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October 25, 2011

Eat, Pray, Revolt

By Sarah

Pox on the House of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the travelogue Eat, Pray, Love, parts of which I truly enjoyed...aside from its artificial premise. For those of you who haven't read it (or been subjected to the much more nauseating Julia Roberts movie bearing the same name), Elizabeth goes to Italy where she discovers FOOD! And wandering aimlessly.

JuliaSure enough, there in the sunny outdoor restaurants of the romantic Trastevere section where I stayed last week, were my Doppelgangers: middle-aged American women inhaling deeply as they nibbled on fresh bufala mozzarella, their newly purchased pashminas precariously close to dipping into their sparkling Orvieto. I couldn't blame them since I was an Apostle Italia myself. (Florence: 2 pashminas for $10 after some negotiating.  Hey, spiritual enlightenment comes in all forms.)

Granted, the thin, piquant prosciutto, the delicate slices of parmesan topping the tart arugula are unparalleled. The almond gelato, to die for, and the people, exquisite. Friendly, funny, expressive...I've never been among a more enjoyable group. Knowing a little Italian helps - just enough to show you don't know any Italian. Mi dispiace no parlo Italiano and you'll be rewarded with a smile, a joke, perhaps an extra chocolate.

As for the men? Sigh. The day's growth of black beard, the worn leather and vainly wrapped scarves Bova
are enough to make any woman swoon. You never see guys like that in Home Depot.

But let me tell you this: the meme that Italy's got the corner on life, that the only things that matter are good food, great wine, better sex and family? Total bullshit.

And here's why. Italy's a mess and not in a crazy, besotted, Trevi-fountain way. Italy's a mess because it stopped caring  - though the question of whether the Italian people have ever cared about their institutions, government, environment is worth exploring, too. (See Catch-22.)

Being several thousands of years older than our nascent country, I believe Italy is US in the not-too-distant future. Graffiti (an Italian word, no?) covers the first six feet of every wall. Garbage overflows the trash cans. In the distance, factories spew grey, brown smoke and don't even get me started on the other smoke. Smoldering cigarettes in the hands of everyone from young, sexy Italian men (and there are plenty!) to old, fat grandmothers (plenty of those, too!) can turn even the lush Borghese Gardens into a dirty train station.

Never did I expect that visiting Italy would imbue me with a new appreciation for the anti-smoking laws and the American With Disabilities Act. I believe it would be virtually impossible for someone in a wheelchair to make it through Rome. Or someone with a wheeled suitcase to surmount the steps of the H bus.

But those are minor quibbles compared to the larger underlying message - and I'm not talking the layers of Roman civilization beneath the city. The message I got out of my trip is that history is destined to repeat itself, true. But even the greatest thinkers in the past are no match for the steamrolling effect of a growing apathos.

For example, take the Largo di Torre Argentina, an excavated section of Rome about the size of a city block right downtown. Doric columns of a temple remain, as do the crumbling steps of Pompey's Theater where none other than Caesar himself was fatally stabbed. But you would have to be a Latin student  to know this since that rather significant detail is hidden at the bottom of a weathered Plexiglass marker near the corner. These days, Largo di Torre Argentina is more famous as a shelter for homeless cats. Which means Caesar's last words were uttered in what is now, essentially, a grand litter box. Et tu, Kitty?

Or consider the crucial line from Catholic liturgy, "Quo vadis?" which is what the persecuted Peter asks the resurrected Jesus as Peter's fleeing Rome. Jesus's response is that he's going to Rome to be crucified again, thereby prompting Peter to turn on his heels and face his destiny. (Crucifixion upside down, alllegedly.) Now, Quo Vadis is the name of every other coffee shop/gelateria/tobacconist within the city walls. This in a city that treats Pope John Paul II like the Second Coming.

Democracy might not have been created in Rome, but it was codified here. And, yet, Silvio Berlusconi - a known criminal and despised prime minister - squeaked by with another vote of confidence, thereby turning the peaceful Occupy Rome movement into a crazed night of arson, bottle throwing and arrests. Young people are frustrated. They feel they have no say, no future - or so I was told. The next day, however, it was as if nothing had happened. Aside from a few more armed guards, it was all bufala mozzarella, sunshine and Orvieto.

