Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bologna, Part 1

Bologna is the unofficial culinary capital of Italy.  Mario Batali loves it here.  Practically every street is arcaded.  The very first university in the world was founded here.  It is the birthplace of mortadella (baloney) and ragu (bolognese).  The historical center has two leaning towers (Pisa only has one).  The region of which it is the capital, Emilia-Romagna, lays claim to my favorite cheese in the world, parmigiano reggiano, and my favorite vinegar, balsamic.  Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Ducati are all headquartered in Emilia-Romagna.

I love Bologna.

Like Lyon, the only thing that Sophie and I intended to do in Bologna was eat.  And eat we did.




Tasty breads and tomato-rubbed breadsticks.

An amuse-bouche of fried fish with endive.

Traditional regional antipasto of Parmigiano-Reggiano and mortadella.

Salad of zucchini and apples.

Tagliolini with ragu Bolognese.

Thick pasta with lemon pesto.

Polpettone with parsley oil.

Lemon cake with ice cream!

A very enjoyable meal.  Our second best thus far in Italy, bested only by Le Cinque Terre.  There was too much food, to be sure, but we made it through.  Sophie's pasta was (once again) the standout.  How does she do it?  The strange thick noodles were extremely pleasing and the sauce was out-of-this-world.  Lemon zest and pesto go very well together.

I would write more, but I don't want to.  Ha!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tiny Strawberries

When we were leaving
Venice we came across some
Tiny strawberries.

They tasted floral
And they were so much sweeter
Than the larger ones.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Venice is dirty and crowded and sinking into a lagoon.  It’s the most expensive city in Italy and it is known for having crap food.  No one even lives in Venice anymore because it’s too expensive; it has become a self-themed park for foreigners, a city-sized museum devoted to narcissistic display.  Without the twenty-million tourists that visit it each year, the majority of whom are a part of massive tour groups, Venice would not exist.  Who wants to go to Venice?  I do!

A lot of people call Venice the most beautiful city in the world, but its beauty is not to my taste.  Most of the buildings are decrepit and the narrow lanes are packed with people.  What bothers me the most is Venice’s near-total lack of nature.  Plants of any kind are few and far between.  The only animals that still live there are rats and pigeons, and whew, are there a lot of pigeons.

Too many people, too much trash.

I only liked a few things about Venice.  One, the host at our pension, Locanda S.S. Giovanni e Paolo, was extraordinarily welcoming and helpful, and without him we would not have had a single good meal.  Two, Murano glass is really awesome, and it was fun to browse the shops and see all the crafts.  Three, the church by our hotel was one of the most beautiful that I have been to, in part because it was empty and the sound of the choir, hidden from sight, was echoing through it when we visited.  Other than those three things Venice was a series of disappointments.  A fifteen minute gondola ride started at eighty euros (one hundred at night).  A ride that included the grand canal was one-hundred and fifty.

A glass fish inside a glass cat!  Ha ha!  Ha ha ha!

Everything in Venice is aimed at the tourist.  There is practically nothing authentic and local left in Venice because there aren’t any locals left.  High real estate prices and cost of living have forced all of the locals across the lagoon to Mestre.  Venice is practically the only city in Italy where you have to pay to get in to almost every church.  If I were living in Mestre, that alone would keep me from worshipping in the treasure trove that is Venice’s sacred architecture.  St. Mark’s, at least, is free, but it’s so crammed with tourists all the time that it must be very difficult to use as an active center of worship.  Whether or not anyone tries, I don’t know.

A mosaic on St. Mark's Cathedral.

One cliché about Venice is absolutely true: everybody gets lost.  I had a 1:7000 map, a compass, and Google Maps directions to our pension and we still couldn’t find it.  The problem was that Google Maps doesn’t understand Venice addresses, which are just neighborhoods and numbers.  The other problem was that instead of saying something helpful, like “Google Maps does not understand this address,” we instead had a map leading us directly to Nowhere, Venice.  I eventually managed to find the pension website on my Kindle, which was completely in Italian and practically unreadable on the basic Kindle browser, and somehow figured out what street the place was on.  It turned out not to be very far (extremely lucky) and once we arrived we checked in without incident.

