Dreaming In Italian

It’s the cheese!

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

One day not long ago Laura sent me an email with a link for “The Cheese”. Yes both words are capitalized and the website is Italian and the rest of the language is Italian. What is going on here? Well it turns out that the little city of Bra (population 20,000) which happens to be also the headquarters of Slow Food, sponsors a festival called “The Cheese” every two years. It’s the largest exposition of cheese in the world with usually at least 200,000 attendees during the 3 day weekend. Reading about it made me really start savoring the possibility of being immersed in cheese for a day. It also made me think of Wallace and Gromit.

Wallace is a BIG cheese fan

So we went somewhere where there is cheese – and lots of it. Bra is only about 60km ( 36 miles) from Torino but we decided to take the train. Rather than the hassle of driving there was the fact that there were likely to be a LOT of visitors even though we opted to go on Friday which would surely be a significantly smaller crowd. In fact the stands for cheese and other delicacies started only a short distance from the train station.

One of the first booths near the station – meats (especially rabbit) instead of cheese
The tent “pavilion” on the left – what you cannot see from this photo that the width of this pavilion is at least 4 of those tents wide

The major part of the cheeses on display (and available for tasting) were Italian with a significant part of those from Piemonte (the region – equivalent to our states) where Bra is located. That’s not a surprise since Italy is said to have the highest number of cheeses of any country in the world and also because it is the host country for this event. Of the estimated 2500 different cheeses in Italy there are 500 commercialized and of those 300 with protected origin status (think parmigiano-reggiano or gorgonzola) and also because it is the host country for this event. Still there were a lot of French cheeses, some from Switzerland, probably from Holand and even some from the Great Britain and the United States.

We started, well, at the start of the large, REALLY large long tent housing all of the displays of Italian cheeses. We tasted a lot and bought a few and were exhausted from seeing and tasting cheeses after only half of those on display. Since they started with Piemonte and seemed to work their way down the country we probably missed some spectacular cheese from the south. So we stopped for a light lunch. Naturally much of the food being offered was, well, cheese based. So we kept it light because we’d probably each consumed a fair amount of cheese just doing tasting.

A major cheese shop from Torino had a booth. We bought aged castelmagno here
A little bit of farm style atmosphere for this booth
I know that we bought a cheese here but don’t remember which one. These cheeses come from Amatrice in Lazio which had a devastating earthquake in 2016
Flavor of cannabis (I couldn’t really taste it) at this foreign booth, maybe swiss. Note the loving sheep

After lunch we sought out the foreign “pavilion” – still the tents. We tasted and bought just one cheese there – a rather unique ball shaped Swiss cheese which is well aged and meant to be sliced like truffles over risotto or pasta. We did taste British and American cheeses but frankly they were not very impressive. I’m sure that the U.S. has the capacity to make great cheeses but they are just several hundred years behind in terms of experience.

Our haul – 5 cheeses and some chocolate truffles.

So we bought 5 cheeses and some chocolate truffles. Clockwise from top left, an aged caprino (goat cheese), a REALLY aged caprino from a different cheese maker (and the best one of all), the little round swiss cheese ( don’t know what kind of milk but it is very good, the aged (and pricey) castelmagno (cow’s milk) also very good, the truffles and I don’t remember, I think that the last one is a toma (cow’s milk) that seemed nothing particularly special. Probably good but nothing special compared to the others.

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Serendipity in Piemonte

Monday, September 30th, 2019

As any reader of my blog knows I spend a lot of time in Torino these days because my “girlfriend” (seems silly to call a 70 year old woman a girl) lives there. We alternate long weekends between Torino and Bologna. So on a recent weekend we were pondering what to do on a lazy Saturday. Another museum (boring), yet another posh residence of a king (tired of viewing their extravagances), return to a beach in Liguria (too rainy)? So we decided to visit a town near Torino which neither of us knew much about. We discussed Ivrea but settled on Susa.

You drive past Rivoli and continue on to Susa

I knew that there was a Porta Susa in Torino, name of one of the two major train stations. With a little research I found that the town of Susa is in a little valley at the foot of the alps and has a little river running through it. Plus it has a history that predates the Romans who came and left their marks there. And it’s only about 50 km (about 30 miles) from Torino.

It’s really a cute little town of about 6,000 inhabitants with the requisite Roman ruins. After a disappointing lunch we went looking for the Roman amphitheater. They could use some better signage for visitors but we finally found it after asking directions from a couple of locals. It was rather underwhelming but is used for various performances which surely makes it more interesting. From there we could see what looked like a very old fortress. I had read that there was a Roman arch in Susa but had seen nothing about a fortress. While we could see the fortress there were absolutely no signs. Again locals came to our rescue pointing to the road (more like a path) to take.

