Dreaming In Italian

House hunting in Bologna

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

It’s time to find a larger house. The one I have is great in many respects. It is in a great location, convenient to a lot of things, good bus service, energy efficient (a rarity in an old city like Bologna), has an elevator, is quiet BUT it is too small for 2 people to live comfortably. Well, there if you are young and Italian maybe you can but for me and Laura (and her two cats) it’d definitely too small.

Of course this is not the first time that I’ve gone through the process of house hunting. I did it two years ago to find an apartment because I had to have an apartment with a valid lease to obtain a visa to come here to live. So I did learn a lot of things.

First of all there are tricky things about the language of rentals. One would think that an apartment described as furnished would be full of furniture. But things are different here. If the person, individual or realtor who places the advertisement is really honest it can be described as unfurnished, partially furnished or furnished. Often they omit the partially part. Since people often live in apartments here for many years they make a lot of improvements to the apartment themselves, especially the kitchen. Then when they move they take the kitchen with them. This week I saw a really nice apartment with the exception that the kitchen was completely bare, no refrigerator, counter tops, storage spaces oven, in other words just bare walls with plumbing and electrical connections. So that becomes quite a project in itself that I don’t think really makes sense at this point in our lives. Another item is an elevator. As you can imagine probably the majority of old buildings (we’re talking 400 years or more) do not have an elevator. When they do it is surprising to find at the entrance to the building a stairway of maybe 15 steps from the entrance to the elevator. This can be true even if the building was built probably in the 1960s. Really, why would you do that when building a new building in the 60s? That was also true for the building with the bare kitchen.

In another interesting building that I was in , the elevator had been added to the outside of the building. That makes sense from a construction cost standpoint but in this case the elevator doors were on the landing between floors. Again it made sense for a cost standpoint with an older building but meant that it was always fifteen or so steps up (or down) from there to the apartment door.

There are other things to watch for. All of the apartments that I have ever seen either house hunting or as living spaces have radiators for the heat. Hot water circulates to heat the house. Just as in many older apartment buildings in the U.S. many of these buildings have a centralized heating system that provides the hot water for all of the apartments. Others, and the majority that I have stayed in including where I live now, the hot water heater provides both the hot water to the sinks, washing machines, etc. but also to heat the apartment. They are all instant hot water as opposed to those with tanks as is more common in the U.S. This autonomous heating as it is described often is more efficient and cheaper than the centralized version because you can control your own consumption of gas to heat the hot water. With the centralized version even if you were to turn off all of the radiators then you still would pay for 20% of the heat that you are really not using.

Of course added to these complications is the fact that, certainly not unique to Italy is that realtors let’s say, fudge the truth. So that apartment listed as 120 square meters (about 1300 square feet) could be really 105. And of course the photos shown can be deceptive of a decrepit apartment. One must of course also be attentive to condominium fees but at least they usually seem to be pretty honest (there’s probably a law or something). They can be very high specially if the building has services like a superintendent which is desirable for various reasons. The costs can be quite high for nice building with few apartments since the costs for maintenance and services are spread over fewer apartments. One memorable ad had a nice apartment with a rent of 1600 euros with condominium fees of 500 euros a month. Usually they are much more reasonable.

My search criteria for the websites for real estate are:

  1. Less than 2000 euros a month rent (with reasonable condo fees)
  2. Elevator (hey I want to grow old there and in 10 or 15 years…)
  3. Two bathrooms
  4. At least 100 square meters (would prefer 120)
  5. Balcony or terrace

I would prefer autonomous heat and at least some air conditioning but they are less essential. I might compromise a LITTLE bit on some of the others.

So here are some photos of the website advertisements.

This one has the description translated to english
Good location but a little smaller – still 110 SQ meters is not bad
Terrific location, big, historical building but… comments below

The last one I liked a lot. A major issue with this one is that like a lot of places in especially the historical buildings in Bologna there is lot a lot of light. This is simply because the streets are narrow, the buildings are usually 3-4 stories and only one side of the apartment faces either the street or the cortile (courtyard) so you get limited light. Also a lot do not have balconies or terraces. Ah, the perfect apartment probably doesn’t exist but since I/we want to live there a long time we need to be patient and get at least “close enough” to perfect.

