Last August while vacationing with Mike in Lee Vining, along Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierras, I overheard people speaking Italian, and tuned into a couple seated behind me in a deli and a young man trying to introduce himself to them. The couple was from Florence, and were not interested in speaking with the young man, but left right after he had tried to speak to them. I told him (in Italian) that I spend time in Italy each year, and asked him where he lived. From that first conversation, Mike and I met Fabio Tedesco, from Bologna. I gave him my card and we invited him to contact us when his 83-day trip took him through Sacramento, and we were rewarded with an Italian on our front porch three days later.
Mike and I hosted Fabio, taking him to tour the Capital building and see both houses in session, accidentally falling into Gold Rush Days in Old Sacramento (shoot-outs in the street, wagons of mail order brides arriving, the Pony Express bringing the mail pouches at a gallop), and walking him around Downtown Plaza shopping mall. He had a Mexican dinner with us on the river, spent the night in Steve’s old room, and could not thank us enough for getting him a cell phone that he could recharge with minutes as he needed more (his Italian cell phone didn’t work in the US). At every turn, when he tried to thank us, Mike replied, “You can return the favor in Bologna when BJ comes to Italy the next time.”
Our trips nearly overlapped totally—he arrived home in Casalecchio di Reno, just south of Bologna, only this Thursday (November 13), so our only chance to meet again in Bologna was this weekend. In his e-mail messages from some of the 12 states he visited on his trip, he promised, “I will make you my queen in Bologna,” and he certainly did.
I began my last trip here with an hour ride on the Eurostar, the high-speed trains that ply the express routes, stopping only in major cities. From Florence, the only stop before Milan was Bologna, and I was there in an hour. Eurostar tickets have a car and seat assignment, but are modern, clean and have tables between the seats for computers, reading materials, or a lunch. Between all of our text messages and a couple of phone calls, Fabio assured me that he was waiting for my arrival, and was waiting on the platform in Casalecchio di Reno when the small local train from Bologna station dropped me off.
I was surprised to see that he had grown a beard since the last time I saw him, but he handed me a focaccia for breakfast and we were off in his little Fiat to Bologna for the day.
Until this year, I had never been to Bologna, but now this was my third trip in two months. I think Fabio was stretching to find things that were new to me, so we walked everywhere. I had learned in the past that the elevated and decorated tombs were revered professors from the university, and we passed several of the tombs on our walk. He took me into a building I had passed many times, right on the Piazza Maggiore in the central square, which was the library.
It was an impressive building full of books and exhibits, with a huge central atrium full of children and parents reading together, and clearly a meeting place for Saturday family outings.
Just outside the library was the Neptune fountain, with the “Leaking Ladies” running out of fluid–finally. I thought I might actually photograph Neptune, for a change, since I seem to have some kind of fixation on the mermaids, instead.
From the piazza, Fabio’s next destination was the marketplace, in narrow streets only a few blocks away. Inside the shop windows, there were a hundred types of cheeses, all sorts of butcher shops and delis where prepared foods were sold by weight. Many of the fruit and vegetable vendors had tables extending out into the streets, with arrays of produce arranged to attract the buyers, and business was booming on Saturday morning. It was a difficult course to navigate among all the people shopping in the narrow spaces, with many baby strollers and dogs on leashes as additional obstacles to our progress.
Fabio speaks excellent English, and was a wonderful guide. He loves all things American, and knows more about the Sacramento Kings and all the other NBA teams than most people I know. I doubt there are many people MORE excited than Fabio that Kevin Johnson was elected Sacramento’s mayor.
He also loves food and cooking, so he explained cheeses like the Sua Majesta’ di Nero, essentially translated to “Your Black Majesty,” a cheese similar to Parmeggiano and made nearby. He took me into Tamburini Velocibo (“fast food”), a deli with roasting chickens and pork on a spit over a wood fire, as well as cooked fish, grilled vegetables, fresh pasta, and one of my favorites—the cipoline in agradolce, which are small, flat onions caramelized in olive oil, vinegar and sugar. (I make them here, but the little onions cost a fortune in Sacramento.)
