Thursday, August 27, 2009

One last trip this weekend - to Rome! I plan to eat and drink myself silly – a fitting conclusion, I think, to this lovely life pause I've been enjoying. And then I will store up these memories like treasures for use in dire situations, like when I cannot bear another rainy day or find it impossible to get out of bed or get attacked by a shark in Puget Sound. Nothing wrong with a few secret vacation hits to get you through the withdrawal.

Having rather ignorantly prepared Pasta all'Amatriciana for some time now, I look forward to tasting a real Roman version. Or at least a realer version. There is (surprise!) some dispute among Italians over what constitutes real Amatriciana sauce; ingredients vary by location. But in Amatrice, the town outside of Rome where the recipe originated, real Amatriciana sauce uses guanciale (pork cheek), spaghetti, and avoids THAT ROMANO STUFF. (Technically that part is one of the few parts of the recipe not in caps, but I don't feel out of line in using them here. I'm sure some Italians have shouted over this before.)

Here's the recipe I've used in the past if you'd like to try it; you'll notice in addition to being corrupted by Romano cheese, it's missing the pork cheek. (Oh Marcella, what will we do with you?) I'll let you know if this makes a difference when I get back. A dopo!

Pasta all'Amatriciana
Serves 4

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1/4 inch thick slice of pancetta, cut into strips 1/2 inch wide and 1 inch long
1 1/2 cups Italian plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
hot red chili pepper, chopped, to taste
3 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons Romano cheese
1 pound pasta (bucatini (hollow spaghetti) is traditional in Rome)

Put the oil, butter, and onion in a saucepan and turn on the heat to medium. Sauté the onion until pale gold, then add the pancetta. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring once or twice.

Add the tomatoes, the chili pepper, and salt, and cook in the uncovered pan at a steady, gentle simmer for 25 minutes, being careful it doesn't burn.

Taste and correct for seasonings

Toss the pasta with the sauce, then add both cheeses, and toss thoroughly again.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Our recent trip into Val Maggia this weekend reminded me how we never got around to visiting Spluga, a little community of old stone cottages in the Giumaglio valley where we once planned to stop overnight during a long hike.

The Swiss love to hike (or steadily plod, as "Hiking the Swiss Way" explains). The entire country is a network of well-marked trails, so it's quite easy to have a lovely excursion wherever you may travel. High in the mountains you can all kinds of small cabins at which you can stop, sleep, and eat. At least in Ticino, these capanne (huts) are beautiful old stone houses, with just enough accommodation so that you can sleep and have a meal indoors before continuing on your next leg. If you're lucky someone's nonna will be cooking you some polenta, but that's not very common.

When I retire for real, I'd like to return to Ticino and find my own stone house (though preferably the kind that has been finished inside with modern Swiss über-quality), perhaps in a village needing an eccentric expat to nonna some street urchins and tame the local cats. If you saw these sweet little villages nestled into these magical, foresty valleys, you'd be planning this, too. Only Swiss Mr. seems immune to the siren call of these towns: these are solo retirement plans. I find it best not to think of the details of how this will work. No need to be overly practical when making dreamy life plans, anyway.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Did you know you can actually get a sunburn on your eyeballs? Even wearing sunglasses. Current experience proves it to me. It is not very pleasant. So be careful, my blue-eyed friends – protect yourselves. I'll be going granny-style from now on. I suggest you do, too.

Friday, August 21, 2009

I had planned to do a series on graffiti in honor of Banksy, revealing my secret anarchic tendencies, but it appears I have forgotten. Sad, Graffiti Week had a nice ring to it. Anyway, here are a few graffiti from our trip:

(Unrelated, of course, except in that they are both graffiti)

Please enjoy your Friday.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bathroom advice

Though I try rigorously to avoid it, I've seen my fair share of public bathrooms recently. My three-pronged approach – drink as little as possible, breakfast strategically, avoid preemptive strikes (also known in some parts as "breaking the seal") – is quite robust but occasionally fails me on long trips, usually because I do something wussy like get thirsty. It is wise to weigh the options well before an emergency situation arises so as to avoid experiences it will take a lifetime or possibly extreme old age to forget. I am a big fan of the museum bathroom, my experience in the superheated, permanently-occupied National Gallery of Scotland toilet notwithstanding; hotel lobbies are also nice. But if you want plan this out way ahead of time and/or become a total bathroom snob, check out The Bathroom Diaries.

There you will find among other over-the-top bathroom venues this flowery "Golden Plunger" winner over at the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre. Down in Branson, Missouri, they prefer "good old-fashioned hedonism." Either this is one PDG bathroom or their fan base is not quite representative of the general public – I only know two other people who even have the pleasure of knowing about Shoji Tabuchi (up until this moment, of course). Anyway, Golden Plunger or not, who needs to visit Branson now that they make VHS tapes of the show?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Swissify America!

