On our eighth day we left Roma in the late afternoon and arrived in Firenze (Florence) sometime after dark, maybe nine or ten. Here Chiara and Cosimo surprised Scott and me by driving up a hill on the south side of the Arno River called the Piazzala Michelangelo—a piazza that overlooks all of Florence and has copies of some of Michelangelo’s works, including a bronze David statue that is perhaps a fourth the size of the original marble. We took pictures, drank water and beer, and ate some pizza we had brought with us from Roma. We got back to Bologna around midnight.
(Piazzala Michelangelo at night)
We mostly packed for home and took it easy on our last day in Italia, but in the afternoon we went to the local grocery store to get some things for dinner. I was surprised at how the layout felt so similar to any grocery store in the States. Same lights, floors, baskets, checkout procedures.
We had a little going away party that night. Tosco came, along with Cosimo’s friend and Scott’s acquaintance, Raffaele, and another fellow musician named Domenico, who was from Crotone. We drank beer, played music from phones and 45s (the gang introduced us to the subgenre of Italo Disco), ate a roast wrapped in hog-jowl prosciutto which was then surrounded by dough (cooked together almost like a pot pie) with fried potatoes and bufala balls on the side.
(an example of Italo Disco)
It was all very bon voyage and bon appetite.
What moved me was the thought that this Florence which I could see, so near and yet inaccessible, in my imagination…. [Venice and Florence] became even more real to me when my father, by saying: “Well, you can stay in Venice from the 20th to the 29th, and reach Florence on Easter morning,” made them both emerge, no longer only from the abstraction of Space, but from that imaginary Time in which we place not one, merely, but several of our travels at once, which do not greatly tax us since they are but possibilities,—that Time which reconstructs itself so effectively that one can spend it again in one town after one has already spent it in another—and consecrated to them some of those actual, calendar days which are certificates of the genuineness of what one does on them, for those unique days are consumed by being used, they do not return, one cannot live them again here when one has lived them elsewhere.
In the late afternoon we head south to Rome. In Florence, we encounter a major traffic jam on the A1 Highway, forcing us to detour over some back roads through Tuscany. We stop somewhere in a village south of Florence and have salami sandwiches, a bottle of Chianti, lemoncello. Some kids hear us speak English, so they rush up to our table to ask how one says “ciao” in the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
Driving past two men scuffling on a sidewalk, Cosimo points at them and says, “If you see people fighting in Rome, they’re most likely British.” (And they did look British.) We had entered Rome sometime around one a.m., and after our four–five hour drive, Scott is a little car sick, so he doesn’t see the couple kissing in Piazza della Rotonda. Chiara’s mother Rita comes out to greet us and says in a matter-of-fact, dry manner: “Welcome to the Pantheon.”
An interesting day: breakfast in Bologna, late lunch in Tuscany, dinner in Rome (cold homemade eggplant pasta, freshly sliced strawberries, breads and cheeses (including gorgonzola) I believe).
Rome has been in the tourist business for over two millennia, so it’s no surprise that I wake up in this city and–as our accommodations overlooked the Piazza della Rotondato and Pantheon–hear someone playing Leonard Coen’s “Hallelujah” (1984), then Ennio Morricone’s theme to “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969), then Nino Rota’s theme to the “Godfather” (1972).
Our excursion begins after some coffee and pastries. First, the Pantheon: a Roman Temple built by Hadrian in the second century and now a consecrated church that holds, among other things, the tomb of composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) as well as the crypt of painter Raphael Sanzio da Urbino (1483–1520).
Next, Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, consecrated in 1370, a church which immediately faces the southeast side of the Pantheon. Once inside we find that we happen to arrive at the right moment to see light shine through stained glass and illuminate the Madonna and ChildGiving Blessings (1449) by Benozzo Gozzoli (1421–1497). Outside Sopra Minerva in the piazza stands a plinth holding an elephant that on its back supports an Egyptian obelisk. This is the Obelisco della Minerva, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680).