Our room had two Murano lamps,

and a Murano chandelier.

Our first meal in Venice was at an Italian restaurant owned by Koreans.  Frozen gnocchi with canned sauce: check!  Our second was at a more promising looking restaurant near the Rialto.  We ate hideously overcooked spaghetti with yet more canned sauce and a bowl of saltless minestrone.  The Campari soda I had after dinner, at least, was good.  Can’t ruin that, Venice.

The pension we stayed at had a flyer for an opera performance that looked like it might be fun, and unlike everything else in Venice it was reasonably priced, so I convinced Sophie that we should go.  Sophie was in a terrible mood at that point because she had forgotten to take her antidepressants for two days in a row (imagine my relief when she realized the reason for her irritability), so it was a miracle that I convinced her at all.

The show was sickeningly touristy.  Called “Baroque and Opera,” the program managed to contain exactly zero examples of baroque opera.  The tiny orchestra (two violins, one viola, one cello, one double bass, one flute, one clarinet, one oboe, and a harpsichord) was forced to wear early eighteenth-century costumes, as were the singers, in spite of the fact that nearly all of the music was from the mid-to-late nineteenth-century.  The balance of the orchestra was inevitably miserable.  A normal orchestra has a string section of at least twenty players and no more than two or three of each wind instrument.  You could hardly even hear the strings while the winds were playing.  The players tried to get by without a conductor, which worked okay for the instrumental pieces, but just didn’t work when they were accompanying the singers.  The players couldn’t see the singers’ faces and probably couldn’t hear them very well either, which made accompaniment impossible in the true sense of the word.  The singers and the orchestra just weren’t together.  There was no way for them to be.

The singers themselves were okay.  The soprano had a nice voice but was hugely over-dramatic, throwing herself around on the stage like an epileptic rag doll.  The baritone was probably the best of the bunch -- his voice had power and richness but could come off a bit shouty,  which isn’t uncommon for baritone voices in opera, especially the way a lot of the music is written.  The tenor’s voice was small and squeezed, and he lacked the technique required for the interpretations that he desired.  Worst was “Una furtive lagrima,” an aria which does not require the highest notes of the tenor’s range but does require absolutely perfect negotiation of the passagio.  The whole aria sits right in the transition point between middle voice and high voice -- D to high A -- and if you aren’t extremely comfortable you end up exhausted and flat.  Which he did.  The final high A of the cadenza was most definitely an A-flat.

The worst part of the whole performance, though, was the audience.  Sophie and I were just about the only couple there.  The rest of the audience was filled with large tour groups who constantly took pictures, with flash, of the singers and musicians while they were performing.  I don’t care if the official policy of the kitsch tourist company putting on the show was that flash photography was allowed.  Flash photography ruins performances and it must have been hellish for the people on stage.

It was just about the most atrocious parody of opera I have ever seen.  That being said, I still managed to enjoy it because I didn’t bring an iPod on the trip and I was absolutely craving music.  A couple of the songs touched my heart strings (“E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca always makes me cry) and it wasn’t the performers’ faults that they were forced into such a farce.  A professional musician almost never turns down work.  Otherwise he (or she) wouldn't be a professional.

We woke up the next morning to our charming host, whose name we never learned, bringing us breakfast.  I put the tray on our table and promptly went back to sleep.  A few hours later we slowly roused ourselves out of bed, ate breakfast, roused some more, and went off looking for a place to eat lunch.

When we were lost upon our arrival we walked by a restaurant that looked like it might be good.  I actually remembered how to get there, and we sat down for lunch.  We started with a plate of vegetables from the buffet, which were really good but way overpriced at fifteen euros.  Sophie and I agreed that the eggplant and the yellow peppers were the best.

For my meal, I ordered Sarde in Saor, which is a traditional Venetian dish of fried marinated sardines with soft onions.  I expected piping hot fried sardines.  After all, everyone knows that fried food is only good when it’s straight out of the fryer.  I got this: cold fried sardines with cold slimy vinegary onions.  It tasted okay, but it was way too much work to eat and sort of generally ill-conceived, if you ask me.

