Is It True That You Don’t Tip In Italy?

Is it true that you don’t have to tip in Italy? Yes, it’s true. But people are happy if you do. In sit down restaurants, one can add ten percent or so. In the touristy places, they may expect it. But, as there are so few tourists (and right now during an orange day or month, no traveling outside your city — so only very local tourist) in Italy due to the virus, I think the foreigners make sure to tip.

In a taxi, round to the nearest Euro. In a casual place, like a stand up pizza place, no tipping necessary.

Not sure about tipping the shampoo gal/guy as I haven’t been to a salon here (a bad haircut helps keep me at home, although shaving my eyebrows would work better).

Crave – Food at the Source

I know that it is the general convention that dishes, food, is best tasted at the source. I think that does some disservice to the diaspora and fusion food that has evolved over the millennia. That said, here is a list of food that I often crave. Actually, for many of the dishes, I prefer in their newer form. But, then again… some I prefer at the source.

Ceviche — I like the classic old fashioned version. The Peruvians love fusion. They are a fusion and so is their food. So now one can find “warm ceviche” and ceviche not made with fish.

“Ceviche classico” with “leche de tigre” (tiger’s milk) making the fish turn white.

Danish hotdog — I prefer them in Denmark. The actual hotdog is special, the ketchup is different, the dog is served with crunchy fried onions…
New York pizza — also, one of those things. Some say that the New York pizza is like a Neopolitan pizza from Naples, Italy. We shall see…
Hamburger — Some of the best I’ve had are in the United States. American beef and lack of gristle in the mix.
Banh mi — I’ve had good ones outside of Vietnam.
Pho — Also, good in the certain parts of the United States. Very bland in other places.
Korean BBQ — If one sticks to the pork belly, then it’s fairly easy to get good Korean barbecue in many countries. I think that many people think that bulgogi should be made with a high grade of beef and grilled at the table. Traditionally, bulgogi was created to use bad cuts of meat that required marinating. Usually the slices are so thin that grilling at the table dries them out. Some places use good cuts of steak and then one can dip them in sesame seed oil and salt. This is a delicious way to eat barbecue.
Chicken wings — Oddly, some of the best barbecue wings I’ve had were in a pizzeria in New Mexico.
Dim sum — can be good in many places outside China.

Laksa — so far the best I’ve had, and even some of the mediocre, was in Singapore and Malaysia. What can I say?

Most of all, the food of other lands transports you to them.

Soup for Soupy Skies

A really old photo of a delicious Korean beef rib soup.

After the gray skies of Lima, I feel like it’s blue skies here in Rome every day. But, of course, that’s not true. There are rainy days and I’ve had to use my umbrellas for the first time in years (it never rains in Lima). When it’s rainy out, I really like to slurp soup.

One of the delights of Peru was that I never had a bad bowl of soup. It seemed like everyone knew how to make “sopa criolla” or creole soup — basically a chicken noodle soup. The kind your Jewish mother used to make (as David Chang says).

While I like chicken soup, I love spicy Asian soups with spice and treasure trove of ingredients in my bowl. Some of my favorites are hot and sour soup, pho, and laksa. Pho always allows for lots of greens which I love in spicy soup. Laksa is a curry style soup with noodles and seafood, plus tofu cakes, and many other things.

Pho is a clear bone broth soup.
Look at the serious amount of greens this couple is putting in their pho.
Laksa with hard boiled eggs, fish cakes, and other yumminess.

In Singapore, I went to the most famous location for laksa. It was good. One day I went to a mall (it’s a country of malls), and found a “pick your own 100 ingredients” soup place. Heaven! While not on par with the famous place on the number 14 bus, even the laksa at the airport was good.

Laksa with tofu cakes, seafood, and the usual noodles.
Laksa on the menu!

Here’s to happy virtual traveling and soon, slurping at the source!

Unexpected Things About Moving To Rome

Today is Boxing Day which is St. Stephen’s Day here in Italy. As we are on day three of red zone lockdown, I have time to reflect.

Moving to a new country has both its delights and irritations. Then, there are the things that I just hadn’t contemplated or expected.