We then stroll a few blocks westward into the massive Piazza Navona––full of tourists, music, fountains and food. And, at some point we make our way to La Casa Del Caffe Tazza D’oro on Via dei Pastini and Via degli Orfani: a shop, according to Cosimo, considered by the native Romans to be one of the best places in the city for coffee.
At evening we eat pizza at Al Forno della Soffitta near the corner of Via Augusto Valenziani and Via Piave. We are served appetizers of fried mashed potato balls, onion rings, olives stuff with prosciutto then fried like jalapeño poppers here in the States (except that all were battered in flour). Then, each of us is presented with an eighteen-inch pizza. All the pizzas have mozzarella, some with bufala (mozzarella made from buffalo milk). Scott’s is topped only with bufala and prosciutto. We are slightly mocked by our hosts for our slow intake of such fine cuisine. “You certainly don’t eat like Americans,” says one.
Our night ends with a walk to the Trevi Fountain (which I knew only from watching a scene in La Dolce Vida). Here many late-night tourists take selfies, American frat boys wearing NBA jerseys chug wine from bottles tightly clenched, as Roman police supervise everyone and seagulls flying overhead and bathing in the fountain before us. We throw in coins, make wishes, and are now obliged to one day return to Roma.
(Trevi Fountain La Dolce Vida (1960))
After celebrating a birthday brunch for Chiara’s mom Signora Rita with risotto, pasta, roasted chicken, pastries, cake, coffee, Chianti, bitters, we drive back to Bologna—but not before picking up some Roman pizza for the road (possibly from Pizza Zazà off of Piazza di Sant’Eustachio but I can’t remember exactly).
Too much to tell…. words only fail…. One could live in Rome for two lifetimes and still not have time to explore it all…. I need someone from Bologna who has written about Rome…. I need to imbibe Bolognese composer Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) and absorb his symphonic poem “Pines of Rome” that those notes transposed might transcend and further ferment understanding my initial experience of the Eternal City.
 Proust, Marcel. À la recherche du temps perdu. (In Search of Lost Time.) Vol. I. Du côté de chez Swann. (Swann’s Way.) Translated by Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff and Terrence Kilmartin. § “Place Names: The Name.”
Running through Bologna is Piazza Malpighi, a major roadway named for hometown scholar Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694), the “father of microscopical anatomy, histology, physiology and embryology.” Our host Cosimo had to finish mastering a song with his friend Tosco today (a song for an advertisement for which they’d already been paid), so while they were working in the early afternoon, Scott and I were let loose to explore downtown Bologna. We were dropped off at the corner of Piazza Malpighi and Piazza San Francesco, just in front of the thirteenth-century Basilica di San Francesco, the Due Torri (“Two Towers”) ever-hovering overhead.
Walking through the touristy district of Bologna near the base of the Two Towers, at the corner of Vicolo Ranocchi (“Frog Alley”) and Via degli Orefici (“Street of Goldsmiths”), Scott and I each had a slice of pizza and a beer at a café called Forno Quadrilatero (“Quadrilateral Oven”)
We next decided to try some mortadella (real bologna) at another café on Via degli Orefici called Loste. Here we had another round of beers, and the mortadella served two ways: first, cooked in and served with beans; next, sliced and stacked on pieces of bread.
It was about time to meet back at Cosimo’s apartment, so Scott and I tried to find our way back without getting lost. Just as we arrived at the correct building we saw Cosimo, Tosco, and another Giovanni (whose stage name is “Kappasaur”) laughing under the porticos. We all walked together for a few blocks till arriving at Via dell’Orso (“Bear Street”). Our companions were hungry, so Scott and I watched the trio eat American style fast food in a place called simply “Chicken Taste,” owned and operated by Asian subcontinentals.
After they finished their dinner, we walked about a block to the corner of Via dell’Indipendenza and Via dei Falegnami (“Street of Carpenters”) where we sat at an outdoor table and had a glass of red wine, possibly at Piadineria Wine Bar. We then headed home for the evening.
