that we're best off laughing, or ruefully shaking our heads at our foolishness:

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Death of a Washing Machine: So Unexpected

We were in total denial thinking our sturdy Miele (Americans: think GE, Speed Queen or Maytag) was in vibrant health. Looked the same. Sounded the same. Until one afternoon when an agonized crunch of metal followed by a distinct burning smell catapulted me to the basement, where the machine's lights were blinking in all the wrong places. I unplugged the washer and sniffed around, trying to determine whether that burning smell (I'd hauled out the wet wash, which also reeked of smoke) was coming from within our walls or the drum. The drum. Yes, that would be the case. Drum rolls seem to go with death, or execution, and our machine had worked itself to death, as the repairman confirmed when he paid his call.
Attaching a gizmo with a cord to his computer and plugging the other end of the cord into our machine, he determined that the washer built to last around twenty years was actually--if one measured its life in terms of wash loads--a whopping thirty-six years old. Plus, now that I think of it, we'd really tortured the poor dumb creature. All those grains of sand I hadn't completely shaken out of the kids' blue jeans back when they were in kindergarten and grade school. All those very full loads of sheets and comforters and pillows that had been vomited on (and worse) by sick kiddies. And just when we were starting to do a little less laundry, our loyal machine called it quits. We've combed Amazon and Otto and have settled on a more environmentally-correct model, and we think we got our money's worth from this one. RIP, Washy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Adventures with the Italians and Stamps

Where do you buy stamps? And how many stamps does one need to send a postcard from gorgeous Italia to serious Germany, or from sunny, carefree Italia to Trumpesque America (or what's left of America--congratulations, ye of the chicken balloon with T's head on the White House lawn). 
Ask three Italians, get three answers. 
One is usually sent to the "Tabacchi,"a little shop selling stamps and the knowledge of how many to use in addition to newspapers and tobacco.
At reception in our hotel (run by teenagers) I got the vaguest of answers. But very sweet, polite answers. For examples, 
"Oh, to USA? I think, maybe two euro. But you ask at the Tabacchi."
Where was this Tabacchi? https://www.tripsavvy.com/what-is-a-tabacchi-in-italy-1547549
"Oh, easy, five minute!" Yes. Five Italian minutes. I did question the teenager in detail--I all but asked for a map. I walked in the directions she'd suggested. No Tabacchi. An old woman rode by on a bike, crooning in a raspy voice to her orange cat, who was in a cage affixed to her handlebars. The cat seemed eager to be taken to a party.
I had no idea where I was, and asked a bus driver if he spoke English. 
"Leetle beet," said he. The standard response. But he pointed me in the right direction. When I got to "Stop," I should turn left. At least, that is how I understood his instructions. I also thought he meant "Stop at the next street." But what he actually meant was "Stop at the big STOP sign at he end of that very long street." And turn left. And go through twisty, turny alleyways until the sign "Tabacchi" appears and the shopkeeper lets you know someone sold your husband the Italian equivalent of Federal Express stamps for Germany ("He only need one euro! Not-a one euro thirty.) Plus you do get the right number of stamps for the USA--a whopping 2 euros 20 for a post card. Where do I mail them? 
"The Lotto place!"
I looked. Finally a little old lady showed me the red post box, which was down the street from the "lotto place."
I shot my postcards into the Italian post box. Will they land? Anywhere?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Best Stovetop Chicken When There's No Oven

I love to bake chicken. Plain, with salt and pepper, or covered with mushrooms and mushroom soup and cream, or slathered with some nice mix from Oil&Vinegar, but when you have one of those vacation rentals with no oven, you've got to find a way to render crispiness, or at least flavor, unto chicken. 
The basic rule: a ton of garlic and the very best olive oil. Easy for me, since I'm in Italy. Details:

For a hungry family of five: about nine chicken thighs or breasts. WITH the bones

At least two cloves of garlic

At least one shallot

Pack of very fresh mushrooms 

Two packs of baby tomatoes, one red and one yellow. But feel free to substitute. You could use peppers or zucchini or both.

A massive bunch of fresh, washed, chopped parsley. But you could substitute fresh rosemary (and if you do, use less. A little rosemary goes a long way).

The juice of one lemon

Salt, pepper, oregano 

Dry white wine, one cup, or red

Potatoes (I'll get to their preparation)

(1) Put around half a cup of extra-virgin Dante Olive oil in the bottom of a very large pot. (In the supermarket I asked a couple of gigantic Italian women whether they spoke English and got the answer I always get around here: "leetle beet." What was the best olive oil? Their eyes lit up and they said, "il migliore," and I knew they understood. They pointed to the Dante and I must say, that stuff is so flavorful I could almost drink it out of the bottle).

(2) While the olive oil is heating, salt and pepper the chicken. Drop it into the pot. The oil should be hot--you should hear a sizzle. Stir and turn the chicken every few minutes, letting it sizzle on high heat for around ten minutes. Cover.

(3) Meanwhile, yell at your teenagers to chop that garlic and shallot. Add these. (The garlic, not the teenagers, although by this time you'll feel like adding the teenagers). Add chopped, fresh, parsley--loads of it. A bunch the size of a small child's head. 