One of the advantages of traveling is that it opens our eyes not only to other cultures, but to our own. I love that the Romans don't frankly give a damn, but that kind of 'tude sucks if you're interested in maintaining a democracy. It won't work. The Berlusconis will take power. The Lincoln Memorial will be overtaken by cats. Inalienable Rights will be a tourist shop on the Mexican border.

Then again, if history is also any indication, the sex and coffee will be awesome. Ciao!





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This may be the most magnificent blog I have ever read.

I went from salivating to chuckling to frowning in recognition to inspiration in the space of moments. Sarah - I have said it before, but I will read ANYthing you write and this is why.

Now I have to go read it again.

Rome is burning.......again?

The Occupy movement has come to my city. While I can't go join them (I've got to WORK!) I think I'll take them a few cases of water and some cookies.

In the good news department, Michele Bachman's campaign staff seems to be waking up.

Why is Michele's campaign staff waking up? What'd I miss?

Brava, Sarah. I haven't been to Rome in nearly 20 years, but it was one of my favorite "go to" city when I was young and single and had money to burn. It breaks my heart, what you're saying. Of course, the U.S. is my country of choice, and it breaks my heart on a daily basis, so . . . allora.

My big challenge is to get more and more politically aware and active, while keeping my heart open and my blood pressure down. I know it's possible, and I know it makes me more effective (not to mention more pleasant to live with) but it takes some doing.

Unfortunately, History does indeed have a tendency to repeat itself.

Although I have not been to Italy, I always envisioned it as a beautiful country, although filled to the gill with crooked politics, mafia and the like. Until my son spent this past summer there as part of his college program, and now all he claimed has been verified by you.

My son, a college student majoring in Classics (minoring in Greek and Latin) claimed his professors were sickened by how little respect the Italian gov't has for historical ruins and archeological digs. And he also said, "...but one thing I learned is that Italy is an absolutely filthy country. Trash in the street and no one picks up their dog's **** and all the Italians are horribly ugly. They cake themselves in makeup and designer clothes and still manage to look revolting. Perhaps the nasty smells, the people's attitudes and all the trash I have to look at has colored my perception."

I was rather amused that Augustus's first act in office was to diminish the wealth gap by imposing higher taxes on the wealthiest classes. (Occupy the Forum?)

Nero did this, too, which is why revisionist historians claim he got a bad rap - revenge. Then again, human torches, setting fire to Rome, throwing Christians to the lions can only get you so far in the PR dept.

Tracy...my daughter's a Classics major, too, which was why I was there. What program was your son in?

It's crazy how poorly marked the digs are. Even the Colosseum gets short shrift. (There's not one mention of Nero throwing Christians to the lions. Not. One.) It all seems very directed toward shelling out more bucks for tours - which just kind of pisses you off. Only tours, for example, can go beneath to the labyrinth of pens where the animals were kept.

There was an exhibit on Nero in the Forum that I really enjoyed, though, so someone's making an effort. Amused to see that Nero's getting a polishing.

I walked all over Rome, at least 5 miles or more a day. (And I have the blisters to prove it.) It's hard to judge a people from a city - we in Vermont are so different from those in NYC. And I have to say that most I met were warm and down to earth. But take my word for it, Italy is in crisis. It's going to bring down Europe, at least in the stock market, in the coming weeks.

But that's the least of its problems.

Not only an amazing blog, but a positive statement about the US. We're at a crossroads, Sarah, and we can follow the Italians down the rocky road to doom and great coffee or wake up now.

It's pretty sad that things have come to this. Italy is a most beautiful country, if you go away from the cities. The Tuscan countryside is truly lovely, and I've wanted to see the Amalfi coast ever since my daughter, on her high school Latin trip, raved about it. When I was in Florence 11 years ago none of what you write about as negative today was true then.

What is the answer? It seems as though Italians have developed the same kind of apathy as some Americans have, which I agree, will be our downfall. It takes tax money to collect the trash. It takes tax money to provide safety services. It takes tax money to round up the feral cats and dogs and manage them. Those of us who insist that we should not pay taxes? We should be careful what we wish for.

Harley, I'm sorry about the white chocolate rant. Cocoa butter just has no chocolate taste.

To each her own, my dear.

Brilliant blog, Sarah. All those Italian men, waiting for their mothers to pick up after them.

NancyM, I went down to our local Occupy encampment last Friday, and I'm going to be toting a big bottle of water down there, too. I asked if they need cups to go with the water and got an enthusiastic yes, even though cups are not on their list of needs.

p.s. Did you read how the Albany, NY DA and cops refused to arrest the Occupiers? In spite of pressure from Gov. Cuomo? Go, Albany!

