Thursday, June 7, 2007

Culture Shock

I wasn't out of the country for very long, in the grand scheme of things. Three months is not much time, yet I am experiencing some culture shock nonetheless.

At the Newtonville Whole Foods last night, my mother and I were lingering over the sushi case, carefully evaluating each possibility and deciding which colorful delicacies we'd have for dinner. I was not shocked by the sushi (even though I hadn't eaten any for 90+ days) but by the fact that two other customers waited for us to make our choices before selecting their dinners. Neither of them reached across us, asked us to move over, or otherwise exhibited any sign of impatience.

What is wrong with these people? I wondered. Aren't they hungry? Aren't they in a hurry?

After spending time in Israel and Italy, the politeness of the Whole Foods customers came across as docility and made me realize just how powerful our socialization is. For many, maintaining lines, order and a sense of fairness are practically sacred, and people get very upset when these rules are violated, when someone behaves unpredictably. We are taught to "wait our turn" and "be patient", and that doing so makes us "good" or "civilized" people, vs. the "bad" people who cut in lines, honk their horns and are impatient. This conditioning is so deeply ingrained that we don't even question the meanings we automatically assign to our own and others' behavior until we have an opportunity to step away and gain some perspective.

Although I never quite got used to the more assertive behavior in Israeli "lines" (actually, throngs), and it often drove me up the wall, at least the people were visibly pulsating with life, desire, anger, irritation. Emotions were on display and there was electricity in the air. It was a theater of sorts, even if one didn't quite enjoy the play, didn't really understand the dialogue and didn't like being a supporting actress on occasion. The atmosphere in Italy was not as charged as in Israel but, even so, the pacing of transactions (say at a pasticceria) was fast; there were no lines, the customers who were served first were those who knew what they wanted and spoke up, even if they didn't arrive first.

Since I am still in traveler mode, and haven't yet developed a routine, perhaps I am feeling a bit judgmental about the civility here simply because it feels dull by comparison. Of course, over time, I will probably get used to it, expect it, and maybe even enjoy it. If not, I can always go to the Somerville Traffic Department to observe the spectacle of outraged residents trying to convince indifferent clerks that they shouldn't have to pay their tickets. It is great theater, and admission is free. You just need to stand in line.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Imagining Italy in Boston

I travel not only to see and experience new places, but also to bring some of that excitement and and freshness into my daily experiences at home, to create adventure out of routine and to loosen the hold of old limiting beliefs and preoccupations. Wanting la dolce vita to linger a bit longer, today I decided to pretend I was still in Italy.

After a lunch of artichoke raviolis, pecorino cheese and a small glass of red wine, I decided it was time to hop on my bicycle. "Normally" I wouldn't exercise on a hot day after consuming alcohol, but since I was imagining I was in Italy, after all, where I had done exactly that just a week ago, I wasn't terribly concerned about being hydrated. If I needed a drink of water, I would find one. I wouldn't let the fact that my bike doesn't have a bottle holder keep me indoors.

I chose Harvard Square as a destination, thinking I might visit Campo di' Fiori, an authentic Italian pizzeria named after the famous Roman plaza, for a beverage or dessert. Cycling through Watertown, I spotted a rubenesque middle aged man on a white Vespa, wearing a matching helmet. After riding alongside cars, forgetting there was a bike path, I made it into Cambridge and locked my bicycle. Campo di' Fiori, in the Holyoke Center, was not only closed, it was out of business. A sign promised that another pizzeria, Oggigourmet, would open shortly.

Disappointed, I headed to the other Italian-esque place I remembered, Toscanini's. That, too, was shuttered, at least temporarily, due to construction on the facade of the building. Remembering that if I were in Italy I would patronize a local, artisanal gelateria, I went into Herrell's. Stepping way out of character, and being slightly outrageous, I ordered a scoop of ice cream in....a cone! I decided not to be so concerned about how messy it would be if I were unable to eat the ice cream faster than it melted.

The chocolate pudding ice cream dribbled quickly in the heat, covering my fingers with brown stickiness. The pathetic napkin was no match for the sweet goo. But I was in Italy, so I didn't care if I looked like a four year old while licking my fingers. Besides, a sink can't be far away. Wandering onto Brattle Street I noticed that the Cambridge Center for Adult Education was open and I stopped in to wash my hands. Conveniently, they had a water cooler and I helped myself.

Refreshed, I popped into Tess, a clothing boutique that has seemed out of reach if not a tad snooty. It was also one of the few apparel shops on Brattle street that was open. The retail landscape had radically changed in my absence - Ann Taylor and Jasmine Sola, stores that had anchored that part of the Square, were empty, either closed or awaiting renovation. But imagining I was in Italy, I didn't care that I was entering Tess with sweaty cycling clothes. Fingering the fabrics, I looked at some of the tags. The prices, no longer in euros, no longer shocked me.