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Exploring the trattorie in Bologna

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

I’ve eaten at a lot of good places in Bologna some of which I’ve included in blog posts but I wanted to explore further. The type of eating establishment that I prefer is a trattoria. The difference in general between a trattoria or restaurant is that the restaurant is a white tablecloth kind of place often with fine glassware and table settings (and sometimes delusions of grandeur. A trattoria on the other hand is more humble. The kind that I prefer is absolutely not pretentious. No avante garde food preparations no aspirations to have a Micelin star. It’s more the traditional food of the region. Of course like a restaurant the ambiance and the staff make a difference as well as how the food is prepared. The best ingredients well prepared satisfies me. This includes the quality of bread brought to the table and at least for me, a fine grappa available at the end of the meal.

So with all of that in mind I have now gone with the principessa torinese (Turin princess as I sometimes refer to Laura) to 3 of the top rated trattorie in Bologna. The ratings were from Trip Adviser which is pretty reliable.

The first is Trattoria di Via Serra. If you want to say what tripadvisor says click here. It was probably the highest rating of the three but I rated it as very good but my least favorite of the three. The atmosphere is not, well, welcoming and I found the waitstaff to be a bit cold. It also is striving mightily to be a notch above others. The waitress recited perfectly from memory at least 10 specials of the day. I don’t know about you but by the time the recitation is finished I had forgotten most them. How hard would it be to have a printed list. After all the waitress surely had something to read to memorize them. They could just make 3 or 4 photocopies and that would do. Laura and I usually share things and I don’t remember all that we had but we did have beef cheeks which were VERY good. I was disappointed that such a nice place didn’t have a decent grappa. They had supermarket quality stuff that is never particularly good. Another thing to note is that you need to reserve a table at least 2 weeks in advance, only by phone and I had to call at least 5 times to get a table reserved. It was frankly a pain in the ass.

The second is Trattoria da Me. Again click here for the tripadvisor reviews. This was my second choice and I really liked it. Again you need to reserve a table at least two weeks in advance but at least you can do it online. First because it is a really good place and second because in a national television competition (4 ristoranti) it won the price as best in it’s class in Bologna. Here ambiance was much warmer and the staff was friendly and funny. The food was also VERY good and reasonably priced AND the grappa was exceptional. I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Now we come to the third and my favorite Osteria Santa Caterina. Again click here for more info. The food here is also very good but I’d say it’s a step behind Trattoria da Me but the it just feels like home. Very welcoming both in the environment and the staff. The grappa was very good (not as good as Trattoria da Me but also almost half the price). It’s much easier to get a reservation but you do need to call. So it’s the place I will return to most often but I’ll want to go occasionally to Trattoria da Me.

There’s another one that I want to try that’s also highly reviewed and very near Osteria Santa Caterina – All’Osteria Bottega. Here’s a link to that one. I think that it’s a little more expensive than Santa Caterina but not by much. But just to put things into perspective at all 3 of the trattorie I never spent more than 70 euros for a great dinner for 2 including a pretty good bottle of wine. So at current rates that would be about $77. Also keep in mind that there is no further tax and tipping is not considered obligatory and in fact tips are rare here. The wines that we had would each cost at least $40 (and probably more) at probably just about any restaurant in the U.S.

Let me know if you’d like to hear more about food, places to eat (here in Bologna or Torino), etc. And of course if you like what I’m writing I invite you to subscribe – at the top of this page on the right.