Sophie ordered pappardelle with fresh tuna, capers and olives.  I imagined fresh al dente pasta, slices of rare seared tuna and a light, garlicky white wine sauce with capers and green olives.  What Sophie actually got, unfortunately, was slightly overcooked pasta with so-so tomato sauce, two olives, barely noticeable tuna, no capers and a whole lot of sausage.  We know that she got the right thing because the menu only had one dish with pappardelle.  It was just the worst described plate of pappardelle ever.

The best part of the meal was the complimentary drink, a traditional peach Bellini.  We downed about half of them before we remembered to snap a quick picture.  Bellini are awesome.

Irritated by our lunch, and exhausted from sleeping in so late, we went back to our room and took a nap.  Before we went out again, Sophie had the good sense to suggest that we ask our angelic host for a dinner recommendation.  “Ah!” he said.  “You want a place, not so touristy, yes?  Very Venetian, very fresh… I know just the place.  I go there myself sometimes.  It is very quiet and hard to find.  No tourists.  I call them to make sure they take good care of you.”  He told us how to get there (it wasn’t very far, or that would never have worked) and send us on our way.

We had a couple of hours until dinner, so we decide to do some exploring.  Our first stop was the church next to our hotel, the S.S. Giovanni e Paolo.  It had a very large and beautiful south-facing stained glass window and Sophie and I liked the whole church a lot.  We sat for a little while and listened to the music, which I have a soft spot for because I sang so much of it in college with the Early Music Singers.  It was probably coming from hidden speakers, rather than a hidden choir of monks, but we’ll never know for sure.

The restaurant had only one table filled when we arrived.  We were not able to successfully communicate to the wait staff that we had a reservation, but that was no problem, because there were loads of tables available.  Miraculously, the restaurant was cheap -- my prix fixe meal of risotto, grilled meat, salad, a half liter of wine and a half liter of sparkling water was only seventeen euros.  Sophie’s prix fixe of grilled seafood, salad, a quarter liter of wine and a half liter of sparkling water was eleven euros.  The wine, a 100% Pinot Grigio D.O.C. Piave, was fantastic.

Thank God for that one good meal.  If I ever go to Venice again (and I don’t think that I will) it will be in the dead of winter, when the heat and the tourists are gone.  Maybe Venice was once great, but the demands of tourism have overtaxed it and the romance is all gone.  The city that I saw was skeleton, stolen by enterprise.  All the life left the place a long time ago.  The only reason to visit is to see the cathedrals, the art, the local crafts, and perhaps to say that you have been to the sinking city.  But for fuck’s sake, go in the off season.

Okay, so it is pretty at night.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


We completely forgot to blog about our trip to Versailles.

We don’t even remember what day in Paris we went to Versailles.

I think it might have been our last day there.

I blame the rose wine.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


We arrived in the hot stone oven that is Florence on a Saturday.  Locals were cooking pizzas on the sidewalk.  The sun was checking out apartments.  “What a nice temperature!” said the sun.  “I really think that I could live here.

Our hotel, the last Priceline deal of the trip, was beautiful, although we had to pay extra to stay in the renovated half of the hotel, thus erasing the financial advantage conferred to us by the Priceline Negotiator.  The old half had neither air conditioning or functioning locks.  The new half was a sparkling oasis of avante-garde toilet fixtures and freezing cold.  The only downside was that our room, and Florence in general, was infested with mosquitoes.

Tuscany is famous for Chianti, white cannellini beans, ribollita, and giant t-bone steaks.  Some call it the most beautiful city in the world, but it seems like someone calls every Italian city the most beautiful city in the world.  For lovers of renaissance art, though, Florence is hard to beat.  Famous statues litter the piazzi like pigeons, which also litter the statues.

The first night we wandered to the old town and grabbed dinner at a cheap touristy place because we were hungry and it was there.  Sophie’s bread and vegetable soup was only okay, but my pasta with spicy tomato sauce was surprisingly good and the wine we ordered, a Chianti Classico, was really good.  We forgot to take pictures, as usual.  But don’t worry -- there will be pictures of food in the near future.  Look: it's Ponte Vecchio!

