A Short History of Italy – From Myth to 44 BCE (Caesar’s Death)

In preparation for my move to Italy, I wrote a book about food in Italy. In the book, I wrote a short history of Italy. The history of Italy as a country is short because Italy only became a nation in 1861. But, the history of the Italian peninsula is long, so here is my version of it, thanks to Wikipedia. 

First, the name, Italy. Theories abound, but the one I like is that the name, Italia, comes from the Oscan, an extinct Indo-European language from the area of the ankle of Italy, for “land of calves” because that area of Italy is the “calf,” to boot. Another theory is that Italy is named after a king named Italos, this spelling is based on Ancient Greek. Italos was king of the Oenotrians, a pastoral tribe in southern Italy. The myth says that Italos was the grandson of Odysseus. Yes, that guy. The King of Ithaca, the hero of Homer’s tale of Odysseus, and the guy who took ten years to get home, interrupted not by traffic but by the Trojan War. Odysseus is famous for his “nostos” which is the theme of “homecoming” in Ancient Greek literature. This demonstrates how rare it was for Greek men to return home after going off to sea. The island of Ithaca is a real island located off the west coast of Greece, across the water from Italy. Italos, the king of the Oenotrians, is mentioned in the fourth century BCE (so 2,400 years ago) by Aristotle. My favorite part of this namedrop by Aristotle, is that King Italos, not only converted his people from being pastoral to agricultural, but he was the first to  “institute their system of common meals.” Since this is a book about Italian food, that’s a factoid that I wish I could learn more about, but Aristotle isn’t answering my emails. 

Second, some metrics about Italy today. Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world (behind China, the United States, Spain, and France in first place), with 60 million inhabitants, and 61 million tourists each year. 

After the time of Odysseus, around 50,000 years ago, there were some homo sapiens living in modern day Rome and Verona. These homo sapiens were Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Neanderthals. Modern genetics has discovered that the Neanderthals did not die out but were amalgamated into modern human beings merging with the conquering Homo sapiens sapiens, us. Neanderthals get a bad rap, but that is because history is written by the victor. In this case, the victor was Homo sapiens sapiens. Neanderthals were shorter and broader in body type and supposedly those with red hair have more Neanderthal in them than the rest of us. Homo sapiens arose in Italy around 48,000 years ago. Fast forward to Otzi the Iceman. He was found in the Alps on the border with Austria and Italy. He was a copper age hunter who lived around 3,400–3,100 BCE (imagine the candles on that cake!). 

Otzi was part of the first Indo-European migration to Italy from mainland Europe. About five hundred years later, during the bronze age, a second migration happened and these people became the famous “Beaker Culture” in areas of modern day Tuscany, Sardinia, and Sicily. Around 2,000 BCE, a third wave happened. These people, the Apenninian culture and the Terremare cultures moved in to the Po Valley in modern day Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy. These people, named for the “black earth” of their settlement mounds, began to raise beans, grapes, wheat, and flax. A fourth wave of immigrants arrived around 1,000 BCE and moved in to northern and central Italy. These people were called “Proto-villanovans” by archeologists. Elsewhere, on the island of Sardinia, a native culture based around megaliths called, “nuraghe,” developed. The only reason I mention this in a book on food in Italy, is that it shows how local culture is a point of pride, and this includes food. It’s all local. Local pride before it became fashionable. 

In this quick trip through Italian history, we have now almost reached the Roman Empire. By 800 BCE, in the central part of the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans were flourishing. Their origin and much about them are a mystery, but they likely emerged from the Villanovan culture. Mitochondrial DNA shows that the modern day Tuscans, descendants of the Etruscans, originated from central Europe. The Etruscan language was not Indo-European and most of their writing is undeciphered to this day. The Etruscan kingdom engaged in territorial wars, mainly with its major contender, Magna Graecia, to the south.  

The story of Magna Graecia, great Greece, is also the story of Italy. Magna Graecia was the Roman term for the southern coastal parts of Italy and the island of Sicily. This area was a colony of Greece. These areas were Hellenistic, from Hellas, the name for Ancient Greece, in culture. Some of the best preserved Greek temples and remains are in Italy. The Roman Empire borrowed, stole, or bought, most of their art and culture from Greece. For an interesting example, listen to the “You’re Dead to Me” podcast about the original Olympics. It’s not what you thought you knew. 

One of the most successful Greek colonies was “New City,” Neopolis, modern day Naples. Neopolis was the first Greek colony absorbed into the Roman Republic, in 327 BCE. The last of the Greek colonies to fall to Rome was Sicily, capitulating in 241 BCE, during the first Punic War. The Punic Wars were fought between the two mighty naval empires of the third century BCE Mediterranean, Carthage and Rome. Syracuse, on the coast of Sicily, held out for another twenty years, and to this day, there are still Greek speakers in parts of southern Italy. Syracuse was an independent state and allies with Rome, until 214 BCE, on the death of the king. Political intrigue, perhaps involving Hannibal (yes, him, the guy with the elephants walking across the Alps), caused the Carthaginians to cede at the Siege of Syracuse. The Syracusans lost despite the might of the brain of mathematician and scientist Archimedes on their side. He even invented a weapon for this battle, the Claw of Archimedes. Another weapon used during the Siege of Syracuse was the sambuca. When I read this, I got quite excited thinking that they had used the anise flavored liqueur in the battle. But, they did not. The sambuca that they are referring to is a “siege engine” as in a type of “siege boat.” This weapon got its name because it resembled a harp, a sambuca. More on the drink later. I wonder where it got its name. Maybe because Bacchus, the god of drink and merriment, played a harp? 

