Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Redefining Beauty: It's Not About the Belly Button

The old concept of Italian female beauty is about to be scrapped
Miss Italia 2008

In favor of a whole new concept of inner beauty
Tara Gandhi

The Miss Italia Pageant Goes Mainstream

Arrivederci belly buttons and bikinis. Anna Maria Tarantola, the new boss of Italian state TV under Mario Monti's austerity government is clamping down on female TV nudity, beginning with the Miss Italia Pageant. Patrizia Mirigliani, pageant organizer has announced that bikinis will be replaced by one piece bathing suits to cover the crotch and upper thigh. In an unprecedented move, the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi has been invited to teach the girls about “inner beauty''. Gandhi will also judge the final competition, replacing a panel spot typically reserved for the likes of Sylvestor Stallone, Bruce Willis and Andy Garcia. Somewhat contradictory is the inviting of Jane Fonda, who in her perfectly plastered body will also serve as a judge. (This is the same sex symbol Jane Fonda who stared naked in Barbarella and who admitted that her father taught her that her looks were all that mattered.)  An incidental case of mixed signals?

Is this "flight to purity" a moral triumph for Italian women, or is it an insult to their female sexuality? Are they being told to cover up something that they should be proud of? Is it insulting to tell a woman to cover up her body and to imply that she doesn't have inner beauty? Is this a politically inspired maneuver to correct the distorted global perception of Italian female sexuality propagated by internationally acclaimed political pervert Berlusconi? Or is this the beginning of a “piccola grande rivoluzione”, a top-down strategy, using the media as a vehicle to indoctrinate and slowly reform the very gut of Italy’s female culture?

Italian women in my age group are divided. Some believe that female nudity on TV undermines the female image, and others see it as harmless realism.

Yes, I bought a pair of rose-colored glasses when I moved to Italy and will never take them off. Perhaps it has distorted my perception. When I watch the bikini-clad Miss Italia contestants I see nothing but innocent, wholesome, elegant teenagers whose body behavior is far from suggestive. If a woman in a bikini is sexually indecent, then we might as well call the Uffizi a porn gallery and cover up half of the art in Florence. After all, this is supposed to be a beauty contest.

I always thought that the Miss Italia candidates already had inner beauty. But maybe it's just those darn rose-colored glasses getting in the way, ehh? Telling them to adopt a more Indian philosophy can be interpreted as an insult. (In fact, the Indian culture is not exactly the global epitome of feminist success). Are we saying that the Italian ideal of beauty isn't good enough, and therefore we have to copy someone else's culture? 

There isn’t a culture in the world that uses body language the way the Italians do. Their inimitable facial expressions, hand gestures, body movements! Covering up their bellies is like putting them in a straightjacket.  Where's the fantasia?

As I see it, it's not the bareness of the body, but the behavior of the body, the way the body is used, the innuendo and the attitude that makes the difference. It’s the difference between the obnoxious “Big Boob Barbie Doll Bimbo Beauty” and the pure elegance of Botticelli Beauty. And these little innocent girls, many from the back roads of Italy, are not strutting their bodies in "that" way. I always found the Miss Italia Pageant to be imaginative, spunky spontaneous, innocent, natural, entertaining and well.....Italian!

As a rather straight laced corporate American competing in a man's world, I was unfortunately taught to strut my bodily stuff in a business suit and to cover up the cleavage. Just the opposite mentality. It took me four years of living here to finally shed the old uniform and start dressing Italiana. The difference is that Italians are taught to love their bodies unabashedly, regardless of being fat, skinny, young, old, housewives or executives. They have a confidence and elegance that I wish we had in America. One of the reasons I love watching the Miss Italia Pageant is that it is pure in its bodily pride, carefree and unrehearsed. I dread the thought of  Miss Italia going the way of Miss America.   Let’s not make it too psychologically competitive and serious, man!!   This is Italy!!!!

On the positive side, the new “inner beauty” movement may indeed indoctrinate the young beauties with more esoteric values and prepare them for better career and life opportunities. And as long as Berlusconi keeps his pecker out of the Italian sex scene, it will certainly improve Italy’s image in front of the rest of the world.

I’m sorry to see it go. I guess after all is said and done, I can’t blame Italy for changing its image, but I'll miss the old Miss Italia Pageant. It was a pisser. I’m probably more in favor of the new ideas than not. On September 9th and 10th we will see the outcome and judge for ourselves. I just have one thing to say:  "Hey, Italy keep your "Italian-ness"!