Eating cookies for breakfast: that takes getting used to. They also eat croissants (un cornetto is a croissant) and pizza for breakfast. The breakfast pizza is a sandwich made with pizza bread which is like focaccia (the pizza can be many things here and is in many ways simply “bread”). Another thing is that mayonnaise for your sandwich for breakfast is okay, but most sandwiches are quite sparsely filled and have very little “lettuce, tomato,…” but instead the extremely popular bologna, mortadella, provides enough fat (there is a required amount of fat squares that must be visible) to butter the sandwich. Another thing is that you can get meatballs, ham with fresh mozzarella, sautéed broccoli greens, and almost anything in a sandwich. It just won’t be very tall.

Trash on the street: the trash dumpsters are communal and this means that there are trash dumpsters on every street. It’s all out there for everyone to see. Not hidden away in the bowels of the buildings or back alley.

Tupperware/food containers: I had not expected this to be so hard to find. I suppose it’s because Italians eat fresh food every day. Or at least they don’t cook up a storm on a Sunday and then neatly stack containers of food in the freezer. It’s not that Italians don’t have left overs. They do. They are extremely frugal. But, they just store it in some other way. I’m not sure what. On the other hand, I can easily find a pasta making board at the kitchen store.

Ham (proscuitto cotto): It’s so good here. And I’m not even talking about proscuitto and porchetta, and all those other lovely pork products. I just mean simple pink ham to go on my bread.

The freshness: fresh fruit is sold ripe here so it also goes bad a bit faster than in the U.S. Fruit is not stored in the fridge so it dries out or begins to molder. The clementines are lovely this time of year in Rome but I didn’t expect them to start going mushy on day five. One day I ate eight clementines to eat them all before they went bad. I could freeze the pulp but fresh juice is not as common here as in Peru. In Peru, one always new it was morning because of the sound of blenders whizzing all over Lima. In Peru, the method is to blitz the fruit and then sieve it. Here in Italy, the fruit, usually oranges, are pressed. The greens are really green and Italians love greens.

Preserved Fish: jarred tuna is in almost anything here — and on pizza. Anchovy: yes, on everything. Not gelato. But, the anchovy is good. Since Italian food is not that spicy, anchovy is the strong flavor. And it’s not that strong.

Prices: pizza is affordable ($4 for a personal pizza, no tipping so reasonable for lunch). Eating out/taking out is affordable (my pasta and a drink on Piazza Navona was 13 Euro). Christmas cards and stationery are pricey (4.5 Euro for a card). Taxis are not cheap as they run the meter from when they choose to take your ride, not when you get in the car. This makes it about 5 Euro per kilometer. But so worth it on these hard and ankle-mangling cobblestones. While the price of items in stores is higher than in the U.S., it is possible to shop at the many Chinese-run stores and buy the “made in China” straight from China. I went to one such store, loaded up my arms, and was shocked that it cost a total of 13 Euro. In contrast, my hot water kettle (it is fancy) cost 48 Euro.

English: I knew that most people would speak some English. They do. If not, they will probably find someone. But, it is possible to live in Rome without speaking Italian. Not as much fun, but possible.

Friendliness: I didn’t expect people to be so friendly. I never thought of Italians as friendly. Maybe it’s just in Rome? Maybe it’s because the shop owners and restaurant owners are so happy to see a customer after almost a year of COVID? Maybe it’s that unicorn called “customer service?” Maybe because I try to speak Italian? Or because I say “buongiorno” to everyone, even random people on the street… Whatever the reason, most people I interact with are friendly.

Feliz Navidad en Lima

While this year’s Christmas celebrations in Lima will be very different, I thought I would recount the lovely one that I had last year when I was invited to spend Christmas with my Peruvian family. Enjoy.

A Peruvian Christmas involves church for mass at 8 p.m. on December 24, followed by dinner. There will be ham, turkey, and there will be certain salads (involving mayonnaise) with rice and potatoes, but mainly there is dessert. From the Italians, the Peruvians eat panettone for Christmas. This a dry version of the British Christmas pudding, in many ways. There are certain brands that are more prestigious to give to one’s doorman, maid, or friends, and you will recognize them from the colors of the boxes. 

At midnight there will be fireworks but since private fireworks are illegal (the city will put on a show), many families will use sparklers instead. Christmas is during early summer in Lima, so it’s beach weather. That said, decorations will still be greenery, Christmas trees, and fake snow. It just doesn’t have the same feeling of a snowy cold wintery Christmas.

