30 March 2014

LIFE: Thinking In Italian

CHIAVARI, Italy – Learning to speak Italian is one thing, understanding Italian is something else altogether different. And it isn’t understanding Italian words that is so difficult once you speak Italian, it’s understanding what the Italians do with those words that makes me Clairol Hair Color’s best customer on the planet.

 Pretty Parma
For example: A few years ago, I decided to close my Partita Iva, which is an Italian business tax number. I had needed it in the past when I was doing a lot of free-lance work in Italy, but when I signed a contract to write for Women’s Wear Daily and other Conde’ Nast publications, I didn’t need it any more.

As I had opened the Partita Iva account in Parma, I had to go back to Parma to close it, or send the documents through the mail. Since I lived closer to Milan than Parma, I opted for the latter. However, knowing the efficiency of the Italian postal service at the time, I wanted to call the Partita Iva people to confirm that the documents had indeed arrived and that they had indeed closed the account. Small glitch. I didn’t have the telephone number for the Partita Iva Office, which is part in the Internal Revenue Office in Parma.

Guardia di Finanza Dressed for a Parade
No problem, I thought. I’ll look it up on the internet. What I need was the number for the Ufficio della Entrata, or Internal Revenue Office. So I started. I Googled the Parma White pages, government offices, nope, nothing about Entrata there. Ok, white pages city of Parma, government offices. Nope, not there. Ok. White pages, Parma public offices, Parma Yellow pages, Italy, government, Internal Revenue. Nope, nope and nope, not there, not anywhere.

Well, after about half an hour – actually if I remember correctly it was more like an hour and a half – I gave up.  As it happened, the office of the Internal Revenue Police, the Guardia di Finanza, was just around the corner from my apartment. When I saw that they were back from lunch I went over and was buzzed in by a skeptical young officer. After all, who goes to the Internal Revenue Office unless they are summoned?

On the Job
I explained my problem with him staring at me with his eyebrows knitted together wondering if this was some kind of a joke, or a veiled terrorist threat or who knows what. Or maybe this foreign woman was just plain nuts. When I finished my tale of woe he shook his head in disbelief.

“Signora,” he said, “this is not a difficult problem. You are looking for the phone number of the Ufficio delle Entrata in Parma, the office of the Internal Revenue in Parma right?”

 I shook my head yes.

“Very simple. It’s under Office”.

Under Office?

“Yes, like Office of the Internal Revenue”.  He didn’t look suspicious any more, he looked confused. I could almost hear him thinking, is it possible this woman is that stupid? How could she not know that? Instead, he said, "ma e logico no?" It was logical, no?  

Not to me.

I have heard the words, “ma, e logico no?” so many times since I moved to Italy, I can’t even count them anymore. And each and every time I can honestly answer that no, whatever the discussion was, no it was not logical, not in any way, shape or form. In fact, it was totally illogical to me.
 Can You Help Me? Please!
Then I realized that they apply that same principle to other things, like lawyer’s offices. A lawyer’s office is called a “studio”. So if you are looking for the law offices of Pinco Pallo, you would look under “Studio Legale Pinco Pallo”, Legal Office of Pinco Pallo.  It’s the same for hospitals. San Martino Hospital in Genoa is listed as Azienda Ospedaliera Universitaria San Martino because a few years back the government decided that hospitals were businesses and so they all became “azienda”, which is the Italian word for “business”. The same holds true for the Customs Office, the Registrar’s Office, the Tourist Office and just about anything else that’s in an office. How could I not have remembered that?

Truthfully, these days the Yellow Pages search engine is a lot better than it was in the past and sometimes you can find stuff by just typing in the thing that you want. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. Of course there are always going to be those times when no matter what you type in the little box, it ain't gonna work. Those are the days you pour yourself a glass of wine and put out the "gone fishing" sign. Everything will work itself out tomorrow.

27 March 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Spring Oil Change

CHIAVARI, Italy – it’s time to prune my little herb garden and I’m going to use the trimmings of the rosemary plant to make a couple of bottles of flavored oil. I bought the oil last week, a not very expensive extra virgin olive oil from Liguria. I prefer olive oil because it is the most pure and does the best job of capturing the flavor of the herbs.  Just about any combination of herbs, will do, it depends on what flavor you want. The method is always the same.
Rosemary and Marjoram
An Italian cookbook I picked up a few years ago called Cooking with Aromatic Herbs suggests that after you’ve decided on the flavor you want, cut your herbs into small sprigs and wash them carefully. If you are using more than one herb, tie them together with a piece of kitchen string. Push the herb bundle into a clean, dry bottle and cover it with oil. If you use the oil daily, keep refilling the bottle with oil as the oil level goes down. If you don’t use the oil often, it’s best to only make a half a liter because after a while the herbs tend to break down. They recommended the following herb combinations for one liter of olive oil.