(4) Wash and add the tomatoes--stirring--and the mushrooms--same. Realize you haven't added all the mushrooms. Do so, after rinsing and removing dirty parts of stems. Shake in the oregano, if you haven't already. Lots. Enough for a huge pizza. Squeeze in the lemon. Try to keep the seeds from entering the pot (you can strain through a small sieve)

(5) Meanwhile, you've also washed and boiled (do not peel, but do slice) some potatoes. When you can poke into the potatoes with a fork, drain them and add them to the pot with the chicken.

(6) Slosh in wine. Around a cup. I used red because we didn't have white, but white is more traditional. I must say, the red added a delightful flavor. My fifteen-year-old, who normally detests the aroma of wine, said, "Gee, that smells really good." The dominant flavors--wine, garlic, oregano, parsley--are what got him.

Let the pot boil, covered, for a good 25 minutes or more--stir occasionally. When the meat is easy to cut and not pink inside, everything's done. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

What Small Hotels in Rome Can Do to Attract German-American Families: Five Tips

We travel with children. We do laundry. I don't mind trotting around the corner to the laundromat, but the lack of folding dryer racks tends to be a problem. Most hotels have a little retractable string over the bathtub, adequate for drying two bras and a pair of underpants. We need more. Much more. We also need to get in touch with our teenagers. When the WiFi's down and the phone has a constant busy signal, we worry. And because we worry, and we constantly sight see, and we don't get as much sleep as we need, we want coffee. Perfect coffee. Coffee strong enough to walk on. Ground Illy beans, and more of them than go to make the average cup of coffee in this hotel. I have a feeling the powers that be think Americans like weaker coffee. But we like our coffee very strong indeed. So:

(1) Provide drying racks. Don't go blank in the face when asked.
(2) Keep that WiFi up
(3) Strengthen your coffee
(4) Gladly provide stamps along with the mail service. Don't tell me to trot round to the bar at the next corner. I want one less errand to run on my vacation.
(5) The Biggie: let us redeem VAT tax refunds at your hotel.

Visiting Vatical City: the Pope, Shoulders, and "Free the Knee!"

We barely made it to our papal audience--by the time we'd snaked through the long lines, fending off vendors of tours and rosaries, Francis was already lyricizing about baptism and hope on several Jumbotrons. If you stood on your chair you could still make him out in the distance, but not near enough to get any good images on your cell phone. We had been warned not to expose shoulders or legs, so as the mercury crept toward 104º F (40º C) we left our hotel in blue jeans, not shorts, and in long-sleeved cotton shirts. At Vatican City, we were herded into a large building, possibly Castel Gandolfo, where I observed plenty of women wearing shorts, mini-dresses and spaghetti straps. Many a bare shoulder sported herself at the Angelus. No Swiss guards tried to cover those shoulders, and it occurred to me, when I saw folkloric national costumes from all over South America and Africa, that many of these get-ups have an off-the-shoulder component, and the church does not want to turn away the faithful.

The very-covered look
What I hadn't expected, when nature called and I wanted to answer, was a lack of toilets. Predictably, lines for women's rooms were longer, but a total of eight toilets--missing toilet paper and soap--is hardly enough. With all the Vatican's money, not much goes into the basic amenities for women. Those monks I saw striding across Vatican square, with their dark cowls and their lean and hungry looks, those priests in their black cassocks and magenta cummerbunds, do they ever consider such things?
I had to rip up the paper bag in which my postcards had been stashed to take care of business. 
What had I expected? A bunch of guys who think that Mary was a virgin apparently can't imagine her needing to pee. Think again, guys. Adoration of Mary is not the same as respect for women. Or respect for Mary. If a woman's basic needs are not met, if she is only "adored," she's not happy.
Why would I imagine that a bunch of men in black robes who don't have sex and who don't believe the virgin birth involved the passage of a baby's head through the vagina would make sure there was enough toilet paper in the women's toilets? Incidentally, bodily functions seem to be something the Virgin Mary is not supposed to have. An orgasm during the annunciation? ("God had one, presumably," says one blogger, another adding, "Where do you think the expression, 'Oh, Gawwwd' comes from?")
Once we got to Saint Peter's, the dress code police got stricter. Women in shorts had to buy scarves from street vendors to conceal their shoulders. Or wrapped them around their thighs, since the signs required "respect."
Yes, they were turned away at the door without the scarves.
Since when do naked shoulders and thighs denote lack of respect? Oh, we know the answer to that one, having just seen the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Adam and Eve, tempted by a "snake"--really a pretty woman growing a snake out of her backside-- are getting kicked out of Eden by an angel with a flaming sword. By women came evil into the world! Well. If you'd call a little curiosity, a relaxed sense of the rules, which are made to be broken, and a healthy appetite "sin."
If the sight, smell, and consumption of that luscious fruit is sin, folks,  bring sin on. Here's a gigantic breast, courtesy of Michaelanglo and with apologies to Instagram:

My daughter quipped, "Free the knee!" and pulled at her jeans. She flipped out both shoulders.  
P.S. S.O.S. to Vatican: buy some toilet paper and build some toilets to put beside it. Plus soap dispensers, complete with soap. And how about towels? Or even hand dryers? One thing is for sure: the pope can afford to do this. Make it so!