On the 25th, there will be more celebrations with other members of the family or friends. I was lucky to be invited out to a country house for the 25th. There were Marinera horses (they are trained to dance the national dance) to admire, games to play, a fully stocked bar, lots of traditional “creole” style food (served in traditional ceramics in this case — the hostess is the mostest, it must be said), and relaxed chatting. Oh, and Peruvian donuts, picarones.

My favorite were the appetizers of fried yuca with huancaina sauce and taquitos with guacamole. These are very Peruvian, at any time of year.

Being included in my friends’ family Christmas was the best gift one could imagine. Family, food, and friendship. Festive!

Even if you don’t celebrate anything at this time of year, I hope you still have a good one, even if it’s a dance around a festivus pole!

A View For My Room

In Lima, I had the luxury of ocean views. I now live inland, with no ocean views. But, I may have a remedy. I’ve been looking on Instagram, of course, and I’ve seen some azure seas that beckon like jewels glittering from the Internet. Most of the tropical views that I see on Instagram from Italy are from the South, on Sicily, or Amalfi, or Puglia… Or, I could use a photo from my archives. This photo of our “taxi” seaplane from the Maldives is still one of my favorite photos.

My plan was to paint directly on the wall… but, then I thought, why invent the wheel? I looked online and found sticky decals that already have pre-printed tropical views. There are even decals of views of forests, or even outer space.

Other than for view, I also want to be able to give directions to the bathroom by saying, “To the left of the Maldives” or some fun phrase like that. I may have to play the sounds of waves, a fan, some sand, and it will be a complete view to a tropical location. Or a kitty litter box. Oh COVID, we are all cats now.

A Unique Time To Be A Tourist in Your Home Town

Where have all the beggars gone, long time missing? Maybe the way of the tourist trinket shops.

It’s a sadly unique time to be a tourist. The streets are empty in a way that one just would not have imagined. Normally, over 60 million tourists visit Italy. Due to the pandemic, not only the international, but also the intra-country tourists, are not here. Just the Romans.

I went to the Trevi Fountain and was one of three tourists. Not that there were no people there — there were. But they were working. I went to the Pantheon (well, to the square, as the Pantheon is closed), and finally got begged from. But only from two beggars. I also wonder where the pickpockets go during this time. I did not see any of them either.

At Piazza Navona (the big rectangular one with the three fountains), I finally saw more people. Once the tourists come back, I can imagine that this square will be wall to wall with people. As it was, there were only a few hawkers and they were not too aggressive. One greeted me with a phrase from the Lion King, which did catch my attention. But, in general, the hawkers seemed fairly listless, as they saw no reason to make much effort when there are no cash cows in town. Who knew that one would miss being milked?

Mealtimes in Italy

Okay, so mealtimes in Italy.

Colazione (breakfast): Breakfast is a cup of coffee with milk like a cappuccino. Maybe a croissant or a sandwich (triangular white sandwiches like the triples in Peru). Italians don’t really eat much for breakfast. They consider the milk in the coffee to be the “food.” But, later in the morning, they will have more coffee. Coffee is a small cup of coffee like an espresso. No coffee in Italy is ever the size of American coffees. Italians will have many coffees throughout the day, although milk in coffee is only for breakfast (so before 11 a.m.).

Around 10 or 11 a.m., Italians might have a small snack with their next coffee.

Pranzo (lunch): Lunch is generally eaten from noon to 2 p.m. but on a Sunday, lunch can be later.

Merenda (tea): At around 3 p.m., Italians (and certainly children) will have a snack. One could have a gelato… or some crackers and cheese.

Aperitivo (happy hour): after work, Italians may have a tapas/mezze style spread. Many judge the bar based on the selection of free nibbles. During the current COVID restrictions (restaurants close for in restaurant dining at 6 p.m.), many people are having aperitivo at 3 p.m. Why not?

Cena “che-na” (dinner): Dinner is generally at 8:30 p.m. or later. One had a snack earlier, thankfully.

Square Pizza — Culture Shock in Italy

Culture shock seems like an outdated phrase from the 1980s, but then again, I find that the 1980s are still around… for example, when I was traveling in Kenya in 2012, the radio stations all played Michael Jackson’s songs as if they had just come out. Now in 2020 in Italy, the down jacket is back from the 1980s. Not really back, as it never left as it is still the fashion to dress like Hans Solo in certain other Latin countries.