Either way, the very gracious Patrizia Mirigliani is sure to pull it off with elegance and finesse.   And as usual, it will probably bring tears to my eyes!!  It must be those rose-colored glasses.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zucchini Flowers for a Hot Day

A perfect pick for dining in the Florence heat!  I'm always hunting for alternatives to panzanella, salads, caprese and panini to keep cool. Today I found the perfect summer dish based on what's currently fresh in Florence's markets. Objective: minimal cooking and the pursuit of a cool kitchen and an even cooler Barbara.
As I browsed the Sant'Ambrogio market this morning, the zucchini flowers screamed at me for attention.... freschissimi e abbondanti!  It instantly grabbed me....eggs with zucchini flowers and pecorino.  Fast, fresh and it doesn't heat up the kitchen.  A soft Vermentino or sparkling white makes the perfect partner.

I love eating all kinds of flowers and always have.  In the U.S., zucchini flowers are a delicacy and priced as such.  Here, they are common, cheap and abundant in the right season.  Italian eggs are much more tasty than American eggs, and combined, they make a heavenly simple meal. 

The recipe:  Three eggs, 3 tbs.grated aged pecorino, 3 tbs.chopped parsely, 1 tsp.shallots, 5 big zucchini flowers, a few pats of butter. Die-hard Tuscans can use olive oil, but butter enhances the sweetness of the flowers.  Sliver up the flowers. Melt the butter, add slivered shallots and saute for 2 minutes. Beat the eggs, add the cheese and 1/2 of the chopped parsley to the eggs.  Add the flowers and remaining parsley to the pan with a dash of salt and cook for 1 1/2 minutes (keep the crunch!). Add the eggs and as they cook, fold them over a few times for maybe a minute!  Withdraw the pan from the heat when the eggs start to coagulate and finish the cooking off the heat! (you don't want to scramble it, and do not cook too long. Keep the yokes a little wet for the best flavor)  Done!  You can also cook this frittata style, but it is thicker, drier and takes longer.

Now you can serve it plain, or over some toasted Tuscan bread rubbed with olive oil. You can also plop a dollop of ricotta on top. Sprinke more parsley over the eggs and enjoy.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Liberation of Florence

Last Saturday was the 68th Anniversary of the Liberation of Florence from the Germans, under whose occupation the city suffered great damage during WWII.

Among the many civic celebrations in Florence, this one is particularly well attended by native Florentines, many of whose families witnessed the brutal mutilation of their city.
I felt a great sense of pride as an American participating in the ceremonies as it unites me closer to the Florentine community in celebration of a mutual victory.
In order to attend the ceremonies in Palazzo Vecchio, one must receive a private written invitation from Mayor Renzi.

While I will never achieve such insider status, I was fortunate to have been extended  a written invitation by a native Florentine friend whose husband was unable to attend. I was honored to partake in the festivities in the filled-to-capacity Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio and afforded a VIP seat for the closing concert conducted in the Arengario in Piazza Signoria. It was a day of great emotion, solidarity and pride.

Below is an amazing video taken in the streets of Florence as Allied Forces liberated the city on August 11, 1944.  One minute of vintage history-in-the-making!!!  Viva Firenze!!  You must plug in your headset as the audio quality is poor!  Don't miss it!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Celebrating the Silence

I love it and I hate it.  August in Florence.  We are expecting our 7th heat "wave", but since June, I cannot tell where one has ended and the next has begun. We are enduring a persistent drought unseen in years. Merchants and residents alike have left the city behind in pursuit of cooler destinations, clinging to a vacation tradition that has it roots in ancient Roman times.  A tradition that is slowly fading as Italy is forced to become more competitive and fewer Italians can afford the luxury of vacations and time off from work.

While the tourist trade never sleeps in Florence, in my little world, nearly everything is closed and I am the only tenant left in my building. I've learned that anything you need in August, you better buy in July.  As I gaze out my window, my neighbors' shutters are closed, there are no clothes hanging on the lines and my plants are almost dead from the heat. An eerie solitude hovers over my empty courtyard at night.

But I too, am clinging to my own "tradition" of heading south after the panic has ended, to enjoy uncrowded beaches, no traffic, no lines and better service.  I've again chosen to remain in my beloved Florence, even when the going gets tough. For more reasons than one.