The Greeks who settled in Italy came from the Mani (mania in Ancient Greek) Peninsula, and claimed to be descended from the Spartans. Thinking back to Odysseus and how rare it was for men to return from sea, the Spartans had a similar safeguard system. Spartans were not allowed to go to war until they had produced a boy child, which tells you of their return rate. The Maniot Greeks were famous for their military prowess and bloody vendettas, some of which continue to this day. Another group of Maniot Greeks moved to the island of Corsica in the seventeenth century CE under the protection of the Kingdom of Genoa. Whenever I hear the word, Corsica, I’m reminded of my favorite movie, Zorro the Gay Blade, when he is showing off and says how they will, “defeat the feetless, buy corsets from Corsica…” 

Before there was a Roman Empire, there was a Roman Kingdom. The founding of Rome is a great story. Can’t rival the greatest story ever told (because then, it would be), but it’s still fantastic. The story starts in the myths of time with Latinus, son of Odysseus, he who took so long to get back to his home, and Circe, a Greek enchantress who was good with herbs. Latinus had a son, Aeneas, who became the first king of Alba Longa, modern day Tuscany. Aeneas was a Trojan hero whose mother was Aphrodite, Venus in Roman mythology. Fourteen kings later, we get to two brothers, Numitor and Amulius. The other more famous Roman brothers come next. The short of it is that Numitor was supposed to inherit the throne but Amulius prevented him, and to make sure that Numitor couldn’t gain it back, he killed Numitor’s son and forced his daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin. 

A Vestal Virgin was a virgin priestess who served in the temple of Vestus. They were betrothed as girls to serve for 30 years. They served ten year terms as student, servant, and teacher. There were only two or four Vestal Virgins at once so it was a select group. They were responsible for keeping the fire burning at the temple of Vesta. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, the home. Vestal Virgins were the keepers of the hearth for all Romans and they had duties beyond keeping the fire alive, including public ceremonies. They also had the ability to pardon a condemned man, or free a slave, due to their pureness. They prayed for the moral health of Rome. They were entrusted with precious documents, including the wills of Caesar and Mark Anthony. During the chief festival of the goddess of the hearth, in June, was the only time the Vestal Virgins would make their own “mola salsa.” Mola salsa was a holy paste of flour and salt. This paste was offered to the holy hearth, daubed between the horns of sacrificial animals, and sprinkled on the forehead. The Latin verb “immolare” means to sacrifice. From there, comes “mola” and that is where we get the word, “immolate” — the ultimate sacrifice, in modern English. 

The Vestal Virgins were celibate until they retired. Then a prestigious marriage was arranged for them. A Vestal Virgin was a good catch as she had a pension and was considered a good luck charm. People think that if a Vestal Virgin broke her vow of celibacy, she was buried alive, but it was worse than that. Burying alive was illegal. Instead, they would lock her up underground with a few days worth of food and water. Result was death. The men who had sex with Vestal Virgins were beaten to death. So when Amulius had Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, made into a Vestal Virgin, he did so thinking that she would not produce heirs to the throne. 

Enter Mars, the God, stage left. 

Mars was the god of war. He was based on Ares, the Greek god of war, brother of Athena. The sacred animals of Mars were the wolf, the woodpecker, and the bear. Roman Mars was different from Greek Ares, who was mostly about destruction. Mars was also the god of agriculture and he was the father of the people. The word “paternal” comes from the Latin pater. In particular Roman fashion, he was the god of war as good for you. Mars was seen as a god of war as a means to achieve peace. Sound familiar? Like today, we have peacekeeping troops, a phrase that seems like an oxymoron. Mars is also the root of the word “martial” as in martial law. The month of March is named after Mars as that is the month when planting begins. He is sometimes associated with October which is when the war season begins, after the harvest. Every year, a harvest and a war.

The Pantheon, originally temple to Mars was built in an area originally outside Rome, in the Field of Mars, but today it is in the historic center. The Pantheon was converted to a Catholic Church in the seventh century. It stands on the Piazza della Rotonda. The temple to Mars was built in the area around the Pantheon. It was meant to be a private temple for Marcus Agrippa, Roman statesman. Pantheon means a “sacred to the gods.” In 31 BCE, at the Battle of Actium, Marcus Agrippa helped Octavian, later Emperor Augustus, win against Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra, of Egypt. Cleo actually visited Rome several times. Marcus Agrippa was responsible for helping Emperor Augustus build the Rome that he said, “He had found the city of brick but left it of marble.” 

A hundred or so years later, after a fire, Emperor Hadrian built another temple on the original temple built by Marcus Agrippa. Yes, he, Hadrian, who built that wall in the wilds of the Roman Empire at the far reach of “Provincia Britannia” on the border of modern day England and Scotland. Hadrian’s wall was probably, not only as legend says to hold out the Caledonians, modern Scots, but because it was cheaper to build a wall than to maintain an army at the border. To this day, the inscription on the Pantheon states, “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT,” which means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” Hadrian kept this inscription instead of writing his own. 

The history of Rome, before the Pantheon, continues with Rhea Silvia, the Vestal Virgin, and Mars, god of war. One day, back in those misty days of time, when Rhea Silvia, Vestal Virgin and daughter of Numitor, he-who-should-have-been-king, went to a grove near the temple to gather water. While at this grove, she saw something. It was the god, Mars. He attempted to rape her but she managed to flee to a nearby cave. Mars chased her into the cave and impregnated her. Some accounts of this myth say that Rhea Silvia claimed that she saw a woodpecker and a wolf, both symbols of Mars, and therefore it was Mars who impregnated her. Her tale is told in the Aeneid, by Ovid, and by Livy. Livy, the Roman historian, seems to be the only one who doubted the paternity of her children. Despite Livy’s opinion, most images show Mars seducing Rhea Silvia. 

Rhea Silvia became pregnant with twins, Remus and Romulus, the founders of Rome. So not only figuratively, but also literally, Mars was the father of the Romans. Apparently the goddess Vesta was unhappy about this turn of events so she caused the fire in her temple to go out. One of the sacred duties of a Vestal Virgin is to maintain the light in the temple. Interestingly, in Italian, and in Spanish, the term for “to give birth” is “to give to the light.” Makes me wonder if there is a connection to this pre-Latin myth. 

When bad King Amulius heard of the birth of his twin nephews, potential heirs to the throne, he ordered them to be killed. According to the myth, a servant took pity on the baby boys and set them on the banks of the River Tiber. There, the river god, Tiberinus, saved them and took them to a she-wolf, a “lupa” in Latin, who had recently lost her own pups, to suckle. A “lupa” is also the Latin word for a prostitute. Even then, women had a rough time. Some say that Tiberinus married Rhea Silvia while other stories say she thew herself in the Tiber. I think they might mean the same thing. 

