Saturday, September 22, 2018

Reflections From Roma #10

Reflections From Roma #10
21 settembre 2018

Hello there… Rodger French here.

It doesn’t happen as often as you might imagine, but living in Roma does occasionally result in one having an experience that is picturesque to the point of being cinematic. Permit me…

A scheduling conflict resulted in Anne tending to bidness in Trieste (which is pretty scenic in its own right) at the same time that an old friend, with whom I had worked on some major musical/theatrical endeavors “back in the day,” was visiting Roma with her partner, whom I had never met. (OK, I think that’s clear.) In any case, I arranged to meet at their hotel for drinks and dinner.

[Inertial Dampening Sidebar- This was on a Tuesday evening - a “school night.” I dread going out on school nights, especially without A.J. But that was the deal.]

The hotel was downtown, near the ZOmbie Tourist Apocalypse™, in a neighborhood unfamiliar to me. After close consultation with Signore Google, I decided to take a bus to Piazza Venezia and walk from there. The bus experience was typical: Not too crowded to begin with, but increasingly packed as we neared the ZOTA™.

Arriving at IlMonumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (in my clever disguise as un tourista gringo) and relying on my (più o meno) accurate map, I managed to get within one block of the hotel, at which point I saw (I) a sign on the building façade and (II) my friend leaning out a 3rdfloor window waving me in. This boded very well indeed.

We greeted, we hugged, we laughed… it was so great to see her again. Since our dinner reservation was for a later hour, we popped by a market, picked up some drinks, and repaired to their (charming) hotel, where she introduced me to her partner, who is also an accomplished musician and a very cool guy. The three of us fell into easy conversation until it was time for dinner.

It was a beautiful settembre Roman evening as we strolled through the back streets to the restaurant, a typical place that serves good food at a reasonable price and was, not unexpectedly, full of tourists, many of them Italians.

[PicturesqueLandmark Sidebar- Walking to our restaurant, we passed a small place - not even a piazza - where we came upon a single, grande, and ancient Roman column. No plaque, no sign, no indication whatsoever of its provenance or purpose. I love that.]

We ordered several yummy items and commenced to talk about… well, the usual catching-up-on-a-lot-in-a-short-time stuff. Which was great. But our conversation kept coming back to music. All three of us have been musicians forever and have accumulated a wealth of experiences and insights. We wandered into the weeds, as music geeks are wont to do, and shared one of the most substantial, connected, and fulfilling conversations about music and what it means to be a musician that I have ever had. It was an absolute joy. And I not only caught up with an old friend, but also made a new one.

[Cinematic Sidebar #1- During this lovely communication, we were intermittently entertained by: An enthusiastic running club, a parade of young Italians on a big night out, and a cavalcade of gringo tourists on Segways. At night. Which is impossibly surreal.]

After dinner, we walked to Piazza Navona to get a taxi, where I threw some coins in the hat of a local - say it with me - accordion player. (I can relate. In 1980, I worked with some friends busking in that very place.) As my hosts had one more day in Roma and I had to go to work the next morning, we made our inevitable reluctant farewells, promising to keep in touch. And then, arrivederci.

[Cinematic Sidebar #2- The ride home was perfect. We motored stately through the Eternal City, past well-lit monuments, cruising the now less frenzied streets. All the taxi windows were open and the breeze was intoxicating. I luxuriated in the glow of good food and friendship. And I felt glad to be alive and proud to call myself un musicista.]

Not bad for a school night.



Saturday, September 15, 2018

Selected Shorts #05 - Swagger


To his credit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been consistent in communicating with DoS rank and file in the field. After the unlamented reign of King Rex Tillerson, it is somewhat refreshing to have a boss who acknowledges and presumably values your existence.

Most of the Secretary’s email missives are, not surprisingly, in service of whatever “foreign policy” positions the Moron-in-Chief has flatulated following his daily briefings provided by the brilliant minds on FOX News. Other messages fall into the general category of “morale building,” which is not, in and of itself, objectionable.

But all of Secretary Pompeo’s communications consistently emphasize one overarching ideal: Swagger.

Swagger (noun):A very confident and arrogant or self-important gait or manner. (Verb): To walk or behave in a very confident and arrogant or self-important way.

Apparently, the U.S. Department of State was/is possessed of an insufficient quantity of swagger. Pompeo is constantly exhorting the troops to “get back our swagger,” “use your swagger,” and “swagger like it’s 1999.” (OK, that last one’s on me.) He employs the word so often that it has become a running gag, with some DoS wags proposing “swaggering talking points,” swagger evaluations,” and, of course, a “Bureau of Swagger Affairs.”

(The Secretary also signs his memos with gems such as “Keep on crushing it.” Because… your average American diplomat is a 25 year-old dudebro, maybe?)

Unfortunately, IMHO, the concept of “swagger” as an essential tool of diplomacy is some wrongheaded nonsense.

I am admittedly a low-level State Department employee. But since 2007 I have worked in a dozen offices in five embassies on four continents and observed that diplomacy appears to be conducted most successfully by people who are intelligent, confident, well prepared, and respectful. They do not strut. They do not dictate. They do not conflate bluster with strength.

And effective diplomats do not have a burning need to comport themselves like a former Tea Party Congressman from Kansas, much less a bellicose despot from Queens.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reflections From Roma #09

Reflections From Roma #09
11 settembre 2018

Photo Update Alert:

(Continued from Reflections From Roma #08)

[Publisher's Note ZOTA™: ZOmbie Tourist Apocalypse]

Day 5 - Bergen is known for wet and changeable weather, although we had skated on the rain so far. After a last walkabout in Bergen and a sushi lunch, we decided to catch an early bus - in the rain - to the airport for the one-hour flight to Trondheim. The scenery was interesting and the trip was short but brief.