Lonely Planet mentioned one gelato place in particular called “Vivoli” that was supposed to be especially good.  The authors even suggested that it might be the best gelato in Italy.  The last time I was in Florence I got hopelessly lost every second turn, but with a map and compass it was surprisingly easy to navigate.  I still have no idea why I have never carried a compass with me up until now.  If you have a compass you don’t need a good sense of direction.

Anyways, the gelato was really fantastic.  I still don’t understand what it is, exactly, that makes gelato different from ice cream, but qualitatively I would say that it is lighter and lots more flavorful.  Ice cream, especially fruit flavored ice cream, isn’t usually intense.  Gelato is.  We came back to the place several times, and in the end these were the best flavors: rice, canteloupe, pistachio, and yogurt.  The rice in particular was super awesome; it had actual al dente rice grains in it.  Recommended for lovers of rice pudding and horchata.  Sophie was pleased.

The next day we mostly just sat around and read.  Lunch was at another touristy place, but they had fresh porcini mushrooms and we ordered a plate of porcini fritti, which were delicious.  We wandered into the Duomo, which is huge and beautiful and has a pretty unique color scheme for a Catholic church, but I soon because exhausted by the heat and decided to find a café and read and drink cold sparkling water.

Sophie wandered around the area and shopped.  While we tried to go to the Uffizi, the line to get in was about two hours long and neither Sophie nor I could stand the wait.  Apparently reservations are practially a requirement -- the line to get in even if you had them was about an hour.  We ate dinner at a wine bar and discovered why Tuscany is not known for its white wines.  The food they served was cheap and tasty.  Sophie and I shared a salad of mixed greens with corn and olives -- the olive oil they provided was insanely fruity -- and we each ordered a different soup.  Sophie ordered pappo al pomodoro, which is a bread soup with tomatoes, and I ordered ribollita.  Tomato bread soup is a totally brilliant idea.  The bread cuts the acid and adds richness without making the soup heavy or muting the tomato flavor like cream does.  I’m definitely going to add it to my repertoire of soups at home.

Sam met us for lunch the next day in front of the replica of Michelangelo’s David.  “Hello!” he said.

“Hello!” we said back.

I had looked this time in the Michelin guide for a place to eat and found a place called “Del Fagioli” that looked tasty and price appropriate.  I was most certainly right.  It was a bit off the beaten path, but another American couple eating there said that they had been there countless times (the husband often traveled to Florence for business) and that the restaurant was their favorite in Florence.  They gave us the rest of their wine, a half a liter, and explained to us that the restaurant was family owned, and that we were extremely lucky to have found it.

The menu was completely in Italian, so ordering was tricky.  Sam and I thought that the price for Bistecca Fiorentina was by the kilogram, and we were right, but it turns out that you are required to order an entire kilogram of steak, and so we were also wrong.  Sam and I both really wanted to try the steak, but neither of us felt up to eating a kilogram of steak, or even half a kilogram.  Instead we both ordered the special, which was a sort of incredibly tender pounded meat with a tomato sauce and potatoes.  Everything was perfectly seasoned and flavorful.  Sophie ordered ravioli stuffed with pine nuts and parmesan cheese.  She was extremely pleased.  In total the meal for three people was only thirty-six euros.  It was our cheapest meal in Florence, and also the best.

I forgot to mention on other food item that Tuscany is famous for: saltless bread.  Apparently way back in the history days the Florentine couldn’t afford to put salt in their bread, and it became traditional to make bread without salt even in times when they could afford it, like right now.  They put salt in everything else, mind you.  Lots of salt.  Just none in their bread, which means that their bread, although beautiful, sort of tastes like ash.  Or raw flour.  Or something else that isn’t exactly bad doesn’t inspire vigorous eating.  I really cannot understand this tradition.  People couldn’t afford a lot of different things at all sorts of different times in history, but the moment they could afford it they started using it if it made sense.  I mean, there’s probably someplace in the world where people couldn’t afford shoes for a while, but is there now any affluent area of the world that goes shoeless for the sake of tradition?  I don’t think so. Bread with salt is indisputably superior to bread without salt.  Put salt in your bread.  Just do it.  And wear shoes at the same time.  Children like shoes.  And salt.  You don’t hate children, do you?