The location of the wolf’s cave was unknown until 2007 when an archeologist announced that she had found it under the house of Emperor Augustus, located on the Palatine hill. This would be fitting as Emperor Augustus considered calling himself Romulus as befitting a founder of a new Rome. 

Later, Romulus and Remus were raised by a shepherd, Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia. In some versions of the story, Larentia was not a wife but a courtesan, or “she-wolf” who gave money to help the city of Rome, after giving her services to Romans.

Romulus and Remus grew up to be fine young men. As with many young men, they became involved in the hot topic of the day. The topic was a dispute about Numitor and King Amulius. In the scuffle, Remus was captured and taken to the court at Alba Longa. Both his grandfather and his granduncle suspected his true identity. Can you imagine that meeting? Meanwhile, Romulus was gathering forces to free his brother. During this struggle, Romulus also learned of his royal identity. Eventually, Romulus, Remus, and Numitor deposed the unlawful king, Amulius, and set Numitor back on his rightful throne. Speaking of thrones, the toilets in ancient Rome were communal and instead of toilet paper, they used a rag on the end of a stick. This gives us the expression, “To get a hold of the wrong end of the stick.” Yuck. 

The young men, Romulus and Remus, fresh from setting their grandfather back on his throne, set out to found a city of their own. If you are a mythical being, I guess this fits in one’s goals for life. 

What do you want to do when you grow up, little Romy? 

Found a city. 

Oh, right, go to the city. 

No, found a city. 

Eat your peas. We’ll talk later, you megalomaniac. 

Romulus and Remus arrived in the area along the Tiber River where there were seven hills (still there today) and had to pick which hill to use for their kingdom. Romulus preferred the Palatine hill above the “Lupercal” cave where he and Remus had suckled at the she-wolf’s teats. Remus preferred the look of the Aventine hill, which had the advantage of placement and could be easily fortified. Thus ensued a serious discussion as location, location, location, is at the heart of real estate, and certainly, a kingdom. As neither could convince the other of the merits of their chosen hillock, they asked for advice from higher powers. No, not their dad. He was a shepherd. No, nor their father. He was a rapist. 

But in a way, they did ask him. They sought out augury. The art of augury is the art of looking for auspicious signs from birds, guided by the divinity of the gods. The practice of augury went way back and was an old and trusted method by the time of Romulus and Remus. The twins decided to see who would see the most auspicious sign. They sat on the ground, about a foot from each other, and waited. Remus was the first to see some birds when he spotted six birds. But, Romulus saw twelve, and proclaimed himself the winner. Maybe Romulus was just a better birdwatcher than Remus. Maybe he was a typical older brother (“I was born two minutes before you!”). The brothers continued their dispute and Remus was killed, possibly by his brother. 

On April 21, 753 BCE, Romulus founded Rome. The Palatine hill overlooks the forum, which was a shopping center that grew up after the settlement on the Palatine. Romulus set up the new city on his hill of choice and went on to rule Rome, named after him, happily ever after. Oh wait. After the Rape of the Sabines. In every way reprehensible, the rape that is mentioned in the Rape of the Sabines is a translation of “rapture” or “abduct.” Not an excuse, but sadly the way of much of history. Even today, girls, fourteen year olds, even younger, are kidnapped parts of the world like central Asia. They are kidnapped until they agree to marry the kidnapper. In the case of the Sabines, Romulus, after setting up his new kingdom, with his buddies, realized that he needed women to found a dynasty. Hence the plundering of women from neighboring areas, like the Sabines, which are misty foothills northeast of Rome. 

No one really knows if the myth of Romulus and Remus is true. The earliest version of the story is recorded in the third century BCE. From the mists of myth to 509 BCE. In 509 BCE, the Romans threw out their king and established an oligarchic republic. Thus continued another period of constant warfare between the peoples of the Mediterranean, except for some unity under Magna Graecia. You might be wondering why a quick romp through Italian history seems to be focusing on Rome, but this is because the Romans conquered much of the Italian peninsula, and as you may recall, much beyond, including France, land of the Gauls. The Gauls were tribes of peoples who lived in modern day France, southern England, and mainland Europe. The Gauls imported wine from the mediterranean, so it’s not surprising that Gaul became the nation of France, famous for their love of wine.

At the beginning of the second century BCE, there were great names that you recall from history class, and the movies, like Tiberius, Spartacus, Pompey, and Caesar. Caesar is so famous that it seems hardly worth mentioning him. But, in a book about food (yes, that’s what this book is about), he’s worth a mention for various reasons. He reformed the calendar that we still use today. So when making a reservation at a restaurant, we are still in touch with Caesar. 

Then, there’s that salad. The salad was actually named after an Italian immigrant named Caesar Cardini. Cardini invented the salad in his eponymous restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, on July 4, 1924, when a sudden rush of guests meant that he had run out of ingredients. To add flourish to this simple dish of lettuce, eggs, croutons, and parmesan, he presented it at the table and tossed it live in front of the guests. Julia Child mentioned eating this salad when she was a child. Cardini’s daughter stated in the 1970s that the original recipe was to use whole lettuce leaves to lift the coddled eggs to the mouth. I wonder if they serve caesar salad in Rome. 

Gaius Julius Caesar was born into a patrician, upper class,   Alban family in Rome. Romans had three names, a first, a family, and a “cognomen” which means “together with” which is a nickname. Caesar was the nickname. According to Pliny the Elder, Caesar as a nickname came from an ancestor who had been born via caesarian. Caesar was not born via caesarian. Caesar is derived from the Latin for “to cut.” There were three other interpretations of the source of Caesar and Caesar seems to have preferred the version from “caesai” which stems from the Moorish language. “Caesai” referred to when Caesar killed an elephant in the Punic Wars, which Caesar commemorated by having coins minted with the design of an elephant. The other two meanings of his name are that he had a thick head of hair or that he had bright gray eyes. 

When Caesar was 16, his father died, making Caesar the head of his family. He was chosen as a “Flamen Dialis,” high priest, at the temple of Jupiter, also called Jove. So when people say, “By Jove” they are actually cussing. The god who was most powerful was actually Janus. New year’s celebrations grew out of the celebration of Janus. The god Janus had two faces as he was the god of new beginnings, doorways, time, and change. He was the most important god in the pantheon of gods. A prayer to him was begun before any other prayers. So really, it should be, “By Janus!”