In a way, the down jackets remind me of the “pizza bianca” or “white pizza” that is a common food here in Rome. It’s a bit shocking that the pizza is square, sold by weight, and can still be pizza — even if it has no sauce or cheese. Yes, it really can still be pizza. In a way, in its purest form if one reads the etymology of the word, pizza.

More shockers another time. I need to go get a pizza and put some cheese and ham on it, and call it a sandwich.

Whatsapp? Are You Zooming to a Google Meet For Quality Facetime?

For the past seven months, many of us have spent time socializing and working on Zoom, Google Meet, Whatsapp, Facetime, and more. I do not know which one is better, but here are few things I’ve learned about them.

Zoom is now a verb. That’s how big it is. For more than 50 people, someone needs to have a paid account. With the paid version, I have the option to “hide self view” which allows me to not have to look at myself when I am looking at the grid view. There are a few other features like the ability to change the view when sharing someone else’s “shared view.” The free version has a meeting limit of 40 minutes. Zoom allows you to share your screen and have a “green screen” virtual background. I enjoy this feature quite a bit. It allows me to travel every time I zoom.

The main plaza in Lima, Peru.

Google Meet, previously Google Hangouts, also requires a paid account and the non-Google emails must be “let in” to the meeting “room.” The professional account can host meetings of over 100 people.

Whatsapp now allows for up to eight faces to appear on your phone screen. The computer version of Whatsapp does not allow video. Whatsapp is owned by Facebook. One can also have video calls on Facebook Messenger. 

Facetime is the classic Apple iPhone product.

Skype was one of the revolutionary early products for video calling. It was acquired by eBay and it is now owned by Microsoft. Microsoft deactivated some of the features in 2017. Microsoft Teams seems to have take over many of the features. 

I find that I actually prefer using most of these video calling programs for audio only. I don’t need to see people’s faces when I talk to them. But, that may just be me. 

With friends and family all over the world, these various options are an important part of keeping in touch. My very informal and tiny survey of my friends is that they seem to prefer Zoom. They seem to feel that it connects better, and that is the point.

The Beginning of the Internet

I was doing some research on Italy, and I got to a screen that said, “You have reached the end.” During this time at home, you too may have reached the end of the Internet… but, did you wonder where it began?

The plaque put up by Arlington County.

The Internet started just a few steps from Washington, DC, USA, fifty years ago. Developed from 1970-1975 in Arlington, Virginia, the “ARPANet” (Advanced Research Projects Agency Net) was developed as a communications tool by the military. A small plaque stands on the side of the road in Arlington, Virginia. The plaque has a smaller plaque with zeroes and ones representing the binary code for “ARPANet.” Although Arlington County claims to have invented the Internet, the first computer-to-computer transmission was in California in 1969, but it was the ARPANet who figured out how to dice up information into binary code…. which became the Internet, online shopping, electronic mail, blogging, and video-calls (imagine no Zoom?)… The World Wide Web.

A whole new world.

The Time Is Here at Last for the Count of Monte Cristo

During this pandemic, time has slowed down, and yet, it seems to take a long time to get anything done. In Italy, as recently as two hundred years ago, time was also different, not due to a pandemic, but because time was told differently. The day started not at midnight, but at sunset. As I wait for my time to move to Italy, I am sharing another segment of the book I wrote about what I wish I knew about food in Italy. This is from the chapter called, “Saucy,” ostensibly about spaghetti sauce… and yet, the chapter covers so much more, including the three musketeers, and Elvis.

One of the gripes about Italian food outside of Italy, is that there is no such dish called, “Spaghetti with Meatballs.” Despite the role that this dish plays in the American iconography of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. The famous scene with the spaghetti and meatballs shows that by 1955, when the film was released, this dish was already iconic to American Italian cuisine. (A fun note: The model for Tramp was actually a female dog.) Also, there is no dish called, “Spaghetti Bolognese.” The sauce served with spaghetti is called a “ragu” in Italian. Ragu is a sauce. Bolognese sauce comes from the city of Bologna, in the north of Italy. Thicker sauces like Bolognese usually accompany thicker types of pasta like lasagna pasta. Meatballs, called polpetta in Italian, are never served with pasta.

