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After an Italian “Thanksgiving” dinner of spaghetti with clam sauce, salad with tomatoes and cheese, my wife and I read our respective newspapers and went to bed early. I had a long, involved dream about trying to fix up a house that we owned but had rented out while we were living overseas. The neighborhood had gone to hell and i wasn’t at all sure that it was worthwhile putting more money into the place. I expect a lot of people in the U.S. are having that sort of dream these days.

When I woke up, my first reaction that thick fog had rolled in. When I looked again I realized heavy, wet snow was falling, the kind that calls for an umbrella. This time it was reaching the ground without melting. It was on the sidewalks and streets, decorating long rows of parked cards and even clinging to the ones in motion. It was almost like a caricature of winter, not the real thing.

I had spent the previous afternoon in the company of cars. Despite the ubiquity of public transportation in this city, automobiles are everywhere. Turin is the home of the Italian automotive industry. The last letter of the word Fiat stands for Torino.

First came the Vespa, which gave italians mobility with a bit of style, then came their version of the Model T Ford, the Fiat 500. They have never looked back. On a per capita basis, Italians rank number one in the world in car ownership, ahead of Australians and Americans. Many don’t use seat belts, few use child restraints, and some drivers seem to regard the red light as negotiable. Is it a “rosso pieno” (full red) or is it simply there to slow you down on your way to a dinner party?

They see the red light as a suggestion rather than an order. Pedestrians and cyclists are at the bottom of the pecking order and had better not behave as if they had any illusory rights, like entering a cross-walk when cars are coming. The street is the modern equivalent of the Coliseum, and the gladiator with the best weapon is going to win.

Most of the cars here are small and fuel efficient, but I did come across a sparkling Hummer parked near the Supermercato. In Italy, that is a statement. I’m so rich I don’t even care what it costs to keep this monster on the road.

I had planned to pay a visit to the National Automobile Museum, and would gladly have shared with you a tedious tour of the place and a history of the evolution of Fiat, but it was closed for renovation. The next best thing was a show on Italian Dream Cars since 1950.

The dream cars are just that. Most of them are on-offs, which means they never made it into production. Many would go faster than you could drive on any road in Italy and take you there in style. Some are small and cute and look like they could give Smart cars a run for their money.

Despite what you may think, dream cars can make money. Ferrari produces only a small number of cars a year, but the parent company, Fiat, does very well, thank you. Nearly a quarter of their profits come from Ferrari. Of course, the prancing horse is into everything now, from clothes to Lego sets.

It is pure form, “la bella figura” that captures the heart of Italian consumers. And they know how to make things beautiful. From cars to clothes to chocolate and ice cream. Until i came here I had never seen beautiful ice cream before. Take it from me, it tastes as good as it looks.

Click on any picture running alongside this post and it should take you to Flickr. Then go to Red Flier’s photostream. There are more photos from the car show.

The night before last night the temperature dropped considerably and we woke to snow on the rooftops. The visual signature of snow has been in evidence for some time now in the Alps, but then it dropped in. Literally. We are living at rooftop level.

The day before yesterday was mild. We hopped on Tram number 16 with the intention of taking a good long walk up into the foothills on the other side of the Po, or in the park that runs alongside. Before we got there our attention was caught by a market that we hadn’t seen before.  It stretches along a street parallel to the Po, a thoroughfare called Madama Cristina.

There were a curious assortment of vendors on both sides of the street running for a couple kilometers, perhaps, selling everything from new knickknacks to old clothes, silver to fine linen tablecloths, pots and pans to foodstuffs. My partner came across a wool hat that suited her (which came in handy later on), and I found a place to rent a bicycle for a ride on the next nice day that comes along.

Our major purchases were three jars of delicacies that we ended up carrying the rest of the day. Turin is the new gastronomic center of Italy, in case you were thinking of heading for warmer parts of the country. Claudio, the young farmer who helped provision us, has a farm about an hour from the city. Fortunately, he spoke reasonably good English. Otherwise, our exchange would have been quite limited.

Our delicacies included: antipasto Peimontese, cogna, and crema di funghi porcini. Cogna is similar to chutney, a sweet paste that goes well with meat and cheese. It has figs, apples, pears, grape must (I’m not sure about that translation) cloves, hazel nuts, walnuts, lemon, and cinnamon. The antipasto is delicious, a specialty of the region made, in this case, from fifteen different ingredients. The cream of mushroom sauce is potent enough to put off all thoughts of winter. Porcini mushrooms, olive oil, tomatoes, celery, and more. Simply delicious on plain toasted bread.

Increasingly, this city reminds me of Montreal. There is the same dedication to food, fine clothes, cars and craftsmanship, and a nod to the ever-present obligations of family and Catholicism. Electricity seems to be cheaper than plastic, and I would bet it is for the same reason—massive amounts of hydro power. Hardly anyone bothers to pay for tickets on the old trams and buses that run with amazing regularity throughout the city. Vast areas indoors and outdoor areas are heated with abandon.

