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GP23Feb05: La Dolce Far Niente

Italy, Of Course.  The lot of us had jetted up to the Cape Cod environs in early Spring, when it was still too cold for tourists and nothing was happening.  We were to have a high-falutin talk about corporate strategy, social investment, and some new, clever consumer products wrapped in advertising jingles that were to hit the marketplace that year.  It’s hard to tell whether we got any of the business of business done, but we sure had a good outing.  You did this sort of thing in the early 1980s, when everybody had a little more time to spare.  Incidentally, our major trophy from this excursion were the precious Bay scallops we all took home, so succulent they put to shame lesser versions we could buy at our local gourmet expenseries near our dwellings.   

At one point that trip when the cigars had come out and papers were shuffled aside, Tom blurted out to Don, “You know, like myself, you have been absolutely everywhere in the world.  For thirty years or more.  When you think on it, what place comes out on top?  Where do you want to go back to, even if you have already traveled too much.”  After the barest pause—perhaps he chewed on his horn rims for a second—Don piped back, “Why Italy, of course!”  And Tom seconded, “Yep.  That’s where I would head.” 

An Antidote for All that Ails Us.  Last we checked, Italy, of all the nations in the EU except for neurotic Sweden, offered the longest life expectancy in the European Union, perhaps because it is both part and apart from Europe.  Only late in the nineteenth century did this country sort of become one nation, and even today it is very clear that it is a multitude of quite different cities and regions more or less linked together by soccer.  Its perpetually perplexed and corrupt national government does not really control the place, and it only has become a major economic power because of its black market, underground economy which subsists just of sight of the tax collector but heftily boosts its standard of living.  It ranks number 42 on the Corruptions Perception Index (www.transparency.org/cpi/2004/cpi2004.
en.html#cpi2004), with boring, aseptic nations like Finland, Singapore, and New Zealand scoring on the high side.  It seems to offer health, happiness, an abundance of culture, decent weather, charm leavened by warm, good humor, along with its chaotic governance.  It is point counterpoint to most of the West and, certainly, to all those kinetic nations in the Rising East.  As such, it is host and birthplace to all sorts of eccentricities that make for civilization. 

Probably it never did complete the process of becoming a nation state.  It’s a host of localities, many of which  often have very effective governors in the form of honest, diligent, and effective mayors.  Having talked in last week’s “It’s Not Carly’s Fault,” about the need for better corporate (also a mess in Italy) and global governance, we would wonder this week if Italy’s considerable human success is not a direct result of its tangled government which its citizens have learned to go around.  Maybe the absence of governance has made for the good life.  La Dolce Far Niente—The Sweet Life Is to Do Nothing.  Maybe the sweet life is a land where the central government does nothing. 

In La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s 1961 film about a self indulgent Roman life, Marcello, the journalist, is counseled by the older Steiner he so admires: 

Don't be like me. Salvation doesn’t lie within four walls.  I’m too serious to be a dilettante and too much a dabbler to be a professional.  Even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in an organized society where everything is calculated and perfected. 

In spite of the fact that, like the rest of the West, so many Italians have become service workers and dressed themselves in the conventions of post-industrial society, many still manage to live outside the “four walls” with which bureaucrats like to surround us. 

Much was made of “values” during the last Presidential elections in the U.S.  But it’s in Italy, even apart from Europe, where you are talking about a difference of values that might really matter.  In The Dark Heart of Italy: Travels Through Space and Time Across Italy, author Tobias Jones “explains how ugliness or a lack of style is a bigger sin in Italian eyes that immorality….”  (Economist, February 13, 2003).  Life and verve loom more important than national power, the ability of the trains to run on time (though Mussolini did try to keep them on schedule), and the tidiness of societal arrangements.  Historian Niall Ferguson thinks America is in its imperial phase.  England, meanwhile, is still wistful about its years of glory; Italy alone has the values of an almost nation that has more or less forgotten about all that.  The Roman Empire is only a decayed monument you visit when you want to put more space between yourself and the mournful message of the Club of Rome.  Modern Italy is a culture that puts grace in our lives, almost unnoticed. 