In his job as a Flamen Dialis, Caesar had many benefits, including becoming an ex officio, which means by way of another position, a member of the senate. Being a Flamen Dialis entailed many privileges and many rules. The ones that relate to food were:

  • He might not touch flour, nor leaven, nor leavened bread,
  • He was forbidden either to touch or to name a dog, a she-goat, ivy, beans, or raw flesh.
  • It was unlawful to place a box containing sacrificial cakes in contact with the bedstead.
  • He was not allowed to be present at a table without food so that he never appeared wanting.

What I find interesting about these house rules is that they show how different a world he lived in. The purpose of  the rules were to keep him focused on his job as a priest and to not allow any distractions or temptations. Bread, beans, raw flesh, cake, food… all temptations.

Then, politics, and history, intervened. Due to political maneuvering, Caesar was removed from his position as a priest. This was fortuitous as it allowed him to become a warrior, as priests were not allowed to take up arms. What follows next is Caesar’s rise to power, including governorships, and much political fighting. In one of the many wars he got involved in, he even met Cleopatra, who was in a civil war in Egypt, which she ruled. While Caesar was winning battles, the Senate in Rome was conferring him with more and more accolades and honors. 

When Caesar returned to Rome, a massive celebration of games, “bread and circuses,” was thrown in his honor. Even then, the populace complained of the extravagance, rioting in the streets. The rioting only ended when Caesar had two rioters sacrificed at the temple in the Field of Mars. Over his career, Caesar had been in the position of elected dictator several times, but one month before his death, he became dictator for life. He was assassinated on the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BCE. 

Caesar’s greatest contributions were done in a short five year period between when he crossed the Rubicon and was assassinated. The phrase “cross the Rubicon” is used to mean that the “die are cast” or that there is no going back. The previous Roman calendar was based on the moon but Caesar’s calendar, the Julian calendar, was based on the sun as was the Egyptian, and included a leap year. My guess is that he picked up the idea from his time with Cleo. The Julian calendar was more accurate than the previous calendar and it was in use from 45 BCE to 1582 CE, when Pope Gregory XIII changed it to the modern calendar that we use, the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian chant is from earlier, but Charlemagne, coronated in 800 CE, was a bit of a crusader and forced people to Christianity. The Gregorian chant was one of his weapons as he forced people to use it. Charlemagne’s name, Carolus, is the root of the word “king” in many of the slavic languages. 

More next time on the history of the Italian peninsula.

Mumbo Jumbo Italiano

That’s how it’s feeling in Italian class. The classic “Mambo Italiano” sung by Rosemary Clooney (whose nephew has a house on Lake Como in Italy), was written deliberately in incorrect Italian, so it is no help when trying to learn Italian. As I noted in my last posting about Italian for beginners, much of Italian seems to be the opposite of Spanish and English, while much is the same. I’m not sure why, but I was sort of pleased to learn that in Italian one does not “mount” one’s bicycle as one does in Spanish. One “goes on” a bike in Italian. But, then I realize that Italian has eight (8) ways to say “the” and I’m less pleased.

In order to try and study, I make flash cards by taking snapshots of my study notes, like the one shown here. This was a day when we steered our teacher into restaurant lingo as part of our cultural education. The Italians have a word for “spaghetti dinner” — una spaghettata — but it means a casual meal of pasta (keeping in mind that pasta can be a separate course). As opposed to a more formal meal. The idea is that a spaghettata is while there will only be a pasta course, there will be lots of it. Also, apparently, one should not take a bottle of wine to a dinner as wine is the host’s responsibility. As a guest, one should take flowers, or chocolate, or cake.

I also learned that restaurants will not split the bill (check in American English). You have to figure it out on your own. Apparently, they don’t do doggy bags either — as most portion sizes are small in Italy so you probably won’t have left overs.

Poo-pooing the Paw-Paw

“Have you heard of the paw paw?”

“Yes, it’s what Australians call the papaya.”

But, it’s not just that! The paw paw is also a native American fruit. Native to the eastern United States and related to the custard apple, soursop, and cherimoya, the American papaw (or paw paw, pawpaw, or paw-paw) is a fruit that looks like a mango but is slightly custardy. It supposedly tastes like a banana-mango-pineapple. The paw paw was also called the prairie banana.

Apparently, the paw paw is the largest native American fruit (0ther than gourds which are classed as vegetables). There are efforts to harvest the paw paw has no known pests. But, the fruit ripens quickly to fermentation so it is best used for jam and in other prepared foods.

Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that:

“The fruit … has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery.”

I am not a very adventurous eater, but, for the sake of my fruit-ologist friend, I was willing to try it. It didn’t taste like much.

Once I get to Italy, I wonder what fruits will be new to me? I certainly didn’t expect to find a new fruit in the United States, so I hope I will be equally surprised.

Rock, Fork, Scissors

One of the things I find most useful in my kitchen are scissors. I’m not alone in this. In Rome, there is a type of pizza that is cut with scissors. In Korean food, scissors are used to cut the meat after it’s been grilled. In the photo, the mini scissors are used to cut open condiment packs (photo taken in Argentina). 

IMG_9536

Then, there’s the fork. Have you ever wondered why some forks have that slightly wider tine on one side? The answer is that the one tine is wider depending on if the fork is for a right handed or left handed person. If both the outer tines are wider than the inner tines, then the fork is for everyone, both righties and lefties. There are over fifty different types of forks, but that is the subject of another book. I have plans to write a book about forks and kitchen tools. A friend begged me to call it, Fork U

While forks had been used since ancient Egypt for ceremonial purposes, the personal dining fork was first used in Constantinople in 400 CE (This particular fork is in a private collection in Washington, DC). The fork fashion spread to the middle east and the courts would use small two-pronged gold forks instead of their fingers. In the eleventh century, one such gold fork was part of the dowry of a Byzantine princess sent to marry a Venetian doge, a chief magistrate, Domenico Selvo. When a bishop saw her eating using this fork, she was admonished and told that she was insulting God by not using her fingers. The fork disappeared from the dining table for three hundred years!