When I descended into the street from roof level to do my morning shopping, there was no snow in the street, but it was barely above freezing. A sharp wind added a chill to the actual temperature. On my market run everyone I passed was bundled up with hats, mitts and scarves.

It looks like winter in Torino has settled in for good.

I don’t know what possessed me, exactly, but a recent whirlwind tour of art museums may have been triggered by the simple purchase of a 3 day, Torino+Piedmonte card. It is a promotional gimmick that offers “free” entry to more museums than you can possibly see in 36 hours, free public transport, and discounts on everything from the opera to river rafting. We North Americans like we have to get our money’s worth.

Turin is blessed with several collections of modern art that are dispersed around the city in some interesting buildings. The GAM was first on my list, since it is within walking distance of where we live. Its official name is the Galleria Civica d’arte Moderna e Contemporanea. It holds an extensive collection of art ranging from the late 18th C up to the present day. There were two ongoing exhibits, one on the designer, Enzo Mari, another on concepts of time and photography. Good for an afternoon.

To get to Castello di Rivoli by public transportation, you have to take the subway to the end of the line and then figure out where to take the connecting bus. The museum is located 17 km west of the city at the head of the Susa Valley.

Begun as one of the Savoy family’s residences, it suffered a series of major setbacks through its long history. Fortunately, it was rescued, imaginatively restored and re-opened in 1984. It is a stunning setting for an excellent collection.

I made it back to the city in time for a tour of the luminous art installations currently on view in Turin, Luci d’art. The guide spoke French as well as Italian, but he naturally favored his Italian audience. A Belgian family and I got an abbreviated repetition at the end of each monologue.

On Sunday I managed to squeeze in yet another exhibition at the light-filled, but warehouse-shaped building called Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Most of the works were by Paul Chan, a Hong Kong based artist. Then I hoofed it over to the old Fiat factory. The Pinacoteca of Giovanni Agnelli is unique, perched like a Frank Lloyd Wright structure on top of the factory (now converted into a very popular shopping mall that is packed on Sundays). Nearby is the “Bolla,” an ultramodern conference hall that looks ready to take off.

Surrounded by the rooftop test track, Agnelli’s elegant Scrigno (casket) holds a small number of paintings from his personal collection—Matisses, Canalletoes and a very nice Modigliani, in addition to traveling exhibits.

Too much art in too few days. Basta! I have a headache already and I haven’t visited a single palace, church or the famous shroud. Ciao for now.

It struck me yesterday that I must have become infatuated with Italy at the movies. Aside from the dramatic, but shopworn Sunday school stories about Herod and the role of the Roman soldiers as ‘extras’ in the story of Christ, I had no real notion of what ‘Italian’ meant until I went to the movies.

From 1965 to 1967 I went to the movies a lot. I was living and studying in Paris, the home of the most passionate cinema aficionados on the planet. I would buy my copy of Pariscope and ferret out the films being shown in “Version Original“(whatever language the film was made in.)

This kind of exhibition was not popular with the masses, but the French purists wouldn’t have it any other way. We would huddle together in the dark, deciphering the flickering sub-titles while trying to keep up with the stories unraveling before our eyes and ears. I got an education in cinema, from Battleship Potemkin to Pierrot Le Fou.

The Nouvelle Vague was exploding on the scene—with the local hero, Jean-Luc Godard at the forefront. But he was like the Sartre of cinema, often intellectual, profoundly aloof. For me, apart from Bunuel, a Spaniard, the most magical of all were the Italians—Fellini and Antonioni. They were the ones who managed to get their dreams on screen.

Turin was the birthplace of Italian cinema, so it is singularly appropriate that it should be the home of Italy’s homage to cinema. And what better building to put it in than the Mole, a spectacular structure that soars into the sky through an artful stacking of bricks. From the balcony at the top, you can see the whole city of Turin spread out below, the encircling Alps to the North and West.

From inside, split across five floors, there is the world of movies. Through interactive exhibits and “rooms” that focus on cinematic themes (from the Western ‘showdown’ to love and death), the story of filmmaking unfolds, from its beginnings (experiments with light and shadow plays) to DVDs.

A fleet of foam-covered deck chairs cover one entire floor of the “temple” to movie magic, allowing film pilgrims to watch two huge screens unreeling selections of flickering images. A long, circular staircase snakes up the interior for temporary exhibitions. currently featuring the films of Roman Polanski. Even the bar immerses one in the experience, with translucent, color changing tables and small screens replaying the eating scene from Tom Jones. C’est le fun! Arrivederci a presto. Ciao.

We have gone up in the world. Our new abode is a small flat on the sixth floor of a mixed-use building. This area is not far from the center of the city, but far enough away to be predominately residential. It is in an area called La Crocetta. Not Upper East Side, but solid middle class and well-to-do.