Fabio insisted that I try the porchetta, which is a young pig roast boned from the skeleton and roasted over the fire in the skin, but the inside is filled with rosemary and garlic and salt before the roast is rolled and tied. The skin was crackly and dark brown, and the rosemary and garlic in the center were fabulous—along with the tender, young pork. We walked for a good hour through the marketplace, looking at all the specialties as Fabio explained them to me.
He picked up a huge, unusual tomato, and explained that the name of this one meant, “cow heart,” and one tomato was so large that it nearly covered his hand.
From the marketplace, we headed toward the university campus, so that I could see what is probably THE first university in the world.
We passed some old oak timber supports on a medieval building, ones that Cheryl and I had seen on our bus tour in September, and probably one of the original arcades built in Bologna. Next, going south, we passed the two leaning towers that are the featured landmark of Bologna, with one missing much of its height, removed when the angle of “lean” reached a level too unsafe for the height of the tower. It’s difficult to show the tilt of these towers with lenses on cameras that make the buildings seem lean inward from the sides of the frame in a photo, canceling out the dramatic lean of the towers. No matter what the angle, they look more tilted in person than I can seem to capture, and this photo is no different.
At the university, some of the evidence of the recent student occupations and sit-ins in classrooms and administration buildings was visible as graffiti on the campus walls. Italy is cutting back on school funding because it doesn’t have the money to spend, and there have been demonstrations for my entire stay here. Recent school take-overs by students have resulted in violence and police storming the buildings, and the students in Milan and Rome have been the most active in demonstrating their unhappiness at impending changes. This wall of graffiti reads, “ La vostra crisi no la pagiamo,” or “We will not pay for your financial crisis”
Parking was our main issue on Saturday, and when we finally found a spot to leave the car, we had to return to add time on the pre-paid ticket. On our way back toward the center, we stopped in the big cathedral south of the train station to look at the artwork.
By the time we got back into the center, it was already beginning to get dark, but we did another turn through the marketplace, still full of fruits and vegetables, clearly restocked all day.
We also saw a butcher shop with both porchetta and a similar turkey rolled roast, filled with the same rosemary and garlic filling. For lunch, we ate at the Osteria dell’Orso (“of the bear”) and had bruschetta with ragu’ and with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a piadino. The piadino is like a tortilla, covered with tomato sauce, fresh oregano and mozzarella, like a very thin pizza. Our last dish was a crescentina, a fried bread that is opened up and filled with salami, mortadella and prosciutto, and is nearly too hot to pick up when it arrives at the table.
Near the hotel where I had stayed twice before, the McDonald’s had another one of the signs advertising the half-pound burger with Parmeggiano as the cheese—a better shot, and clearly with the golden arches of McDonald’s on the poster.
We stopped to look down, in a cellar-level shop, where specialty coffees were being weighed out and ground to order, reminding me of Peet’s at home, and the next cup of my favorite coffee there.
In front of a huge bookstore, Fabio had arranged to meet four of his friends, and they all arrived within minutes of us. Simona and Andrea are engaged, and Sara brought her friend, Benedetto, who was a wonderful storyteller. He works for the “sindaco,” or the mayor of Bologna, and I was warned that he would probably be the mayor some day soon. I didn’t realize at first that Fabio had not seen any of them since he had arrived (he flew on Thursday, slept most of Friday, and then I arrived on Saturday morning), and they were going at top speed in Italian, catching up on news from each other.
After a brief discussion, they all decided to go to the Piazza Maggiore for a cioccolato caldo, or “hot chocolate,” and I was along for the ride. The cups came brimming with stiff whipped cream, with a small shot glass of carbonated water as a chaser to the chocolate that settled out and made the last sips from the glass extra strong. We were also served a plate of tiny cookies, all filled or dusted with chocolate, and I got a good lesson in keeping up my listening skills. Each one of them spoke quite a bit of English, but I explained that I could comprehend better than I could speak, and to just go ahead speaking in Italian. After a question about what percentage I understood (60%? 70%?), I passed the test when asked to repeat the last few sentences of the discussion, and that was the last English I heard. Simona and Benedetto stopped into a little specialty store, and came out with a small packet for my trip home: special candies from Sicily to eat on the plane.
