Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Fresh Tuscan Arrival

An early start, some emotional farewells, a labyrinthian bus ride, one wrong train, an easy correction, two more trains and a meandering half-hour taxi ride and we are here: Montefollonico, a medieval walled village perched on a mountain above Montepulciano, just a few stones throw from Montalcino. We, along with Susan from California with whom we shared the final train ride and the taxi, were the last of the group to arrive. At the reception we met a dozen or so other aspiring Italian cooks from the U.S., Canada and Switzweland. Dinner begins in 10 minutes, during which we will also receive our orientation, our cookbooks and our apron.

The inn itself looks like a stone building renovated from the middle ages. Our room, complete with full bathroom and a Jacuzzi, even has a balcony with a classic Tuscan hillside view.

I think we are going to like it here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Abundance, To Say the Least

Abundance. That has to be the theme of the day. Not that every day hasn't spilled prodigal over the rim. We begin and end each day's adventures with a walk through a Villa garden. But today has been a waterfall into a thimble.

There was breakfast followed by a short ferry ride to Varenna, where we were met by Chef Moreno's wife who drove us, spiralling, above the village to the family home and restaurant. Three others were already asembled with coffee and biscotti. Shortly, the class that we only learned about yesterday by serendipity began -- making pasta for pizzocheri and tortelloni, and saffron risotto; folding, boiling, saute-ing, and ultimately eating. We laughed, we learned, we ate, and for three hours we pinched ourselves to convince ourselves that we weren't dreaming. And then the winding drive back down to the ferry, the short boat ride back to Bellagio, and the stroll through the garden home.

For anyone, that would have been enough. But Christian was waiting, and the boats and the nets and the fish. Quickly changing clothes, loading the trucks along with Silvio and Luigi, and donning the slickers, we headed for the "punta" where the boats are kept. There followed another hour of unspeakable abundance -- the two of us with Christian on the waves of Lake Como, up close and intimate with the spray, feeding meters and meters of net that during the night Christian will retrieve, this time laden with fish.

Dinner tonight was, among other things, fish -- still virtually dripping wet from this morning's catch. Tomorrow will be more -- the more that we helped to catch.

Amazing. Just another day in paradise -- with the life flowing over the rim.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Keeping Company With the Introverted Church

Completely isolated, impossibly high on the face of the mountain, we had been fascinated by it since the first time we noticed it from the boat as we arrived and labelled it "The Introverted Church.". Each day since, we gazed across the lake to that lone perch, high above the village below. At dinner last night we asked about it. "The Church of San Martini," answered Christian, and "Si" when I asked if one can get there. "Take the ferry to Cadenabbia," he instructed. "It's about an hour hike."

For someone, I suppose. An hour and a half after exchanging the village's streets for the cobblestone path, we pushed through the gate opening onto the grounds of Chiesa San Martini. The turns of each switchback up the steep incline were marked by artistic monuments depicting the stations of the cross -- until, that is, the switchbacks outnumbered the stations. No matter; by that point we were feeling crucified ourselves.

But it was worth it -- the views were magnificent every step of the largely unprotected path, the edge of which dropped precipitously off to oblivion; the wizzened old lady hollaring at her dog and goats from the gate to her yard; the cheese truck from which we purchased samples along with all the neighbors at the upper edge of the town that became our lunch/reward at the top of the climb in the church yard; trading photographic duties with the other triumphant climbers to commemorate our success; sharing the walk back down with the couple from Dallas. It was a glorious way to spend a beautiful day -- and one that earned our cup of gelato once back from the ferry ride and comfortably again in familiar environs.

Now ensconsed on the patio with a book and a gentle breeze and the sun beginning to settle, it feels good to prop up my feet, enjoy the zillion dollar view, and stare across the water, higher and higher, way up the face of the opposing mountain, and see "Introverted Chapel" up there by itself, and smile...

...Knowing that at least for awhile today it had some weary but happy company.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cartoons, Alps, Boats and Beauty

The Italian equivalent of "The Cartoon Network was blaring from 2 tv's, but we were hungry enough that even dubbed versions of "The Simpsons" couldn't deter us. Lingering jetlag, coupled with a late dinner with new friends Stuart and Lorine translated into an oversleep that extended past breakfast. An overcast, drizzling sky invited a change of plans away from a tour of villa gardens, so we purchased tickets for Colico -- the northermost community on the lake -- and boarded the boat. The guidebook referred to the village as "forgettable" but we tend to remember such places.