The Roman amphitheater was a little underwhelming

There was a fascinating little path that ran near the amphitheater. I now wish that I had explored it. I’m always curious about where these paths lead but for now it is the “road not taken”. Maybe the next time.

A path that ran along the side of the amphitheater.

There were actually 2 arches. The first was really more than one arch and was the support system for a roman aqueduct. Then we arrived at the triumphal Arch of Augustus build in 8 BC. I actually liked the big rough on the most.

While, yes, it is an arch it is actually part of an ancient roman aqueduct.
These is the triumphal arch. Very nice.

Oh yes, next to the triumphal arch is the fortress which I guess was actually a castle. Not much remains other than the wall but it’s an impressive wall.

As we walked around the town a did a bit of shopping I kept noticing violet and white ribbons bunched together and we seemingly everywhere. When I first saw these in the restaurant I thought that perhaps they were the celebration of a birth of a child but since they were also along the streets I finally asked a guy what they were about. Because of my heavily accented Italian he tried (without much success) to respond in English until I told him that Laura was Italian. So he explained to her (and I understood absolutely everything that he said) that these were the colors of the “borgo” (borough or district). With some research I found that each year there is a contest of medieval skills in, where else, the roman amphitheater. The competition is between the 6 borghi of the city. The violet and white are the colors of the Borgo Storico, which would be the city center – which won this year.

When Laura asked about the “games” he said with a laugh, “it’s not a game it’s WAR!”. Anyway it’s held in July and I really want to go next year. I recommend that you click on this link to see some photos of the 2010 games. Lots of pageantry plus the games, at least the jousting, archery and tug of war.

Of course I love comments so if you liked this one (or if you didn’t) let me know.

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Italian Driver’s License – Part 2 – the process.

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

I started studying for the test on theory in July and did some web research on the process for getting a patente (license). Well, there are several fundamental steps. Get all of your required documents in order. In my case that includes my permesso di soggiorno and my carte d’identita’ (Identity card). And oh, yes, be prepared to spend a bunch of money.

  1. Fill out forms. In any country you surely have to fill out forms but as usual Italy takes things to a new level. Theoretically you can just drop into the local Motorizzazione (DMV) and ask for a set of forms and go it alone. That saves some money but it’s a difficult and treacherous path. I went to the DMV here which is well outside the center. There was really only one bus that I could take and I rode that for 30 minutes to get to the nearest stop. It was unclear exactly how I would arrive from the stop so I had to wander around for awhile (signs! We don’t need no stinkin’ signs!) before I found an entrance and then more time to find the part for information on the patente. So I asked for a package of all of the forms. The guy there said, well, the first appointment available is the first week of November (this was in late August). Ooh, that sounds bad to start with. So I said well I’ll just take the forms and ponder the next step. He wouldn’t give them to me and said come back in November. I wasn’t secure enough in my Italian to point out how absurd this was and besides I could see right away that going it alone was going to be huge pain in the ass and possibly take MONTHs to get a license. So I did what most people do; I went shopping for a driving school.
  2. Going the route of a driving school makes some sense anyway since ultimately you are legally required to take 6 hours of driving instruction with an school. I smell a driving school lobby somewhere in Italy. In any case the DMV (Motorizzazione- try saying that!) seems to offload a lot of their duties to the driving schools. You can go there to renew you driver’s license, register your vehicle and god knows what else related to cars (or motorcycles) and driving. So they have all of the forms you need and know all the bureaucratic levers to pull and even provide one of the physician statements. This one amounts to an eye test and nothing more. The other one is a form that you take to your general practitioner (medico di base) and has something like 10 questions asking if you have some malady that makes it unsafe to drive: are you crazy, drug addicted, missing a limb, basic stuff like that. So my doctor took my blood pressure and listened to my chest with a stethoscope and signed the form (I had already marked NO to all of the questions). Cost – 40 euros. Enroll in the school – 100 euros. This 100 euros theoretically provides classroom instruction probably using the same language that they used for the test. It’s sort of like if the written test in California was written in Olde English and often used double negatives. So I will not be attending the classroom sessions. Come back with the your doctor’s form, pay another 94 euros for some fees and the eye test.
  3. Next step schedule an appointment to take the test on theory. If you’ve read the previous post you will know that I think that the majority of the questions are about basically useless shit but that’s the next step and it for some also ridiculous reason must be at least a month after asking to have it scheduled. So after a week I received a text message that my test was scheduled for the first of October at 10 in the morning at the dreaded Motorizzazione. Ah, but there was an option; I could arrive there on my own by 9:30 in the morning or arrive at the driving school at 9:00 and they would take me there. Easy choice. Oh yes, taking the test costs 125 euros.
  4. Once I pass the test – and I’m becoming quite confident that I will, then there are the 6 hours of driving with a driving school instructor at 35 euros an hour so that adds another 210 euros to the bill. And of course the driving test itself costs another 125 euros.