For fish, grilled or roasted meat: sprigs of sage, rosemary and black peppercorns;
For spaghetti: 2 cloves of garlic, 4 small hot red peppers and a small sprig of rosemary;
For white meat (turkey, chicken, pork): thyme, marjoram and white peppercorns;
For pizza: 2 sprigs of oregano, a scallion, 2 small hot red peppers;
For red meat: 2 bay leaves, 3 black peppercorns and 3 white peppercorns.

Not to make disparaging remarks about the authors of the book, but I doubt many of us are actually going to have 5 different bottles of flavored olive oil in our cupboards. I’m not, that’s for sure. And while Cooking with Aromatic Herbs recommends tying the herbs together and keeping the peppercorns, garlic and hot peppers whole, I find that chopping the herbs and breaking up the garlic and peppercorns releases more flavor.
 Delicious and Pretty
I’ve also found that making two bottles of flavored oil at a time works better than adding fresh oil to a bottle as I use it. It takes a week or two for the oil to infuse with the flavor of the herbs and, in my opinion, if you add fresh oil on top of your flavored oil, you will dilute the flavor.

I also use more herbs than they do. My favorite combination is rosemary, garlic, black peppercorns and hot red peppers. For a liter of olive oil I use three or four long sprigs of rosemary, about 5 inches each, one or two garlic cloves, depending on their size, a pinch of slat, about a teaspoon of black peppercorns and depending on hot they are, one or two little red peppers. Personally I don’t care if I have bits of herbs in my food, but if you would prefer not to, then tie your herbs together as they suggest.  

Here is my “no recipe” recipe. Fill a clean bottle about ¾’s full with olive oil. As you prepare the herbs add them to the oil. Start with the rosemary. Wash, dry and strip the rosemary leaves from the branches. Chop the leaves into very, very small bits and add them to your oil. Peel the garlic cloves and chop and on a cutting board, mash them with the side of a large knife. Then add a tiny bit of salt and with the side of your knife, press against the garlic and pull it toward you in a smearing motion. Do this until the garlic is completely broken down. The salt creates enough friction on the garlic to reduce it to pulp and the garlic releases more flavor in the process. Scrape up the garlic and put it in the oil.

The black peppercorns get broken up using my meat pounder. I just put them between some kitchen paper, fold it up to keep the peppercorns from flying out and pound away. They just need to be in pieces, they don’t need to be pulverized or have any particular size or texture. Of course you can be more civilized than I am and use a pepper grinder, that works too.
Red Hot Pepperoncini
The last step is the red hot pepperoncini. Make a small to medium slit in the side of the pepperoncino and put it in the bottle. That’s it.

Rosemary, garlic and pepper is my favorite combination and I use it for everything, for frying, for salads, to season cooked and uncooked vegetables. The only problem I have is keeping enough of it around. A friend of mine is coming to visit the week after Easter so this weekend I’m going to make a couple of bottles of oil to have on hand while she’s here, and another one for her to take home.

If you try any of the Cooking with Aromatic Herbs combinations, or my recipe, let me know what you think. Your input is always welcomed.

23 March 2014

LIFE; On Your Toes - La Scala School of Ballet

After living on the Italian Riviera for about five years, I was offered a job in Milan I couldn’t refuse: editor and writer for The Informer, Italy’s only national English language magazine. I could write about whatever caught my interest and one of the first interviews I did was with Signora Anna Maria Prina, who was the Director of the La Scala School of Ballet at the time. It was quite an experience to go behind the scenes of La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world, and learn just how the kids you see dancing up on the stage in the various operatic and ballet performances got there.

 Teatro della Scala, Milan, italy

THE DAY I SHOWED UP for my interview with Signora Anna Maria Prina the school secretary was not there and there was no record of my appointment. I was told the Signora was not available at the moment. She was busy interviewing chaperones to accompany the young dancers when they take their performances on the road, as they did last year when they went to Japan. Could I please wait?  I waited.