It is a small and quiet little burg with little but the laundry open before evening -- hence the less than ambient lunchtime setting -- but we enjoyed a pleasant walk back into town, a kindly old lady unlocked the door to the church -- as if by magic or revelation discerning that we were standing outside -- and the views of the surrounding snow-capped Alps were breathtaking.

Now back on the "Rapido", we are headed back for Bellagio where I predict some gelato is in our future, a little more strolling among the steps and the flowers, and some quiet time before dinner. After all, Christian told us last night that if he caught the right fish this morning he would make us something special tonight -- as if it all hasn't been so far.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Delighted to be Told I Was Wrong

He corrected everything I ordered. Thank goodness. Having successfully navigated the flight to Milan via Detroit and Amsterdam, and benefiting from the kindness of strangers (one who helped us find the train station below the airport, another who alerted us at Saronno that we were waiting at the wrong track platform, and James and Kim, relocating from London to San Francisco to help with Barclays absorption of Lehman Brothers, whose moral support and diligent navigation got us to the dock and onto the water) we arrived without incident in Bellagio. Three planes, two trains, one hydrofoil, and about a mile walk later, we found our hotel. Amazing. And still on our feet after 29 hours of transit.

Checking in, settling in, and strolling around we paused on the patio to survey the panorama: sloping village in the foreground, the lake stretching out before us, met on the far shore by yet another village creeping up the mountain on the horizon. We thought to sample the local fare, ordered, but were dissuaded. "No, not that at this time of day. Try this."

It was to become a familiar response. Later, after a shower and a fresh change of clothes, we descended to the dining room for dinner. Our waiter -- the same culinary counselor from the afternoon -- corrected every single order I placed. Without exception. He allowed Lori the 2nd course we had both initially selected -- a fish with which we were unfamiliar -- but he redirected me to the grilled sardines. That way, he seemed to suggest, we could share. Later, after the minted eggplant appetizer accompanied by fresh mozzarella so fresh it virtually oozed its way onto the fork, and the 1st course risotto with perch (not to be confused with the risotto with the catch of the day in which I was initially interested) and after we had just stepped across the threshold of heaven with the main course, Christian -- the waiter, who we ultimately discerned to be the son of the owner -- went on, with a proud smile, to confess, "I am your fisherman." No wonder he knew what he was talking about.

I am not sure if it represents a weak ego or a strong one, but pushing back from the dinner table, exhausted and absolutely satisfied, I have never been so glad to be comfortable with correction. I think tonight we will simply arrive for our reservations with one question: "Christian, what shall we have tonight?"

Molto bene!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

“A real disdain for moral hazard”

"We are witnessing what I think is the final cathartic rehabilitation of the financial industry. It is violent, and this is something everyone feared but many expected would come, and I think it is the result of years of excessive risk-taking, cheap credit, a sense of invincibility among lenders and a real disdain for moral hazard." Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist for the Economic Outlook Group in Princeton, New Jersey

I know precious little about "risk taking" when it comes to financial planning. I understand even less about "cheap credit." But I have some familiarity with delusions of "invincibility" and "disdain for moral hazard." Exactly what choices and practices the speaker was referring to with that last condemnation I can only guess, but his comments helpfully liberate the notion of "morality" from the prison of personal sexual behaviors. That's not to suggest that our sexual behaviors are somehow exempt; it is only to admit, perhaps sheepishly, that morality is finally about that broad and old-fashioned notion of "right and wrong" – applicable to every aspect of personal, but also corporate, behavior. Faithful people have understood for generations that how we use our assets – how we buy and sell and borrow and lend – has moral implications, but we demonstrate an amazing penchant for compartmentalization when it is convenient. "That's religion; this is business." Or politics. Or war. Or whatever else we don't want to be inconvenienced to think too deeply about.

Earlier in the summer, when a "kosher" meat-packing plant was raided by immigration authorities and subsequently cited for flagrant hiring and even of abuse of undocumented workers and minors, a Jewish opinion writer in the newspaper wondered aloud exactly what it means to be "kosher." Is it just about the way we handle meat, he asked, or does it also implicitly mandate the way we treat people? Is it, in other words, merely a technical issue, or is it also a moral one?

Jesus asked the same kinds of questions when it came to Sabbath keeping. Could it be, in some situations, that we end up violating the intent of the law by considering only the letter of it? Could immorality actually be the result of following the rules?

The financial markets and newsmakers have apparently done nothing "wrong." I haven't heard allegations that laws were broken. Everyone seems to have behaved quite legally – only, and unfortunately, immorally. Money is a seductive thing. We forget that what we do – whatever we do – has consequences. Life is never free of risk, and sometimes the risks are prudently taken. The hell of the present moment is that we are forced to sit in a front row seat watching the consequences of one of those "other" times – when the risks involved should have been told "no."

