October 3, 2009
September 9, 2009
Something I just read reminded me of the only remedy my paternal grandmother swore by: Fernet-Branca. If you’ve never tasted it, you don’t know what you’re missing — and I say that without prejudice one way or the other.
Fernet is a liquer concocted of a couple of dozen herbs and spices and heavily laced with alcohol. There is more than one brand, but Fernet Branca — distilled by the Fratelli Branca in Milan — is the only one most people know.
Well, actually, I’m not sure most people know about Fernet at all, but to the extent that some people do, most of them know Fernet-Branca. I haven’t had Fernet in many years, but even when my memory of it was fresher I’m not sure I could have described the taste. The website romefile.com calls it “a cross between medicine, crushed plants and bitter mud,” but I don’t think that does it justice.
As I implied, I was introduced to Fernet-Branca by Teresina Giordano Paolino, my grandmother, who kept it on hand to cure ailments of the stomach. When I was a kid, the combination of free range in our grocery store and my grandmother’s determination to kill me with food resulted in frequent attacks such as George Ade used to call “the stomach-ache.” If she got wind of such a calamity, Grandma would summon me to her kitchen — we had two, like all good Italians — and force me to swallow a shot glass full of Fernet-Branca. I say “force me.” That was only at first. After a while, I developed a taste for it — my first “acquired taste,” I suppose. It hits the belly like a shotgun blast — garlic, aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galanga, zedoary, and heaven knows what else simultaneously colliding with gastric acid. And the alcohol — oh, my. Depending on where one buys it, the alcohol content of Fernet-Branca can exceed 40 percent. It should come as no surprise that the firewater works — every time.
When Pat and I were on our honeymoon in Bermuda, my stomach started barking after a few days of high living. I was complaining to Cappy, the hotel bartender, when I spied a Fernet-Branca label among the bottles behind him. It was like spotting an old friend in a crowd. I got Cappy to pour me a shot, although he was convinced it would make me sicker, but nothing doing — I was ready to resume the feast in about five minutes.
From what I’ve read on the Internet, Fernet-Branca, which has been around since 1845, is very trendy these days, particularly in Argentina, where many folks like it mixed with cola. In fact, it’s the subject of a song, “Fernet Cola,” by the rock group Vilma Palma.
There’s a Chicago Tribune story about the Argentine connection at this link:
August 25, 2009
Back in June, Michael Kinsley wrote in the Washington Post that the United States needs a new national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable, according to Kinsley, and some of its lyrics are offensive. This is hardly an original idea, and it is likely to go as far this time as it has in the past.
But meanwhile, Michael Kinsley, meet Umberto Bossi. Bossi is a senator in Italy, and he is campaigning to get Italy to dump its national anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”). Bossi thinks the current anthem is a musical mediocrity, and he doesn’t like a line that refers to the nation as “You whom God created as a slave of Rome.” Correspondent Anna Momigliano, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, agrees with Bossi, arguing that the lyric “we are ready to die if Italy calls” is a heavy burden for millions of school children who probably sing the anthem more often than most Italians.
Bossi doesn’t seem to care what replaces the present anthem, but he has suggested that an operatic piece would at least improve the quality of the music. He has suggested one chorus in particular, “Va, pensiero” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco.” This song is widely known in Italy; in fact, it was adapted into a popular song. That’s not Bossi’s rationale, though. He says no one would understand the words anyway, but that the music is nice. Bossi, apparently, is a practical man.
“Va, pensiero” is sung in the opera by a chorus of Hebrew slaves during the Babylonian Captivity. The lyrics refer in part to Psalm 137 (“On the willows there, we hung up our harps ….”). How this applies to modern Italy, I am not aware. Bossi, by the way, is the same chap who has proposed that northern Italy secede from the rest of the republic.