I was going to comment on the Swiss health care system one of these days, in light of the ferocious debate going on in the US, but Paul Krugman beat me to it. As most of our past visitors know, we are big fans of the Swiss system and have long thought it would make a smart model for the US. To summarize it in short: every resident is required to have a minimum level of coverage, insurance companies (all private) have to make certain plans available and must accept all applicants, and the government provides assistance to families who need it. Finding a reasonable health care plan was surprisingly one of the easiest things to do here (considerably easier than getting access to the laundry). There were many companies from which to choose, even at the lowest level of coverage, and the policies were easy to compare. We chose the cheapest option possible and have received excellent (and, I might add, very high-tech) care. We have not one complaint (though my teeth are annoyed we did not add dental). Just my two francs' worth.

Friday, August 14, 2009

In which Swiss Ms. relates some real-life daydreams, gets temporarily nostalgic about weird things, and grudingly admits to missing her homeland

Sometimes I really long for a few American-style errands to run – the soothing and mindless Saturday morning kind. Slip into the car, catch familiar NPR voices in between purposeful jaunts, sip a coffee maybe, stop in somewhere you never have time for during the week, buy a book on World Religions from a yard sale, avoid the baseball traffic, put on Dick Biondi if the errands take too long and Garrison Keilor shows up. Or walk down to Kim's Hardware, overpay for a specialty tool, write a check for the box of vegetables next door, and stroll home. (Actually huff my way home, since I am carrying the big box of vegetables, but feeling pleased about the exercise I won't have to do later. Also everyone will be impressed and feel guilty when they hear I've done it myself.) I can think of a thousand versions of Saturday morning and somehow they all seem pleasant to me. Especially if we happen to run into Kim and Ryan.

I am overlooking the hateful truth in these real-life daydreams, of course. That is, that errands always take longer than you think, chomp up your fresh weekend energy, and leave you really hungry in the middle of the afternoon with a stupid amount of time left in the day. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, my mom recently pointed out, even of inanimate objects. I guess we can add "horrible and grueling tasks" as well. Maybe this is why I also feel nostalgic about cleaning graffiti off our building? And why people run more than one marathon?

The real story is that, despite loving so many things about the lovely lifestyle and setting and culture here, it is about time to come home. It's hard for me to admit that, by the way, like I'm exposing some sissy weakness. I never was the kid crying to go home at the end of camp, I swear. I was the one conspiratorially telling my parents in the car how some suckers actually had to call their parents in the middle of the week. It's not really about the errands or having a car or writing checks (which if nothing else is way more satisfying than making a bank transfer, by the way). I don't even think it's about feeling purposeful. I'm not sure what it's about. It's just the mystery of home.

Sorry, no time for posts lately. Been drinking beer.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

“Pronto? Sono il piromane…”

Hooray! Lugano's rogue pyromaniac, responsible for a good number of local building and dumpster fires over the years, has been captured. Not long after he called the local newspaper to identify himself as "Serial Fire" and have a chat about his handiwork last week, the police caught up with him. (Bragging always gets you caught, I know that from my own experience stealing library books.) Anyway, it was fun to have a real Lugano supervillain while it lasted

You can find the full (Italian) transcript of the whole weird conversation (which begins, "Hello? I am the pyromaniac from yesterday's fires...") here.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Big Mac Index

Unless I am forced to do so by strange circumstances I strenuously avoid eating at McDonalds. Maybe everyone says this now? Sometimes I get into trouble by being too graphic about things I do not like to eat, especially when others really do, so I will leave it at that. In any case, having been an adolescent stockholder of MCD, this makes me feel slightly guilty and vaguely anti-American. Growing up in the shadow of corporate headquarters, though, it was somehow easier to support its plan for world domination, knowing it was at least benefitting neighbors and communities nearby. (Okay, and me.) All this to say, it makes good sense to me to use the Big Mac to evaluate currencies relative to the dollar. Despite never having had Big Macs in Europe, I'm pretty this also correctly indexes the horror we felt when the bill arrived in these various countries.

The Big Mac index compliments of The Economist

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Clouds on the horizon

As we prepare to leave Lugano and our smart little white apartment here, nothing strikes fear into my heart more than stories like this. It has already been established that, by Swiss standards, I am a totally incompetent cleaner. So I have long dreaded the moving-out process, or rather the apartment inspection at its conclusion. The scratches in our stainless steel sink keep me from sleeping at night; spills make me cry. In my spare time I clean the oven. Please believe me, I jest not about this dread.

My personal pride, by now perhaps permanently crippled, is not the issue. It is that our management company has a not-so-inconsequential sum of our ever-dwindling savings from which to punitively subtract fees. How much will the brown spot under the mirror, which is only my fault if one can be blamed (and I'm sure that one can) for cleaning too much, cost? The daily pain and suffering to be endured by future residents who will have to bear this constant incursion of entropy into their lives is bound to cost a lot in Switzerland.

Trains are on time, babies do not cry, cars stop at crosswalks, and walls apparently do not get those mysterious gray scuff marks. This is the way of life in Switzerland. And, ah, how we will miss paying for it.