For financial reasons, to be sure…

…but for moral reasons, as well.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunrise, Sunset. Swiftly Fly the Years

There were pictures and balls and treats and a puzzle; there was cake and ice cream and party favors and a birthday honoree, but at the center of it all was not your average birthday boy.

 Barrington, our Welsh Corgi "puppy" turns 10 this week, and we couldn't let the occasion pass unnoticed.

Barrington, after all, loves company – eagerly waits for it when we tell him that friends are on their way.

And if food is somehow involved...

all the better.

We sang to him, and he either loved it or hated it – it's not that easy to tell. But all in all, the party was a success.

As has his very life among us. Friends will remember that the early days and even weeks of our life together didn't hold out much promise. Having him at all was the interest of only half of our household. But the second half loved the first half and after a whirlwind courtship this tailless little hairball with one flopped over ear took up residence among us – first in the basement where we wouldn't hear him crying, and then in our hearts, and now virtually anywhere else he chooses. Except on the blue furniture. Except when we aren't watching.

Now ten years on, it's hard to imagine life without him – hard to remember life before him; hard to picture life, or even entertain the thought of life, after him. Adorable, brilliant, amusing and endearing, ingenious, winsome, playful and forgiving, he has cuddled and nuzzled and shed and herded his way into the very core of our lives. And we are grateful. Both of us, it turns out.

Happy birthday, Barrington. Thanks for being patient with us; for teaching us well; and for loving us into a whole new way of seeing life.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Miserably Wonderful Virtue of Patience

Ever since 1971, singer/songwriter Carly Simon has caused us not simply to feel anticipation, but to sing it as well.
"We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway...
Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin' me late
Is keepin' me waitin'..."

And so I am singing. Anticipating. Waiting. Waiting, just now, for the real advent of Autumn after these tantalizingly cool few days. Waiting, just now for the buds to break open on the mum that has replaced the geraniums on the front sidewalk. But mostly waiting, just now, for Italy -- nine days and 17 hours from now (but who's counting?).

I've never been expert at delayed gratification, but patience seems to be a virtue more readily in hand as time seems to accelerate the older I get. Whereas Christmas, as a child, seemed to remain forever on the far side of the calendar, now it seems hardly worth it to pack away decorations. It's always right around the corner. Birthdays never seemed to come, but now they seem almost weekly -- rather like my Dad's observation about the way Sundays come around "with ruthless regularity."

But this time, this impending vacation -- even at my age -- I'll admit to childish impatience. We packed almost two weeks ago -- even our quart-sized zip lock bags with their carefully measured 3 oz. bottles. Our passports are as ready as we are. The only thing holding us back... the calendar. It isn't quite time, our eagerness notwithstanding. But that's OK. Once the trip begins I'll be begging time to stand still.

So, I'm watching the buds for practice. Intricately beautiful in their own right, they will open in their own time... the same way that the plane will board. In its own time.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Flip-phone Worship with a full Qwerty Keyboard

The intent this morning was to claim a "common view of reality -- what is the "is" that surround us.  And while we had varied ways of describing it, we similar themes kept popping up -- mobility, for one, which undercuts most familiar calls for commitment; community built on and nourished more by technology than proximity; constant multi-sensory stimulation; behavior motivated more by need than obligation; the recognition that no one is simply looking for one more thing to do; etc.

But a common view of reality did not lead to any commonly agreed upon response to it.  The answer, for some, was "get in line."  At its worst, this is "going along to get along."  "Fit in."  "Emulate your environment."  At its best it is the recognition that "connection" requires a common vocabulary.  "Get wired or get lost."

But others suggested just the opposite.  In a world of constant motion, where might one find a place of stillness?  In a world of thumping sub-woofers pounding out of car windows, televisions never muted, cell phones ever on the belt, iPods constantly wired to the ears and 24-hour news cycles constantly updating us, isn't there yet some need for silence?  In a world of chrome and wire and battery and keyboard, isn't there some hunger for human touch?  If there is a need for music that enlivens our toes, could there also be a need for music that enlarges our soul?

We reached no consensus -- only an agreement to send each other a text message containing instructions for downloading the video podcast developed to argue our particular point of view, soundtracked as we prefer, that we can individually watch at the same time as our favorite cable show we TiVo'd last week.