By the 1400s forks had returned to the dinner table in Italy. The fork probably gained traction in Italy due to the popularity of eating pasta, which is much easier with a fork. By 1400 CE, it was common in Italy to present a diner with his own spoon and fork.

Famously, the fork was introduced to the French court by the queen, an Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici. Caterina de’ Medici was the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence. She took silver forks with her to France in 1533 as part of her dowry. The French did not take to the fork immediately.

The fork did not gain popularity in the rest of Europe until much later. British travelers in the seventeenth century would deride the fork as an effeminate Italian custom. It was not until 1633, when Charles I, King of England declared the fork “decent.” The original dining forks had two prongs. The two prongs were not enough to eat peas and other round foods, so over the next several centuries, the fork gained two more prongs. The word “fork” comes from Latin “furca.” The fork reached North America during the revolutionary war, most likely via Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, both who had enjoyed the good life in France.

Italian for Beginners

The title of this blog posting refers to a Danish movie from 2000, and my current activity. “Italian for Beginners” is a lighthearted entertaining movie about Danes who want something a bit more interesting in their lives so they go to Italian class. Romance and “viaggio” to Italy ensue.

Learning Italian is a bit topsy turvy for me as Italian is, in many ways, the opposite of English and Spanish. For example, the “che” is a “kah” sound and the “ci” is “cheh” sound as in “ciao.” The double ell in Spanish is spelled with a “gli” in Italian but the double ell like in “bello” is a really forceful ell sound. The ñ in Spanish is spelled “gn” in Italian so that “gnocchi” is “ñ-o-key” — and so on.

Actually, the phrase I’ve learned the best is “attenta su pronuncia” – watch your pronunciation.

But, it’s most important to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. So far I’ve learned that the Italians are very formal so one should not use “ciao” unless you are family or you are close friends. (Also, “Ciao” derives from an old Venetian saying for “I’m your slave.”)

Hello: “buongiorno” (bwon-jorno) until sundown and then it’s “buona sera” (bwon-ah sarah)

Goodbye: “arrivederci” (a-riv-eh-dare-chi)

Please: “per favore” (pear fa-vore-eh) or “per piacere” (pear pah-chair-ee)

Thank you: “grazie” (gra-ts-ee-ay)

Excuse me: “scusi” (skoo-zee) is the formal form and “scusa” is the informal.

One thing I have learned about Italian is how to say “good luck!” Contrary to direct translation, it is not “buona fortuna!” Instead, it’s “jump inot the mouth of the wolf!” Or “In bocca al lupo!” This is the equivalent to “break a leg” in Italian.

Top 10 Mexican Restaurants in Rome

Tostada from a private Mexican dinner in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

One of the constant questions I get on my blog is, “Where is the best Mexican restaurant in…?” Most of my readers are hankering for Tex-Mex or Chipotle, so I follow the trend of Tex-Mex for my readers. When I lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh, there was only one Mexican restaurant and avocados were not easy to find. I recall once going to that restaurant with my restaurant group, only to find that they had no avocados. That night was epic in many ways as due to road works and Dhaka traffic, it took 90 minutes to travel one mile. So to arrive hungry at 9 p.m. to find that the place had no guacamole, was a let down. We ended up setting up our private Mexican restaurant at a different restaurant. In Dhaka, I also recall buying avocados for party and paying $50 for them, only to find that they were rock hard and no amount of time in a paper bag with bananas, or even boiling, made them edible. When I live in Bogota, I went to the Mexican restaurants as they opened up, and in Lima, I also followed the trend.

Carnitas taco from El Mexicano in Lima, Peru.

To get ahead of the question for Rome, I have googled the question. I have a friend who has great faith in the collective opinions of Google reviewers, on the assumption that if 300 people have reviewed a restaurant, then their collective rating is probably reliable. So here are the top ten (okay, eleven) Mexican restaurants in Rome.

Amigos Mexican Grill, 5 stars

Sabor Latino, 5 stars 

Il Calavera Fiesta, 4.8 stars

Mr Tabu Tacos e Burritos, 4.8 stars

Coney Island Street Food Roma, 4.8 stars

Casa Sanchez, 4.7 stars

El Jalapeno, 4.7 stars

Quiero Tacos, 4.6 stars

Pico’s Taqueria, 4.5 stars

Gustamundo, 4.5 stars

Maybu – Margaritas y Burritos, 4.5 stars

Fish taco from Jeronimo restaurant in Lima, Peru.

When I’m in Rome, I’ll check some of these places out… maybe. I will have lots of other things to try, so maybe not.

Take-out tacos, including fish, Korean barbecue, and carnitas, in the USA.

Do a Little Good While Shopping

A few friends told me about Amazon Smile, smile.amazon.com, where for every purchase you make through Amazon’s charity, a percentage of the cost on eligible items goes to the charity of your choice. You have to go to smile.amazon.com and choose your charity and then from then on, shop through that portal. Easy peasy. At 0.5 percent, it might not seem like a lot, but I bought a book recently and $13 went to my charity of choice.

In preparation for my move to a new adventure, where all roads lead to, I am buying lots of visual storytelling equipment, and now I am doing a little good at the same time (pats self on back). If you want to use it on your iPhone app, you will have to allow notifications. I prefer to use smile.amazon.com from my computer.

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As an aside, I bought a bespoke iPhone SE 2020 case on Amazon Smile from MTRONX Direct. The ink job on the case is well done and the case has the flat sides, like the iPhone design from the 5 SE. Good old days. It took almost two weeks to get the order, but it was worth the wait. Plus, the little holes for my lanyard/hand leash are an added bonus.

 

How to “Get” the Peruvians And Get What You Want From Them

Or the Cultural Intelligence Guide to Peruvians, or cross-cultural communication (to use the 1990s term for it). All this may be different now that COVID has erased some norms of meeting people in the same physical space. But, post-pandemic, I’m sure that these norms will return. (Note: First, the whiter, more male, and better looking that you are… the easier everything will be for you.) Now, on to the game!