We liked lunch at Del Fagioli so much that we decided to eat there for dinner as well.  On the menu was panzanella, or bread salad (they do add salt to this, thank God), tagliolini with ragu, and soup with beans and cabbage.

The soup and spaghetti were good (I make a better ragu) but the panzanella was amazing.  I could eat pounds and pounds and pounds of it.  Jake, learn to make panzanella.  It is delicious and vegetarian and filling and it keeps well.  The olive oil that they used to make it was especially yummy.  I could use fancy words to describe it, like fruity, light, floral, and olive-oily, but I won’t because I’m not that kind of person.  I think that the Florentine put bread in everything because they know that their bread sucks on its own and if they put bread in dishes that traditionally contain salt they aren’t breaking the “no salt in the bread” rule.  At least they found a workaround.  I love panzanella.

As usual we walked home and went to sleep after dinner.  We are not late night people.  We are not early morning people either.  And,

The middle of Day
Is far too hot to really
Get anything done

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Panicky Interlude

When we were in Barcelona I felt like I could travel forever.  I was invigorated by travel.  I wanted to see more places.  Higher!  Faster!  Better!  So I rearranged our schedule to include Lyon and Bologna.  Our itinerary had us visiting eight cities in three weeks.

A week and a half later, in Florence, I felt the opposite.  “Too much travel!” I screamed.  “I want to go to someplace rural and cheap and stay there.”  Tired of the heat and the Mediterranean, and desiring a change, I decided to cancel our plans to train-and-ferry it to Dubrovnik.  “By the time we’re leaving Rome,” I said, “I’m going to want to run for the mountains.”  Getting to Dubrovnik was going to prove to be a huge hassle, as well: we were set to leave Rome at 7:00 AM, arrive in the port town of Bari at 11:30 AM, sit around for eight hours until we could board our ferry, and sneak a poor night’s sleep in our toilet-free cabin before we arrived in Dubrovnik at 7:00 AM, eight hours before check-in.

Maybe I would have been willing to do that at the beginning of the trip, but not anymore.  Part of the fun of traveling in Europe is that it’s so small and (relatively) well-connected, which means that it’s easy to change plans as needed.  I made sure to purchase cancellation protection for all of our reservations with HostelWorld.  All I had to do to get my money back was click the little red cancel button on the their website.  Afterward, I felt much better.  “I told myself that we could change our plans if we wanted,” I said to myself, “and this is proof that we can.”

The next morning I received this email from the owner of Villa Ivan, where we had been scheduled to stay for six nights starting July 20.

Hi Joseph,

You could at least send a mail so apologize.You Americans are totally unreliable guests. This is the not first time since your guest and America to do so but God will not forget.

Thank you,

Needless to say, I am glad at the very least that we are not staying at Villa Ivan.

Later, in Venice, I completed the reworking of our schedule.  Rather than ferrying it to Dubrovnik and taking buses around Croatia, we are going to spend four nights in Milan, where I am going to see an opera at La Scala, and we are going to spend six nights in Lauterbrunnen, which is a village about twenty-five minutes from Interlaken by train in Switzerland.  I do regret that we will not be able to see Plitvice Lakes National Park, but Croatia is surprisingly hard to get to from Italy.  Zagreb is about twenty-four hours from Rome by train.  Split is about thirty.  The main point of rescheduling was to avoid staying in places for only one or two nights, and it just wasn’t going to be possible to get to Croatia without doing that.

I think that I have discovered the limit of my ability to do high-intensity travel.  After about a month, I just don’t want to hop from place to place anymore.  I want to settle down and catch up on the blog.  We have now been traveling for thirty-three days, and we have visited thirteen cities.  The next few weeks will be a lot slower--six cities in twenty-three days--and I am really looking forward to it.  As I write this now, I am in Bologna, the culinary capital of Italy.  And I am hungry.  And I am absolutely going to remember to take pictures.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Le Cinque Terre

It took us two days of travel to get to Le Cinque Terre.  We stayed one night in Nice.  It was nice.  That’s all you’re going to hear about that.