(more downtown Bologna)
At brunch we were all too busy talking to each other to notice that the toast in the oven had started to burn. So after eating up and cleaning up and airing out Scott and Cosimo went to his music studio to work on a new track they later tentatively titled “Burnt Bread.” I worked on my novel while they composed.
Chiara’s car had been making a strange noise, and she wanted it diagnosed before our upcoming trip to Rome, so that afternoon we went beyond Bologna to the village/suburb of Calcara to see a Moroccan mechanic with whom they were acquainted. There we walked around for a few blocks in the suburb before the mechanic decided the noise was nothing important. As we were leaving, he asked Cosimo if I spoke French, perhaps because the straw hat I wore was banded with a tricolor of red, white, and blue.
(blooming succulents in Calcara)
From Calcara we returned to Bologna, drove past the Ducati factory, and made our way to what Cosimio and Chiara described as the best restaurant for Bolognese cuisine in Bologna, Nonna Rosa Trattoria. The four of us shared three courses. The first was a platter with a soft cheese (similar, but not as tart as sour cream), sliced mortadella, fried bread, and a cooked vegetable root similar to onions, leeks perhaps. Second course was tortellini; third was fried pork chops topped with prosciutto and cheese. Desert was torta di mele, an apple pastry served over mascarpone. We finished this off with coffee some lemoncello.
Arriving home around 12:00 a.m., Cosimo suggested visiting a nearby record store, just off Via Sante Vincenzi, that sometimes holds late night listening parties. Here at a place called Mint Sound we listened to records and were served a glass of complementary white wine. Evidently Mint Sound has only recently opened, and the store had made a marketing deal with a local winemaker to where the winemaker made a limited number of bottles with the record store’s logo printed on the label. These limited bottles were then served to guests at the listening parties.
(late night listening at Mint Sound)
Instead of white wine, Cosimo had coffee (because he was driving). The coffee must’ve been strong, because after leaving the record store Cosimo, in a kind of manic euphoria, drove Scott and me around for another hour or so, through the hills surrounding Bologna, finding panoramic points from which we could see the entire city, sometimes up to three-hundred meters below. Atop one of the higher hills sits the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca (or “San Luca” for short), which was spectacularly lit at night (the moon was big and bright and crescent), and this special high spot can generally be seen from any point down below in Bologna. Or as Cosimo put it: “You know you’re home in Bologna when you can see San Luca.”
It was either very late or very early when we got home, took tea, and took to bed.
Because Cosimo had errands to run this morning, and Chiara had class, I had the privilege of making coffee for the first time while (being?) in Italy. Scott and I sipped coffee and surfed internet throughout the morning in our hosts’ Bolognese apartment—then, we ate some breakfast (mostly buttered toast, olive jam, parmigiana).
That afternoon the four of us drove for about an hour northward to the small city of Comacchio (pop. 23,000), situated in the Po River Delta region of Italy’s northeast coast. Parts of the drive were over the Via Aemilia (an ancient Roman road completed in 187 BC).
Comacchio is surrounded by a lagoon, where the Reno River empties into the Adriatic Sea. The day was ending as we arrived at the lagoon, then, drove down a peninsula with a dirt road that had fishermen’s shanties lining both sides. From here we bird watched. As the sun set we saw flamingos, ibises, ducks, pheasants, and other fowl we could not identify. There were also literal clouds of mosquitoes—Comacchio used to have a malaria problem––so we stayed in the car while we watched the birds.
Later we drove from one side of the lagoon to the other, that is, to where the actual town of Comacchio sits, that is, at the corner of Croso Garibaldi and Via Rosario, where we had a 9:00 p.m. seafood dinner at a restaurant called Al Cantion. The atmosphere inside was both elegant and casual. Interesting old photos of life in Comacchio dotted the walls, with a large portrait of Sophia Loren hung high on the center wall opposite the entrance. In 1954 Loren starred in La donna del fiume (The River Girl), a movie that was filmed in Comacchio, and the town, quite understandably, seems never to have gotten over her.
