Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A View from the Top

Before moving to Milan, we had seen some snapshots of the views from our windows but I was worried how I would adapt because I’ve spent most of my adult life in green and leafy urban areas.

Of course, I’ve not spent my days with views of the Alps or Milan’s magnificent Duomo, and I needn’t have been concerned about the trees either.  While many Milan streets do not have trees or grass, ours has both.  The most populous tree is the magnificent plane; its leaves turn yellow and then brown but don't fall off so rapidly.

Our 7th floor apartment is in a predominantly residential neighborhood in a block of apartment buildings.  Exceptions:

* on our side of the wide avenue is a gelateria/bakery/bar/snack shop and barber/hairdresser on the ground floor of the building next door

* across the street is a yellow-brick building that takes up an entire city block and is – so far as we can tell – the Milan headquarters of the Italian air force!

Between us and this well-fortified building covered with some pretty fancy electronics is a double row of chestnut trees that reach at least to our 5th floor.  The park-like esplanade down the center of the street is primarily for dog-walking, a popular Milan activity, and for parking.

The balcony on the back of the apartment faces southwest (the center of town and the Duomo) and offers hints not only of the trees on other streets, but a special view of a neighbor’s balcony garden, a very common sight here in Milan.

 And sunsets . . . 

In the fall, mio marito and I typically take a day in the rural parts of Maryland and Virginia to see the fall colors.  This year, friends joined us and we delighted in the change of seasons at Lake Como instead:  not so many jack o’lanterns but the change of seasons is beautiful in its own way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Perche? Perche.

Our apartment in Milan is on the top floor of a seven-story building near Piazza Novelli, a traffic circle – or round-about – about a three-mile walk from the Duomo, the center of Milan’s concentric circles.

When we arrived in August, half of the Piazza was under construction; the street is torn up and Jersey barriers re-route traffic in both directions around the other side of the circle.  A huge crane is in the center of the piazza.  High fences obstructed our view, so we couldn’t really understand what was happening.  Some days the noise of construction started at 7 A.M.; other days the silence led us to believe nothing was happening. 

In front of our building, we noticed a sign that was easy to translate:  “Work in Piazza Novelli will cause traffic problems from 9/9/2006 to 1/28/09.”

Since it was already 9/15/10, we laughed when we saw the sign, and a few days later, I photographed it.

Perhaps I was photographed in turn by the closed-circuit cameras, because in yet a few more days, we noticed another sign that had been officially altered:  “Diversions caused by work from 9/9/2006 until ... the work is finished.”

Two days after that, the Jersey barriers were completely reconfigured.  The first half of the roadway around the plaza is still fenced in and mostly inaccessible, and it appears that work is about to begin on the other half of the roadway. 

We have learned from neighbors that a 250-space parking lot has been constructed under the Piazza, which will be a great boon to the neighborhood, where people cram cars everywhere, including on the broad sidewalks.

When will it be finished?  When it’s finished!

Last Friday night, about 7:30, huge pieces of machinery arrived and men started to repave the street in front of our building. We suspected this was about to happen because we saw that the next block had been paved the night before, plus “no parking” signs had been tied to all the posts. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a surprise because our street didn’t need repaving, which was pointed out by a letter to the editor the next morning in the Corriere della Sera.

An American who has lived here for 30 years told me that his favorite word in Italian is perchePerche means both “why?” and “because.”  One can have an entire conversation using only this word.  Perche?  Perche.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To market, to market, to market

Our professoressa at Casa Italiana, where we studied Italian before coming to Milan, taught us about “il mercato rionale,” the local neighborhood market. A Roman, she wasn’t sure if Milan had such markets and, if it did, they surely weren’t as good as Roman ones!

So we were delighted to discover that within two miles of our apartment are at least three local markets on three different days of the week. On Mondays, the biggest of the three fills four blocks of a wide street that is closed for the day, plus it spreads its tendrils onto three perpendicular side streets. Most of the stalls sell clothing, from underwear and socks to coats, dresses, purses, scarves and – at this time of the year – sweaters of every shape, size, and color imaginable. The fruit and vegetable vendors are on the side streets, and here and there housewares, tablecloths and curtains, a woodcarver one week. Other than the produce, about 75% of the items are produced in China, including many of the sweaters.

On Tuesdays, two blocks to the west of our apartment, il mercato rionale is devoted to food, with a little clothing, flowers, housewares, and jewelry thrown in. That street is not closed to traffic, but the stalls line both sides of a wide sidewalk on one side of the street.

This is “our” market, and as is the custom, we have found “our” vendor: a lovely woman, patient with my stumbling Italian, whose selection is outstanding. Surely I cannot be faulted, knowing the word for “tomato,” that I do not know the word for cherry tomato, and what we call “Roma” tomatoes (not what they are called here), and all the six different types of tomatoes she has available one week.

And being able to call a tomato by its right name is important, because here – unlike at home – the custom is not to pick your own produce. That is, you stand in line near the scale, you tell the vendor what you want, they get it and bag it and weigh it, and then you tell them the next item. “Our” vendor is patient enough to follow me around the stand so I can point to the item whose name I cannot remember. I’ve also learned the hard way to be very specific about quantity. Mio marito and I can eat 4 tomatoes before they spoil, but not a kilo!

Our market is a neighborhood market, not on the tourist circuit. This past weekend while in Florence we visited Sant’ Ambrogio, which includes a kosher butcher and some stands with extraordinary displays of produce.

At some of D.C.’s markets, vendors are limited to selling only what they grow, but in Italy, the world is the limit so while most of the produce is from one part of Italy or another, there are pomegranates from Israel and dates from Morocco.