Le Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Park on the Italian Riviera.  It consists of five tiny medieval fishing villages (the five lands) each only a few kilometers apart.  It is probably the most picturesque human settlement that I have ever been to.

I convinced my cousin Sam that he ought to meet us in Corniglia, the middle town, and stay with us for a couple of nights in the apartment that we rented.  He did.

Our apartment was beyond charming.  The view from our balcony extended across the landscape of multi-colored houses and on into the sky.

Included in our stay was a basket of clothespins, so that we could use the three nylon clotheslines that were strung up outside.  We did.

Corniglia is the only one of the five towns that does not have direct access to the water.  That is because it is on a giant cliff.  Pedestrian access to the town from the train station is a stairway of about three-hundred and eighty steps (the signage was inconsistent).  In return for the effort the weary traveler receives an incredible view.  Corniglia is the only town from which you can see each of the others, perched in the distance on the rugged coast.

Le Cinque Terre is in Liguria, a region of Italy known, for one thing, for the invention of pesto.  It is not necessary that the inventor of a thing produce its best variants, but the pesto in Corniglia was good enough for me to not be concerned by the theoretical existence of a superior version.  I especially liked that the spaghetti with pesto often had potatoes.  Good choice, Corniglia.  Potatoes are Good.

Sam led us to the edge of the cliff in the evening and we took pictures.  You see one here.

Our only real plans in Le Cinque Terre were to hike to all the towns.  The first day we walked east through Manarola to Riomaggore, the easier of the two directions.  It was ninety million degrees out and if there hadn’t been potable water spigots every so often we would have died.  I picked up a half-bottle of local D.O.C. wine in Manarola and Sam, Sophie and I shared it on a bench up high in Riomaggiore.  It was so-so wine, but it was good company.  There’s probably a reason you’ve never heard of the D.O.C. wines from Le Cinque Terre before.

The walk from Manarola to Riomaggiore is called "Lover's Lane."  No one is quite sure why.  Some say that it is because lovers particularly like the views.  The path is marked by hundreds and hundreds of padlocks that have the names of lovers etched into them.  The padlocks are locked to fences and other bits of metal.  There are a whole lot of them.  Sam insisted that he take a picture of Sophie and I in a special seat for couples.  We politely acquiesced.

We ate dinner in Corniglia with some friends of Sam who also happened to be staying there.  They were nice, but very different.  Naomi spoke Italian fluently and loved art history.  Hillary was about to begin graduate biochemistry studies with the aim of pursuing a career in pharmaceutical research.  While we were eating, Hillary expressed her wholesale hatred of cheese.  Those of you who know me well understand my difficulty understanding total rejections of food categories.  “All cheese?” I might have asked.  “You’ve tried every cheese, and you hate them all?”

I just read a book, “How Pleasure Works,” about how essentialism explains a lot of human behavior and, particularly, a lot of our likes and dislikes that are difficult to explain otherwise.  Essentialism is the belief that objects contain hidden essences that make them what they are, and the author argued that humans are born with this belief.  His argument, which I will not recount, was strong, and I agree with him.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe that there isn’t something mysterious and important going on just beneath the surface of things.  One of the results, and perhaps the original adaptation of human essentialism is that we find it easy and in fact want to categorize things based on traits that are not obvious.  Dolphins are classified differently from fish because of what is inside them.  In a similar way, the author argues, an object’s history contributes to its perceived value.  Ask any happily married woman if she would trade her wedding ring for a totally identical duplicate.  She wouldn’t want to.  She would want the one that was given to her by her husband.

Because of our essentialism, much of the perceived value of an item has to do not with its utility, but with our particular beliefs about either the item or about the category to which it belongs.  Our essentialism can cause us to over generalize.  Instead of seeing each cheese as an individual product with vastly different qualities, the essentialist sees all cheese as having the horrible and disgusting essence of cheese, and so dismisses it all as potentially likeable.

Some psychologists have wondered how strongly such categorical (and individual) beliefs affect human experience.  Are pickiness and snobbery higher level cognitive processes, or does the adjustment happen subconsciously?  In other words, can a positive or negative belief about an item change the way we consciously experience it?