I love this city even in its heat and its silence. The roads are empty. I can spend mornings enjoying traffic-free bike rides in the northern hills and passeggiatas in the city. The duomo bells resonate with a richer tone and a deeper echo since there is nothing to absorb the sound. My girlfriends seem to be taking turns going away, so there's always someone here with whom to share an aperitivo on Florence's rooftops, overlooking a quiet and peaceful city. Or at Las Palmas, my favorite open-air niche. I've found a little oasis in the Cascine, where a local piscina allows me to run or ride in the morning and swim in the afternoon.  In August, even the Duomo looks lonely, but it feels like it's all mine, as it stands silent against the backdrop of a naked city.

I spend more time indoors, doing things that I would typically find boring, but love it.  Like watching cultural films on T.V., reading, writing, tending my plants and refining my goals for the rest of the year.  And  taking time to lay back, have a glass of wine, and enjoy il "dolce far niente".

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Big Find in a Little Museum

I joined a group of Florentines today on a tour which examined the works of five Renaissance artists who left their mark in the Land of Arezzo. The tour is one of many sponsored by the initiative "Rinascimento in Terra d'Arezzo" exploring some of the lesser frequented "Little Big Museums" outside the city of Florence. The program, promoted to the Florentine community by a Florentine cultural arts foundation, offers gratis day trip tours via motorcoach, skilfully guided by a master Renaissance art expert.
I heard some reviews from local friends and it sounded like a unique oppotunity to examine a very select sample of masterpieces of Filippo Lippi, Beato Angelico, Luca Signorelli, Bartolomeo della Gatta and Lorenzo de Credi within the context of their original settings.

The tour took us to Arezzo, Cortona and Castiglion Fiorentino, where we spent a short but concise amount of time in each of a few museums.  I found it to be an effective way of avoiding "Stendhal Syndrome" because it was focused, clear and expertly guided by a passionate, animated scholar.  Calling it a "tour" is a misnomer.  It was rather a scholastic expedition among a group of well-heeled Florentine art afficionados.

The highlight of my day was the mind-blowing "gift" that I received at the end of the tour.  While we were in "Collegiata e Museo della Pieve di San Giuliano" in Castiglion Fiorentino, my eyes caught sight of a painting that I knew from my distant past, but never knew where it came from, or who the artist was.

Pictured above, is the painting, "L'Adorazione" by Lorenzo de Credi. It was the very image from a holy card that I cherished as a kid for many years, and used as a bookmark.  The image disappeared from my memory until I saw it today, connecting yet another link between my past and my present life that was simply meant to be in Florence.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Coping with the Heat, Italian Style


These are my two most recent acquisitions, made by a local artisan.  Now all I need are sandals to match.

In spite of their vulnerability to stiff necks and sore throats, the Italians are slowly surrendering to air-conditioners. Their tolerance to the heat is admirable. Today in 41 degree heat, I chuckled insidiously as I caught glimpse of a woman wearing short shorts, flip flops a see-though short top, and a heavy scarf frivolously wrapped three times around her throat. 
However, for me, it is still a challenge to take a passeggiata in Florence without some creative way of keeping myself cool.  A gelato cools the body, a bike creates a breeze, and so does a ventaglio.  I never thought I would ever own a ventaglio (fan), no less a seriously fashionable one.  But I just had to break down.  
. the Italian life has changed everything about me. And I love it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Spiritual Encounter with Dante

When the box office opened for Benigni's return to Florence to revive his 2006 presentation of  Dante's Inferno, I reserved a subscription for 6 of the12 evenings, which concluded in a stunning climax last night.The encounter brought me face-to-face with two of my greatest idols, Benigni and Dante.

Benigni, in his genius, so eloquently and charismatically brought Dante's Inferno out of  the Middle Ages, right into the lap of modern-day Florence. Just being there was a lifetime gift.

I realized as I sat there on opening night that I wasn't waiting a mere few months for this night, but rather I was waiting a lifetime.

Following the series was akin to following some of the worlds' greatest events, like the Olympics or the Giro d'Italia.  You don't want it to end, and when it does, you feel like something is missing. Last night, Benigni made his final presentation of Canto XXII, ending two weeks of profound, mind-boggling emotional entertainment.

During the series, I reflected upon a person who had a great impact upon me, Dr. Mirella Affron, Ph.D, under whose tutelage I first studied Dante.  This exceptional woman fed my passion for Italy and awoke my appreciation for my Italian roots.  Everyone has that special teacher who pinches a nerve that you didn't know you had. Who inspires and provokes you.  Dr. Mirella Affron was that person for me.

Mirella Affron, my Italian Professor
at City College of New York, still
going strong
Last night, I looked her up on the internet to see where she is today. This is a photo of her that I found. At first, I was shocked to realize how many years have passed and how she has aged. It made me realize the long journey that I've traveled to get here.

