Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Chew first, think later

When sampling foods which challenge your notions of edibility, it is best not to tarry before the plate. Smelling, scrutinizing, asking questions, and thinking in general may impress your host but will lower the probability you will actually eat the food, by allowing time for that reactive part of your brain, which is completely impervious to the powers of reason, etiquette, and nostalgia, to resolutely lower its leaden foot and forbid you from continuing. Likewise, when ordering such foods off a menu, it is best not to over-translate, obsess over wines and sides, or surveil other tables. 

The degree to which you will enjoy such foods at least to some degree will depend on your ability to dissociate from your preconceived notions, past experiences of texture and flavor, and tendency to think in analogy. All the better if you can will complete ignorance. 

Italy is not generally known for its challenging comestibles, but, from my perspective, it has its share. This is mostly because, despite well-intentioned efforts, I have not yet been able to accept the idea of internal organs as food. Boar meat, yes, baby horse, yes, cured fat even, yes. Brains, no. Livers and kidneys, no. Come on, they used to do something. 

This stance makes all the more interesting, then, my enthusiasm for trying that Florentine speciality called trippa. I felt curiously open to it from the beginning, initially perhaps because the term gracefully obscures its primary functionality as part of a living creature. And, since our tripe exchange went something like –
"Tripe, isn't that...?" 
"Yes, it is." 
"Oh, okay."
– I was just a short brain pause and a deep breath away from ordering the tripe ravioli I spied on the menu at a local tripperia outside Florence a few weeks ago. I was rewarded by a smile of recognition from the server and by the brief, satisfying sensation that I was having an authentic experience.

I will say for it that, unlike many other questionably edible foods, it actually started out tastily enough. It was only with the arrival of another, whole tripe dish at the table that the idea of the tripe became clear, the texture of the tripe sauce became evident, the flavor registered (stomach entering stomach, chewy/cartilage-y, and smokily cutaneous, respectively, if you care to know) and my eating slowed. Though I finished it all, in the end I can't say I've been won over to internal organs. But I can say that I ate tripe in the same restaurant as John Malkovich.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Why we in Swiss.

While my parents were here, we took a visit to the Berner Oberland, the lovely central part of Switzerland which looks just like Switzerland should. Here are a few shots from our day trip into Lauterbrunnen Valley, taken just before the mist came in and ruined all opportunity for photographs (not one good shot of Jungfrau that day... woe is me). 

Thursday, September 25, 2008


While my parents were here visiting recently, we talked a lot about geography. In addition to mapping future travel routes and reminiscing about old ones, we spent a good deal of time discussing whether Americans have a poor sense of geography and whether or not it is okay if we do (which, sorry, we do). Even though there are some convincing reasons for why this is (we can't all see Alaska from our windows, after all), I happen to believe that this particular type of ignorance is diplomatically deleterious and puts us at a real disadvantage in understanding international politics and US foreign policy. If we care to understand (which we might not).

I really didn't meant to have a small rant about that, I just woke up cranky and didn't get to my lighthearted point fast enough. I always have a lighthearted point, you know.

As any American who has answered the question "Do you know my friend X in New York?" has realized, a poor sense of scale can really affect your understanding of a place. (For further evidence, please see SwissAir's map of the US). Americans tend to be a bit smug about this, but I think the misunderstanding works both ways. 

During one of our discussions, I mentioned seeing an interesting map somewhere which superimposed the US onto Brazil, where it fit quite nicely, or just about. I was caught off guard with the – what shall I call it? – extreme skepticism of my party. "No, no!" I responded. "I am not making this up! Brazil is huge. The world is huge! Africa can fit all of Europe, all of the US and all of India in it! Have you seen Kazakhstan? It's enormous!" But because I am never very confident, especially amid controversy, I added an weak "I think" to my Brazil claim the second time around and lost all credibility.

However, my mom sent me some interesting figures today:
USA area: 9,826,630 SQ KM
Brazil area: 8,511,965 SQ KM

Now, if you were an engineer, you might immediately say that I was completely wrong. But if you happened to be a liberal arts student, you might wish to consider these numbers a bit more. You might observe that the US has about 90% of the area of Brazil. And you might realize that, if you put the US inside of Brazil, it would fit quite nicely, except for maybe that awkward bit of Florida, which is falling off anyway. I may be wrong on paper, but I feel absolutely vindicated.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Swiss Inferno

I'm not sure what I may have done to deserve it, but there is a good possibility that I may currently be stuck in the inner circle of Hell. Not just an inner circle of Hell, the inner circle of Hell. 

In case you are unfamiliar with the Inferno part of The Divine Comedy, it's where Dante describes in terms of concentric rings the hellish conditions designed to punish the sinful after death. The first circle, for people who sneak chocolates and let their phone calls go to voice mail, is really not so bad, just a quiet place with no candy. Later circles are much worse, full of off-key singing, mandatory mullets, Hungry, Hungry Hippos, and cable news. And possibly boiling lava.

The innermost circle appears to have been specially designed to separate me from the one thing in this world I have loved more than anything else (also, might I moodily add, one of the easiest thing to procure when living in Switzerland): cheese. I am still in the testing phases, but my body seems to have turned against me, against my love. Is this tragicomedy or simply poetic justice?

O bitter Truth! O tragic Fate! Wouldst Thou ignore my cries? I promise, should this affliction pass over me, to hold cheese less dear, to wear the t-shirt less, to eat my vegetables... I swear, I swear it upon my Cheese Bible.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The disconcerted return

I forgot I even had a blog for a while during the past few weeks. It was a nice mental break from trying to seem interesting. Also, I stopped having those "this would be a perfect blog post" moments. So I almost feel like a regular schmuck now. 

Today I have not even thought of a topic for this post. You see, I am still rusty. But by tomorrow I will be photographing my refrigerator or making you watch a slide show of my journey up a foggy mountain or reading to you from a dictionary. And the world will have righted itself. 

At the moment, I have the odd, disorienting sensation of being in a time vacuum. Somehow this last string of trips and visitors has really deep spaced my sense of reality and the passage of time. Even for someone in retiree status, it is bad. I do not think I could not come up with today's date in less than four guesses. I try to have conversations about Gallileo climbing the leaning tower. I worry about how prehistoric people learned to write. I can't figure out if fall has come to Lugano. And I am relishing my current events ignorance way too much for an American at election time. 

Monday, September 8, 2008

You know you live in a small town when...

you tell the cab drive your street and he guesses the building number.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Somehow during the visit of our friends S&P this week, we found ourselves in a strange, strange land. 

(photo: S&P)
The natives were not friendly and wore a lot of jewelry. 

damned dirty ape couldn't even afford a track suit (photo: S&P)

And there were gorillas out there in the mist with the cows.

(photo: S&P)

Thankfully, we were eventually able to escape from this planet of apes and return safely to Lugano. Who knew our Swiss German phrase ("Meine Name ist Taylor") would be so useful!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Bacche di ginepro

In the spice section the other day, I impulsively picked up a bottle of dried berries, which, my dictionary later informed me, were juniper berries.

They pretty much taste like vodka minus the vodka. They are assertive, but reticently so, like they are not used to being alone on the palate and would anyway prefer to stay tucked away in the woods by themselves with the deer. They are definitely closer to fruity twigs than blueberries: not really something that you put on your cereal.

What in the world shall I do with these berries? I hope someone will help me.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

For me, this brings to mind tipsy second graders or construction workers being dainty. Not sure for whom it's intended.