A series of several clever studies suggest that the action of such beliefs, once held, is subconscious; they alter our actual experience.  Imagine a person (me) who hates tripe.  My hatred of tripe developed when I had a soup with tripe that I found disgusting when I was thirteen years old.  Told what the disgusting thing was, I formed a categorical belief about tripe: tripe is disgusting.  Every time that I knowingly ate tripe after that, I thought that it was disgusting.  Just recently in Lyon, however, I ate tripe without knowing what it was.  It was prepared very well, and completely differently from the way that it was prepared when I first developed my hatred.  I really enjoyed it, but had I known what it was, I probably would have thought that it was disgusting.  More likely, I wouldn't have ordered it in the first place.

One particular study replicated a very similar situation.  A casual survey of beer-drinkers suggested that the belief that adding vinegar to beer would make it disgusting was generally held.  In an experiment, a group of people were given beer with vinegar.  Half of the people were told that it contained vinegar before drinking, and half of them were told that it contained vinegar after.  The group that had foreknowledge rated the taste poorly, while the group that was told afterwards rated the taste highly.  When asked if they were more disgusted by the beer now knowing that it had vinegar in it, the group that was told afterwards said that they were not.  Their memory of the taste was not affected by their current knowledge.  That suggests that neither memory or experience were altered consciously, but that thinking that something will be disgusting actually makes it taste disgusting.

All sorts of beliefs like this alter the way we actually experience things.  One study revealed that if people think that wine is expensive, they will rate it more highly than if they think that it is cheap.  Not because they're snobs, but because the information collected by human senses is subjectively and unconsciously interpreted.  Another study showed that wine experts were unable to tell some red wine from white if they couldn’t see it, and described in detail how the wine belonged to the wrong category.

It is easy to imagine how adaptive that subconscious essentialist reflex is.  If a prehistoric man ate a red berry and got sick, he would be permanently inclined to dislike all red berries, and a good deal of red berries are in fact poisonous.  He would be psychologically (and thus physically) protected from the harmful effects of a majority of red berries.  A species that did not see red berries as being a category, as being linked by their essence-of-red-berry, would perhaps be less likely to survive.  I can imagine, in the presence of language, someone trying to convince this person to eat a strawberry.  “Uh-uh,” he would say.  “Red berries are icky.”  If he was actually convinced to eat the strawberry, his categorical belief that red-berries-are-icky would alter his experience before it hit his consciousness so that it was icky, and so his psychological protection from the poisonous berries would remain.  The fact that these interpretive processes are subconscious is what makes them adaptive because they appear to be objective to the conscious mind and so we react, in a sense, instinctively.

In other words, Hillary, I forgive you for not liking cheese.  We’re wired to generalize at the expense of the potentially delicious exception.

The next day Sam went off with Hillary and Naomi to go sea kayaking in Vernazza.  Sophie and I might have gone, but we didn’t particularly want our first kayaking experience to be in an ocean without a guide (everyone else had kayaking experience), and on top of that Sophie was feeling nauseous because she had forgotten to take her acid reducers for two days in a row.  We ate lunch at a little café that sold sandwiches and bruschetta.  We had the bruschetta.  It was delicious.  Italians don’t ship unripe tomatoes, or something, because the tomatoes are vastly superior to the majority of American tomatoes.  It was possible to buy good, local heirloom tomatoes in the summer in Cleveland, but I have never had a good tomato in Alaska unless it was canned and from Italy.  The bread was toasted and rubbed with garlic, and the luscios tomatoes were complemented by a few olives, a bit of mozzarella cheese, basil, olive oil, dried oregano and salt.  I ate several more from the same place before we left.

The shop that sold bruschetta also had a San Pellegrino soda that I had never seen before called Chino (pronounced kee-no).  Being an adventurous taster, and being confident in San Pellegrino’s ability to make delicious sodas, I bought one.  I opened the can and smelled it.  “Hmm,” I said.  “It looks like some sort of cola.”

I tasted it.

“BLARGH!” I exclaimed. “I think this has alcohol in it!”

I tasted it again.

No,” I considered.  “It doesn’t have alcohol.  It’s just really, really disgusting.”

