A Mind That Suits
What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.
Sunday, March 12, 2006 :::
For those seeking news of Flan O'Brien's, please scroll down.
It has been the unhappy lot of a certain pudgy, balding English teacher to be unable to travel to his beloved Italy for four years, primarily because he has been traveling to California to take care of the literary estate of his beloved uncle, Allen Drury. But one night in mid-December, flush with cash and no discernible cares, he got on the web and bought himself ten days in that lovely land.
This may have been a big mistake. Italy is still a cheap date, but the euro is doing entirely too well. Economically illiterate people think this is a sign that something is wrong with the dollar, when most US Administrations try desperately to keep the dollar down.
Economically illiterate people also seem to think that whatever is true today will be true tomorrow. Although he has known in an abstract sense for many years that this is untrue, the reality was driven home to him several years ago when Alan Greenspan expressed his concern that the dollar was too high, whereupon the euro surged by 10% for exactly the two weeks that A Mind That Suits was in Italy. Curse that man.
The dollar will be strong again. It just was not strong a week ago, when the euro was 25% above what it was the last time that A Mind That Suits found himself in his beloved Italy.
Never again will A Mind That Suits take a taxi into Rome. (See Part One, below.) He had before, to a preferred perch atop the Gianicolo, a famed hill above the Vatican, but his hotel the first night was in the Centro Storico (historic center), a scant km from his previous domicile. But what a km. Once you enter the Centro Storico, you are lost in a maze of tiny streets jammed with colorful local vendors. The taxi driver usually knows generally where to drop you, but not always. And he will finally pull up and say, “I cannot get there. Just walk two streets over.” Far better to take the train in.
Too American. His previous perch was a religious house called the Villa Bassi. The Sisters who technically owned it were very old, and they rented it out to someone who ran it as a hotel. A Mind That Suits assumed it would always be available, but it closed its doors on December 15. It is a fine building with a beautiful garden, so presumably it will beome expensive apartments or a three-star hotel. Whatever, it is now gone.
For the Italian-ness of his trip, this was a disaster, because he used to begin every day with a cappuccino, a stroll, another cappuccino, and the purchase of such basics as bananas, water, and yogurt, and, of course, the morning papers, combined with many conversations with the workers in all the various stores. The whole process set an Italian tone for the day.
Now, A Mind That Suits split for Assisi, his favorite spot on earth, immediately after his arrival, but when he returned, he found himself domiciled where most tourists are, in the vicinity of Stazione Termini, the main train station, and the Piazza d. Republica, not far away. He was marginally closer to the sites, but overall this meant too many Americans and too many Italians who wanted to practice their English.
Where to Stay in Rome. Rome is perhaps the easiest city in the world to find lodging in. You just walk around Fiumicio (the airport) or Termini and 25 people will fall all over themselves offering you room. The “official” offices are not very reliable: they steer you towards more expensive rooms offered by their friends, so it is entirely likely that the guy who is obviously hocking his own place will give you a better deal.
Indeed, after a stroll to and fro across Termini, a fellow plucked a certain pudgy, balding English teacher out of the air. He had such an elaborate tale that, out of sheer American admiration for entrepreneurship, A Mind That Suits allowed the fellow to keep spinning words until he had to laugh.
You do not need to go through this: Italy put all its hotels on a central computer when it hosted the World Cup, in 1990, so that, when the internet became a big deal, it simply uploaded all the information. Rome used to be impossible, because there are so many “pensioni” that the system would crash, but no longer. Pictures, maps, rates: everything. Just go to http://www.enit.it/. They will take care of you.
That said, the huckster who pressed A Mind That Suits into staying at the Hotel Matisse in fact offered clean lodging and firm beds for an entirely reasonable 50 euro a night (winter rate). So stay there. 039(Italy)-06(Rome)- 389-978-7112
Now, as it happens, the Hotel Matisse solved the Italianness problem,
Because it was across the street from an Irish pub.
