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!


  1. "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."

    This reminded me of a Ted Talk on whether happiness can be bought. The speaker sampled some of the most expensive things in the world, from a bottle of the world's most expensive wine to the world's rarest coffee to Kobe beef. At the end, he brings up the same study you mentioned. I thought you might be interested if you haven't seen it before. :)