If you really want to maneuver Peruvian society, and Peruvians themselves, the thing to know is… RESPECT. Not like how Aretha sang it, which was respect my human rights and me as a person. But, more like respect the societal rules, or the rules of deference. Peruvians know their place in their society and which class they belong to. They expect you to be respectful enough to treat them accordingly, and to behave in a way that reflects that you know the rules of Peruvian society. Capische?

Class structure. Understand how the Peruvians understand each other’s position in society. The class structure in Peru is by letter: A, B, C… (most people will say that they are B class as in B- but in reality they may be C++ class). As a foreigner, this will not really affect you but it’s useful to know how they deal with each other. When Peruvians who do not know each other meet, they ask three questions to help them figure where they belong in society.

1. They will ask you your full name to see if you have any connections. Peruvians have two last names from their father and mother, and if those names are distinctive, then they know WHO you are (imagine if you will that your name was Isabel Carmen Aliaga Varela — the Aliaga part could mean that you belong to the one of the original founding families of Peru. The Varela part could mean that you belong to one of the old money families of Lima).

2. Where did you go to high school. Most Peruvians do not go to university including the upper classes (even as recently as 20 years ago, upper class women were not encouraged to go to university — as they would not need a degree for a good marriage). If you went to one of the private schools like San Silvestre, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the nouveau riche school), Italian School, Newton, and so on, then they can easily place you in society. Maybe they went to the same school. Then they have an instant connection with you. If you went to university abroad, in the U.S., England, or Spain, then you could be moving up in society. (Note on moving up in society: Education and overseas living experience are ways to move up in Peruvian society. Some families will send their children to public school 90 minutes away so that they have a better chance of moving up through the system. For example, a typical family of hairdressers and welders living in San Juan de Miraflores, a “conos” (projects or in some places shanty towns — squatting is a viable way to become a homeowner in these areas) housing neighborhood, will send their child to school in Miraflores, which is actually “San Miguel de Miraflores” but no one ever says that. By sending their child to public school in Miraflores, they are giving them an up and in into moving from C class to B class. Then the child studies abroad for university. When that person returns to Peru, they are now B class. To move from B to A class is a lot harder. A class tends to be families of old money and power. Even fame does not really help you move into A class).

3. Where did/do you live in Lima. As mentioned in the point above about school, your geography will determine your place in society. Peruvians who meet outside of Peru will ask where they lived in Lima. If the answer is San Isidro, Miraflores (not San Juan de Miraflores. Some will say this even if they actually grew up in the infamous one), La Estancia, then the other person knows that they are at least B class. Hence, everyone says Miraflores. If the person says San Borja or Barranco, it could be harder to tell. Even if the person lives in Lince, they may say San Isidro because it sounds better (people will even get dropped off in San Isidro and then walk the two blocks to Lince to make it look like they live in San Isidro… yes, it’s that important in Lima society).

Race. The color of your skin and your bone structure will also tell the other Peruvians where you are in society. Like in many other parts of the world, the women straighten their hair in Peru so that they will have less curly hair, but it can’t be too straight because then it’s too indigenous. But, they rely less on this than the aforementioned three questions. White, blue-eyed, and naturally blonde is upper class or foreign.

Another thing to understand about Peruvian society is…

Sycophancy – “pegajosa” or “sticky” is the closest word that I was given when I asked about brown nosing. But, since it’s not a bad thing -– it is simply the MO, modus operandi — way of conducting business -– it doesn’t have the same connotations that it has in English when accusing someone of being a a brown-noser. Peruvians don’t really talk about brown-nosing. It’s so normal for them that they don’t need to talk about it. There’s really no word for brown-nosing in Peruvian Spanish (sort of like how there is no word for privacy in Italian). It’s just how things are done. If you need something, it’s all — all — about who you know. It’s relational.

Peru is an extroverted culture with a preoccupation with “respect,” propriety, and formality — with obvious external audible and visible forms expected. The Peruvians are talkative people. They will ask you about your family, whether you are married, your age, and so on. Nothing is told in confidence. They feel free to share this information and to talk about you. Similar to brown-nosing, they may not really see this as a bad thing. They might just think they are being respectful to you by showing an interest in you. (Not that everything is benevolent. Peruvians seem to enjoy seeing slapstick or the failure of others.) Even if you don’t tell anyone anything about yourself, they might gossip about you anyway, even to you! Understanding that Peruvians gossip makes it easier for you to realize that this is part of the game of life in Peru.

Now, how to get what you want… here’s the secret! Make them feel that you are respecting them! Well, of course, you do, dahlin’. Make them feel like they are doing you a favor, even if they should just do their job. Always, always, make them feel like they have the upper hand. Then, make sure to thank them effusively, as in “muchisimas gracias” or “you saved my life” or some such hyperbole. These little thank yous will help you maintain the relationship for the next time you need something. It really is that simple. Be sort of sickly sweet. For men, just lower your voice a bit. Actually, men being men in a chauvinistic society, don’t need to kiss-up quite so much… depends on the class of the two actors.

Yes, really. This is the secret.

Now that you are in the know, here are some easy things you can do to make your way in Peruvian society easier. And to get what you want from Peruvians.

Speak Spanish. It’s respectful. Actually, the Peruvians speak “Castellano” or Castilian. It was the language of 12th century kingdom of Castile and Leon in Spain. The people of modern day central Spain speak this language to this day. Many South American countries call this form of Spanish Castilian. Of course, in Peru, there are colloquialisms. If you want to fit in, always use the term, “palta” for avocado. When giving directions, “siga defrente” or “sigue defrente” for “go straight” — I usually add a frantic chopping motion with my arm. If you mention “derecho” at all — at all,  the driver will start turning right. So keep “derecha” for your discussions of human rights. To sound friendly and intimate, say “porfa” for “por favor.” Also, Peruvians almost never use the word, “hola” when greeting people. But, they might say, “ciao” when departing. But it’s spelled, “chaw” if you are going to write it, but it’s better to use an emoji in Whatsapp.