The Slow Food Movement.  That’s opposite of fast food.  This movement, some claim, got started in Paris in 1989, though others tell us that Carlos Petrini got the ball rolling in Italy circa 1986.  At any rate, it’s centered in Italy at Bra in the Piedmont and in Orvieto, capital of Slow Cities.  It has spread all over the world, with different permutations, but it’s still sort of about the decent and slow eating of well-made food using tasteful ingredients not turned out in a jiffy.  See www.slowfood.com. Also, www.matogmer.no/slow_cities__citta_slow.htm.  It would have no truck with the transfats that are ruining both our food and our health in the U.S., but it also has little use for the bureaucratic, out-of-control monstrous food regulations that are emerging out of the very undemocratic European Union regime that has taken hold in Brussels, where petty experts have been allowed to peddle their nostrums.  

The Ref from Viaregio as National Hero.  “Pierluigi Collina, Italy’s most successful soccer star, has never even come close to scoring a goal.”  See The New York Times, February 19, 2005, p. A4.  “The international soccer federation has named him world’s best referee in six out of the last seven seasons….”   “A the 1966 Olympics in Atlanta, the entire Chinese team came up to him after a match, one by one, seeking autographs and pictures with Italy’s unlikely idol.”  He’s authored a book, The Rules of the Game, which has been translated into more than 10 languages. His only bitterness is that the soccer federations, biased against age and competence, arbitrarily want to retire him at 45 which means he will shortly hang up his whistle.  Only in Italy, we think, would the ref be such a celebrated figure, and would running the match correctly be judged to be an art.  

The Imaginary Psychiatrist.  We sort of have a suspicion that Italians would even do a better job at their psychotherapy than the rest of the developed world, if their anxieties needed some additional soothing that a referee could not put to rest.  First of all, we have found that Italia couches, out of Milan’s design community, are eminently more comfortable than those from Highpoint or the knockoffs now pouring in from Asia.  However, we think the patient would probably lay down outside in a hammock, with a glass of wine in hand, soon to fall asleep, uncured but happy.  The therapist would only shrug when his visitor nodded off, if he the doctor stayed awake that long.  There would be no need to follow the stiff, dictatorial precepts of the analytic schools, especially those hatched in Vienna, since Italy proudly has long been rid of the Hapsburgs.  

When in Rome.  The truth is you probably don’t need the psychiatrist or his couch.  Busy affluents make their way to Italy at the drop of a hat in order to leave their cares behind.  We include here musings from a recent trip to Rome by Horace and Marisa Giotto (a pseudonym to protect the innocent) in which we discover just how much such a jaunt can do for a two-career, overscheduled, over-dedicated couple. 

Exedra Boscolo.  The Eagles, a durable musical group, likes the mythic “Hotel California.” Our Giottos, on the other hand, swear by the Boscolo (www.boscolohotels.com), as you can see below: 

Now, to Rome!  The special birthday trip for Mom could not have been more satisfying.  It gave us the opportunity to focus solely on Rome, as we have done with Florence, Venice and Tuscany in the past.  This was the season that was virtually tourist-free, warm enough to walk around, not insufferably hot as we remember the summers to be.  We were able to get the restaurant reservations we wanted, with perfect support from the Concierge staff.  The only flap on the whole trip was when a cab driver drove us to the wrong destination; we walked a half block and right into a fine alternate restaurant!

The Hotel Exedra Boscolo was everything the reviewers had said, if not more.  All things considered, it was the finest hotel experience I can ever recall.  It was early morning when we arrived after the long flight.  (There were some empty seats on the plane, so we got some nap time).  The hotel graciously searched out an available room and we checked into an absolutely elegant, huge room in this freshly remodeled nineteenth-century Palazzo overlooking the Piazza Republica, which is a spacious circle with a vast sculptured fountain as centerpiece.  Across the circle are the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, so extensive that they spread across the circle and under our hotel.  The hotel ground floor had glass inserts where one could view some of the various bath chambers. Fascinating.