Reine, where are you?

Hmm, is Starbuck's the new Soma in our Brave New World? Sarah, you are so sneaky -- I was expecting a lightweight travel piece . . Now I'm off to teach aqua with deep thoughts percolating in my brain (and falling leaves like a blizzard outside . . . )

Ok, I learned a few things today:

Pashmina is a really nice scarf. Orvieto is white wine.

A few years ago a friend went to Sicily to see his inlaws. He was amazed at how poor the country was. He fully understood why so many left for America.

Of course my mother's trip to Europe was a bit different. Most of the Italians she met had recently been to America, as POWs.


My son was in Tuscany during May and June on a trip with UNC-Asheville. He also visited several other areas during his stay. Here's the official description: "The 2011 Archaeological Field School will include students from UNC Ashevile, Florida State University and New York University, who will explore the Etruscan sanctuary and artisan workshop at Cetamura del Chianti in the heart of Tuscany."

From one parent of a Classics major to another, I emphasize with you. My son's plans include grad school either in Chicago or Boulder. Although he is a dean's list student and a senior this year, he will have to do one more year to graduate, amking this a 5 year deal. Why? Because right now he is spending one year at the University of Graz in Graz, Austria becoming proficient in German and researching for his senior thesis. Apparently, the best Classics research and topics have been written in German and not widely translated. He is there for a year through the ISEP program and his professors are thrilled, feel it is a real niche for him. When he comes back next July, he will then spend a year working on his thesis before graduation.

And, since Graz is in southern Austria he has already spent a weekend in Venice (only a 2 hour train ride away) and claims it is even filthier than the rest of Italy that he has visited. He claims that Austria is ridiculously clean and beautiful, with practically every window featuring a window box of flowers. He said the only eyesore in Austria that he has seen is the Arnold Schwarzenegger museum that ruins a small lovely village just outside Graz (the Terminator's hometown.) For a hilarious photo, see the following link:


Oh. My. God. No.
The tighty bronzies alone.....

My son went to Italy too. He spent two years driving an ambulance there while recovering from surgery on legs crushed during service as a combat medic. I don't know how he managed with mild autism or why they let him stay on, but I have always suspected his accident was not accidental. His interests are narrowly focused on cathedrals and rescue medicine. He speaks no Italian but had dinner in many homes between Naples and Rome. And of course visited every cathedral in the country. He has little understanding of history and never visited any of the sites that were mentioned. He can read but not write. He loves Katherine Howell's books - a blessing. Italy gave him hospitality like nowhere else in the world, so despite where they are in their current existence, I will always love Italy.

Nancy P. Hi. Just saw your note. Our oldest daughter has been readmitted to hospital - end-stage renal failure. More surgery. Some kind of graft needed? I don't really understand. We were with her recently but unable to be with her this time, as both of us are dealing with personal medcrap. Not to complain. Our daughter is saint-like not like us at all. I don't know where her beauty comes from. But like her little brother she never gives up. She is amazing as are the doctors and staff of Loma Linda Hospital in California.

Thank you, Nancy.

Oy. I can't unsee that Arnold statue, ever again.

Sometimes we need to get out of our own yard to really see how green the grass is. My stepson and his partner are spending two months in Asia, starting with Vietnam (where Ngoc (the partner) is from and still has family) and including Cambodia. They've been gone a week, and though I'm enjoying their pictures and blog, I'm appalled at the way people live. However, that is not unexpected for Vietnam - it is, for me, for Italy.

Thanks for sharing your experience, Sarah. We so often hear the glossed-over version of things, and not the naked underbelly. I'm disappointed to hear that a place we imagine is a bright, shiny city is so far from it.

My question is: How good a democracy are we really maintaining though? No use comparing ours against Italy's -- that's apples and oranges. For what ours is/was supposed to be -- it's a joke. Our two-party system isn't working, and no congressional term limits worsens the problem. Corruption is just as rampant here as in Italy, or anywhere else. It's corporate politics rather the politics for the people. And, unlike Italy's messiness, our messiness tends to have huge, negative global ramifications.

I don't think we can really know what's going on with a country's people when we view them through tourist's eyes. Even living in a country, it takes awhile. It's like travelers coming over here and saying that Americans are fat slobs who only sit around watching t.v. all day. I'm not sure the Italians are any more or less apathetic than we are. We've got a huge amount of apathy going on, Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding.