So I pass both tests on the first try I will have a license in hand and the total cost is around 700 euros. I grumpily described all of these costs to my friend Marco and he said, that’s pretty good because a lot of times it can be as much as 1000.

Ah “Benvento in Italia!” And there is more absurdity to come. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place despite the absurdities.

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Italian Driver’s License – Part 1

Monday, September 16th, 2019

I now have lived in Italy for over a year which means that my California driver’s license is officially no longer valid. I don’t ever want to own another car and since I live in Bologna, and especially since I live in the center, having a car is really unnecessary and expensive. I walk and take buses everywhere. I would however like to occasionally rent a car or drive Laura’s. So I need to get an Italian license (patente). Ah this is where the fun begins.

I have noted that the italian bureaucracy is difficult but the parts that I’ve had contact with are child’s play compared to the process of getting an italian driver’s license. Just as a way of background when I was in back in California for two weeks in August I renewed my California license that was due to expire next year so that I would be assured of being able to drive when I go back sometime next year. I was required to take a test and have an eye test, pay some reasonable sum of money and that was it. The test had something like 50 questions all of which had some relationship to the ability to drive safely. I passed the test with no errors and was out of the DMV (department of motor vehicles) in less than an hour. I didn’t need to retake a driving test.

Now let’s go down the torturous path of getting an Italian patente. First is the test. The test is 40 questions that seem to be selected at random from 7,000 (yes that’s right 3 zeros) potential questions. They cover 25 different categories including the partial list below:

  1. Definition of the parts of the street (sidewalks are considered part of the street for example)
  2. Different types of streets (city, outside the city- 3 types, freeway, autostrade about the same but with tolls, secondary road).
  3. Types of vehicles from mopeds to heavy trucks, also different types of trailers
  4. Different types of signs – a total of 10, yes 10 categories
  5. Types of license – there are 15 different types but you only need to know the details of 6, such things as age requirements types of vehicles you can drive with each
  6. Penalties for breaking the rules
  7. First aid for injured parties (you are legally required to stop and administer first aid to accident victims)

This is obviously only a partial list of the categories.

So you can see that if you start combining these things you can easily come up with 7,000 combinations. Not only that they don’t use common Italian words, oh no, that would be too easy. They must have a team of evil attorneys coming up with tortuous ways of asking questions. Why would they do that? Isn’t the object to be assured that you can know the rules of the road and can drive safely. It seems that their objective is simply to use as many tricks as possible to have you fail the test.

Two books on theory – one has 288 pages and the other has 305

I have two books of theory and neither of them cover everything. In fact between them they don’t cover everything. Fortunately there are websites that have practice tests that you can do over and over again. I probably have done practice tests at this point at least 200 times and still occasionally make errors when they ask an absolutely absurd question. Here are a couple of fun examples. The answers are true of false. (I have translated these from the Italian).

  1. On the autostrada the speed limit for an automobile pulling a horse trailer is 80 kilometers per hour

First of all why do I give a shit about the rules for pulling a horse trailer since I don’t plan to do it and why would it otherwise be important to know that?

  • 2. The traffic cone in the picture can be used at worksite along the street for 10 days.

Who cares? There is road work. There is a traffic cone. Why do I care how long it can be there? The answer is that it is only for 2 days. In practice it seems that absolutely none of the roadwork sites follow this rule. Actually you could make the same statement for a large part of the test content.

And then there is this fun first aid question:

  1. The state of shock could manifest itself with sudden pronouncing of sentences and words without meaning.

I sent Laura a text saying that question pretty much sums up how I sometimes speak Italian.

One thing that is really important to learn here is the right of way. I noticed once before when driving in Italy in a town in Puglia that there were a lot of intersections in the center of town with no signs at all. No stop signs or right of way signs. Then as a passenger in Laura’s car in Torino I noted the same things. So the basic rule is that at an intersection. If there is a car to your right at the intersection they have the right of way and you must stop and let them pass. So far so good but apparently there are lots of CRAZY intersections in the country like the one below. And of course the question is in what order do they proceed through the intersection. See if you can guess.

Ah yes there is also this crazy one that I still don’t understand although I know the correct answer.

Now one would think that given basic rule that if you are to the right of another car at the intersection and no vehicle is at your right that auto N would make a left turn as shown since the other two have a vehicle to their right. Silly me. What he does is start the turn and when he is in the middle of the intersection he has vehicle A to his right so he must stop in the middle. The since R has nobody to his right he goes through the intersection. Then A has nobody to his right so he goes through the intersection and then poor N who has been sitting in the middle of the intersection can complete his turn. This still makes no sense to me but this is, after all, Italy.

Anyway, by now I feel pretty confident that I can pass the test so the next chapter will be more about the process of taking this test and also the driving test. Can it get any weirder? Are you ready for the next absurd chapter?

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