Chino, as it turns out, is short for chinotto, which is a traditional Italian drink made with the small citrus fruit of the same name.  The chinotto fruit is noted primarily for its extreme bitterness, and is most famous worldwide as the primary flavoring ingredient of Campari.  Now, I actually like Campari in a sort of masochistic way, and I think the chinotto tasted alcoholic to me because I associated it with Campari.  I managed to finish the soda by pretending it was an alcoholic drink; by some strange psychological twist of fate, I am willing to tolerate alcoholic drinks that would be disgusting in other contexts (“You call this a fucking soda!?”) because drinking them makes me feel manly and cool.  "I like bitter things," I say to myself.  "I must be something special."

We decided after lunch to walk to Vernazza, which was supposed to be the most scenic town, and go for a swim in the ocean.  The weather was even hotter than the previous day.  The path was basically a one-thousand foot ascent and descent on giant stone stairs in the blazing sun with a bar that didn't accept credit cards at the summit (I left my cash behind because it doesn’t like getting wet).  The four kilometers took us an hour and a half, and there were no potable water spigots until we got to Vernazza.  We drank a lot of water when we got to Vernazza.

Basically the whole town was swimming in the marina when we arrived, so it was really nice but crowded.  We frolicked for about an hour before grabbing a snack and giant bottle of water at a local store, and walking back to Corniglia.

The fizzy water made the return trip a lot more pleasant.  I wish that I had pictures, but our desire to swim precluded my bringing a camera.

I pride myself on my ability to choose a good restaurant by looking at the menu and the establishment.  Our first night in Corniglia, as Sam took us to the cliff’s edge, we walked by a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a menu written in chalk on the street outside.  “I want to go to that restaurant,” I said out loud.  “That restaurant looks delicious.  Let’s go there.”

I was right.  It was (and as I write in Venice, still was) the best Italian food yet on the trip.  But more than being relatively the best, it was absolutely amazing.  Sadly, so sadly, we forgot to take pictures.  Italian food doesn’t scream out at you to take pictures the way that French food does.  A lot of times it’s just big piles of stuff, if you know what I mean.  But the big messy piles of stuff in Italian food taste just as good as the neat little stacks you get in France.

The menu had both Italian and English, but the translations were spotty and our waitress didn’t speak a word of English anyhow so we were forced to try to match the English descriptions with the Italian words on the other page.  Unfortunately, the dishes were not written in the same order in Italian as in English and so I first accidentally ordered beef carpaccio, which I did not want or think I had ordered.  I sent it back -- communicating that I didn’t want it was difficult enough -- then realized that the mistake was mine and decided to pay for it anyways, although I had no way of explaining this to the staff.  They probably just thought that I was really horrible at math.

We eventually did order correctly, and this is what we got:

Cold octopus salad with capers, onions, and other little vegetables.

Some sort of small fresh pasta shaped almost like orzo with cream sauce, fresh beans and swordfish.

Tomato salad with capers and olives.

Bottle of house white wine.

Everything was amazing.  I saw the octopus salad on another table and somehow managed to figure out what it was (albeit by trial and error) and order it for myself.  I find myself making sweeping hand gestures as I try to think of the words to describe it.  It was just such a perfectly balanced salad -- tender octopus, just the right amount of salt and lemon, flavorful capers, sweet onions and a few other things (maybe potato?) that magically brought the whole thing together.  Sophie’s pasta was one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had as well.  The pasta was perfectly cooked -- it still had a touch of bite but was cooked enough to absorb loads of flavor from the sauce, which was, oh my God, perfect.  I don’t know what they did to that cream sauce, but remembering it makes me look at the ceiling and sigh.  The fish and vegetables added flavor and texture in just the right amounts.  Balance.

The tomatoes in the salad were unripe, but I’m not going to focus on that because everything else was so fantastic.  I should probably mention that the carpaccio, which I sent back, also looked fantastic, although I did not taste it.  The wine was one of the best table wines we’d had so far.  It had a lot of acid, which went well with the food.

I loved Le Cinque Terre.  If you ever get a chance to go there, go.  It is a very wonderful five places.

Corniglia in the background.  Dr. Seuss tree in the foreground.

Coming Up Next: A Panicky Interlude!