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Trip to Bentivoglio

Monday, January 13th, 2020

Unlike the other trips that I’ve written about this was not a pleasure excursion. So it is not only a description of the trip but includes some comments about the national health system, the SSN (Sistema Sanitario Nationale). As background, when I came here to live I needed to have health insurance, not only because it was the prudent thing to do, but also because I needed that to get the permesso di soggiorno. This seemed to be a bigger problem than I had thought. If I had been younger it would have been much simpler but I was already 72 when I arrived. Fortunately, at least at that time, I could join the national system without the permesso. This voluntary registration does not depend upon age. The system is free for citizens. Of course “free” is never really free, it’s paid for in one way or another through taxes, just not an explicit one like, say Medicare, in the U.S. Since I am not a citizen, my voluntary enrollment is dependent on my income for the prior year. There is a formula for calculating it which tops out at € 2,788.86 regardless of income and I believe that is on the order of a reported income of around € 55,000. In my case my reported income was my income from Social Security and I pay around € 1650 a year which comes to about $150 per month. Note that the prescription drugs generally cost less here than in the U.S. and most of the cost is covered by the SSN in any case. There are no copays when you see your primary physician and since I am over 70 there are also no copays for blood tests, x-rays or visits to specialists. So from the financial aspect it’s an incredibly good deal.

HOWEVER on the other side of the coin, I cannot make an appointment with my doctor. Some people can and when I eventually look for another one I hope to get one that does make appointments. Also my doctor has 3 different offices serving different neighborhoods so his hours are limited in mine. Still, I’ve gotten used to the inconvenience. Another thing that is a bit odd and, of course, inconvenient is that I pay for a year. The year for SSN is from January 1 to December 31. So the first time I enrolled I did so in September and therefore paid for an entire year although the coverage was for only the 4 remaining months. Another inconvenience (ah the Italian bureaucracy!) is that I cannot enroll ahead of time for the following year. As an example, this year (and last) I paid the cost in the middle of December to have it done with but I could not renew the enrollment until January 1. Of course no offices are open on January 1 so I will always have that day without insurance. It also means that to minimize risk I always need to be here in Bologna on January 2.

Now that that background is out of the way I can tell you about another inconvenience and why I took a trip to the Bentivoglio. I have an irritation in my left eye. I cannot wear my contact lenses because of it. I have tried using different kind of eye drops hoping that whatever was the matter with it would heal itself. After a month I saw my doctor and he said that I needed to see an ophthalmologist and wrote me a prescription. Here when you have a prescription for a blood test, x-ray or specialist you go somewhere to get an appointment. It could be a government office for such things (the CUP) or you can get the same service at many pharmacies. They have the same access to the computer system. So I went directly from the doctor’s office to the nearby pharmacy. This is in mid January and the first appointment in Bologna was in mid March! But there was one 2 days later in, you guessed it, Bentivoglio. I’m sure that you are not truly under the impression that all of the cities and towns in Italy are charming and I can assure you that they are not. Bentivoglio is a reasonably small (around 5,000 population) and extremely boring. It has a large hospital there which probably explains why I counted 3 mortuaries on the main (and practically the only) street in town.

Ah, but there is more. One can go to Bentivoglio by public transportation and since I don’t have a car that is generally my means of travel. So I could go to Bentivoglio and back by bus. While it is only about 20 km from door to the hospital door, it takes about an hour in total. See the map below.

Walk to the bus station for intercity buses, and then about an hour by bus. Return by the same route.

The trip to Bentivoglio had it’s good moments. After leaving the suburbs of Bologna the bus that I took went along a circuitous route through an industrial area. It was interesting so see since I rarely have the opportunity to see those parts of the country. There were large and small enterprises, food, packaging, mechanical stuff, software. Then after that it was miles and miles of nothing but farms. It was still pretty early in the morning with frost on everything and I saw a number of pheasants in the fields. Serious farming here in the Pianura Padana (equivalent of the central valley in California), big modern tractors and other equipment and lots of greenhouses – there are lots of radishes available in the market just now.

Still it’s not the distance or duration of the journey that is a problem. I found that you cannot go to and from this town without being there for 5 hours. The buses leave relatively early in the morning arriving there at about 8:15. The first bus returning to BO leaves at 1:15. So I made sure that I had a book to read during all of that dead time. If I am ever required to make the trip again I’ll also take a cushion to compensate for the hard chairs in the hospital waiting areas.