That’s right: the key to experiencing Italians in the Via Nazionale is to hang out at Flan O’Brien’s, at the intersection with Via Napoli. Trust your pudgy balding English teacher.
There is only one problem: smack in the middle of a lovely Irish pub, the owners plopped down an Italian bar.
Now, as nearly any of my readers will know, a decent Anglo-Saxon pub has a huge bar at which all the single guys eat. It is our God-given right. The single ladies, no, not so much. But pudgy, balding English teachers—all the time. Indeed, there is an Irish pub run by actual Irish people in the Via d. Plebiscito called the Scholar’s Lounge. If you want to meet other English speakers—a silly goal, if one is in Italy—then that is the place to go, and they have the system down, complete with placemats and rolled silverware for all the “singoli.”
However, to the owners and managers of Flan O’Brien’s, at Via Nazionale and Via Napoli, all this was a cultural mystery. An Italian bar is about .3 m deep and 2m long. (13” by 6’, in other words.) You grab your latte in the morning and your shot of whiskey on the way home at night, but you do not sit, and you do not eat.
That is, unless you are a certain pudgy balding English teacher. He is all for respecting other people’s cultures, but, hang it all, if you are going to have a pub, it needs to be a pub.
Particularly when several members of the staff are infectiously cheery youngsters, what the Italians call “ragazzi.” There was no way in hell that yours truly was going to sit all alone, not when all the entertainment was available for free.
He made friends with Davide, from Napoli itself, who is into surfing and does not care about football (soccer.) And with even-tempered, always courteous Samuelle, the barback. Poor Samuelle was mugged walking across the park in front of Stazione Termini—many restaurant workers seem to live there. As that has happened more than once to a certain pudgy, balding English teacher, and exactly at the same stage in life as poor Samuelle, he always made sure to slip him an extra euro and a smile to brighten his night.
But then there came the night when A Mind That Suits had made a mistake in the Centro Storico and had eaten a dinner of contorni (vegetables), insalate (salads), and riso (rice.) He was full, but desired that masculine fundamental: meat. He knew, from his first night in Rome, that Flan O’Brien’s had a wonderful saltsiccia (sausauge), so he asked the bartender if he could eat on the bar. The bartender said “of course,” but then checked himself and asked a passing waitress.
The waitress was the wonderful Dragana, whose nearly-but-not-quite perfect English pegged her immediately as a Slav. She is, indeed, Croatian, and she is a lovely person and very much in charge, which is why the bartender deferred to her. The technical answer was that, as with most Italian bars, no, they did not serve food there, but “for you, perhaps, we will make an exception.”
And the bartender was Mauro, an Argentinian by birth who has rocketed into the pantheon of best bartenders in the experience of A Mind That Suits, and that is saying something. Indeed, so much fun was his company that A Mind That Suits persisted in having late night snacks at that very bar, and everyone who asked why—which would be everyone who worked there—immediately understood that it was for the company.
This did not mean that anyone ever understood the Anglo-Saxon conception of bar. When he want to the “casse” (checkout counter) to pay for the sausauge, the young lady there stared at the ticket and then asked, “ha mangiato li? (You ate over there?)” “Si, ho mangiato li.” (Yes, I ate over there.). A later night, concerning an order of very nice fries, the manager mentioned that a seat was available at a table, which offer was waved off.
But everyone seemed to understand that young friend Mauro was the star attraction. I
ndeed, this illustrates how systems have their ups and downs. There is no question that the Italian style bar moves people in and out quickly, thus guaranteeing a steady pace. But it is also true the the European system of “service included’ means you get lousy service. That is not such an issue in Italy, where a 3-hour meal is normal, but in other countries, where you are expected to get in and out fast, it is not so nice.
And with servers who provide excellent service—as did the storied Mauro and Dragana—they are at a real disadvantage. With a good Anglo-Saxon bar---2” x 18” (.7m x 5m) they would have a real opportunity to charm the customers and rake in the cash. But it is simply not to be. The system is different.