Right.  Ah!  The intimate warmth of church and community in the 21st century.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Pot-luck Dinners and the Rhetoric of Politics

Growing up in a minister's family it seemed like half my meals were eaten at church pot-luck dinners. Tables sagging under platters of fried chicken and bowls of jello; plates crowded with potato and pasta and green bean salads, spaghetti, beanies and weanies and a deviled egg, with a wedge of pecan pie balanced on top. It was glorious! But here was the thing: the planners never really knew how many would come, and how much -- or what -- they would bring. There was always the latent fear that nothing would appear but desserts. This particular prospect, I'll confess, never alarmed me. Moreover, there was always this concern -- despite centuries of contrary evidence -- that there wouldn't be enough. The worst possible dread of a church pot-luck dinner was that someone would not get his or her share (particularly in light of the odd little elderly woman in our church who routinely went through the line with a plate and an open purse into which she deposited enough food to feed her neighborhood). It was this persistent fear, along, I suspect, with an appropriate measure of pastoral etiquette, that my parents always cautioned my brother and me to wait until the end of the line. "Go last," was the reliable message, "in case there isn't enough."

It was the same message around the table at home -- spoken with the eyes more than the lips -- when guests would join us for a meal: "Serve yourself last, in case there isn't enough."

I've thought about those pot-luck lines this week watching political convention coverage, seeing all those signs exclaiming "America First." Parsing various interpretations of that idea, I've wondered about the planners' intent.

If the idea is that, as Americans, we should think less about our partisan successes and more about the good of the country as a whole, I commend the idea. If the idea is that we should spend less time fretting over the particular advancements of one particular gender or race or state and more time encouraging the equal opportunity for all persons, I'm all for it. If the intent is to recall us all to a greater commitment to our common, rather than our special, interests, then I think we should print up a lot more of those signs.

But if the intent has been to inflame our nationalistic assertiveness and air of superiority above all else; if the idea has been that we should promote American prosperity, priority and security above the needs of the rest of the planet -- above the well-being of all people, regardless of where they live; above the values of justice and compassion and the stewardship of all creation -- then I think the prospect is misguided, contrary to the core values that gave our nation birth, and ultimately self-destructive. To say nothing of sinful.

Can't we, as a country, be proud without being prideful? Can't we, as a people, be grand without being grandiose? Can't we be patriotic without being dismissive and ultimately blind? God knows the world needs leadership, but it simply can't tolerate any more arrogance. It needs strength, but it cannot survive any more swagger and muscle. The world desperately needs imagination and productivity, but it can't sustain any more consumptive self-indulgence. The world has had to put up with too many tyrants and bullies, arrogant and self-righteous and even well-meaning nations who have put their needs, their appetites, their comfort, their satisfaction and their rationalizations first, and it is quite literally sick of it.

I don't know if the double-entendre of the signs was intentional, but if any of this latter insinuation soaked in with the ink, I think our country could be better served by a few less conventions and a few more pot luck suppers.

"The last will be first, and the first will be last" (Matthew 20:16).

"Whoever wants to be first among you must be the servant of all" (Mark 10:44).

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Days of the Funk are Numbered

So Sunday evening Dennis told me I needed to get busy or the blog company was going to close me down due to inactivity. True enough. I could excuse myself for being busy, but I doubt I'm busier than anyone else. I could claim sleep deprivation from watching too much of the Olympics, or brain numbness from watching far more political convention coverage than is healthy for any American. I could lament that everything in my daytime calendar has lodged in the "URGENT AND IMPORTANT" category, instead of merely the "Important," but that sounds like whining. Don't get me wrong: I do my fair share of whining, as anyone around me can testify. It's just that no one would want to read about it as well.

The truth is that I have plainly been in a funk. Perhaps it is the sourness of the mortgage market or the wincing price of gasoline. Perhaps it is the thunderous silence of bankruptcies looming or announced for companies or people few dreamed could find themselves in such a predicament. Perhaps it is the miserly interests rates that signal a retreat in the prospects of leisure rather than the advance I would rather see. Perhaps it is the flooding in our state earlier in the summer or the new round of storms this week in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps it is that vague, diffuse sense that all is not right with the world -- that too many things are terribly wrong. Perhaps it is simply my own internal weariness. Or, more likely than anything, bad moods just happen. Unlike most people, summer tends to have that effect on my affect.

But the temperature has been dropping -- autumn is in the air. Scattered occasionally under nearby trees even leaves are starting to fall. Hardy mums will soon be taking the place of geraniums around the neighborhood, high school football scores already dominate the late-night Friday news. Gas prices at the pump have been dropping in recent days, the dollar to Euro exchange rate has been steadily improving over the last week or so...

And Italy is only 16 days away. But who's counting?
So maybe the days of the funk are numbered...
...and I'll trip, again, over something worth blogging about.