Translating the menu was the largest language difficulty we encountered on our trip. I had a platter of fried fish and shrimp, Scott a clam and pasta dish. I think the four of us split a half bottle of pinot grigio.
After dinner we walked around the town, which was still and quiet after 10:00. We saw the Trepponti (Three Point) bridge built in 1638—a three-part bridge that connects the city’s various streets stretching over canals (canals which are not quite as large as those in Venice, but impressive nonetheless).
As we drove back to Bologna, we played different songs for each other from Cosimo’s phone. Scott and I introduced our hosts to Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” and Willie and Merle’s cover of Guy Forsyth’s “Poncho and Lefty,” as well as Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness.” Cosimo later cued up “I Can’t Tell You Why” by the Eagles and told us about some remix ideas he had for this song.
(Kool and the Gang’s song Summer Madness)
Then, around 1:00 a.m., on our return to Bologna we stopped (almost suddenly) in the middle of a small city. Cosimo started asking a bystander directions about touring around town. The whole conversation was in Italian, but Cosimo later related some of the details to us: he had started by asking the bystander something like, “Hey, I’m from Bologna, do you know where we can walk around and tour the town etc.?” and the bystander immediately responded, almost in jest, “If you’re from Bologna, why don’t you speak with a Bolognese accent?” (because Cosimo is originally from southern Italy), to which our host responds: “Ah, come on man, help me out, I’m just trying to show the sights to these Texans here in the car with me.”
At the mention of “Texans” the bystander immediately perked up his shoulders and looked in the back of the vehicle at Scott and me, as if we were exotic animals being transported to the zoo.
The little city we began exploring in the wee morning hours was Ferrara (pop. 133,000). It’s a university town, and even after 1:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, there were plenty of students still in the streets. Among other things we saw were the twelfth century moated castle Castello Estense, the tenth century Ferrara Cathedral, the Piazza Savonarola and its statue of hometown book-burner and excommunicant Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) as well as the façade to the entrance of Ferrara Synagogue that included a plaque of the 96 names of Jewish citizens of Ferrara whom Fascists sent to the camps near World War II’s close.
(random façade in Ferrara)
Comacchio was cool and Ferrara was fun. (I’m definitely ready to go back.) We got home around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., had some tea, watched some videos on YouTube then went to bed.
After sleeping through the late morning we were served a large breakfast/brunch that started with buttered toast on whole-wheat bread, black olive jam, slices of cheese (cut from what looked like a two-pound block of parmigiana), and Italian flatbread (piadina). The butter went well on both breads; the jam too tasted great on the breads as well as simply smeared on slices of parmigiana. Sometimes we glazed our morsels with a thicker form of balsamic vinegar–a cream–that, upon contact with our food, congealed like liquid fudge drizzled on ice cream. The main course was spaghetti from Tosco’s mother’s homemade sauce.
We drank lots of espresso and were also offered sparkling water, fruit juice, milk. After the meal, we were given a glass of Cosimo’s grandmother’s homemade cherry wine. We also had some sips of amarezza (bitters, liqueurs) “to settle the coffee.”
After our stomachs had relaxed, Cosimo and Chiara guided Scott and me on a walking tour through the 900-year-old city of Bologna. One of the first things we saw was the Porta Galliera (city gate) where in medieval times folks would pass through to enter this once-walled city. Nearby were a group of book stalls and stacks under a large white tent. We browsed these wares for a while. I found some specimens from the mid-1800s that were a good price but nothing in English. Scott found some old comic books and bought them.
We strolled through Bologna southward down Via dell’Indipendenza (Independence Avenue) until we came to Finestra sui Canali which reveal the ruins of Bologna’s canal system. Between the 1200s and the 1600s these canals, fed by the River Po, were used for travel and commerce from Bologna to Venice.