She still has that same beautiful glow in her eyes that has inspired so many students over the years.  Thank you, Dr. Affron.

Click here for article in La Nazione

Monday, August 6, 2012

My Apartment in Florence.....Moving On!

View From My Living Room
It’s been hot as hell in Florence since mid-June. As much as I love living the simple Italian life and have enthusiastically embraced old-world traditions like hanging my clothes out to dry and washing the floors with a 5 pound mop, there are a few American conveniences that I can’t live without. The top of the list::  air conditioning.
Florence can cook my brain and physically break me down as much in the summer as it can feed my brain and fulfill my soul the rest of the year. This season has been especially difficult for me to survive without air-conditioning. This has given me the incentive to search for another cooler, larger apartment in Centro.

Air conditioning is not really the reason why I am searching for a new place to live, but it has been the catalyst. The truth is that I have been living in the same apartment that I rented for 3 months when I came to study here.....4 years ago. My life has grown and now I want a long-term lease in a more residential palazzo, with an extra bedroom and bathroom.

View From My Bedroom
It is hard to believe after 4 years, that I would consider leaving this little piece of heaven where my fairy-tale destiny in Italy came true. I love my special place, but it is time to move on. I am ready to start “Chapter 2” of my life in Italy.

I must quickly reminisce! I found this apartment while I was planning to study in Florence for 3 months in 2008. It was advertised on Craigslist as the former art studio of artist Pietro Annigoni. Little did I know just what that meant! It featured an enormous, romantic bedroom with high chestnut-beamed ceilings, two walls of tall windows, a living room with a stunning view of the duomo, a fireplace kitchen and a terrace laced with jasmine and gardenias. In the bedroom where I sleep, Annigoni painted his portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth! Yes, she sat in my bedroom!

Destiny, timing and instinct collided at once, leading me to my final doormat….this apartment in Florence.

During my 3 month stay, a series of successive miracles occurred, one after the other, begging me to stay. Life came together for me, and all of it happened from this special apartment, the home where I’ve spent my first 4 years living in Florence.

My Front Door and One of my Bikes
 Instant friends, an adopted Italian family with whom I spend weekends and holidays. A job that fell in my lap, and a group of local cyclists who invited me onto their team.

As if that was not enough, the greatest miracle of all was yet to come: After an unsuccessful attempt to find my grandparents’ naturalization papers (with no intent other than to proudly frame and hang them on my wall), I discovered to my utter shock that they (who immigrated to New York in 1909), never became American citizens. Discovering this exactly 100 years later in 2009, was an unmistakable act of God. This entitled me to be an Italian citizen “jure sanguinis”. My destiny: two passports, Florentine residency and a life in Italy that has allowed me to rediscover the “lost” traditions and comforts that I learned as a child growing up in a neighborhood of Italian immigrants who held strong to their Italian roots. My life in Italy was always meant to be, but it had to evolve.

My Bedroom
I am searching for a new place to call home in Florence. I don’t know how I will give up my epic view of the duomo. I don’t know how I will get along without the swallows returning to the rooftops every April 1st, where they sing for me every morning and return at sunset, flying in front of my duomo view, fulfilled and happy after a day of eating up the mosquitoes on the Arno. They left in mid-July, overwhelmed by the summer heat. And now I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to open my window again to greet them next April. I’m very lucky to have this unique place that I’ve called home since 2008.

But I am ready for a change, a larger space, to embark upon Chapter 2 of my life in Italy. The right place will appear as naturally and as certainly as this little piece of heaven appeared to me 4 years ago.

My Apartment Photo Album

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Coming Back Soon !

Welcome back to my blog. I think every now and then I need to un-clog my brain and let my life and experiences unfold without writing a thing.  I am feeling ready to write again, for the sake of expressing myself, my love of life, my love of Florence, and as a way of ensuring that my memories and sentiments will survive me....even if in a virtual world. 

There is so much pouring out of me, so many times that I celebrate a moment that I want to record.  Most of it revolves around the profound love that I have for this country, my life in Florence and the people who have become my friends and family in Italy.

Moments become memories.  Memories can get blurry, even lost. So, I'll continue my blog for me, for one day, when I look back at how lucky I was, to recall the moments and memories of a lifetime dream-come- true.

If you care to follow my jouney on the way, you are invited!  And say hello every now and then.  It can be weird being out there in the anonymous world of blogging!
See you soon.