When you go backstage, or dietro le quinte, of the Teatro della Scala theater in Milan, you enter a warren of hallways and stairways going off in a dozen different directions. The building is old and faded, worn out by more than a hundred years of use. The hallways are painted institution tan and decorated with colored drawings of period costumes and photographs of the dance students in various performances. 

 Stretch, Stretch and Stretch Some More
The waiting room just outside the secretary’s office is sparse, four or five long tables, no chairs. What strikes you as you walk in are the girls, little ballerinas all chignon, leg warmers and of course perfect posture, sitting on the tables, stretching and talking. The boys are nowhere to be seen but they are around somewhere. On the bulletin board are schedules for costume fittings, auditions and rehearsals, all the business of dance. Falstaff will open the dance season at La Scala and auditions were being held the following week.

I can see and hear the substitute secretary talking on the phone trying to get in touch with the Ukrainian ambassador. It was a matter of obtaining certificates for one of the students but the Ambassador was busy, could she call back later? The look on her face told me this is not her first attempt to contact him, but she politely says ok, and puts the phone down. A young assistant, sitting at a small table nearby, is busy addressing light blue envelopes with Teatro della Scala written in italics on the upper left hand corner and stuffing them with exam date notices. This is serious business, no dilettantes allowed. 

When the Director, Anna Maria Prina, finally comes into the office I am surprised by how she looks. I was expecting someone more, I don’t know, “artistic” looking, whatever that means. Instead I am faced with an elegant, perfectly groomed woman dressed in a simple black suit, most certainly Armani, with several diamond and sapphire rings as her only jewelry. I confess I have never been so self conscious of my posture and bearing as I was during those forty-five seconds it took to walk from the secretary’s office into the office of  Anna Maria Prina. 
 Anna Maria Prina

Once seated she tells me she has been the director of the school since 1974, but her involvement with the school began when she was nine years old and attended school here herself. She tells me the School of Dance has a rocky history. Unofficially it was started in 1778 with the inauguration of the New Ducal Theater alla Scala in Milan, and officially in 1813 when Benedetto Ricci, the then manager of the theatre, formed the Academy of Dance. Four years after the school opened there were 26 students, 22 girls and 4 boys. 

But over the years, under a succession of ballet masters, their numbers grew. In 1917 the City of Milan ordered the theater closed and along with it, the dance school - World War I had broken out. A few years later the famous Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini began twisting arms in Milan’s city government and he finally succeeded in setting up the Theater of La Scala as an autonomous entity. When that happened, the School of Dance was reinstated under the direction of Russian ballerina Olga Preobrajenska. 

La Scala’s School of Dance has hosted some of the most famous names in the dance world, including George Balenchine, the father of American ballet and director of the New York City Ballet. When he chose Signora Prina to dance a major part in a program being performed in Milan that season, she was thrilled. “Working with George Balenchine was heady stuff for a dreamy 15 year old ballerina”, she says. 

When I asked her what characteristics she looks for when interviewing students for the school, she replies without hesitation, “esthetics”. She explained that proportion is extremely important and what they look for are children who are physically harmonious, preferably with a long neck, a small head and long arms and legs. 
 One, Two, Three and Heads Down
To go along with these attributes she says, the child has to be “elastic”, that is a dancer must be able to move, to bend, to jump. In addition to the physical attributes they must also be intelligent, have the ability to concentrate, a certain amount of determination and discipline, and last but not least, musicality. 

Their basic scholastic education is provided by the City of Milan, but that is only part of the education they receive. “Since children come to us at such an early age, it is our duty, actually our responsibility to educate them properly. Their education must take on many forms, not just dance but other things like hygiene, how and what to eat and drink, discipline, how to behave, to have good manners. It’s really quite complex. Most of all, these children have to become responsible adults, if they become dancers, all the better.” 

 So You Think You Can Dance
Admission tryouts usually take place in June each year, but the requests for admission start arriving from all over the world as early as January. Those who make it face eight grueling years of training but if they pass the final exam, they receive the much coveted diploma of “Professional Dancer” they then become eligible to audition for a permanent position with the La Scala Corps di Ballet. That is their goal, that is what they have been working toward for eight long years. Not everyone makes it, but those that do will go on to have a career in dance.

“If they are accepted by the Corps di Ballet, then the work really begins,” says Signora Prina, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. She speaks from experience and I have the feeling she wouldn’t have had it any other way.