Next we came upon some of Bologna’s most famous and recognizable landmarks, the Due Torri (Two Towers), and while plenty of visitors shuffled about the bases of these towers, the scene was nothing like the infestation of tourists one finds at the one in Pisa. Bologna’s towers were built in the 1100s, and, like Pisa, they lean.
We continued south for a few blocks until encountering Palazzo Re Enzo, built in 1244. Some of the acoustics beneath the covered archways and porticos of this palace made for whispering galleries. Here under the arches, before the days of texting, Renaissance lads and lasses used to flirt and court each other by whispering back and forth.
(whispering gallery at Palazzo Re Enzo)
On the east side of the Palazzo stands the Neptune fountain, a special place for Cosimo and Chiara because ’tis the spot in Bologna where they, our hosts, first met. Immediately to the south of the fountain spans the Piazza Maggiore, overlooked by the Basilica of San Petronio.
Our breakfast had been large, but by evening Scott and I needed a snack. So at a mini “food mall”––possibly a place called Eataly on Via Drapperie; right off Piazza Maggiore––Scott and I split a tuna steak sandwich over some pinot grigio.
(Piazza Maggiore at night)
We walked back to our host’s apartment, then, got in their car and drove around before finding the “right” gelato place. We must’ve driven for over an hour, because lots of places close early on Mondays. Soon enough Scott and I found ourselves in a version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Cosimo and Chiara couldn’t decide where we should eat gelato: one saying, “No that place’s stuff is too soft, let’s go to so-in-so’s”; the other replying: “No, theirs is too hard––somewhere else.” Yet, like the porridge in the children’s tale, the gelato we ended up eating was “just right”––each of us trying three or four different flavors scooped, piled, and slathered atop petite cones. Specifically, I remember there being a lot of pistachio and strawberry cheesecake.
After leaving Austin, Texas at 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday, we arrived in Bologna, Italy around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Our host Cosimo was waiting to pick us up. He lives about ten minutes from the airport, so after a short drive we were at his apartment. There we met his girlfriend Chiara and had some late afternoon snacks (almonds and spicy chip-cracker things) along with coffee.
We went out later that night, probably around 8:00 or 9:00, to meet some of Cosimo’s friends: Tosco “The Tuscan” and Giovanni, “the Yugoslavian,” who isn’t really Yugoslavian. We met them at a café on the corner of Via del Partello and Via Paradiso, just across from the Tribunale per i minorenni di Bologna (the juvenile court of Bologna). The entire length of the street of Via del Partello appeared to be located in a bar district with lots of foot traffic. The cafe served pizza and craft beer.
Tosco and Giovanni were not impressed by either the beer or the pizza. And soon enough I spilled the first half of my second beer on the last slices of pizza; so we finished our grub and moved on.
Giovanni said something like: “Texas, eh? Tony Lama boots, right?” and I replied with something like: “Yeah, those are the Gucci of cowboy boots.”
We made our way down Via del Partello for a few blocks until its intersection with Via San Rocco. Here we entered a techno music club–combination record store called Quattro Quarti (Four-by-Four).
I tried ordering a beer at the club, but it was cash only and I had yet to exchange any dollars for euros. So I thanked the bartender but declined the drink, then, about five minutes later, the bartender enters the dance floor (where I was standing, not dancing), hands me a free beer. Cosimo says: “It’s probably because you’re a tourist.”
Later at that same club we were all given a glass of champagne by one of a group of folks celebrating someone’s birthday. We were also offered a spliff outside the club, and later walking home Cosimo noted that, in terms of the crowd and enthusiasm at club Quattro Quarti, tonight was exceptionally festive.
We got home around two or three in the morning, and began a pattern of ending each evening (or morning) in Italy with a cup of tea.