As for revolting -- Occupy Wall Street is wonderful, but it's hardly a revolt (yet?). Are we Americans capable of true revolt? Not so sure. After all, the tea partiers think of themselves as revolting against the current status quo, don't they?

Oh, Reine!

Oh, Reine! Was exactly my reaction, too.

Lisa, our two-party system is still better than Italy's. They have crazy, multiple parties, each one with their own type of corruption attached. At one time I had a friend whose sister was married to a minister (not the church type) near Rome, and some of the friend's stories were unbelievable.

Why, oh why did I click on that link? Ahnold sure looks pleased, though, doesn't he?

Reine, prayers winging their way, dear.

Oh Reine, you have the strength of gladiators, and I'll bet you need it at times. My prayers are with you.
I enjoyed the post, but despair of the new generations who think the floor or ground is their garbage cans. The Occupy situations are worthy in conception, but pretty messy in reality. Where do people get the idea that a public park is a public bathroom?

Sarah, you are amazing..

Yes, Reine, prayers are coming your way.

Thank you, ALL . . . Nancy, sarh, Lil, Deb . . . oh god everyone . . . this blog and everyone here are amazing.

Sarah, I adore your writing and your style, especially while in attack setting. I wonder is there an app for that? I need an attack setting for my brain. Or a restart button. Could I make my coccyx a USB tail and plug in. Reboot. Start over.

First of all, let me say, I will be thinking of Reine and her family. Best wishes to you all right now.
I lived in Italy for five years as a fairly young child and it is lovely and complex country. It will make you laugh and weep like no other place.
The culture of Italy is very old, yes, but it has only been one unified country since 1861 (I did have to look on Wikipedia, but I knew roughly when). Until then they were a group of independent countries or occupied by other countries entirely. So, I think the cliche that Italians value family above all is true, but is more complex than people realize. My dad always says in Italy the mentality is, "Loyalty to family first, to neighborhood second, and screw everybody else." Someone from the next town might as well be from Mars. That doesn't mean they aren't friendly and charming to strangers and tourists, they can be very warm and welcoming! People had to learn to look after their own b/c chances are the gov't was either corrupt, careless or both. But it is sad that corruption has bred a sense of "whatever" in the Italian people. It only breeds more corruption and apathy and is definitely something we could all learn from.
Oh, and my mom was telling me in Italy the water bill would only come sporadically, but when it came you had to pay it all right away. So you might owe for 5 months, but you only ten days to find the money to pay the bill. Fun times, fun times.

Thanks, Sarah, for your clear vision and straight shooting reporting. Much as I'd love to visit the charming and romantic Italy reported by friends and movies over recent decades, I think any country that keeps letting Mr. Berlusconi stay in office has got to have some genuine problems.

For those who commented yesterday on my indifference (or outright reaction) to sugar, I did go back and add one more comment on how to get that particular lightning to strike. BTW, I realized that I do still respond quite positively to dark chocolate peanut-butter cups . . . but they're not all that sweet, and I don't let 'em in the house all that often.

Also, per Harley/Karen:

Cheap white chocolate might as well be wax to me. But, a high-quality, carefully made white chocolate does still make me wish I were 'into' sweets. At least, for one bite . . . after which, yep, it's too sweet, usually.

We went on a very nice family vacation to Italy three years ago with a large group from age three to age 70. Italy has so much to offer in the way of food, wine, the most beautiful scenery.

It also has some of the most beautiful art ever created...and every time we went into a museum in Florence I left spitting mad, ready to punch some Italians in the nose. For example, the Uffizi Gallery, we bought our (expensive) tickets ahead of time and then waited in the queue for almost an hour. That gave us plenty of time to watch the Italian police harass the Africans selling fake handbags...

We were herded into the Gallery like cattle, encouraged to keep moving as fast as possible so they could herd more tourists in. The galleries were dirty and poorly lit, the floors were filthy. There was no way to learn about the paintings, and the tiny plaques with the name of the painting/artist were hard to read.

When we had been rushed to the end of the museum, you HAD to exit through the gift shop. I refused to buy so much as a postcard. Italy has this cultural treasure, which I did NOT mind paying to see, but they treat it with disrespect and do nothing to show that they care about it, or care whether you learn from it/enjoy it. They care only about getting as many euros for it as they can.

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