Film, Art, and Prosciutto

We had a picturesque flight to Venice, seeing Dubrovnik and Split off in the distance and Venice on approach.

Venice was a lot of fun. Ray’s cousin John was spending a month there, and it was great hanging out with him pretty much the whole time. There were three things happening which we experienced each day: the film festival, the Biennale, and Venice itself.

We saw one film each day. “Je m’appelle Hmmm….” was about a young girl being molested by her father, who runs away and ends up hanging out with a truck driver. Of course, the truck driver, who is the sweetest person in the world to her, ends up being accused of molesting her himself. But before that happens, the middle 60% of the film is basically a really fun road movie. “The Wind Rises” is the final film from Hazao Miyazaki, the master Japanese animator who did “Spirited Away”. Unlike all of the other dreamy and somewhat supernatural movies he did, this one is a dramatization of the life of the young aeronautical engineer who designed the Zero fighter, and the Italian engineer who inspired him. “Under the Skin” stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who entices young men into a house where they become alien food or something: most of the explanation of what is happening is left to the imagination of the viewer. “Eastern Boys” is a rather improbable thriller where a man in Paris gives his address to a Ukranian rent-boy; the boy’s entire gang shows up at the house, and carts off the man’s possessions in the light of day. The most improbable part is that the relationship between the two continues after that. The competition for “most improbable part” is fierce, however.  The Venice festival has a different feeling than the SF International one:  instead of Q&As with the directors it’s all about red carpets, with adulating paparazzi and fans cheering the arrival of stars in Maseratis ferrying them around the island.

The Biennale was focused at two buildings at the eastern end of Venice, the Arsenale and the Giardini. Each was larger than most museums, and they housed twenty or thirty large rooms full of work. There were many interesting things in both places; one of the most special was the psychologist Carl Jung’s “Red Book”. I liked a roomful of plastic human-sized sculptures which had face casts of Venetians with bodies which were much more abstract. Each venue also had many “pavilions” from various countries, which like all art varied wildly in how interesting they were. More pavilions, and many other Biennale exhibitions from individual artists, were scattered all over town as well. Foundation Prada had reconstructed the Bern Kunsthalle in an old palace, and installed a seminal exhibition from 1969, using as much of the original art as possible; the most fun part of that was seeing how the new building fit into the old (they don’t). Ai Weiwei had scale models of his prison cell, with little windows where you could look in to watch him sleeping or eating or showering with guards watching him. I don’t know why they bothered, it’s all on Facebook anyway. The Iraq pavilion was set in a nice flat, with comfortable furniture where you could sit and read books about Iraq, and political cartoons and other art decorating the walls.

Both the films and the art gave us the opportunity to explore parts of Venice we’d never been to. The films were in Lido, and much of the art was way east past Piazza San Marco. The food wasn’t always so perfect: with so many tourists (Venice seems to have a great number of Italian tourists) there are many tourist restaurants with uninspired menus and execution, and super-expensive water: we would ask for “just plain water”, hoping for tap water, but we’d get glass bottles of still water which were upwards of €6 for .75 liter. We did go to “Al Covo”, which was really good. The most memorable eating experiences were at little bars serving cicchetti, Venice’s version of tapas: eat a plate of crostini with baccala or anchovies or cheese or prosciutto, or little seafood salads, and wash it down with a Campari or Aperol spritz. You can eat really well that way for less than €10. Then go somewhere for gelato for dessert: some places have some good flavors.

We were only there four days; we could easily have spent two weeks or longer seeing more films, more art, and more parts of the city.  With so much to see, and so little time, the days were completely action-packed and left no time for contemplation or writing postcards.  Certainly not blogging.

Our friend Doug mentioned that he was in Italy, so we both changed our schedules and met Thursday evening in Parma, home of Parmesan cheese and prosciutto, also known as Parma ham. We went to Parizzi, a nice one-Michelin-star restaurant for dinner Thursday. As we walked around the park before dinner, my phone rang: Osteria Francescana in nearby Modena, a three-Michelin-star restaurant rated third best in the world on someone’s list, replied to my email saying we could be available for lunch or dinner on either of the next two days. Amazingly, despite their small size, they had an opening for Friday lunch. So we had two meals, one very good and one stellar, in the space of 24 hours. All we could do after lunch on Friday was to return to the hotel and digest (after walking around Modena for a couple hours for the excellent wine pairing to wear off before driving back.)