Missoni and Me..and a Torah

It was my mother, with her keen eye and appreciation for quality, who first brought Missoni, the Italian knitwear company, to my attention. Missoni's products are characterized by bold - often zig zag - patterns, bright colors, exquisite workmanship, and eye popping prices. For many years I have been intrigued by their designs, whose wild exuberance both attracts and repels me.

At a department store in Florence I noticed some of the Missoni spring scarf collection on sale, the average price of one being $140 at current exchange rates, or more than double what I would normally spend on fabric neck decor. Would I spring for one, I wondered, after having this fascination with their brand for so long?

A few days later I visited the Jewish Museum at the Florentine synagogue, which housed a collection of older ritual objects. Towards the rear of the exhibit I noticed a Torah scroll covered in a woolen fabric with the unmistakable colorful zig zag pattern that characterizes many a Missoni item. I asked a Museum staffer about the resemblance, and was told that the zig zag is an old Tuscan pattern, which Missoni has adapted if not appropriated.

Returning to the department store on my final day in Florence, I carefully examined the scarves. To buy, or not to buy? Not, as it turned out. I didn't love any of them.

During my final hour in Florence, I hurried up a street I had not been on before. There were many knitwear shops with scarves galore. My time in Italy was coming to an end and I didn't have the luxury of deliberating. I picked up a few at a boutique whose owner seemed indifferent to my presence. Advancing another few blocks, I spotted a sign that said "Missoni Winter Scarves 50% off". Entering the shop, I asked the clerk to see the scarves. She showed me the full priced spring scarves.

"And isn't there a sale on winter scarves?" I asked, a bit sheepishly.

"Yes, they are downstairs. I'll accompany you," she said, turning on the basement light. They had a few scarves left, two of which were potential candidates. While deliberating, I spotted a multicolored item folded on a shelf of a wall cabinet.

"Is that a design for men?" I asked, half hoping it would be so that I would not be tempted.

"No, it's for women. It's a sweater," the clerk said, laying it out on the counter. It had two of my favorite colors - olive green and shades of red orange, along with brown, blue and white. It appeared to be my size, and I was smitten. It was the Missoni for me.

Dare I look at the price tag?

With 30 minutes to go before I had to collect my luggage and head to the train station, I had no choice but to take a peek. The euro total was solidly in the three digits, and still was after the 50% discount. Then came the lousy exchange rate.

"It will last you a lifetime," said the voice in my head.

A few moments passed. The sweater was long, tunic style, and I asked the clerk if she could show me how it looked with a belt. Quite fine, actually.

I pondered.

"I will just get the sweater," I told the clerk.

"But the scarf looks so nice on you," she said, draping it across the sweater, which I was still wearing. Damn, she was good.

"If I buy both," I asked, Israeli style, "can I get a further discount?"

"Well, I suppose we can ask the owner. Why not?" she suggested.

We went upstairs. The owner raised his eyebrows at the proposal - wasn't 50% off enough? - but genially shaved a few euros from the price. He also reminded me that, as a non EU resident and given the purchase amount, I was eligible for the VAT refund, which he could grant on the spot. Punching in a few numbers on the calculator, he showed me the new total.

It was now a number I could swallow.

I signed the receipt and, running several minutes behind schedule, hurried to my bed & breakfast and was still packing my bags when the taxi arrived to take me to the station. What the zig zag clad Torah has to say about all this, I have no idea.

Italian Counter Culture

Thursday morning, seeking a taste of Europe, I walked over to the Keltic Krust in West Newton, a bakery that my mother discovered after moving here many years ago. They make delicious buttery scones and I was hunkering after one. I decided to eat it there and ordered a cup of coffee to go with it. Sitting in the empty cafe, which was quiet except for the sound of a local radio station, I missed the noises of Italy's pasticcerias, where people drink their espresso and eat a pastry while standing at the counter chatting with the barrista, the saucers, cups and teaspoons gently clanging on the glass. Italians don't linger over their morning snack and as new customers enter, the barristas create the custom coffees, first placing the saucer on the counter - clang - then the cup filled with the brew - clang.

I discovered these sounds towards the end of my trip when, uninspired by the offering of individually packaged "toast" and average coffee at my bed & breakfast in Florence, I decided to eat where the locals were. For a few days I enjoyed my favorite panini - bresaola (dried beef), arugola, parmesan - and a macchiato, with the bustle of the barristas and clanging of cups as background music.

During my scone, the rain began to come down and, umbrellaless, I chose to wait it out. It was an opportunity to try another of their offerings - I chose a hot cross bun. While not hot, it was very tasty, denser and more filling than the scone. At the quiet counter I noticed another delicacy - a chocolate potato - which reminded me of a similarly named creation I ate in Venice. Remembering the dense, rich, alcohol-soaked confection I had enjoyed a few weeks ago and many miles away, I bought one to go, saving it for that evening.

If I needed a reality check that I was no longer in Europe, this potato was it. Dry and containing barely a hint of rum, it was more like a cocoa turd than the chocolate potato of Venice. Perhaps the Keltic Krust should stick to scones, and maybe I should, too.