Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.

Forking Good Pizza

The citizens of New York City are a passionate, opinionated bunch. So, it is not a surprise that they reacted with outrage and ridicule when their new mayor, Bill de Blasio, was shown on TV eating pizza with a knife and fork.

That’s right — a knife and fork. De Blasio went to a well-known Staten Island pizzeria for a sit-down meal, started strong by ordering a sausage and smoked mozzarella pie, and then botched it by carving up his slice with a knife and spearing each piece with a fork. New Yorkers went bonkers, and the media wondered aloud whether de Blasio had lost some of his street cred as a result. For a guy who has presented himself as a two-fisted fighter for the little guy, eating pizza with a knife and fork seems awfully . . . prissy. It’s the sort of thing your great-aunt Gertrude might do with a look of stern disapproval on her face.

De Blasio defended his blunder by saying that in his “ancestral homeland” — his mother is Italian — people eat pizza with a knife and fork. Please! Everyone knows that pizza in its modern form is an American invention, and the American way of eating it is to grab a slice by hand and gobble it down. You end up with fingers that are covered in a greasy orange glaze, a mound of wadded napkins also stained orange, and a contented look on your face for having enjoyed the complete pizza experience. Eating pizza with a knife and fork is not only vaguely insulting, it also misses out on half the fun.

Good Lord! Does de Blasio use a knife and fork to eat a New York dirty water hot dog, or a doughnut? Imagine a Chicago pol using utensils to eat a dripping Italian beef sandwich, or the mayor of the City of Brotherly Love using a fork to finish off a Philly cheesesteak, or Memphis’ mayor using a knife and fork to eat a mound of ribs. It’s unthinkable!

We’ve already established that politicians should never be photographed eating a corn dog. De Blasio’s experience shows that they need to apply similar thoughtfulness when they sit down to enjoy a meal of classic American comfort food.

Spoon Envy

IMG_1445On our way over to our weekly Dinin’ Hall visit, I remarked to Kish — and special guest Russell — that I had a serious hankering for a brothy noodle meal with, perhaps, some pork thrown in for good measure.

Oh, did the food gods ever answer my hungry prayer!  When we arrived the Mashita Noodles cart was there, and cooking.  Their homemade Ramen noodles were exactly what I was craving.  And what intriguing options, too!  I went for the spicy noodles, the Mashita bacon broth, and the Kool-Aid pulled pork.  That’s right — Kool-Aid pulled pork.  Like every Mashita bowl, it came with a soft-boiled egg and some thin cucumber slices on top.  I had to check it out, and I was willing to run the risk that a large, sweaty, anthropomorphic beverage pitcher would come crashing through the wall while I was enjoying my meal

It was an inspired combination and stuffed to the gills with moist, fall-apart, infused-with-broth pulled pork — so good that I found myself thinking strange thoughts as I used chopsticks, and then a plastic soup spoon, to pound it down.  Thoughts like:  why can’t Dinin’ Hall provide larger plastic spoons so I can eat this even faster?  And:  why do they have to make these plastic bowls with the annoying little ridge ringing the bottom, which makes it difficult to get at every last, savory drop?

As I write this, I recognize that I’ve raved about virtually every food item I’ve consumed at Dinin’ Hall.  So be it.  Their food truck vetting process must be flawless.  I’m beginning to suspect that Dinin’ Hall is like Italy — you just can’t get a bad meal there.

Science Behind Bars

In Italy, failing to accurately predict an earthquake apparently is a crime.

Six scientists and a government official were convicted in an Italian court of multiple counts of manslaughter for giving a falsely reassuring statement about a possible earthquake and were sentenced to six years in prison.  The scientists were consulted after tremors were felt in L’Aquila.  At a meeting, they told officials that a major earthquake was not impossible, but it was not likely.  Unfortunately for the scientists, a few days later a massive earthquake struck, killing more than 300 people and leaving the area in ruins.  Prosecutors alleged that many of the casualties stayed in their homes due to the scientists’ advice and died when the buildings collapsed, whereas people who stayed outside survived the upheaval.

The astonishing verdict and sentence have been greeted with richly deserved outrage.  It also is an embarrassment for Italy, the home of the Renaissance and scientific pioneers like Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci.  It’s hard to imagine any modern, enlightened country concluding that scientists can be criminally punished for expressing their scientific opinion — particularly when it involves predicting something as obviously unpredictable as earthquakes.  What’s next for Italian prosecutors?  Criminal charges for inaccurate weather forecasters?