Later, passing by the leaning towers again in the dark, I had the same problem: showing the tilt away from each other is difficult when the lens leans them back together.
The group split up and Fabio and I headed for the car. I got to hear about more of his trip, including the four times that he was searched along the Mexican border. His beard, he thought, must have made him look like a terrorist. He had collected rocks and sand and a piece of petrified wood to give his friends as souvenirs of his trip, but the searches of his possessions found all of them, and they were confiscated. I kept calling him “Mr. Taliban,” and he could not understand why someone who loves all things American as he does could possibly be suspected of anything negative.
Fabio took me to check into the hotel he had arranged for me, the Calzavecchio (“Old Sock!”), and then drove me out to one of his favorite eating places, the Trattoria Rivabella (“Beautiful Riverbank”), where he knew he could order Bolognese specialties that he knew were authentic and good.
We ordered tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms and ravioli with speck (smoked, like bacon) and arugula, and shared.
Then, the REAL crescentine arrived—puffed up and light, like the Mexican sopapilla. They are served with olives, artichokes and peppers preserved in vinegar and oil (“sotolio” in oil, “sotaceto” in vinegar), a cream cheese made in Bologna (“scuaquerone,” that tastes as if the cream were clotted with vinegar or lemon juice), and a plate of prosciutto, salami and other preserved meats. The puff of dough is smashed, the meats and cream cheese and vegetables are added on top, and the dough is folded around the center and eaten with the hands. They were so light, and unlike the ones at lunch—but Fabio assured me these were the RIGHT ones to try. I had a half-liter of great red house wine, and Fabio ordered a Coke, in the bottle, and got a ONE LITER bottle! By a third, it was the largest bottle of Coca-cola I have ever seen, but he does not drink wine and finished off the bottle with his meal.
I was dropped off at the hotel, hardly able to walk from all the food, and went to work on the first day’s photos, trying to keep up for posting this blog soon after I get back to Florence. With only one day to pack and clean the flat, I would not have time to post this if the photos weren’t prepared in advance to post. Fabio headed home, and we arranged to meet in the morning.
I posted a photo here of a small sign on the bathroom wall in my room, because I love the translations I read that are ‘not quite’ correct in their syntax. This one warns that the hot water is REALLY hot if not mixed with cold, and in case the English doesn’t make sense—that’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit. It would not be a good surprise to suds up at 105 and then step back into 122 to rinse off!
On his trip in the US Fabio had a series of small disasters, including having his cell phone not function in the US, having his GPS quit before the trip was over, getting two flat tires at once out in the desert on the way to a Pariah Canyon hike, and dropping his camera into water. Although the camera later worked, it had black spots on the photos, so he brought his portable hard drive and we took a look at some of the photos and he watched me clone out the spots and adjust color, contrast, saturation and sharpness in Photoshop, and was amazed that his photos could be rescued. I said at the beginning that Fabio is a remarkable young man, and some of the photos on his hard drive illustrate what I mean.
While driving through Lincoln, New Mexico, on his trip, Fabio came across a movie crew filming the story of Billy, the Kid, and he began talking to some of the crew. They invited him to stay and watch, and apparently thought he was charming (I do!). The first photo is of him with his arm around the director, whose name I don’t recall. After some time watching and hanging around, he was offered a role as an extra, and had to get his “costume” from the wardrobe person, so I suppose the beard was an asset for his sudden “casting.” He has one photo of him before his shirt was tucked, but with four other actors in the play, including the one of the left, who plays Billy.
Someone on the set used his camera to take a few shots as he was being filmed, walking across the set with a drink in his hand (“colored water,” he said), or waiting between takes leaning on the wall. He was not very happy with the photos, but I have included them here. The next one is of the actor playing Billy. I will tried to attach a 60 second video of his actual scene, walking across the front of the scene with his drink, but the file is too large (darn!).