The third market we stumbled on one Thursday. I was frustrated because I wanted to prepare chicken with tarragon, dragoncello, and in two supermarkets and three specialty food stores, we had drawn a blank look. As we passed through this street market, I spotted a woman selling literally dozens of teas and spices, including dragoncello. We call this “the market we don’t go to” because unfortunately the produce vendors are very aggressive, following us down the row with their wares and urging us to buy from them.

The first two weeks, we overbought; I felt like I was spending every minute preparing and cooking produce. Worse, I didn’t want to eat out, knowing that food was waiting at home in our small refrigerator!

Now I’ve become more savvy. While I’ve described only a couple of special meals on this blog, we’ve sampled some other restaurants as well, including two Chinese (much more delicate than in the U.S.) and a fine Indian one. A couple of times we’ve picked up pizzas, which are incredibly inexpensive and delicious, and eaten them at home with our own salad.

Probably five days a week, we eat lunch at home, listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” on WAMU, one of our D.C. public radio stations, over our laptop. And at least five nights a week we prepare our own dinners: pasta with vegetables, salads, chicken breasts – just like home – but with more olives and fresher cheeses.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Treasures of Casale Monferrato

Last week we had the great pleasure of visiting the Piedmontese town of Casale Monferrato, about 75 miles from Milan.

“Casale,” as it’s called locally, was on our list of “must-see’s,” but it’s relatively difficult to reach without a car, so we were delighted when we were invited to go for the day with friends. The occasion was the 90th anniversary of Keren Hayesod, which was being marked by the “Keren” chapter of Torino with a guided tour of Casale’s synagogue during Sukkot.

(Keren Hayesod is the Hebrew name – used internationally – for what we in the U.S. know as the United Jewish Appeal. Internationally, “Keren” almost exclusively raises funds for Israel; the UJA serves as an umbrella organization in the U.S. that raises money both for Israel and for local programs.)

The Jewish community of Casale dates back to the 15th century; the Encyclopedia Judaica says the first Jews arrived in the 1430s, though other sources says the community was established when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Only two Jewish families remain in Casale, though at its height, the community numbered more than 1,000. We had the pleasure of being given a guided tour of the synagogue, built in 1592, by Adriana Ottolenghi. She and her husband Dr. Giorgio Ottolenghi, as well as a representative of the other family, were on hand to greet visitors, as apparently they are on most Sundays, special groups notwithstanding, when dozens of tourists visit the synagogue and its museum.

Many people consider the synagogue to be the most beautiful in Europe. Finer photos of it than I could ever take, as well as more information about the Casale Jewish community, are at  Rabbi Louis Kaplan has written a fine essay about his 2000 visit to the synagogue and includes a history of the Jewish community; you can read it at

The highly embellished Baroque interior is a stark contrast to the nondescript exterior. In accordance with the rules of many European towns and villages, the Jews were allowed to build a synagogue so long as no one knew it was there. The building was not to be distinguished from the outside, nor could music or praying be heard by passersby. That was centuries ago. Today, interestingly, everyone whom we asked for directions sent us the wrong way, not purposely but because they themselves didn’t seem to know how to get there. Even the official tourist information signs were unclear.

The website of the community does not show the charming courtyard where the sukkah appropriately stood next to a pomegranate tree loaded with fruit. On the pavement, the motif was bees, givers of sweetness and light, appropriate to Sukkot as well as other holidays.

Nor does the website do justice to what Mrs. Ottolenghi led us to in the basement of the synagogue complex: dozens of the most creative and picturesque modern Chanukiyot we have ever seen. About 40 were on display out of a collection of more than 100 owned by the community/synagogue/museum. They are about to make their first trip together away from Casale, to the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme in Paris (

You can see a few of these extraordinary menorahs at
They were created by both Jewish and non-Jewish artists out of every material, from BIC pens to sterno cans to silver, crystal, brass, acrylic, film: every possible medium that could represent the unlimited imaginations of the artists. My personal favorite, fashioned from gold-plated wire and wax by Jessica R. Carroll of Rome, replicates the bee motif of the synagogue’s courtyard. Her father, sculptor Robert Carroll, a native of Wisconsin, has carved an eight-branch menorah of olivewood with a brass shamash mounted on an Italian granite base. Celebrate Chanukah early by visiting the website!

* * *
The meal

A day in Piedmont must include, our friends assured us, a typical Piedmontese Sunday lunch, which it was our pleasure to share at Osteria Amarotto in Casale Monferrato.  They should know!  David and Carol Ross, retired U.S. foreign service officers, operate Sophisticated Italy, helping travelers get to know the best of Italy, and they are among the founders of our Milan congregation.

Mio marito and our friends took the prix-fixe menu, which began with a “white meat paté” of chicken and veal; I tasted some and it was superb. That was followed by a small vegetable tart; then tagliatelle in a too-salty broth; then bollito misto. This last dish – a mélange of cuts of beef and veal – boiled together, was served from a rolling cart with several sauces.

I went the à la carte route because I wanted lamb chops, which were tiny and fragrant, and I wanted to try the peperoni bagna cauda after our friends described “bagna cauda” as a hot sauce of olive oil and garlic. Unfortunately they forgot the third major ingredient: anchovies. Mio marito liked it very much, and I was happy with his tartine de verdure. (Lest I seem a picky eater . . . it’s just fish, in most forms, for which I’ve never developed a taste.)

Dessert was two kinds of cake, also akin to patés: one chocolate, one nougat. Heavenly.

Our friends chose a lovely red wine, and for once I drank in mid-day, but only a few sips. I did not want to be sleepy for either the synagogue tour or the promised stop at a cashmere outlet on the way home.