Ragu comes from the French word, “ragout” which means a stew. The French ragout comes from the verb “ragouter” which means “to revive the taste.” In the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas wrote in his culinary dictionary that ragout made French cuisine “shine.” This is the same Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count of Monte Cristo is actually based almost entirely on the life of his grandfather, Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie who fathered General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie with his black slave, Marie-Cessette Dumas. To read about this, read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. It is a swashbuckling tale if ever there was one. 

Alexandre Dumas fils (son), the son of Alexandre Dumas pere (father), was a playwright and wrote the tragic Camille, possibly one of the most tragic romances I’ve watched on stage. This play became the basis for Giuseppe Verdi’s La TraviataLa traviata means “fallen woman” in Italian. Both Alexandre Dumas, father and son, were born out of wedlock and illegitimacy is a common issue throughout the son’s writings. 

Giuseppe Verdi’s birth was registered as “born yesterday” on October 11, 1813, in the church register. At that time, the day began at sunset, not at midnight, so Verdi celebrated his birthday on October 9. He was born in a village in municipality of Busseto, in the province of Parma, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy. Supposedly VERDI was used as an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia, which means Victor Emmanuel, king of Italy who was the first king of Italy, to signify the Italian unification movement. Verdi got involved in politics and was a staunch supporter of Italian unification. It took almost fifty years for Italy to become unified. 

Verdi also wrote Aida, possibly the most baroque over-the-top-operas of all time. Verdi wrote Aida upon request by Ismail the Magnificent, Viceroy of Egypt and Sudan, to celebrate opening of the Khedivial (Royal) Opera House in Cairo, not to celebrate the Suez Canal as some sources will state. Aida had its world premiere in 1871. Aida is the love story of an enslaved Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian military commander. The story is set in the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis. The glory days of Memphis were 5,000 years ago. The name Memphis is the Ancient Greek version of the Ancient Egyptian name meaning “enduring and beautiful.” The ruins of ancient Memphis are just south of the pyramid of Giza in Cairo.

The trumpets blaring and drums thumping in the famous choral march in Aida is one of the most recognizable tunes in our collective hearing. Ordinary people cannot belt out the chorus from Aida, but most think they can do a fair version of “O Sole Mio.” “O Sole Mio” was written in 1898 with lyrics by Giovanni Capurro and music by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi. “O Sole Mio” means “my sunshine” in the Neapolitan dialect which uses “O” instead of “Il” from the standard Italian as the preposition. This catchy tune was so popular and well-known that, at the 1920 Olympics, when the orchestra had not received the music for the Italian national anthem, they played “O Sole Mio” instead. That shows hows catchy a tune it is. 

In 1958, a young enlisted man from Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley, heard this song when he was stationed in Europe. After he returned to the United States, he requested that a version be written especially for him. This became his best-selling single, “It’s Now or Never,” one of my favorite songs. I always thought this song was about “carpe diem” as in the Latin term meaning “seize the day,” but it’s about seize the guy, before he falls out of love with you. The original phrase carpe diem by the Roman poet Horace in 23 BCE, was “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,” which translates to “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.” Basically, to live today to the fullest. Which Elvis certainly did. Of the song versions, I even like the disco version by Al Martino, an Italian-American who played a singer in “The Godfather.” “O Sole Mio” is sung in the canzone napoletana tradition. No, not calzone. That’s a pizza pocket.

Neopolitan pizza — American style

The Neapolitan style of singing was taken abroad at the end of the nineteenth century by singers like Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer. He was from Naples, and when he need a song for encores at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, he would sing songs from his hometown.

There are many Neapolitan languages, “napulitano” in Neapolitan, which originated in the Kingdom of Naples. Most of these languages, dialects, cover the southern half of the Italian peninsula, with around five million speakers. Like standard Italian, it is a Romance language, from the Vulgar Latin adverb romanice, “in Roman.” Vulgar meant everyday, vernacular, language, not foul language. There were three forms of Latin. The Romance languages arose in Europe between the third and eighth centuries.

For language nerds who don’t speak Latin, look up Romance languages on Wikipedia to see side by side comparisons of the same sentence in the various forms of Romance languages. For the nerds, did you know that Dr. Seuss invented the word nerd?