Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Pigeons Are Sick Of Siena

The pigeons are sick of Siena.
I know this because the regulations at the pensione where I’m staying in Italy say so--at least, when one uses Google Translate it reads that way. There it is in black and white, telling me not to try to attract them to the windowsills (as if I would want to ), because they’re just so bloody sick of Siena. Or something like that.

I thought this was funny, until the other day when I was hanging out by the window, enjoying the view of the church of San Domenico and the distant Tuscan hills, praying for some wind or a few drops of rain (I’ve counted about five drops since I arrived), and I overheard a conversation. There was a pigeon right nearby, and when another one landed next to it, the conversation went something like this:

First Pigeon: “Well, look who’s here! If it isn’t ol’ Beppe!”

Second Pigeon: “Eh, Stefano! Come stai?”

First Pigeon: “Sto bene, grazie. Where have you been, man? Was beginning to think maybe you got into some windmills or a jet engine or something.”

Second Pigeon: “No . . .no. Nothing like that. I just needed a little space, a little change of scenery. I am so sick of Siena.”

First Pigeon: “I hear you, man. Me, too. It’s like, how many times can you go for a swig at the Fonte Gaia, you know?”

Second Pigeon: “I know! And the drumming . . . for crying out loud, do these people ever stop?”

First Pigeon: “ . . and when it’s not the drumming, it’s the bells, and if it’s not the bells, it’s the damned canon for the races and the trumpets on Piazza del Campo. I tell ya, it’s given me PTSD. I really need to get away.”

Second Pigeon: “You owe it to yourself. Really. The squabs are all about ready to take off, and I hear Antonella is pretty much recovered from the collision with the shop window . . seriously. Have you considered Rome?”

First Pigeon: “Actually, it’s always been a dream of mine.”

Second Pigeon: “Oh, then you must. You wanna sit on some statuary . . well, that’s your city. Emperors, kings, saints, popes, gods of the sea. You name it, you can have a sit-down on some seriously important figures. Aaaaah, Roma. . . I tell you, there’s nothing like it. . . . . Hey, who’s the chick in the window?”

First Pigeon: “Some American broad. Speaks Italian like Tarzan."

Second Pigeon: [laughing in his little smug, pigeony way] “Heh . . . crrrroooo.  . . . crrrroooo . . . .Americans! What can you do with them?!”

Now, I must stress at this point that this is a translation from the Italian. They speak a sort of . . . well. . . . .pidgin Italian. Which, of course, is why I could understand them.

While I didn’t appreciate their smug commentary on my Italian skills, I could sort of understand their disenchantment with the noise. Siena is a noisy place; at least during the Palio festival. But it has a lot more to recommend itself than it has drawbacks.

For me, there are the buildings. Always the buildings. I am in love with the buildings. I walk almost every night here. This is not hard to do, as the weather is so perfect I find myself sometimes hoping for rain, just so I’ll have an excuse to stay indoors and do something productive (no, blogging does not count as ‘productive’).  Instead, I feel compelled to go out and about, revelling in life’s simpler pleasures, like the sun or the stars, food, beauty, a slow pace, people-watching, window shopping, etc. I walk, and often feel like I’m on a movie set, where everything is perfectly formed, perfectly lighted, and in the imagination of the viewer (hopefully) perfectly scented and in perfect accord with one’s deepest hopes and desires. 

One of Siena's many little passageways.

I have to say, this city is as clean as it is noisy. During festivals there might be a huge mess for a little while, but the next morning, you would never know that anything celebratory had gone on at all. It’s really impressive. I remarked to a new Sienese friend the other day that, while it may sound strange to take note of such a thing, I haven’t seen a single rat or mouse the whole time I’ve been in Siena. Coming from NYC, this is a pretty big deal. Rat sightings are commonplace there, and sometimes they’re so big you have to do a double-take to be sure it wasn’t an escaped Upper East Side lap-dog. My friend says that on the rare occasion that somebody sees such a thing in Siena, the city is right away at work with extermination (perhaps why I have also not seen any insects in these old buildings, besides fruit flies). I suppose that having had half the population wiped out by a plague at one point, one learns a few lessons about vectors and the importance of vigilance. Should a new plague arise in the modern era, I’m betting on NYC as the place where it all begins. After all, we like to brag that you can get anything you want in New York . . .and perhaps a few things that you don’t.