The doctor did seem to be very good and thorough as well as having a good sense of humor. I had a complete eye exam and really everything is in good shape other than some kind of irritation to the eyelid which had a specific name and also a specific medicine that I need to apply before going to bed each night until it clears up. He did say that I’m probably need to forgo contact lenses before too long – age has it’s limitations. I’m hoping to continue with them until I at least exhaust the supply of lenses that I have. I’ll also be on the lookout for nice eyeglass frames in markets for used stuff (there was one vendor at the Balon in Torino with a terrific selection).

I welcome any questions or comments (as always). Possibly personal age related health experiences. Growing old is not for sissies Or as Betty Davis put it:

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Monday, January 6th, 2020

First I’ll explain the title. MAST is an acronym for Manifattura di Arti, Sperimentazione e Technologia (Manufacturing of Art, Experimentation and Technology) founded in Bologna. Anthropocene is the proposed name for the current geological epoch when man has a major impact on the earth. MAST has some very interesting exhibits and you can learn more about the organization by following this link. I imagine that you might find it interesting.

I had noticed this in a listing of events happening in BO (Bologna) and that it’s last day was the 5th. So I went there with my friend Gianluca on the afternoon of the 4th at around 4 PM. Well, below is what I saw as we approached.

Ooh, what a line.
It continued around the block.

Well, we decided that it was probably not worth the wait so I decided to come back the next morning at 10 AM when it opens. So the next morning I arrived at 10:10 and here is what I saw.

Ooh, what a line.

Well, that’s the same photo but it’s also true although while it still went around the corner there were fewer people and in fact the line moved pretty fast and I was inside in about 15 minutes.

So before moving on to the exhibit, I was really taken with the architecture.

Reflecting pool and mirror sculpture at the entrance.
Detail of mirrored sculpture at the entrance to MAST.

There were various items to the exhibits but the most stunning things were the photos and videos. I can’t share the videos other than still images of them but I think that you’ll like the photos.

Video of coal trains leaving Wyoming (on right) and returning on left. I timed it and it takes 3 minutes for the loaded train to pass. That’s a LONG train. With the headphones you can listen but listening to a train gets boring after a bit.
A coal mine in Wyoming.
Clear cutting in Canada
Clear cut in Malaysia
Sawmill area in Lagos Nigeria
A part of Lagos Nigeria. The population is estimated to be 24 million. A guy next to me said, “no wonder so many Nigerians are coming here”.
Nairobi Kenya landfill
A copper mine in New Mexico
Some kind of mineral mine in, I think, Germany. Beautiful isn’t it?
The world’s largest machine at a coal mine in Germany. Not so beautiful. Note the man leaving the machine on the lower left.
Tailing from a phosphor mine in Florida. I was totally unaware that Florida had mines.
Carrara marble quarry. Also a mine in a certain sense.
Petrochemical complex near Houston. You could almost think of this as a mine but it’s certainly ugly.
Speaking of Houston; cars damaged by flooding due to a hurricane near Houston.
Central valley BIG farm – surely only one of many.
Somewhere in the Los Angeles megalopolis.
Solar energy in Spain. Movable mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays to heat water so it’s steam power in the end. And maybe a solar farm?

There were 35 photos in all so this is only a sample of those that I thought the most impressive. They all express in one way or another the changes being made to the planet by us. Not always negative but, let’s face it, you really have to look hard sometimes to find the positives.

Speaking of positives, I have more to say about the building. For one thing there was a bidet in the men’s bathroom. Every household or hotel bathroom has one but I’d never seen a public restroom with one.

Then there was the atrium as I was leaving the exhibit.

Atrium sculpture

And another sculpture and pool.

Shallow pool and scupture

I hope you enjoyed the post. So if you ever run across an exhibit by MAST, I recommend that you take a look.

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