Sunday, October 29, 2006


One August day in 2001, I stood in a sun-drenched valley of the Alpe di Siusi, gaping at the snow-capped Dolomite rock mountain formations all around me. In the distance rose the imposing Sciliar, which my husband would climb to the top in a couple of days. My legs were pleasantly sore from a 25-kilometer hike the day before. Tomorrow, we'd hike to the castle, on a path winding through farms where locals gathered the fragrant hay used for restorative "bagni di fieno" and large, happy cows dangled their clanging bells as they chewed.

The world was at peace. The Clinton years had made the U.S. admired and loved again in Europe. It felt good to be an American. The dollar had not been so valuable in decades, and all this abundance came at a low cost. I was on sabbatical and had taken eight weeks to travel and unwind from years of pounding during the tech heyday. Life was good.

And so of course, my thoughts to turned to dinner. I had noticed crates of just-picked finferle on our morning hike when we stopped for some fresh raspberry juice at the malga (mountain farmhouse where local, artisanal food and drink are offered). Might we be able to pick up a few pounds for dinner? That idea resonated with our friends, who suggested picking finferle ourselves. We found a wooded area where they were sure to be found. It was like a frenetic Easter egg hunt, with the seven of us amazed to find fat specimens everywhere we looked. But then we were told it was actually illegal to pick these, which is why the women were stuffing them in their shirts. No ranger would dare ask them to unbutton their blouses to check for contraband! Furbi!

That night the chef at our small hotel cooked us up a creamy ragu with our ill--gotten finferle and served it with hot slabs of polenta. He turned up the music and, in a state of wild mushroom inebriation, we danced: chef, chef's wife, kids and all. Life was damn good.

Now for a confession: that very day in the sun, as I took in that incomparable scene and considered my fine fortune, I could not dispel a nagging thought. Life was just too good. Something was going to give. I could feel it in my bones. And of course, everything started to change one month later.

But the finferle don't change. This weekend, we visited the Portland Farmer's Market and with a pound of funghi with the happy-sounding name, we had our scratch version of a ragu over polenta.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Where's the light?

Just in time for Halloween, here's a sight (reg. required) that really spooks me. Worse than any amusement park house of horrors, than any new sequel to "Saw", is the sight of an entire nation plunged in darkness. Not the short term darkness brought on by a moonless night, or by a power black out, but a darkness of profound, universal ignorance.

What is scary is that in the 21st century global village, united by a network of computers called the Internet, a nation would be able to be without modern means of communication as a matter of choice. A choice, in this case, made by someone on one of the only computers in the country, on this map represented by a tiny point of light in P'yongyang.

It has been ages since I turned the pages of a Bible, which I regard as a wise, often poetic ancient text, but its most memorable lines to me are still those related to the symbolic nature of godliness with light, and ignorance with dark. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

And I still believe that the purpose of the search for knowledge is enlightenment. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. (Psalms 119)

For a long time after my Bible reading days, the so-called Age of Enlightenment was my favorite period of history. This 18th century movement embraced the notion of progress, and rejected the cult of irrationality, superstition, and subjugation that were legacies of the Dark Ages, to bring science and reason into the mainstream for the first time. Without it, we wouldn't have had the American Revolution, the most enlightened to have occurred, to this day. Without it, we'd still be teaching creationism. And that our leaders are chosen by a higher power.

So what is really, truly scary is not just that North Korea is a nation in the grip of a special, imposed ignorance. It is that even in more modern societies we see movements that in their own way are after something similar, and that threaten progress. defines "enlighten" as:
verb -- 1 give greater knowledge and understanding to. 2 enlightened -- rational, tolerant, and well-informed

The antonym according to is:
confused; ignorant

And we know what Goya said about the sleep of reason: it produces monsters.

I hope they don't gobble us up.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Portland Autumn

At any moment, the brilliant Indian summer we've been enjoying can give way to gray skies and pelting rain. That knowledge makes these last days of warmth and sun ever more precious. We look for every excuse possible to walk the dog, delay the house cleaning, pick up a coffee at an outdoor table to gather up stores of sun-induced vitamin D.

The bio-light is on stand-by, ready to flood our eyes with ersatz sun and keep our pineal glands at work during the long spell of dark days.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Driving Smart

My first sighting of the Smart car in the U.S. This one has a WA licence plate. Figures it wouldn't be, say, Texas or Michigan. It is ecological and easy to park and perfect for bopping around cities or for daily commutes without burning up that Saudi Arabian oil.

I see there is a convertible version available somewhere [uses Flash] hopefully here soon.

Bean town, U.S.A.

One of my first memories of coffee is from Trieste, my mother's home town. Yes, as children we used to have our morning bowl of milk flavored with strong coffee, so I did become a devotee/addict early. But the real joy associated with coffee occurred on Sunday mornings, after mass. We'd approach one of the cafes we frequented and the aroma alone of fresh espresso mixed with the sugary scent of palmiers, brioche, and krapfen would make all the boring sermons of the world worthwhile.

Today, whenever I travel to Italy I anxiously wait for that first sniff, that first Proustian jolt, to verify I am on Italian soil, and to whet my appetite for the first Caffe Pasticceria that I can find to commemorate my return.

Of course, Trieste is known to bean buyers worldwide as an epicenter of coffee roasting. The city supplies 40% of Italy's coffee and a recent mayor was the Illy patriarch, the head of a global coffee empire. Triestines drink more coffee than other Italians.

Trieste's many coffee houses are celebrated for their history as elegant, 19th century Viennese-style hang outs for all manner of intellectuals. Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba, and James Joyce were habitues (many of the cafes serve aperitivos and wine as well.) The cafes have been well-tended over the years, and are very well preserved, even if the intellectual is not. On a winter night a few years back, my cousin's husband pulled me out of his palazzo apartment, put me on a tram, and took me to the Caffe San Marco, where Joyce was reputed to imbibe his brew (as well as at the Pironi and Garibaldi, actually) but we couldn't get any of the owners to even acknowledge who Joyce was. Chi e? Non lo conosco.

So I was delighed to learn this week that Portland is, in addition to a culinary haven, a coffee connoisseur's paradise.

Between this and this we have Starbucks gasping for air. Not that we shouldn't give Starbucks their due; before they came along, you could not find a decent cup of coffee anywhere outside of Seattle and San Francisco. Business travel outside these areas was hard to endure back in those days! But if you ask me, Starbucks doesn't handle roasting very well. Perhaps it is hard to do unless you treat the process as a craft, as these Portland roasters do.

It still amazes me that good coffee is not a given in a town like New York City. Sure, you can get an espresso or latte, but in many of the eateries coffee is still of the Chock Full O' Nuts variety. You can see right through the glass pot in which it is served.

Crema Bakery & Cafe, my current go to place for Northwest coffee ambiance, which even hosts international baristas of reknown.

Alas, my coffee days are probably over. I overindulged over the years, and have turned to my second favorite beverage, tea, which is easier on my nerves. I look for it in coffee houses, blending the familiar and soothing ambiance with my new comfort drink.

As a tea maven, I am now waiting for Portland to be known as the place for the best pot of tea as well. Tazo Tea was born here, but my local fave is still The Tao of Tea. It is not just that they have more than one hundred loose leaf teas on the menu, it is that they know their tea and how to brew it. Plus the Indian, Chinese and Japanese sweet or savory snacks on the menu are perfect accompaniments. And it has its own quiet and cozy ambiance as well.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Keeping it simple and simplicity can be two different things. But since my last post, I've noticed lots of reference to both as design and lifestyle trends.

Maybe corporations are noticing that there is a general fatigue and malaise among us consumers over having so much of our mental and material lives poked, prodded and overstimulated.

Fine, but let's not replace that with inauthentic simplicity messages, please.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Keeping it simple

I'm a fan of keeping things plain, simple and true. There is enormous value in getting to the essence of your message, and being able to make yourself understood and memorable to everyone. When trying to speak to the whole wide world, you lose people the more complicated you make the message.

One of the most important tasks in getting to simplicity is understanding the DNA of who is doing the speaking and who they are trying to connect to. For example, in a conversation I had last week with someone who does this kind of thing for a living, I heard this simple message about the DNA of two particular and different societies.

Japan -- craftsman
China -- merchant

That message explains almost everything.

When dealing with a globally-connected world that is still separated by languages, it is important to speak in a way so clear and simple that your words can be easily translated and not misinterpreted. Wikipedia asks that all articles on the U.S. version of the online publication are accessible pretty easily by being written in simple English, thus increasing the value of the whole.

If there is a message that cuts through the noise and cacophony of the 21st century media, chances are it is a model of simplicity.

Good grammar is of course fundamental. Messy written English just messes with the minds of people around the world trying to read it. Of course, if targeting native speakers you have some latitude.

If you are feeling confused, and feel a desire to escape the din from all the messages being thrown your way, one of three things may be happening:

poor communications and complicated messages
an inability of the messenger to really understand him/herself or you
deliberate obfuscation

The problem is not with you.

So if you are one of the Americans who is feeling his/her mind confused, ask yourself which of the above is the problem.