Anyway, on a happier note, back to Siena. The streets here are usually narrow. Many are not really like “streets” at all, in the American sense, but rather “alleys”, big enough for motor scooters and the mini trucks that collect trash here, but some streets would hold a car captive if it managed to get onto it in the first place. These streets would laugh heartily at your SUV, if you could get it close enough for them to see it. . . which you can’t. The walls lining the streets hold me as I walk, like giant hands guiding me along the path, keeping me on course, though occasionally offering more options than I can handle. It’s OK, though. I always end up joining another main street before too long and staying on track.

They cradle and they comfort, any time of the day or night, but especially at night. A few steps off the main arteries where tourists tend to congregate, and it’s like a different city altogether. Sometimes it’s like my own private city, as I have the streets to myself, while just over the buildings tourists bump and nudge each other; gelato in one hand, camera in the other. I like these more private streets best when I hear the bells of one of Siena’s many churches in the distance, suddenly swallowed again by silence, punctuated occasionally by my own footsteps on stone. Sometimes I’ll stop walking, close my eyes, and just listen to the silence, amazed to find it in a city (a city full of Italians, no less). Would that my own pensione were located in one of these neighborhoods. . .

Sometimes I feel a little lost, as the buildings can look very much alike if I don’t pay enough attention. Always there is rough-textured stone and, built into the walls, metal rings for tying up horses back in the days before Fiat. There are tiles on the corners of some buildings which identify the boundaries of the Contradas (neighborhoods or districts) of Siena. On one side of the street, you might see a little symbol for the Selva contrada (a rhino standing under a tree), while a building on the other side of the street has the symbol of L’Aquila contrada (a double-headed eagle). Sometimes the flags of the various contrade serve the same purpose as the more permanent tiles. Then there are gothic windows, and very tall wooden and metal doors from the days when (apparently) giraffes lived in the palazzi of Siena. There are stone benches built into walls, twists and undulations of both building facades and the streets they abut--streets undulating on both the horizontal and vertical axes; walls curve along the streets, but streets rise and fall like waves, too.

Tile marker on building for Civetta (little owl) contrada.

Still, though so much looks similar, none are the same. Look closely and sometimes secrets are revealed, while at other times, one is pulled into a mystery. Why that small, seemingly random window? What does that Latin script say, and why is it over that door to nowhere? Why would that metal ring be twenty feet up the wall? Why all these little square holes going all the way up the wall? I prefer these medieval buildings to flashy modern marvels for perhaps the same reason that I prefer old people--they have stories to tell, and I know it. I’m as hungry for stories as I am for local foods, like panforte and pici or pappardelle with cinghiale ragu’. I’m hoping that if I’ll just be patient and keep my eyes and ears open, spend enough time with them, they’ll tell me as many as I care to hear.

So far, slowly they have entrusted me with that key; the one that unlocks the greatest secret of them all--how to live the stories, deeply; how to breathe in a way that takes one past mere survival into the depths of life. Being here, wanting the stories is, I suspect, part of that larger secret. Taking chances, embracing a little discomfort for the rewards it brings, the connections one makes.

How many people on how many nights like this, in how many centuries, have wandered these lanes and listened to the silence, listened to the noises--the drums, the clang of silverware through a dining room window, a shutter opening or closing, a child calling to his mother--smelled the smells, smiled at moonlight on stone and glass. How many will follow? How many have kept promises that have enabled me to look upon these same things they saw 500 years ago--like this Palio that has the city electrified. I can watch this spectacle and feel connected not only to the present, but to people in all times; past and future, too. My world expands not only in space, but in time. I can experience this because they created and kept alive the things we now call traditions. Others after me will do the same because the Sienese keep them alive still.
Someone on a distant day will walk these streets and wonder about those who walked before, and it will be me (among others) they’re wondering about.
Around each corner voices whisper, “Breathe. See. Listen. Remember. Pay attention . . .pay attention . . .pay attention . . .”, a thousand different voices, in many different tongues.