Hitler Wine In A Weird World

Although we sometimes might think so, America doesn’t have an exclusive franchise on nuts and their weird activities.  You can find evidence of the loony element in humanity across the globe.

Consider the fact that, in northern Italy, a winery makes and sells vintages with labels featuring Hitler on the label.  A couple from America found the wine being sold in a grocery store in Garda, Italy and reported it to the authorities.  Local prosecutors reacting to the report have opened an inquiry, but one prosecutor noted that the only possible crime that could have been committed through the sale of “Fuhrerwein” was the crime of “apologizing for fascism” — because Italy made “apologizing for fascism” a crime in 1952.

So, a winery bottles and distributes what is undoubtedly their worst vintage in bottles with Hitler’s pictures, no doubt hoping that they can sell the swill to fascist sympathizers or tourists who will buy the bottles and take them home to show friends as odd curiosities.  The grocery store owner, for his part, says he views the wine as some kind of historical artifact and stocks it, even though he doesn’t sell much, so that people will remember the bad things that Hitler did.  Sure!  The wine probably is stored in the “dictators and genocidal maniacs” aisle of the store, near the Mao Zedong popcorn and the Josef Stalin laundry detergent.

And, perhaps strangest of all, we learn that Italy made apologizing for fascism a crime in 1952.  Perhaps if it weren’t illegal to remember the horrors that were produced by fascist ideology, and express regret and ask forgiveness for them, Italians would have a better understanding of the idiocy and offensiveness of peddling consumer products with Hitler’s image in the first place.

Saving The Trevi Fountain

If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve likely seen the Trevi Fountain.  It is a magnificent attraction, with its depiction of Neptune and sea horses and other sea creatures atop craggy rocks.  When we visited Rome during a very hot summer some years ago, the Trevi Fountain was a delightful place to sit, enjoy the spray of the cool water, and appreciate the beauty while taking a break from sightseeing.

Unfortunately, the Trevi Fountain is badly in need of repair.  Earlier this year, some pieces of the 250-year-old fountain — commissioned by one of those civic-minded Popes, Clement XII — broke off.  Fortunately, an Italian mineral water company, Acqua Claudia, has agreed to foot the $250,000 cost of the immediately needed restorations.  Whether funding will be located for the more long-term repair work on the fountain that is desperately needed is another question.

The condition of the Trevi Fountain is  symptomatic of a larger problem in countries with significant cultural sites.  Italy, Greece, and Spain, to name just a few, are terribly cash-strapped.  It’s hard to believe that such countries, which reap huge economic benefits from tourism, would neglect the sites that attract those tourists in the first place, but paying to maintain crumbling monuments, old buildings, fountains, and churches, is pushing budgets to the limit.

I hope that other companies step up, as Acqua Claudia has, to help the Italian government maintain Italy’s many irreplaceable architectural and artistic landmarks.  Generations to come should have the chance to see the Trevi Fountain in all its glory, rather than a heap of dust and rubble.

Adverse To Austerity

Elections have occurred in Greece, France, and Italy in the past few days, and voters have cast their ballots against the austerity measures that were imposed to try to put a brake on the European debt crisis and, in Greece and France, have thrown out the governments that agreed to those measures.

In France, the flamboyant Nikolas Sarkozy was replaced by a Socialist, Francois Hollande, who says he seeks an alternative to austerity and vows to increase taxes and spending.  In Greece, voters deserted the parties that had dominated the political landscape for decades and splintered their support among a broad range of parties, including the disturbingly neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn”.  The same trends were seen in local elections in Italy.

No one should be surprised by these results.  Austerity is hard; Europeans are soft.  They’ve become accustomed to rich benefits, lots of vacation time, a short work week, and generous pensions that allow them to retire at an early age.  The problem is that their lifestyle has been financed by debt, and now people are only willing to lend them more if they agree to actions that will bring their fiscal house in order.  The fact that Greek voters and French voters don’t like the austerity doesn’t change that result.  Why would you want to lend money to someone who hasn’t shown the responsibility or willpower necessary to pay you back?

This likely means that the Eurozone concept will fail.  Appeals for continental unity only go so far, and hardworking and thrifty German and Dutch voters aren’t going to support the unrestrained spending of the Greek and Italian and Portuguese governments forever.  The Euro will end as a unified currency, the responsible northern European countries will return to their highly valued local currencies, and the southern European countries will slink back to their devalued and debased drachmas and lire, look around for new saps to loan them money with no hope of being repaid, and find there are no takers.  At that point, the current days of “austerity” might begin to look pretty good, in retrospect.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere for America.