You can read Anna Momigliano’s column at this link: http://features.csmonitor.com/globalnews/2009/08/24/senator-wants-to-change-italys-national-anthem-%e2%80%93-to-opera/
You can read Michael Kinsley’s column at this link:
May 27, 2009
One of my favorite encounters with the unique Italian mentality involved a police officer who was trying to give me driving directions to the Piazza di Venezia in Rome. He repeated the directions several times, but each time I was stumped when he said, “You’ll see a sign that says ‘don’t turn left.’ Turn left.’ ” Finally, he became frustrated with me and told me to follow him with my car while he walked me through the first part of the trip. At the end of a narrow street – an alley, really – he turned toward the car and held up both hands. He walked over to the driver’s widow, pointed at the universal symbol displayed on the street corner, and asked, “Si vede il segno che significa non girare a sinistra?” Yes, I said, I could see the sign that meant “don’t turn left.” “Beh!” he said. “Svoltare a sinistra!!”
The Christian Science Monitor has interesting reviews of several books and a web site that explore various aspects of the signs that tell us where we should or can or should not or cannot go. It’s at this link: http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0522/p17s03-algn.html
May 10, 2009
It’s only May, but I’ve already chosen my favorite political candidate of this year. It’s Maria Donati, who is running for a seat on the municipal council in Saludecio, a little town in the Italian province of Rimini. Signora Donati is 102 years old. According to a story in the newspaper “Il Resto del Carlino,” civic leaders in the town at first asked the signora if she was insane when she offered herself as a candidate, but then – by their own account – they pondered the ancient motto “Chi si ferma e perduto” – “Whoever stops is lost” – and changed their minds.
Sgna. Donati – popularly known as “Nonna Maria” – grew up in a large family in the Republic of San Marino. In fact, the elected officials in Saludecio now include many of her relatives. During World War II, the Nazis deported her husband, Poverelli Aurellio, to Germany. Although she was pregnant, and although the region was under air attack, she rode a bicycle to the headquarters of the Wehrmacht to badger authorities there about her spouse’s status. They were reunited after about a year.
The implication of the story in “Il Resto del Carlino” is that Nonna Maria never sits still as it is. She lives with her nephew and keeps busy with cooking and other chores around the house, but otherwise is likely to be off visiting neighbors – and now she will be involved in evening meetings with the other candidates.
Matteo de Angelis, who wrote the story, commented at the end that Nonna Maria’s candidacy shows that “nonostante l’età, tutto è possibile” – in spite of age, all things are possible. Stories like this always remind me of George Abbott, who died in 1995 at the age of 107. At the time, he was in the midst of revising the second act of ”The Pajama Game,” which he had written in 1954.
“Even at my age,” Nonna Maria said, “it is possible to propose many ideas.” And she might have said, especially at her age.
April 30, 2009
The defection of Arlen Specter, the impending confirmation of Al Franken, and the general disarray of the Republican Party all make for absorbing political drama. But for humor, the bunch in Washington have nothing on the Italians. The latest Over There is that Veronica Lario, the wife of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has publicly repudiated what she construes as her husband’s plan to trot out a team of female TV stars and a former beauty queen as candidates in the June elections in the European Union.
Lario, a former actress who knows about such things, said her sposo was exhibiting a “lack of discretion in his exercise of power which offends the credibility of all women.”
And she’s not being selfish about this. “I want it to be quite clear that my children and I are victims and not accomplices in this situation,” she said. “We have to endure it, and it makes us suffer.” (Note to the stimatissima signora, keep a close eye on those kiddies when they’re surfing the web. Some of those photos of you senza vestiti could be counterproductive while you’re protecting their moral character.)
Berlusconi’s version of this is that his party wants “to renew our political class with people who are cultivated and well prepared” — unlike the “malodorous and badly dressed people who represent certain parties in Parliament.” Not that it’s all about appearances – capisce?
According to The Times of London, this isn’t the first time the two have had – come si chiama? - ”political” disagreements in public. Two years ago, it seems, la Prima Donna wrote an open letter to Berlusconi demanding an apology “after he was overheard telling Mara Carfagna, a former topless model and variety show presenter, that if he were single he would marry her straight away,” the Times reported today. Berlusconi did apologize, but he then included Carfagna as a candidate in last year’s national elections, and, when the party had won, appointed her – no doubt to demonstrate his committment to gender equality – minister for equal opportunities.