To which I add my own, “I did. . . I am . . .thank you . . . grazie. . . grazie.”

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dinner in the Selva

Photo: Tamara Dean           

I had dinner in the Selva contrada tonight. For those who don’t know, Siena has 17 neighborhoods, called “Contrade”. Each is named after an animal, real or mythological, or a symbol. There is the Oca (goose), the neighborhood in which I’m staying, as well as Selva (forest), Civetta (little owl), Nicchio (seashell), Chiocciola (snail), Bruco (worm), L’aquila (eagle), Torre (tower), Drago (dragon), Giraffa (giraffe), Istrice (porcupine), Tartuca (tortoise), Pantera (panther), Onda (wave), Leocorno (unicorn), Lupa (she-wolf), and Valdimontone (valley of the ram). I walk through the streets of Siena each night (since apparently it never, ever rains here), and try to explore a different contrada each time. So, last night it was the Selva.

I have a guide book, Rick Steves' (can't help lovin' that man), and it recommended a little place to eat called Osteria Nonna Gina. I looked at an old-fashioned paper map, then at new-fashioned Google maps for walking directions. It’s in the part of the city near the Duomo (cathedral) of Siena. The map took me toward a little alley-like street I had not been down before. It was, for the first time on one of my walks, a little scary. Quite dark and narrow, I noted many little niches and places where a ne'er-do-well might hide along the steep stone steps. I walked slowly, cautiously. This felt strange, really. I can’t recall ever feeling as safe walking alone at night as I do in Siena. But this spot . . . there’s something about it that’s creepy. It’s the kind of little nook where you can imagine the Black Plague would hang out. You know, the one that between 1348 and 1352 wiped out about half of Siena’s population. I can hear it there in that dark corner, snickering and whispering, “Hey lady . . .hey . . . come ‘ere. I wanna show you something . . .”. No, grazie, signore, I’m trying to get somewhere. I hasten my step. I hear the sound of water bubbling and gurgling, and as I walk it gets louder until, no longer in the stranglehold of the narrow alley, I reach a little fountain in the open, evening air, and exhale.

The fountain has a little statue of a rhino in it, beneath a real tree that has been pruned and sculpted with care. This is what reminds me that I’m in the Contrada known as Selva, as the rhino under a tree is its symbol. I have not been in this part of town before. I walk along the back sides of the buildings that line the piazza near the duomo, in an area that is lower than the piazza, so the buildings look quite tall from this side. There is a vista here of part of the city, and of some open fields and countryside. I look down onto a terrace and see another rhino statue--this one bigger--under another sculpted tree’s canopy. I know I’ve left that Black Plague fellow behind, as this area feels good. It’s open and peaceful, and as I walk uphill along a curving road behind the duomo's piazza, and behind the Ospedale Santa Maria della Scala, I see to my left a grouping of medieval buildings and walls; a jumble of windows and balconies, odd angles and textures. But to my right, I see that this road I walk is also on top of a wall that overlooks green fields and olive groves. Climbing green plants with delicate white flowers tumble over this wall like a floral cascade to the fields below. I’m thinking, This is nice. I will return tomorrow in the daylight. I’m guessing that Black Plague guy sleeps during the day.

      Up the curving hill on the narrow road, it opens into a small piazza-like area, where multiple streets meet. There it is--Osteria Nonna Gina. A smiling waitress greets me and I ask, hoping I’m saying it correctly, “Ho bisogno di un prenotazione [do I need a reservation]?” She looks at me like I’m a little crazy (she’s apparently pretty perceptive), says “No, no. Un momento. . .” then leads me through the front room, through another little cavernous opening, into a pleasant back dining room, painted in a cheerful yellow, with various paintings, photos and artifacts on the walls.
The menu is handwritten in a European script that is, at times, difficult for my American eyes to decipher, but I manage. I ask the waitress about two dishes that strike my fancy--Gnocchi alla Lelle, and Pici alla Dado. Lelle and Dado are, I think, the owners or chefs. I’m told that the Dado sauce is like a pesto with cheese and a Bolognese ragu. It sounds a little odd to me, if I’ve understood her correctlty. Then I’m told that the other dish has big gnocchi stuffed with cheese, and the Lelle sauce is “uh . . . . a secret.” I laugh at this, and try to get her to reveal even a little of the secret.