In the last two shots, he is on the set with a gift from the crew: a t-shirt that was autographed for him by every member of the cast and crew. I guess he was quite an addition to their days, and they wanted to show their appreciation. He also met a screenwriter who later came to San Francisco just before he left for home, to say good-bye, and he hopes to see her this summer in New York City, if he can save enough for the airfare. OK, as I said, Fabio is remarkable!
We spent a couple hours repairing and looking through Fabio’s photos from his trip, so we went from the hotel checkout to the same restaurant as last night, for our last lunch. We got cannelloni and an order of tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms (again, with fresh al dente pasta), and split them up. (Sorry, I had already started eating before I thought to photograph my plate.)
Fabio knows that I love to find food specialties that are regional and try them, so our next order was a surprise for me. First came the “pesto Modenese,” made from lard, rosemary, pancetta, salt and pepper (not good for your cholesterol level). It comes from Modena, home of Luciano Pavarotti (now we know where he got his girth, don’t we?), and melts into hot bread, leaving nothing but flavor. The rest of the order came, with the plate of meats and the tigelle—what look like thin English muffins, but are thin bread with the consistency of crisp biscuits on the outside. They are grilled to a golden crust, sliced open when they are almost too hot to handle, spread with the pesto Modenese and then grated Parmeggiano and meats are added. The top is placed back on, to hold in the heat to melt the pesto, and they are eaten in the hand, like a little sandwich. These are heaven, and I never thought I would be eating lard without complaint. Fabio said that fifty miles away, no one would know what you were talking about if you ordered these—only here. Wonderful! Difficult to choose which of the foods I had at Rivabella was my favorite!
Soon, it was time to take me to the station to catch my Eurostar back to Florence. Again, parking the car was the biggest trial, and Fabio parked with many other cars in front of a closed auto repair business, marked for “no parking,” but this was Sunday. He walked me to the station carrying my bag for me, we took a couple of photos, and then he was gone. I offered to host him any time he needs a place to stay in California, and we may be seeing him again, soon. It was an unexpected pleasure that we would meet such a great young guy on our vacation, and then I would “be his queen” for a day or two in Bologna. I’m sure he’s sleeping now, still catching up on hours that the time zone change has cost him, but he certainly met his promise to me as my host in Bologna.
I had to show my ticket and toss out a “squatter” in my seat on the Eurostar to Florence, but then the trip was uneventful, until I stepped out of the train.
For the first time, I saw the Venice Simplon Orient Express train on the next track, with waiters in short, white coats from the dining car catching a cigarette before the train went back toward Venice. I suppose this is a regular train, costing plenty, but no one seemed to be getting on while we were getting off the Eurostar. I held my camera up to the window to “look” into one of the compartments, and noticed I was among about 20 people doing the same thing.
As I was entering the Piazza del Mercato Centrale, where Cheryl and I stayed together and where I depart on Tuesday morning EARLY, I noticed that the Duomo was visible from the far end of the piazza, and took this shot (no bras, no fish at my window now). I decided it was a way to show how close to the center of the city we have been, with the Duomo at our back just a couple blocks away. We hear the bells, and also the ones at the San Lorenzo church, but we are IN the central historic city of Florence, in a great place to be near everything. I have one day to pack (Monday) and clean the flat, and then I will be hauling my suitcases down all those stairs at 4:30 a.m., trying not to wake anyone else in the building. I’m still staging the “key issue,” since I have a set of keys to leave behind, but I’m in huge trouble if the door closes when the keys are locked in the flat at the top of the stairs. I’m rehearsing in my head, and not willing to put my things out on the sidewalk, even at 4:30, without someone to watch them. I’ll get it done, somehow, and see you all in just a few days!
Ciao, this is the last blog for this trip, and it’s been fun doing this to give you a taste of my trip here, and the people I know and visit. See you soon!