Friday, March 27, 2009

Paris to Pisa - Night and Day

Welcome to Pizza!

With this slip of the tongue by an obviously hungry Easy Jet flight attendant, our plane from Paris touched down at Pisa's Galileo Galilei airport. Dinner was also on our minds so the first thing we did after depositing our bags at our apartment was to go around the corner to our favorite neighborhood pizzeria. We were greeted like returning heroes by Giorgio, the restaurant's namesake. On a stroll after dinner on Borgo Stretto, Pisa's medieval Main Street, several other people yelled out: "Bentornati," - welcome back."

How sad we were to leave Paris and how happy we were to arrive in Pisa! No matter how many times we make the switch, however, the cultural shock is always the same -- the change of languages, the move from big city to small town and, most of all, the cultural differences between French and Italian people.

The grocery story, I've decided, is a micro cosmos of these cultural differences. In France at the G20 Supermarket near our apartment, the check-out line was always relatively quiet. People wait their turn and when it comes, there is a brief exchange of "Bonjour, Madame - Bonjour, Monsieur" between the client and the cashier. There are friendly exchanges that go beyond formalities, but it is not the standard fare.

In Italy, the din as you approach the check-out stations is deafening. Everyone is talking - to the person in front of them, to the person behind, to the person four aisles away. They are also talking to me, but I'm not always sure what they're saying since everyone is talking at the same time. No matter. I just smile, say or no, maybe shrug my shoulders and everyone seems to be happy.

Then the cashier looks over what "la signora" has bought and tries to guess what she will be cooking for dinner. "Making risotto with prosciutto tonight?" he'll ask. "No, the prosciutto is for tomorrow. I have some wild asparagus I picked yesterday for the risotto." That is the signal for everyone else to jump in. The conversation starts out with asparagus - how good or bad this year's crop is or how there were many more asparagus when they were young. Eventually, however, all conversations turn to a recipe of their mother or grandmother.

Every season has its recipes and since Easter is upon us, there is a lot of talk at the checkout line about Easter cakes and breads. The other day I waited in line for five minutes while the woman in front of me gave her grandmother's recipe for Schiacciata alla livornese to everyone within earshot. Earshot is pretty far because, did I mention, practically everyone in Italy shouts? Of course they have to shout because they are all talking at the same time. They interrupt each other a lot as well.

This conduct might seem rude to an outsider, but according to an Italian friend that impression couldn't be farther from the truth. "You must interrupt when someone is talking because if you don't," she said with wonderful Italian logic, "how would anyone know you are interested in what they are saying?"

Interest in the Livornese recipe must have been very high because interruptions were frequent as my fellow shopper gave her grandmother's recipe. Schiacciata is a bread that is sweet and light and you can find it in most Italian bakeries. If I understood correctly, the Livornese grandma's Easter recipe uses 12 eggs for three medium-sized breads. Ordinary schiacciata recipes for the same quantity call for only four or five eggs. The Easter recipe is heavy on the eggs because the warm spring weather apparently puts grandma's chickens in a laying mood. There are only so many fritattas a family can eat, thus the 12-egg schiacciata.

This is not a low-fat dish. In addition to the dozen eggs, there is a healthy dose of butter and oil. There is also some sweet wine, orange water, sugar, yeast and, of course, flour. Did I mention that it takes four days to make? I bought some today at the bakery. I don't think it was the Livornese grandma's recipe, but it was very good.

To see some photos of Pisa, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On the Paris Streets Where We Lived

A pied-à-terre in Paris is the dream of many -- just a small apartment where they can breakfast on the terrace and while they're at it,  write the great American (Italian, Spanish) novel. Several friends have done it - buy the apartment, that is. Why not us? We could have, maybe we should have, but we didn't even when the dollar was very high and the Paris real estate was very low.  

A mistake? Perhaps, but on the other hand, over the years, we've lived in more than 20 different apartments spread out all over Paris. Every year is a great adventure in a different neighborhood with new markets, restaurants and shops to explore and with unmet strangers waiting to become friends.  

An early apartment on the rue St. Jacques overlooked the church and charnal house of St. Séveran. It  was divided into two parts with a public hallway in between although the only person who ever came by was the very old woman who lived above. The playwright Berthold Brecht once lived there and piles of his letters were in a bottom dresser drawer, where they still may  be.   

On rue Scipion, we lived under the eaves in a 5th floor apartment that was laid out like a train with one room leading to the next. There were big thick oak beams so low in places that you had to duck your head when you walked by. The apartment overlooked a small square and in the spring, we watched magpies build their big stick nests in the treetops that were level with our attic windows. We shopped at the market on rue Moufftard, the beginning of the main road to Italy in Roman times.

Rue du Pont aux Choux is named for a bridge over a stream leading to a cabbage patch that have all long-since disappeared. We lived there in a lovely apartment with a terribly uncomfortable couch. During a big transport strike that year, someone stole our bicycle. Three weeks later, I saw a woman unlocking it in front of the nearby Marché des Enfants Rouges.  With a lot of talking and arguing, I managed to wrest it away from the thief to the general applause of the crowd that had gathered. 

Our apartment on rue Raspail belonged to an artist. It was minimally furnished and had huge, computer-generated paintings propped up against all the walls. On the other hand, its big floor to ceiling windows filled the apartment with light and at night provided us with a view of the illuminated Eiffel Tower - well, just the top half, but beautiful nonetheless.