Which does not mean that A Mind That Suits has anything other than very happy memories of Flan O’Brien’s and its various inmates, particularly said Dragana and Mauro. And how he wishes Flan O’Brien’s was just across the street, instead of across the ocean.
Language Notes. Young friend Mauro was better at mixing actual cocktails than any Italian bartender who had heretofore come to the attention of said pudgy, balding English teacher. Indeed, said PBET, the first time he was in Flan O’Brian’s, steered another American away from something--a pina colada, perhaps—on the grounds that Italians did not do mixed drinks very well.
But then came Mauro, who can pour a drink using three bottles at once. Quite the master, it seems. He taught the bouncer, who had been dragged into barback service thanks to another bartender who called in with a “headache,” how to mix something he called a Long Island Beach. A search of databases back in the good ol’ U.S. of A does not reveal any such drink. It was perhaps (indeed, most probably) a Long Island Sunset, or—perhaps-- a Long Island Taxi. Readers can find a full list of drinks that have “Long Island” in their name here. (If indeed the drink is not on that list, then Young Friend Mauro may have inadvertently named a drink, an accomplishment that took A Mind That Suits twice as many summers to accomplish. Please see the posting for ______________.)
Young friend Mauro’s skill, while notable, would not warrant much space here at A Mind That Suits were it not that he so endearingly called his creation a “Long Island.” Any English speaker would of course ask, “A Long Island WHAT?”
This is perhaps the biggest hurdle that any speaker of any modern version of Latin must confront while speaking English, to whit, in Latin, the noun comes first, and in English, the adjectives do. Indeed, it is remarkable that Young Friend Mauro did not simply call it a “Long.” He obviously knows that there is a place called “Long Island,” so at least he kept those words together. If there is a drink called the Long Island Beach in the US, then it would be referred to simply as a “Beach” for shorthand.
This is an enduring problem. Twice in the space of 24 hours, in his incarnation as supplier of food, drink, and general happiness to the elite of Your Nation’s Capital, A Mind That Suits had to straighten out problems created by the fact that Spanish speaking subordinates thought that the FIRST word in an expression was the most important, when it was really the last.
Most amusingly, Il Mesagero, a prestigious Italian newspaper, covered some event or other at “il Madison di New York.” “The Madison” is, of course, a low-budget hotel in New York City. That fact is in itself worth noting, low budget hotels being something of a rarity in New York City. And it is worth noting to non-English speakers that “The Madison Hotel” becomes “The Madison” because the word “hotel” is uninteresting.
But of course Il Mesagero was not covering some event that happened in the lounge at a cheap hotel. It was covering an event at the mighty, storied Garden, no city designation needed. Say simply “he played the Garden last night,” and any American with any cultural education will understand.
Il Mesagero was referring to Madison Square Garden, of course, and Americans will please forgive the pedantic explanation. He has some foreign readers.
Now, if one wants to really be pedantic, one can refer to it as “the New Madison Square Garden,” as indeed it was referred to when a Certain Pudgy, Balding English teacher was a wee slip of a lad. The building opened when he was but 11.
The current, architecturally uninteresting Garden replaced the original Garden in Madison Square. Actually, it was the third building to replace the original Garden, as one can learn in the history provided by the current owners. The name “Garden” appears to come from the fact that, in its first two incarnations, there was an actual garden on the roof. The second one, regrettably lost, was designed by master architect Stanford White, who nestled a restaurant among the trees on the roof. He therefore inadvertently provided a picturesque setting for his own death at the hands of a jealous husband.
All of which is kind of beside the point, which is that in English, the noun comes last, and that poses something of a hurdle to speakers of any modern version of Latin, in which the noun comes first.
But it was kind of fun to hear Young Friend Mauro refer to his creation as a “Long Island.”
::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 8:46 PM