Friday, July 27, 2007


We watched season 4 of one of my favorite TV series ever (disclosure: I don't watch much on the boob tube), MI-5 ,or "Spooks" as it is known in the UK.

The first three seasons were brilliant. Dazzling, laser sharp dialogue and tightly-woven narrative, sympathetic, close knit characters, fine acting by some of Britain's best, mordant humor that blew by so quickly it was hard to catch, and suspense that had us addicted and desperate for the next episode. We watched all three seasons in a matter of days last summer. Since then, I've referred to MI-5 as "24" for brains. The show wasn't just about chasing terrorists. It had drama and depth and in the course of events raised questions about the age we live in and the difficult choices we make.

Now the main three characters are gone, with the exception of the excellent Harry, played by Peter Firth (I saw him in "Equus" on stage many years ago). Harry has a strong moral center. He lives in the past when having said moral center mattered to an idealistic lot. He provides an avuncular but hard-boiled anchor to the work of MI-5.

So, now that the first three have been dealt with, each in their own unpredictable way, we have new characters. They are appealing to be sure, and don't lazily fit into the old formula, but none measure up individually or as a unit to the threesome of the past. We care less about them. They are more thinly drawn.

The writing seems to have suffered a bit. I'd call it smart, but not brilliant except in an occasional flash. The humor is harder to place, and there are traces of a plot line getting desperate.

Still, it is riveting. One of the interesting things about a counter terrorism program made in and set in Britain is the different perspectives you get on things, like torture. MI-5 doesn't patronize, or glamorize, or fetishize it, but neither does it back away from the reality that it is an attractive tool even outside today's USA.

Speaking of which, there are lots of references to "you'll talk because otherwise you know what we'll do: turn you over to the Americans."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Restoring the travel experience?

After making it plain all summer they deserve the same fate as the US auto industry, the US airline industry is going to be facing some overseas competition. I, for one, am delighted at the arrival of Virgin America.

First, they refer to passengers as "guests." What a concept.
Second, they put a stake in the ground and promise to offer the lowest fares. That's value. Check this out: $44 from SFO to LAX.
Third, they will try to offer an overall great experience. Leather seats, mood lighting, connectivity everywhere, on-demand entertainment, "fresh food." (Make that organic and they'll really set themselves apart.)
Four, they know how to communicate to their "guests." Check out the web site.

Now, I have to say I flew Virgin a few times in and out of Heathrow, and it was not great. I did have extra legroom and the food selection was broader than normal, but the attendants had attitude and there were not enough toilets on the aircraft.

But the US airline industry is now so plainly not interested in its customers, I'll give Virgin a shot. I might even join their frequent flier program.

Scary Thoughts

It occurs to me to say something I have not heard before. It came to my mind this afternoon after reading Senator Kit Bond's letter to the editor in the New York Times. Bond is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In it, he criticizes the Democrat "twist" on the National Intelligence Estimate that says Al Qaeda is as strong as ever.

The Senator writes that "our efforts to combat terrorism worldwide have prevented Al Qaeda from attacking the US since Sept. 11, 2001." Okay, I know this is Republican spin and to be expected. But I'm starting to think folks like Bond actually believe it.

He also writes that the US is safer now in part because "other terrorist groups now perceive the US as a harder target to strike."

So what I want to say is that the terrorists' leaders are smarter than our own. Not an original thought, but a very scary one and perhaps why it isn't spelled out too often. It may be why I don't like to dwell on it too much myself. But if Congressional leaders don't get it, what hope is there?

History shows that the terrorists take their time, seal off leaks, test their plans, wait for the right moment like when the Dow is at an all time high and allow us to become lulled or fooled into complacency before they strike. When they strike, they strike big and only exploit our gaping weaknesses. Weaknesses that aren't bolstered very much to this day, e.g., cargo shipments, nuclear and chemical sites and interstate and international channels of commerce. In fact, our weaknesses may have only grown, e.g., depleted National Guard and depleted FEMA which are nothing compared to our depleted sense of national unity.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Slow Focaccia

While in Tellaro for a stroll and photo-taking, we stopped for lunch at a trattoria specializing in fish. Of course, this being in the province of Liguria, focaccia was also on the table and darn good it was. I stopped in the kitchen at the end of the meal to compliment the baker, who was in the midst of preparing another round of the ubiquitous slab of bread. He held out the dough for me to touch. It was soft as slik and punchier than a marshmallow. The "secret" to a great focaccia? Let the dough rise for 5-6 hours, punch it down, and give another 5-6 hours. Even more if you like.

I asked the server at the convent where we were staying about their own foccacia. Same deal. Apparently no one in his right mind in Liguria goes by the standard instructions of a 1.5 hour rising time. They prepare it the day before baking it in a very hot oven, usually in the morning.

I can handle that. It's something worth the wait.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Best Place to Live: Italy

For years my husband and I have fantasized about living an everyday life, not some "Under the Tuscan Sun" fantasy, in the city of Trent. Gorgeous, prosperous, progressive and creative, the city is a great blend of the best of Italian and Austrian cultures, with a wonderful cuisine and a beautiful setting at the foot of the Italian Alps.

While in Italy last month, I read that Trent has been named the No.1 city in Italy for livability, and the sixth in Europe (No. 2 was Bolzano and No. 3 Aosta. My mother's home town, Trieste, was No. 4). It is interesting that these cities should feature so high on the list. They are not towns well known to tourists, and rarely get any notice. They also have a political and economic history with northern Europe.

Should have looked for a teeny plot back when the dollar was riding high (before Bush II).

Slow City

Being an advocate of Slow Food (of which pizza can be a part even if it takes seconds to actually bake), I am now taken with the concept of a Slow Cities. In Portovenere, I read about how the town was adopting the strictures of Citta Slow (officially Citta Lente, but in everyday parlance the term has been Anglicized). It struck me as a great way to salvage what is integral to the meaning of Italy -- balance, preservation, artisanal values, the rhythms of a life lived fully on a daily basis. It is a way of saying "Basta!" to speed for the sake of speed, an American affliction that I too often share.

Any chance of making Portland a Citta Slow?

Well, first we have to have something to slow down for...besides good restaurants and cafes. European mayors have lately been very creative in finding ways to bring people into the piazzas and have them linger. For example, the city of Cremona sponsors crafts markets, concerts, and other diversions every Thursday of the summer. In Verona, the churches and villas are sites for free jazz, classical and rock concerts. In Mantova and other cities, summer solstice celebrations involve dinners on historic bridges and fireworks. These activities create new attachments between citizens and their cities and deepen the sense that they live someplace special.

Imagine a coffee hour or microbrewery tables on the Steel Bridge, while fireworks are set off from a boat on the Willamette. We can do it too.

Italian Fast Food

It was good to see our favorite pizza place outside of Verona was still thriving, seeing so many establishments have turned over. In fact, the pizza was so good we went two days in a row. I'd have gladly returned a few more times.

Great ingredients and technique make for a perfect specimen! A 700 degree oven in which the pie goes for merely seconds, super savory olive oil and tomatoes, the singular taste of native made mozzarella...some things you just have to travel to experience.

How Italy Looks to Me

It had been two years since I'd visited Italy, and that was for a short spell. This summer, the three of us returned after four years for a longish (3 weeks) stay. As always, I'm on the lookout for how things have changed and what has endured.

Cheap intra-Europe travel, a relative novelty, means that Europeans are traveling their continent more than ever. Flights for as little as $70 round trip are available from, say, London to Florence. There were certainly more Europeans than Americans or Chinese by far. It used to be that besides Italian you'd hear mostly German, some French and British English and lots of American English in the tourist towns, but now you hear Polish, Russian, Romanian, Spanish everywhere.

By "everywhere" I mean that the swarms have explored every part of Italy. It is a beautiful place, with art and landscape worth savoring in almost every small town, so Italy Minore is no longer off the beaten path.

But many of these tourists travel simply for a change of scene and care little for the Piero della Francescas and Pontormos, and really just want to eat, drink and be merry without spending a lot of money. Italian businesses have begun catering to these crowds, with a not so pleasant result at times.

Italy has really learned how to merchandise and market itself as a brand -- the good life, beautiful people, food and wine, art. The advantage of that is that now you can actually have longer access to more museums and historic buildings, and the lavatories are better.

It is not only possible, but downright probable, to find really bad food in the tourist towns of which there are more and more. It used to be that restaurants actually cared deeply about what they served. Now, if you don't know where to go and are not willing to pay, you will be really disappointed, or not note any difference from eating a bad Italian restaurants at home. I can now get better pizza in Portland than in a lot of places we visited.

The markets are now the domain of Chinese vendors, selling very cheap "Made in China" clothing, imitations of name brands and bric a brac.

Italy is multiracial! France got there 30 years sooner, but now Italy has its share of Italians of African and Chinese origin. The Church is actively seeking adoptive parents for African orphans and is getting lots of takers, a situation that Italians of previous generations might not have embraced. Today some of the best African musicians live in Paris; tomorrow in Milan?

The dollar's crash is terrible news for travel to Euro land. Japan is cheaper. Hard to imagine being able to budget for a return any time soon.

And still gasp on a daily basis at the driving habits of Italians; when you go to your favorite pizza place or regional trattoria you still marvel at how they turn out such fabulous dishes; you still slow down at midday to recharge for an evening of outdoor eating and clinking of glasses; and the landscape still summons up the inner artist.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


So, we ended a luscious three week vacation in Italy with a flight home through London's Heathrow. It was everything I had dreaded about the experience, and more. As one Brit was heard to say, "Ah, Heathrow. Just as I've always remembered it. An obscene place to be."

Poor London, besieged by terrorists on a chronic basis. Its citizens' famous ability to cope and weather through is admirable and to be emulated. They deal with the constant alerts stoically. So I feel churlish complaining about a small thing like the ordeal of having to travel through its airport. But what goes on at Heathrow is a bit of future shock, I think. So how we experience it is worth considering.

The day prior to our departure, the terminal had been evacuated due to a bomb scare. People in saris, hajib, jeans and African damask were squatting to eat or wrapped in airplane blankets dozing on the yoga mats that had been distributed to those left stranded. Two days' worth of international travellers mobbed all the check-in counters, filling every available space inside and outside the terminal, to wait for their flights to be called. When their flight was finally called, human traffic jams slowed movement through the terminal to a crawl. The proverbial babble of tongues added to the sense of confusion. At times, one caught the odor of those who had been unable to wash. Some people were crying, desperate to get home. But most had a look of weathered resignation. Perhaps many had been through this enough times before to have built up some tolerance.

I thought about the P.D. James book and movie "Children of Men." And for one frightening moment, I imagined the chaos of a refugee camp.

But I did not hear any voices raised, or see any scuffling for the front of line. The British Airways personnel, who on a daily basis must wonder if their jobs have a future in this environment, never behaved as if conditions were anything other than normal. Our flight left a mere one hour late. If only our roads were examples of such civility.

Nevertheless, this scenario may be the new normal for travel. If so, there may be less of it.