This year we're on the rue des Francs Bourgeois (free bourgeois) which was named for an almshouse that opened on the street in about 1334. Its occupants were exempt from paying taxes and thus the name free bourgeois. Poverty is little in evidence now since the street is lined with 15th and 16th century mansions.  Around the corner is the traditional Jewish neighborhood of Paris. French law mandates that most stores close on Sunday, but an exemption was given to Jewish neighborhoods whose stores are closed on Saturday.  So on Sundays, when most of the commercial streets of Paris are silent, the rue des France Bourgeois is at its liveliest.

Our apartment has a view that encompasses both the past and the present - a 15th century hotel to the left and a modern business school to the right.  To visit this year's neighborhood in photos, click here.

Next year? Who knows what adventure awaits? I've heard that prices are low and it's a good time to buy an apartment in Paris...  For now, however, Italy calls. 



Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bretagne - A Land of Extremes

Paris is wonderful, but every once in a while, one has the urge to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. That opportunity presented itself last week in connection with some translation work I did for ELI - The Extreme Light Infrastructure European Project. 

My small part of this huge scientific undertaking to study laser-matter interaction involved translating three songs from French into English.  The songs are part of a program for children to help them understand what ELI is.  First line -   Have you seen ELI?   ELI is light dazzling by.   It's not Shakespeare, but you have to imagine it sung to a great reggae beat with a whole band behind it.  Click here if you want to know more about ELI , which as one of my songs says:

Questions matter, gives answers.
A tour de force to fight cancer....
Nuclear waste he's gonna reverse,
He's understanding the universe.

The recording of the songs was done in a studio in Auray in southern Brittany and I was there to help with any last minute English emergencies. It was also a great opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful and mystical parts of France.  Just three hours from Paris by TGV, France's high-speed trains,  Auray is very close to Vannes with its many half-timbered houses as well as to the inland sea of the Golfe du Morbihan and the menhirs of Carnac.

Joined by a good friend from Paris in a zippy little red rental car, in two days we saw it all:  the rugged seacoast with its 18 foot tides, the islands, the ports, the salt flats, the lost byways, the castles and the megaliths and dolmans  of Carnac.  We drank Breton cider and ate fish soup, oysters, clams and kouign amannthe sinfully rich butter cake of Brittany. (Click here for a recipe and article.)  

The day we went to Carnac was misty  and blustery - perfect weather for viewing the mysterious Neolithic megaliths that date to about 4,000 b.c.   Even if you have seen photos, nothing prepares you for the sight of thousands of enormous standing stones, arranged from smallest to largest marching up a hillside in perfectly-aligned rows.

Why did these pre-Celtic people over a period of perhaps 2,000 years move and align stones that in some cases weighed many tons? Local tradition says the megaliths are Roman soldiers turned to stone.  A romantic notion, but difficult to achieve, even with magic since the megaliths were in place long before the Romans arrived.  Many theories have been proposed - a giant calendar, a seismic indicator to predict earthquakes, a religious monument.  There is some evidence to support another theory  that  the alignments were built  to study the sun, moon, planets and stars.  

If so, then one of the great achievements of the ancient world, older even than the pyramids, was the work of dedicated scientists not unlike those I worked with on the ELI project. The tools of the Neolithic people were less sophisticated, but like their modern counterparts, they tackled seemingly impossible problems in their desire to push back the frontiers of knowledge. 

To see my other photos of  Brittany, click here.

A bientôt,

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Paris Markets

                                                         Les Halles Centrales by Victor Gilbert 

Amid the great silence of the empty streets, the produce wagons made their way toward Paris, the rhythmic bumping sound of their wheels echoing against the houses, asleep behind the indistinct rows of elm trees.  At the Neuilly Bridge, a cabbage cart and a pea cart joined up with eight wagons of turnips and carrots from Nanterre. The horses made their own way, heads lowered, their steady and slow manner made slower still by the climb.  High up on top of the load of vegetables, stretched out flat on their stomachs, covered with their black and grey striped capes, the drivers slept, the reins around their wrists.  A gas light, appearing out of a patch of darkness, illuminated the heel of a shoe, the blue sleeve of a smock, the edge of a cap, barely seen among the enormous flowering red bouquets of carrots, the white bouquets of turnips, the overflowing greenery of peas and cabbage.  And, on the road, and all the neighboring roads, in front and  behind, the distant hum of other wagons, an entire convoy crossing the obscurity and deep sleep of two o'clock in the morning, gently rocking the dark city with the sound of the passing food. 
                          (Travel Oyster Translation from the French, Le Ventre de Paris by Emile Zola, 1873.)

The famous Les Halles market  that Zola wrote about is just a memory and today the food of Paris arrives by plane and train and truck.  The traditional market, however, lives on.  In spite of the growth of modern superstores, open air markets remain at the heart of French culture.  There are 69 markets in Paris.  (Click here to find their locations and hours.)  When you are in Paris, be sure to visit one of them.  Buy some pate, cheese, fruit, a crusty baguette and some wine.  Then find a nearby park and enjoy.

Trying to match the literary beauty of Zola would be a mistake so I'll say no more and will leave you with these photos of red bouquets of tomatoes, white bouquets of mushrooms and the overflowing greenery of peas and artichokes.  (To see more photos, click here.)

A bientôt,

Translation and Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor