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It is hard to believe I have been back in Australia a week already.  Our adventure in the Alps was not entirely positive; I did manage to pick up a bug that plagues me still.  I’ve been nursing the typical hangover symptoms of a bad cold– sore throat, congestion, coughing, wheezing etc.  I was, of course, reluctant to drag myself onto a plane, but I couldn’t change my flights without incurring significant costs.  On the long leg from Frankfurt to Singapore,  I was lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me.  Fortuitously, I had booked a 24 hour layover in Singapore to recuperate.

If you have to fly, and I don’t particularly recommend it, you could do worse than Singapore Airlines.   The food is edible and they seem to recognize that you deserve to be treated like a human even if you board with an economy fare ticket.  That said, you are expected to do your part.  Once you’ve been fed and watered, the lights will go out and the staff will disappear, not to be seen or heard from again until the lights come back on.   Be a good sport, then, and go to sleep.

My doctor here immediately started me on a course of antibiotics. I am thoroughly sick of being sick and it is hard to squeeze a decent amount of sympathy from friends or loved ones.  You can easily visualize them raising crossed fingers and warding you off, saying, in effect, “Get thee to bed.  Do not emerge until well.”   You can understand the sentiment of self-protection, but it doesn’t make you feel any better.

Much of  the local news has focused on the ghastly fires that took the lives of over 200 Australians not long ago and still threaten rural residents in the state of Victoria.   There are four fires burning now that are “out of control,” another seven that are “contained.”  It is expected to be a hot, high-risk day with another dangerous north wind.    Peter Garrett, the country’s minister of the environment, offered to get his old band back together again for a fund raiser.  Midnight Oil (together with a lot of other bands) will raise about 5 million with concerts in Sydney and Melbourne on March 14.

The Prime Minister has compared the devastation in some towns to World War I, when many small rural communities lost one in four citizens.  There has been much beast beating in the papers about underutilized resources and fire-fighting protocols that may be out-of-date because the conditions now are really unprecedented.  Many older Victorians died in the city simply because of the heat.  The numbers are hard to calculate because the cause of death is usually attributed to some other failure, but the number of ambulance runs during the three days of high temps was triple that of last year.

Melbourne’s answer to the London Eye, the  $100 million dollar Southern Star Observation Wheel stopped spinning only seven weeks after it opened.  Engineers discovered that the heatwave had damaged the structure and it will be out of commission for at least six months.  It is one of the main attractions of a new real estate development in Docklands.

And jobs are disappearing.   There was another “massive” lay off of workers yesterday.  Some 1850  workers were laid off from Pacific Brands, a textile firm.  Four other firms in areas from finance to law announced impending  layoffs, citing an economy that is fragile, at best.  The government is struggling to establish the right tone, of course, somber but not overtly depressing.

This is a resource based economy.  When China catches a cold, Australia sneezes.  No one seems to be wondering why the free market fundamentalists stood by while the world economy tumbled into a tailspin, but the Rudd government does appear, at least, to be questioning  the ideology.  Let’s hope the impulse toward protectionism doesn’t catch on here again and backfire on Australians.

One odd item that emerged last week was in response to a recent spate of muggings of Indian students and immigrants, who are being relieved of IPods, laptops and the like.   In a curious sort of blame-the-victim approach to the problem, police have suggested that the Indians simply pipe down (when they are speaking a native tongue), and stop carrying expensive gadgets on public transit.  I guess these trinkets are much too tempting to the natives, who may have never seen such things.  I have never considered Indians particularly loud;  Hong Kong Chinese are LOUD,  but maybe I just don’t know the noisy ones.  Perhaps the recent Oscars have made them all insufferable.

Stay well and stop by again.  I promise to whistle a more cheerful tune next time.

As the speedometer crept over 110 kms, I realized that I could stay in the truck lane and content myself with driving blind behind a big box, or I could speed up. The other cars were simply whizzing by and there did not seem to be any speed limit.  Go, little Panda, go!

The fastest cars in the world come out of Italy, of course.  They were built by and for Italians, for people who seem to believe that they have to keep up with Mario Andretti or they’ll be letting the home team down.  It would not be a leisurely drive up to the mountains, but it would be quick.

Aside from an inadvertent detour at the end of the motorway which almost took us into France, all went well. The mountain road from Aymavilles to Cogne required all my attention. Fortunately, there was no ice, little traffic, and plenty of places to pull over and let the locals pass.

Our albergo was in the village of Lillaz. There was a large parking area outside the village, but I decided to be bold and follow the signs to the hotel. It was like driving through a toy town. Enormous amounts of snow clung to the rooftops. The streets were barely big enough for a car. The last turn had my wife holding her breath. And then, there we were.

Later, we discovered the reason the hotel had been booked solid until our lucky, last-minute cancellation.  An annual  cross-country race was scheduled to start the next morning.  Over 750 competitors would be out on the trail.  The fastest would be done in two hours, of course, but the slowest….? Our host had neglected to mention the race when he was on the phone with our travel agent, but he assured us we could be out skiing by 10:30.

Lillaz is famous for its cascate (frozen waterfall), which is a short walk from the village.  We made our way out there to get some exercise before dinner.  We were starting to lose the light, but there was a small group of climbers at the base– mostly Brits.

We were looking at the first of four “pitches.”  If I understood correctly, this particular fall was actually 1500 meters high. The whole area is a mecca for ice climbers.  It is an excruciatingly slow and scary sport to watch from the snow below.  Occasionally, chunks of ice would get dislodged by an ice pick, come plummeting down, hard and dangerous as rocks.

The next morning we got in a little bit of skiing before we were hustled off the tracks by locals, who must have thought we were mad.  They were out in force to watch the three leaders fly by.  Most of the participants were Italian, but the event had attracted some international skiers during the last two years.  Both top spots (male and female) were taken by Japanese skiers.  The winner finished the 45 km run in 2 hours, one minute, just a couple minutes ahead of his compatriot.

That afternoon we did have the place to ourselves.  The weather was perfect and the track was still fine.  We hadn’t done this in awhile, and it felt good.  From our window, we could see Mont Blanc to the west. Lillaz is at the end of a valley that runs east-west. A second valley runs north-south, heading from the village of Cogne towards the mountain of Gran Paradiso.The village at its head is called Valnontey.

We headed up there by car on the Monday, stopping for a leisurely lunch in Cogne. It is a spectacular valley  If the word awesome hadn’t been stamped into meaningless phonemes over the last decade by almost everyone, it would be the exact word to use to describe the peaks around us. The Alps are awesome.

But as we headed out a helicopter flew overhead, its blades making an ominous sound in the quiet afternoon.  The temperature had climbed quickly during the day and the amount of snow on the steep rock faces was considerable. Something had triggered an avalanche.  It knocked two climbers off the face of Valmiana, ice climb number 8 of 53 in Valnontey. A 33 year-old Frenchman was dead; his Irish partner survived the fall.

It would be ghoulish to say that we enjoyed our afternoon, but we were ignorant of the tragedy until our ski was done.  Tomorrow I head home to Melbourne, back to the land where whole towns have been wiped out by flames. I will miss winter. I’ll miss the Italians, my teachers and fellow students at Italiano Porticando.  I’ll miss the city, of course, and the spectacular Alps.

The snow has melted in Torino. With sunshine and warmer weather it seemed almost like Spring yesterday. It was Valentine’s Day and there were throngs of people taking advantage of artistic events on view throughout the city.

I have been struck low with a cold, so my participation was quite by chance and somewhat less than enthusiastic. It was a walk I was after. Despite the disappearance of the snow, il inverno is not over yet. If you were to walk down Corso Re Umberto and look off to the right, your attention would be seized by an image of white-covered mountains that look right there on a clear day.

I don’t know what possessed me to ask our banker where to go cross-country skiing, but it was on my mind and he seemed as good a candidate as any. It takes awhile to do most things in Italy, and bank accounts are only marginally less trouble than getting married.  Much to my surprise, the young banker was an enthusiast. “Cogne,” he said. He even threw in the name of the hotel where he stayed when he went there.

Self-propelled skiers are the poor relatives of the gravity sports crowd, so we were quite impressed with the fifty kilometers of groomed trails in the area.  Downhill resorts often provide some sop to cross-country skiers, but ten kilometers seems to be the limit.

Cogne was on the northern edge of a huge park called Gran Paradiso, near the French border.  With the assistance of a travel agent, I booked a room at the hotel (thanks to a last-minute cancellation) and an economy car for the trip up into the mountains.  We could rent skis right at the hotel, so we didn’t have to bother with a rack.  It was the driving that worried me. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have been just worried,  I would have been terrified.

I must admit, things began badly. To confirm the rental, I checked the number on the rental slip I’d been given by the agent. It was not a local number, so I looked up the car rental place on the internet and called that number.

Someone said “fire brigade” in Italian and English and hung up. I tried again. Same response. The third time, a man answered and said “fuoco?” Hung up. The car rental place was a good half hour walk from where we live. I was either calling an incorrect number or they were having a fire at the rental place and someone was good enough to answer the phone while they were trying to put it out.

There was only one way to find out. This did not put me in the best of moods, I’m afraid. I did not want to drive back to the flat through the maze of one-way roads in our neighborhood, so we would still have to lug our suitcase to the car rental place.

Needless to say, there was no sign of flames. I didn’t even mention my phone call or my misapprehension. I just handed over my International license and my credit card.  After some discussion as to whether or not we would need catene (chains), it was decided we’d better have them just in case.  We were heading into the Alps, after all, and it could very well snow.

The agent suggested that we avoid driving through the city by heading south five or six kilometers, then picking up the Tagenziale, which circles the city. We were actually heading north, to Valle D’Aoasta. We were heading for Mont Blanc.

I was amused to read in the International Herald Tribune that Mario Resca (who has recently taken on the task of ‘adding value to the nation’s museums’) claims to have helped promote the slow food movement.  His notoriety comes from having turned around the McDonald’s franchise in Italy, overseeing a spectacular expansion from 10 restaurants to 378.

Not one to shun the spotlight, he cites the success of McDonald’s as the impetus for Italian pride in local cuisine.  “I take credit for that,” he says.  “Slow food became relevant because McDonald’s became relevant.”  He may have a point, however convoluted.

In her remarkably popular book, “Eat Pray Love,”  Elizabeth Gilbert writes about choosing Italy because of the food and the language.  I read the book long before it made the best-seller lists.  If memory serves, she gained 35 lbs (16 kilos) in four months!  Fortunately, she was heading for an ashram in India on the next jaunt of her odyssey and the weight just dropped away.

I’m not sure why the Italians are not all as heavy as heifers, but I suspect it has to do with walking.    Every evening, the citizens of Turin are out on the streets, walking, talking, shopping, generally ignoring the inane programs on T.V.  You don’t see that in North America or Australia.

Oddly enough, my wife and I haven’t dined out very often here despite the temptation.  It is partly an attempt to to save money, and partly a question of habit.  I usually have dinner on the table by 7.   Restaurants here don’t open until 7:30, and no self-respecting Italian would be caught dead in one before 8.  If we were in Rome it would be 9.  Eating habits die hard, but we are eating Italian food, even “at home.”  It’s a wonder I still fit in the Brioni suit.

We decided awhile back that we would celebrate my 64th birthday with a long lunch at a restaurant rated among the top 50 in the world– Combal.Zero.  It just got its second star from Michelin.  It is situated alongside the stunning Art Museum at Castello Rivoli.  Check out my post called Art Attack.

The chef is Davide Scabin.  He is considered a true innovator, exploring the very essence of what food represents.  He has been known to present food in books, glass jars and “cyber-eggs,” cellophane enclosed surprises filled with caviar, vodka, egg yolk, shallots and pepper.  His utensils include Xacto knives, mallets and even plastic cutlery.

Our degustation menu was more subdued, but still delightful.  It began with a deconstructed pizza, a “zuppizza,”  in which the tomato topping forms a soup, with mozzarella in the middle and toasted bread chips on top.  It is delicious.

A little champagne or sparkling wine always gets things off to a fine start.  For the next two hours we indulged our taste buds at the hands of a master.  If I could write about food like Ruth Reichl, who actually used to feed me every so often at the University of Michigan, then this post would be as long as our lunch.  While she has gone on to become editor-in chief at Gourmet magazine, I have ignored whatever talents I may harbor in that area.  Pictures will simply have to do.


The restaurant is a long, luminous architectural echo of the “long sleeve” in the adjacent castle,  a room that was designed to house the Savoy art collection.  The space  has an air of meditation, an atmosphere of studied grace. Our black T-shirt clad waiters and waitresses seemed as if they were floating from the kitchen to our table, engaging in Tai Chi as they brought our dishes.  For the first half hour, we were the only guests.


My wife and I and our friends from Toronto allowed ourselves to be as pampered as people can possibly be, enjoying the peace and quiet and the gastronomic delights of a long afternoon.


For readers who are foodies, we had:  trout in green pea sauce with sour cream; codfish croquette with violet potato chips; thinly sliced veal with hazelnut and anchovy sauce; ‘acquerello’ rice with foie gras and artichokes; pumpkin soup with ‘soncino’ root and ‘quenelle’ of fresh cream cheese; pork shank with puree; and chocolate cake with double milk cream.


Not to mention the chocolates and coffee.  I guess this answers the question posed in the title of this post.  The two of us will still feed each other and Davide will do what he does best at Combal.Zero.  Here’s to the wonderful markets and Italian cuisine.  Thanks to Pam and Marianna, I won’t forget this birthday anytime soon.


I was already 22 years old back when the Beatles’ tune in the title of this post was released on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I remember being charmed by the whole album, but I couldn’t make the big leap into the future and imagine myself with grey hair, actually turning 64.

It was one of the best album covers to come along in an era of great ones.   My friends and I pored over it like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out who each person was and why he or she had been picked for the cover.  We had no idea the artwork on it would become a classic. If you’ve never seen the short section of “Yellow Submarine ” where the song appears, check it out at  —

If it were not for the Beatles, I doubt if this particular milestone would have had much resonance.  One birthday is pretty much like another once your odometer hits fifty.  But our presence in Torino and a visit from an old friend (and her friend), made it very special.

January 30 was the last day of class for a month-long session of Italian that I had joined a week late.  After the last test, a group of about twenty students and teachers from Italiano Porticando sat down together for a late lunch at a local restaurant in the neighborhood.  We ate good pizza and pasta, exchanged email addresses, took photos, and promised to keep in touch.

But one last passegiata was still on the agenda, and it attracted more students than all the other outings I had joined previously.  It was a visit to an artisanal cioccolateria, an award-winning chocolate maker–bottega Guido Gobino.


Our tasting room was long and narrow, ultra modern-looking under some ancient wooden beams.  For the next two hours, it would be our new classroom and the subject would be chocolate.  Our host was gracious, passionate and fun.  Torino is the birthplace of gianduja chocolate, (a mixture of hazelnut paste, cocoa and sugar), bicerin (a drink of chocolate, espresso and cream), and chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick.

Although he was open to any and all questions, including the inevitable one about Ferrero Rocher and the phenomenal success of Nutella, his main mission was to educate our taste buds, to encourage us to discover what tastes were elicited by the carefully prepared blends of cocoa from around the world.

It soon became obvious that a more concentrated blend of cocoa did not necessarily translate into a stronger taste.  He compared the production of chocolate to that of wine, conjuring up the terroir of Java as if it were something you could taste.  He asked us to listen to the snap of the chocolate and lick our fingers like bambini.  There were chocalates that tasted like smoke, some like herbs.  The final confection literally melted in the mouth, leaving a delicious, lingering aftertaste of a key ingredient– salt.

We were all buzzing as we stumbled out of the chocolate boutique.  The sugar rush had kicked in and we had been sitting far too long.  I parted from my classmates one last time.  We said our goodbyes and floated home.  The next day was my birthday. We had booked a tavolo for four at noon at a renowned restaurant located on the grounds of the Castello di Rivoli.  It is called Combal.Zero.

Stay tuned for Part Two.  In which yours truly gets stuffed.  In an elegant way, of course, in the Brioni suit!

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February 2009
February 2009