Good day greetings — kissing on the cheek. Peruvians do one air kiss on each side, usually start on the right. If it’s a formal situation and the greeting involves a male, you can shake hands. But the cheek air kisses are okay too, while grabbing each other’s shoulders in a manly way. Most importantly, greet everyone! Seriously. Everyone. In stores, elevator, entering a conference, checking in, everyone. Every day at work, go around and greet all your colleagues, even if you saw them that long lost yesterday. At parties or events, you must personally greet everyone and say goodbye to everyone, individually. Peruvians are a people who want you to acknowledge them, each and every one, and that includes when entering a room. Even with your family. The way to deal with this is to show up on time for parties. So if the party is at 8:30 p.m., show up at 9 p.m. Then everyone who comes in after you, will have to come say hello to you. If you show up late, you have have to walk around and greet everyone. Then, stay till almost last. This way you won’t have to go around and say goodbye to everyone. Saying goodbye is an equal drama and it can take a long time. If you want to make a quick getaway, hug and kiss the hosts before giving the room a general wave and “Sorry, we have an early morning. We don’t want to cause a stir.” Then exit quickly. There will still be gossip, but at least you got away. The word for gossip is “chisme.” Women will sometimes start with “chisme, chisme, chisme…” when they want to tell you gossip.

Critically, start every interaction with a greeting. In shops, in email, on Whatsapp, on the phone — always start with a greeting. Always. On a somewhat related note, don’t barge straight into whatever you need or want. Even in a Whatsapp chat. Well, maybe if you are on fire, but I still think a Peruvian would start the call with, “Good evening, hope you are well. Could you be so kind as to help me? I’m on fire.” So, as I said, always start with a greeting. If not, you will look like a disrespectful boor.

Calling and Whatsapp. Lots of it. Use it. Use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp to communicate. Do it a lot. Peruvians like to feel the attention of those communiques pinging and vibrating on their phones. Preferably call. Peruvians want to feel the human interaction in every interaction. Nothing can be done quickly in Peru. There is no running in to buy a banana or a coffee. NO, no, no, NO. Peruvians would feel that they were denying you a respectful interaction if they did it too fast. They are not Scandinavians, who are famous for being efficient, if cold. For example, getting Internet set up in one’s home takes many phone calls and hours, sometimes days…

Dress and grooming. This is easy. Dress like Hans Solo. In winter. Google it. Or whatever the fashion dictates. A few years ago, every woman was showing up in white rabbit vests with gold accessories. In the summer, you can wear flip flops but really only when at the beach. Shorts are okay for men during the summer but best left for the beach town. Women are dressy. (A note: when you invite a Peruvian to an event, be it a food fair or theater outing, they will want to know the dress code. Peruvians are formal in terms of dress. Only in the last ten years have Peruvians allowed themselves to be seen outside a gym wearing sneakers. Yup.) Invitations will always state the dress code and for everything else, dress up rather than down. Wear jewelry. Critically, have your hair groomed and coiffed. Salons are open early (7 a.m. is very early to the nocturnal Peruvians) so that women can get their hair “blown” for the day. Women do not wash their hair every day (don’t be grossed out — they are clean) and they often go to the salon a few times a week to get it “done” for the next few days. Most women wear their hair long if they are younger and even if they are older. But, at some point, women of a certain age (no, older than that) will go for the short winged look in a shade of sandy chestnut color. I once sat at a salon and watch in amazement as the in house “blow-out queen” blew out woman after woman who came in looking like drowned rats… and then left looked like coiffed empresses ready to be driven in their Bentleys. Most importantly, women are coiffed when they go out. They will even carry a brush in their purses so that they can do a quick brush out if needed. Men generally have short hair but it’s okay to have a ponytail. I see few comb-overs in Lima. When bald, men in Lima seem to accept the baldness. Men can wear earrings as well (Back in the 1980s, men wearing earrings was a controversy — look how far we’ve come) but so far, most do not wear makeup (it’s a thing, it is — call it “tinted moisturizer” or “bronzer.” But, I digress.) Also, oddly, I’ve noticed some men who manage to make the white sock with birkenstock look okay. Wait, what am I saying?! Only Germans can pull off this look, and even then, not really. Peruvian men wear leather dress shoes or sneakers (as do lots of women). Again, word about sneakers. Until 2010 or so, no one wore sneakers outside of a gym. Now, everyone wears them.

Time. Most Peruvians will be late for parties or gatherings, even meetings. I find this a conundrum because being late is disrespectful. It wastes everyone’s time. The way to get around this is to be late yourself… no. One way to get around this is to host things at your own place. Or share a taxi to wherever you are going. And, have your phone loaded with other things to do… like Whatsapping all those folks you are brown-nosing, um, I mean, “chatting” with. If you are wondering how late to be for a restaurant meal, around 15-45 minutes is quite normal. For a private party, 30 minutes to an hour is normal. For business meetings, 10-15 minutes late is not late. Being late is all about “making an entrance” and the bigger a blowhard you think you are (but, I don’t think you’re reading my blog…), the more of an entrance you want to make. Drama!

Back to the idea of “formality” — yes the Peruvians are a formal people as I explained earlier. But when they mention “informal” — they are not talking about “casual” as in shorts and khaki. When Peruvians use the term, “informal,” they are talking about blackmarket or “under the table” prices or economy. But, if you ask a Peruvian, they will never use those words. It’s always the “informal” market. Peru leads in counterfeit (60 percent of things/ideas are “fake” or counterfeit in Peru). The informal attitude to copyright is part of the dichotomy that is only equaled by their sense of time. Unless one thinks of it as a form of flattery. About 70 percent of Peruvians work in the “informal” economy — from domestic staff to illegal commerce.

Finally, now that you know how to “get” the Peruvians and how to get what you want from them, remember this — don’t talk about this to them. Just as they don’t talk about the class system (yes, they have one), Peruvians, for all their talkativeness, don’t talk about their modus operandi. It’s not proper. Not polite. Shows a lack of respect.

Anyway, have I got a bit of juicy gossip for you… chisme, chisme, chisme…

Criolla Food in Peru

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Papa rellana ready for frying, above bags of choclo. 

Peru is also a “melting pot” and the Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian immigrations added to this pot. But what did the Peruvians eat before?