The room had a 14-foot ceiling, a beautifully carved entry door, multicolored, inlaid marble flooring, a bathtub the size of a small pool (ok, I exaggerated a little bit about that) that Mom came to love, and it was hard to keep her out of it.  Also a separate, spacious shower, double sinks, an anteroom with bar setup and double closets.  Add the king sized bed and flowing silk draperies and it was a challenge to leave the room!

Although we missed the hotel breakfast the first morning, it became part of  the daily ritual thereafter.  As a person who spurns buffets generally, this was the exception. Every food item from the tastiest, meatiest smoked sausage in memory to the orange crepes, variety of fruits, cheeses, cappuccino that met my Starbucks cravings—all excelled.  And, it was included in our hotel package, so it became our daily brunch and we couldn’t have possibly have eaten lunch.

The rest of the morning ritual: began with my running up the Via Veneto (of La Dolce Vita fame, of course) to the sprawling Villa Borghese park, afterwards knocking back the first cappuccino at the local Bar with the regulars, picking up the papers, collecting Mom for aforementioned brunch, then touring at our leisure, filling in the gaps in our knowledge of Rome, revisiting some favorites.

As all know, Rome is simply amazing.  I will always puzzle over how it has been possible that so much of two thousand year old structures still remain.  Of course, they were cannibalized of their exterior trim of marble, statuary, and interior art.  As an example, a site I particularly wanted to see, the Domus Aurea, Nero’s golden palace, sprawls over a large site adjacent to the Colosseum (also visited again). Apparently, Hadrian concluded it was easier to fill the interior with earth and build on top of it, rather than to tear it down, thereby preserving the basic elegance of the structure and interior frescoes and floor tiles for our viewing amazement.

We were equally fascinated by the Baths of Caracalla, another vast and mind boggling ruin—do you recall that it served as the spectacular backdrop for the Three Tenors first performance?  We both agreed it was a site not to be missed.  It was so massive, I have to assume that no one wanted to undertake its destruction until enlightened leaders realized it was a world treasure.

Other highlights included a thorough tour of the Villa Borghese Galleria, a repository for many of the brilliant Bernini sculptures, many others, and the finest artists of the Renaissance. Also the Pantheon, the sole relatively intact survivor of the period, and the ruins of the Roman Forum.  We walked many narrow streets and did some shopping. With the weak dollar, bargains do not abound.

My one purchase (!) is a personal treasure.  It is a book providing what I have wanted since my first visit to Rome—consisting of 24 photographs of the principal archaeological sites with transparent artist overlays depicting exactly how each structure looked when constructed.

If you're still with me, you have undoubtedly marveled at how I could go on at such length without saying more about our other meals.  They were superb, of course.  By intention, we concentrated on Roman food, cross referencing Zagat’s Rome list (all rated 23-25 for food) with all of the other clippings and web references from too many sources to mention.  Artichokes were a revelation, prepared in a variety of ways for the season.  We had melt-in-the-mouth cannelonis, fine pasta, risotto, and grilled meats and fish, of course, among other dishes.  For the record, names were Agata e Romeo, Al Moro, Al Ceppo (twice), del Bolognese (not Roman, as name implies), Hostaria dell’ Orso, Piperno (Jewish/Roman, in the Ghetto).  As much as we enjoyed the food, my preference for Tuscan food in peak season, of course, is undiminished. 

Veni. Vedi. Vici.  Well, that’s what Caesar had to say.  Today’s visitor to Rome would instead chortle, “We came, we saw, and we were conquered.”  With their imperious powers long gone, Rome and Italy now have far greater power over us.

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