(club Quattro Quarti)
(Vinyl from Quattro Quarti; I don’t remember a suicide scene in “Rocky”)
Today at The American Conservative,Rod Dreher gives readers a pop quiz:
How do we find the middle path between these two extremes? The Benedict Option is, of course, in part a reaction against loosey-goosey Christianity, so I don’t have a big worry that versions of the Ben Op would be at risk of being too lax and liberal. The real concern I have is that we would go too far, and create institutions or communities that would be too controlling or otherwise unhealthy. A secondary, lesser concern is that fear of fundamentalism would be so overwhelming that the nascent Ben Op community would fail to create the practices and structures that would be effective in accomplishing what the Ben Op is supposed to do.
He then issues a call for ideas and suggestions. My response is that perhaps consulting Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” (1967) would provide some understanding of the balance necessary for the BenOp. The book, and later a terrific movie (1981) adaptation, show the balancing act of friendship between two boys, one Orthodox Jewish, the other a Hassidic. Various cultural conflicts and misunderstandings between the more “liberal” Orthodox way of life and the more”fundamentalist” way of the Hassidim are explored and explained.
Actual Jewish readers and filmgoers may rightly criticize Poktok’s art as utterly middlebrow and overly sentimental–but for a post-churchgoing millennial from rural Central Texas, I found much to learn and think about in Potok’s book and the movie based upon it.
Chivalry didn’t die in France–like Burke bemoaned–because chivalry had been dead for well over a hundred years prior to the Revolution. If chivalry hadn’t died, Cervantes could not have written DonQuixote (1605). But hundreds of years after Cervantes and Burke, people are still chasing windmills. Over at The American Conservative, Gracey Olmsted writes:
This is what the “spirit of the gentleman” used to provide: a reasoned, courteous atmosphere in which public discourse could take place—where opinions could be stated without savagery, and received without rancor. The problem is that gentlemen are out of popularity on left and right—for reasons [Mark] Mitchell makes clear in another FPR post.
The gentleman is unpopular with the left and “PC” crowd because, in Mitchell’s words, he “is one who is willing and able to judge well. He is discriminating in his judgments and does not shy away from making hard distinctions even when they cause him discomfort and even when he is forced to stand alone [emphasis added].” Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world.
I suppose a rather ungentlemanly act would be to point at that last line from Olmsted–“Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world“–and say, yes, that may be true, but that is also a very narrow and reductive Weltanschauung. There is plenty more to life than universities and politics, particularly if you’re too poor and/or live under a gerrymandered regime.
Plenty of Americans live their day-to-day lives in a brave new world beyond the constraints of chivalry and bureaucracy.
Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has tirelessly been exploring for himself and imploring other orthodox (or authentic?) American Christians to consider the Benedict Option–yet for all his efforts he continues to be hounded by friendly and hostile readers to explain, explain, explain what such an Option might mean.
Dreher keeping writing and writing; yet among him and his scattered supporters, scant attention has been directed toward what a Benedict Option might mean for single folks in America. In the optimistic-secularist spirit of David Hume, I offer five suggestions that I have been trying to implement in my own life for the past several years:
Opting out of the idolatry of all pet husbandry, adoption, and ownership and opting in for compassion and caretaking for stray and needy human beings in my community.
Opting out of the idolatry of professional, collegiate, and local sports; opting in to binge-reading and other library labors.
Opting out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and opting in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while resisting the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions.
Opting out of the idolatry of the telescopic view of national politics and celebrity (and media thereof) and opting in toward a radical, microscopic focus on politics, law, and arts-&-entertainment strictly at state and local levels.
Opting out of being a proactive consumer of Big Pharma and Big Farming and Big Business Dieting; opting in for cooking my own food when I can; fasting when I should; and giving radically generous gratuities when eating out.
While man cannot live in a continual Sabbath, he should not resign himself to a flat two-dimensional life from which he escapes on rare occasions. The place of the sacred is not a house of God, nor church, synagogue, or seminary, nor one day in seven, and the span of the sacred is much shorter than twenty-four hours. The Sabbath is every day, several times a day.