The original inhabitants of Peru ate the foods that today are called “criolla” or creole. I think of “queso y choclo” — cheese and corn — when I think of local food. The “queso fresco” or fresh cheese is just that, non-aged cheese so think feta but not salty or sour (which feta should not be, but that’s a whole different discussion.) Some creole dishes are tacu tacu (refried hash), beans, habas (roasted fava bean snack), rice with duck, papa rellena (large stuffed mashed potato croquette), tamales, soups (sopa criolla is a noodle soup with cubed beef and milk), butiffara (a pork sandwich), and anything with an egg on it. Every single restaurant will know how to make a delicious home made soup called “sopa dieta” which is what would be called “Jewish noodle soup” in other places. It’s a soup that can cure all.

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A word about “dare” or “scary” foods. Guinea pig or “cuy” in Peruvian is convenient and easy to raise. A Peruvian told me that traditionally you would only be served a portion — not the whole thing with head frozen in its death scream. Cuy, pronounced “koo-wee” is more common in the mountains. Yes, one can also eat alpaca, llama, vicuna, and other camelids. And, the one that people always seem to “dare” tourists to eat — the suri worm or maggot. Maggots are fatty sources of protein (According to experts, bugs could be the protein of the future). Many cultures eat bugs — crickets, grasshoppers, ants, and so on. But, you don’t have to eat it. Many modern restaurants will serve cuy or llama in a way that you might find more palatable. At Astrid and Gaston’s, the cuy is served as a mini Peking Duck bite. My “word” about scary or dare foods is that you don’t have to eat them. Many Peruvians don’t. There is so much available that is much more delicious.

The weirdest thing I ate in Peru (no, I didn’t eat the maggot) was a vegan “jerky” stick. So odd. I don’t know what was in it, but it wasn’t criolla!

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Independent Storytelling

A few years ago, when I published my book on my time in Bangladesh, I received so many questions about publishing. Back then, in 2013, self-publishing was called “vanity press” — publishing as if it was for one’s own vanity. That seems an age ago as social media has made us all creators and storytellers — Instagram and its television channel, YouTube, and Facebook Stories (watch my month-long farewell to Peru on those channels or on the video page of this website), are all “vanity press” as they are self-published. Of course the paper book did not disappear as some feared. We simply gained more independence in how, where, and to whom, we can share out stories. Maybe we are more vainglorious…

Even with all these new choices, some media are still harder to edit than others. Take PDFs. Adobe Acrobat owns that format almost completely. One can buy a license for $180 per year. It does, however, make editing PDFs acrobatic (had, had, to play on the words!). As I work on my many projects, and my next book (a paper version about Peru), I am glad to have the freedom to be flexible.

Just as story telling has moved beyond the book, so have other media, like chocolate, taken on the terminology of books. My favorite chocolate shop in Peru, El Cacaotal, calls itself an “edible library” — that should encourage reading!

Keeping up with all the forms of communication is a bit like a chariot race. In between my website/blog, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and podcasting, something may have to go by the wayside when I get back out exploring in my next country…

M’s Adventures Love Letter to Peru Movie Trailer

As I mentioned in a previous blog posting, we are all content creators now. I started the M’s Adventures blog/website when I moved to Bangladesh in 2011 (you can read one of my early blog postings here), and since then, I’ve created a book for each country I’ve lived in. As I will soon depart Peru, I was looking through photos to put together my book. The previous books have been published on Lulu.

But, this time, as I’m learning how to make movies on iMovie, I thought I’d make a “videobook” or moving picture book, a love letter to Peru. I may also make a paper book, but I’ll see how I feel when I’ve edited 8,000 photos and taught myself more iMovie. For now, here’s a film trailer so you can see what how it’s going. Don’t worry, the content of the body of the show will be less dramatic (film production really teaches one how much music changes the mood of a piece).

Here is the video trailer for “M’s Adventures in Peru: A Love Letter”

Or if you prefer to watch it on my YouTube channel, here is the link.

 

Traveling on the Worldwide Web

During this time of quarantine, many of us are “artist in residence” or “banished from the realm” — all depending on how you want to phrase it. I have been in splendid isolation. Free to travel the worldwide web. Armchair traveling is actually one of my favorite forms of travel because it’s comfortable, cheap, not sweaty, and I don’t have to get on a plane. Deep in the outer galaxy of this blog, is my travel page where I list many of my favorite travel writers and quotes. I revisited my travel page and actually re-bought a paperback book of one of my favorite travelogues.

Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.” –- Benjamin Disraeli

Much of the Internet, podcasts, YouTube videos, Instagram, Facebook, IGTV, etc. reminds me of that book, The Diary of a Nobody. Most of us are nobodies. Equal among other nobodies. Driveler among drivelers. So why not add my voice to the cacophony? On my media page (and here on Google Podcasts), there are links to the other platforms from where I’m catching the virtual cyber train. In preparation, I’ve been exploring, adventuring, and I found there are so many new places to visit, people to talk to, and things to eat. After my residence as “artiste in residence” is done (or “digital content creator” as is the new name on the street), I’ll be back out there.

One of my newest gadgets is a tripod/selfie stick with light.

On Facebook, there is a group called, “View from my window” and I’ve enjoyed it. Very positive people and it makes one realize how beautiful, and similar, this world is.

On Instagram, I’ve delighted in the mother-daughter E. and S. Minchilli (yes, that’s their last name!) cook, talk, answer questions, and adore Rome, and everything Italian.

On YouTube, I discovered that I could pay for programs and get really high definition videos (much higher definition than when I watched the original shows in the 1990s).

On Stitcher, I’ve been listening to The Fantastic History of Food (who can resist a title called, “Piracy, Witches and Hot Chocolate.“?) Plus, since I’ve learned so much about cacao from Amanda at El Cacaotal, I see/hear about cacao and want to learn more. Also, on Stitcher, it’s comforting to hear Christopher Kimball (from when I watched lots of PBS) on Milk Street.

On Podbean, I listened to surprisingly entertaining banter about hunting and nudists on The MeatEater Podcast, Ep. 220.

As I’ve explored podcasts, I realized that this is basically radio, that old fashioned technology that like many technologies, can change the world, or bring comfort (like FDR’s Fireside Chats — check out the film of him giving a chat). I would call podcasts, “audio-blogging” and you are welcome to call it that too.

And as the quote above indicates, much of life is stranger than fiction so why not read, see, hear, more of it, without the hassle of airplanes (for now). Happy adventures from splendid isolation!