Night life appears to be non-existent. The boulevards are lined with fairly boring 19th century buildings, enlivened occasionally by something from the Baroque period, and, of course, shop windows full of beautiful and expensive clothes. This is Italy, after all.

The tiny elevator in our building goes to the fifth floor. We are in the garret, where the roof slopes steeply down on three sides and we are forever cursing the dark beams, nursing bruises. The flat is compact, but elegant, and three small balconies offer views of the city. On Saturday morning, it finally stopped raining and the view was spectacular. The sun was out and there was a sprinkling of fresh snow on the Alps.

I should have taken some photos, but It was market day and we wanted to get out into the sunshine. We are within walking distance of a wonderful, open-air market, adjacent to a church that looks ancient, but dates back only to the end of the last century. If there was a Fiat dealership, the market would have all three Italian obsessions, cars, clothes and food. Ah, but the food…..

Luscious tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, apples, Clementines, garlic and onions. Olive bread and Parmesan. Fresh fish. Squid. Since my Italian vocabulary is quite limited, we made our purchases with the time-honored method of point and pay. At least I know my numbers. Some gestures, a little French, and a few words in English rapidly helped fill our newly-acquired shopping cart.

Our week in the hotel was not without its good side, but we ate too much. We indulged ourselves in restaurants, even ones that shouldn’t have been good, like the chain restaurant called Brek. It was nearby, quick and inexpensive.

Set up like a cafeteria with taste and even some charm, it has sections for antipasti, the first course, second course, main course, salads and soups and dessert. In my country, opening a decent restaurant for linguistically challenged diners would be sufficient to make it a hit. Here in Italy, that isn’t enough. The food has to be good.

Now we have a flat, we are back to our own devices. Food preparation. This is the land of slow food, fast cars, and lots and lots of lovely new words.

Stay tuned.

Readers in the snow belt of North America may have a hard time picturing the hot, dry summers of Australia, but summer is nearly upon us.  Well, it would be if we were actually there.  On October 29, my wife and I boarded a flight to Singapore, then another to Munich.  Our final destination was the sub Alpine city of Turin, Italy.  It will soon be winter here if global warming doesn’t interfere.  We must be crazy, right?

This adventure began, as most of them do, with a serendipitous meeting several months back.  A colleague of my wife suggested that she look into teaching a course at a brand new, private university that was being set up in Turin. The teaching would fit into the semester break at Melbourne.  The downside is that,  in addition to teaching a new course, my wife will be consumed with marking papers and exams for the next three weeks.

For me, it is a wonderful opportunity to learn a little Italian, a language I actually studied for one semester at University some forty years ago simply because I loved the sound of it. When you arrive in a new city it seems like the parameters of your world are very small.  You hardly know anyone and there are a limited number of things that occupy your time.  Sleeping, eating, and looking for affordable accommodation.

This city may be cheap compared to Rome or Paris, but it is certainly expensive compared to Melbourne, especially now that the Australian dollar has taken a beating.  One euro is roughly equivalent to two Australian dollars.  And everything costs at least what it would in Australia, only in euros.

November 1 was All Saints Day, which is an official holiday in this part of the world. Entire families were out walking the streets and most of the stores were closed.  Our hotel is not far from Via Roma, which has every luxury shop I have heard of and quite a few I haven’t.  The Italians really have nailed that market. It never occurred to me how many of those brand names were Italian until we took a stroll down Via Roma.

Both sides of the street are covered with porticoes protecting the wide sidewalks below.  It is a wonderful avenue for strolling, a semi-enclosed Fifth Avenue. At one time, Via Roma led to its namesake (as all roads do), but a grand train station was plunked in the way 150 years ago.  If you were going to Rome by car you would have to take a slight detour.  By train, of course, it is very convenient.

Turin is home to most of the factories that produce Fiats.  It is an industrial city as well as the administrative center of the region of Piedmont.  It is Italy’s fourth largest city, with a population that hovers around a million inhabitants. Renowned for its Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture, its museum of cinema, and its chocolates, Turin indulges its artists like a patron saint.  In Piazza San Carlo. a moving photographic exhibit based on Buddhist texts caught my eye.  Our stroll took us down to the Piazza Castello, then over to the spectacular Mole Antonelliana.

Originally intended as a synagogue, this stunning building quickly became more expensive than its clients felt they could afford.  It was eventually taken over by the town council.  Begun in 1863, the structure was  completed in 1889.  Until a high wind broke off 47 meters (154 feet) of the spire in 1953, it was Europe’s highest brick building.  More on this later, after I have been inside and seen the Museo del Cinema, a unique, vertical museum.

The Mole is a short walk from the Po, the liquid highway that brought the Romans to this site.  Our stroll led us, inevitably, to the charming park along its bank, the Parco del Valentino.  Stay tuned.  There is much, much more to come.

Ciao for now.

Flickr Photos


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November 2008

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November 2008
November 2008