Saturday we sampled the major sights in Parma itself, including the National Gallery (with tons of religious paintings from the 14th to 18th centuries) and the Cathedral. Then we went to the prosciutto festival in the village of Langhirano. A factory tour of Corradi Guerrino S.p.A. was conducted in Italian, but I never listen anyway, I only creep off to find good photos. There were massive numbers of hams hanging in row after row of carts, curing for two or three years; I realized that I was looking at a major proportion of the world’s prosciutto supply, that this was one of the only 150 producers in the area. They served free prosciutto and wine afterwards. Then we walked a block to the downtown area.

A block away, the evening’s village festival festivities were beginning with a marching band with baton twirlers, and another marching band, and a car show of old Alfas and Fiats and Ferarris, and quite unaccountably, a Hupmobile.

We washed it down with dinner at Antichi Sapori, which is what people in Parma eat when they aren’t having art pieces at restaurants serving dishes that are almost beyond food. We had a horsemeat appetizer, some plain but perfect garlic ricotta ravioli, the “pork in tuna sauce” we’d been seeing on many menus which turned out not to be really that interesting, and a parmesan tasting (they were all good).

Sunday we drove to the Bergamo airport, and found scales at a closed checkin counter. We juggled our suitcases until they were just so, avoided a 60 euro overweight fee, and were off to Dublin. In Dublin we had time to do one thing, which was to have dinner with Samuel, whom we met on the Palestinian tour. He took us to a pub in an old bank. The noise level was so high I didn’t hear all that he said. He is about one of the nicest people we have met on the whole trip. And he isn’t cadging us to help get him a visa.

The next day we stood in a number of lines to get back to America. Note to travellers: if you have an 11:25 flight from Dublin to Chicago, and they say the gate closes at 9:40, it is not a misprint. In addition to the usual lines for checking baggage and security, it turns out that in Dublin we were actually entering the United States. It took us about 50 minutes to get through the immigration lines, just barely catching our plane in Final Call status. It seems like the overturning of DOMA may have changed the attitude of US immigration agents. Since we aren’t brothers (like many people ask us if we are), a few agents historically haven’t even let us walk up together, though most have. Of course, we’ve always filled out two custom forms, which on the one hand refer to a household, and on the other refer to “family members”. This time, speaking to the agent, we were much more specific about our relationship (together 30 years, not married officially, living in the same house) and so she crumpled one of the two forms, and wrote “2” on the remaining one. That tells me to fill out only one from now on for both of us.

I don’t know why immigration is less advanced than most delicatessens. Why can’t you just take a number and go sit down? Instead you wind through an hour of lines, it doesn’t matter where, Chicago, Phoenix, Heathrow. It’s just dumb. The Chinese Embassy in San Francisco does it correctly. Dittmer’s Gourmet Meats does it correctly. Tomasita’s in Santa Fe gives you a little buzzer. (I think the answer to this is the Ryanair ethic: like Disneyland, you can squeeze hundreds of more people in the same room if they are standing in narrow winding queues, instead of being comfortable in chairs.)

We flew to Chicago against 100 knot headwinds. No scenery. A flight attendant yelled at me about my Garmin until we showed her in the magazine they were specifically permitted. (The inflight magazine is contradictory. It says you can’t use any device that sends or receives data. The GPS receives data, but it is permitted in the next list.)

We barely made it onto the flight to SFO. We didn’t get seats together; we were each seated next to European tourists who planned to go to SF, and also to Las Vegas, thinking for some reason there was something to see there. At least they also planned to see the Grand Canyon and perhaps others.

When we got to San Francisco, Paul picked us up and we had dinner at Ben Tre in Millbrae, a nice Vietnamese place. Then we bought some oranges for the next day since there isn’t a place to get orange juice in Sky Londa, except at our house. We drove home, and collapsed into bed.