“ . . .di pomodori [of tomatos]?” I ask.

“Uh . . . no,” she says.

“Um . . .di pesto?” I say.

“Uh . . . no. No pomodori, no pesto, no carne [meat]. Is bianchi. . . and secret.” she says in her best English.

I smile and say, “I’ll take that, then, “ along with an order of fiori di zucca fritta (fried zucchini flowers).

I also consider a glass of wine, but don’t see wines by the glass on the menu. I see bottles and half bottles. As I’m dining alone, I ask her, “Do you have any red wines by the glass?”
She tells me she has ¼ bottles, which is like two glasses. I tell her I’ll skip it, as that’s too much for me and I won’t be able to find my way home if I drink that. Even in my sensible shoes, I trip on these stone streets a few times a day, so I doubt that over-indulgence in vino would help matters. Later, when she brings the bread and my water, she also brings a bottle and pours me a glass of red wine, saying, “I give you. Is OK.”
And I have to agree. Is indeed OK. More than OK.

The main attraction that prompted me to even write about this evening arrives looking not white, but yellowish. It has little specks within the sauce that make me think part of this secret involves mustard seeds. The sauce is . . perfect, really. But hard to describe. Not spicy as I would have expected mustard to be. It’s more sweet, subtle, almost elegant, I’d say. A bit like an uptown girl out with her working-class gnocchi boyfriend. Coy, coquettish, a starlet from an old black and white movie, sultry and burning, but never giving itself away completely. It’s there before you, plopped on that plate, as all you want to do is devour it, but it says, “Hey, I know what you want. You diners all want only one thing--satisfaction. I’m not going to have you just engulf me. . . what kind of sauce do you think I am? I’m complex. You’re going to want to really know me before we’re through. I’m sweet and rich, with a hint of that mustard you guessed at. I’m gonna make you really notice me, so you can still respect me once dessert arrives.”

  Oh, I do respect you, Mustard Sauce. I do! In fact, I already know we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. This will be a fine romance, as I’ve already mapped the route to the restaurant on my phone and everything. We were clearly meant for each . . . . hey . . are those the fried zucchini flowers? Mamma mia! Ciao, Bella . . .lookin’ tasty over there!

    OK, so I’m fickle. But still, you see what I mean? This was no ordinary sauce. It was the sauce that dreams are made of. I polished off the dish, slowly, lingering over each bite. On a crazed impulse, I even tilted the plate to look underneath to make sure I didn’t miss any of the sneakier gnocchi. No such luck.

For dessert I'm hoping for panna cotta, and they don't disappoint. They had three or four different flavors. I can’t decide between caramel or strawberry, so ask the waitress what she’d recommend. Caramel it is. It arrives in a sort of old-fashioned fancy dish, thin liquid caramel poured over the top. As she sets it down she says, “Panna cotta and . . . a present . . .” and grabs two bottles off a nearby stand. She sets before me a bottle of grappa and a bottle of amaretto, along with a little empty glass. Apparently, I can help myself. With the grappa, I have some experience, and it’s mostly not good (with the notable exception of Nardini Cedro), so I only have a sip before moving on to the amaretto. Tasty stuff, and perfect with the caramel panna cotta. But I’m wondering if these people are trying to make sure I don’t return, given that earlier I had said I couldn’t handle two glasses of wine. Killing me with kindness, for sure.

But what a perfect way to go--smiling, with a belly full of gnocchi, beneath a starry Italian sky, horizontal on the stone streets of Siena.