Day 6 - Trondheim is a very old (997), very lovely city and was once an important shipping port. After my customary fish breakfast (Anne is not really up for that), we made our way to the major tourist attraction in town: The Nidaros Cathedral. Built between 1070 and 1300 over the burial site of King Olaf II (although subject to numerous fires and rebuilding over the centuries), it is the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world and a wonderful place to poke around. We especially liked the fact that someone took the trouble to save numerous ancient gravestones and give them a place of dignity and repose in the church crypt.

The cathedral also features two excellent pipe organs and a killer gift shoppe.

We then made our way to the local fish market where A.J. had salmon patties and I the Bacalao, a stew made with salt cod, bell pepper, garlic, onion, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes. Good stuff. After lunch, more touristing, including an enjoyable visit to the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. The tapestries by Hannah Ryggen were a particular fave. Finally, a scintillating dinner of surprisingly decent pizza served by a handsome Croatian waiter at an Italian restaurant.

Day 7 - After breakfast and the now customary last walkabout, we caught the train to Oslo, a journey of some seven hours. The scenery was simply magnificent and we arrived at Oslo Central Station relaxed and ready to once again do battle with the ZOTA™, which, it being a weekend, was in full force. Fortunately, we had reservations at our previous hotel, so I was also reunited with my camera when we arrived. Now that’s excellent customer service.

Day 8 - More walkin’ around, this time to the waterfront, lunch (salmon for Anne, reindeer patties for meg), and on to Oslo Cathedral (consecrated 1697). It’s not nearly as grand as Nidaros, but is sufficiently intriguing, especially the stained glass windows and a somewhat psychedelic ceiling by Norwegian painter Hugo Lous Mohr. (I actually did get a photo of this.) 

Since we were heading back to Roma the next day, we decided to get ahead of the curve and scout the train to the airport. This we did, and purchased our tickets in advance. After a bit of a rest at the hotel, we headed off to the waterfront (again) and dropped in on an international festival, complete with South Asian rap music and non-Norwegian (Thai, Filipino, Afghan, Mexican, BBQ) food stands. It was a very nice and familial scene.

Day 9 - Our flight to Rome didn’t depart until late afternoon, so we had time for one more Norwegian tourist adventure. Akershus Fortress is a medieval castle that has served as a royal residence, military base, prison, and government offices. Positioned overlooking the harbour, Akershus is also a popular recreational area for Oslo’s citizens.

Of particular interest to us was the Norges Hjemmefrontmuseet (Norwegian Resistance Museum), opened in 1970 and dedicated to the resistance against the Nazi occupation of 1940-45. It’s a small, but well-designed museum featuring a chronological gallery of photographs, documents, and equipment (e.g., hand-made radios and machine guns).

[Real Life Sidebar -1433 members of the resistance movement, of whom 255 were women, were killed by the Nazis during WW II. This museum is a sobering reminder of what can happen when fascism comes to your land, and that actual Resistance is not a casual matter.]

Then… back to the hotel to pick up luggage and catch the train to the airport in plenty of time for the not altogether heinous flight back to Roma. This was the first time either of us had been to Scandinavia and we had a lovely time. I’d like to explore the place again, given an opportunity… and next time I’ll make sure not to misplace my camera.



Monday, September 10, 2018

Reflections From Roma #08

Reflections From Roma #08
11 settembre 2018

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

We’re back in Roma after a very nice week in Norway, where it’s cool and clean, easy to get around, and the plumbing is fully functional. A nice break from the Eternal City, where we have already resided, amazingly, for an entire year. The tempus, it does fugit. In any case, here’s the play-by play, as advertised.

Day 1 - Took a flight (at a rational hour) to Oslo on a low-cost Norwegian airline, a tolerably miserable, as opposed to comprehensively horrible, airline experience. Caught a very handy train from the airport to downtown Oslo, where we schlepped up the main drag, Karl Johans Gate (“gate” meaning “street”), through the ZOTA™ to our hotel. After settling in, we strolled to the waterfront for dinner.

Day 2 - After a delicious breakfast featuring smoked salmon and mackerel, as well as pickled herring (Yum!), we boarded a ferry for a short cruise to Bygdøy, where we visited five of the six museums conveniently located there. The sea, ships, and exploration figured prominently. Examples:

- The Viking Ship Museum features three Viking vessels dating as far back as 820 A.D. that have been recovered from the muck and restored as much as possible.

- The Norwegian Maritime Museum is pretty much what you would expect, but the highlight of the place was a film called “The Cape Horn Road,” featuring B&W footage of clipper ships making the passage around South America from 1929-36. Shot onboard by Alan Villiers, it documents sailing of the highest skill, danger, and adventure.

- The FRAM Museum houses The FRAM and The GJØA, two polar exploration vessels. This museum also contains all the information about the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen that one might likely ever need. 

- The Kon-Tiki Museum features the story of Thor Heyerdahl, who, since he had absolutely no sailing experience and did not know how to swim, thought it feasible to sail a balsa and bamboo raft across the Pacific Ocean. It is an incredible tale, made more so once you have a close up look at the Kon-Tiki itself.

Day 3 - Taking our leave of Oslo, we boarded a train for the 6.5-hour journey to Bergen, home of composer Edvard Grieg, homeport for ships servicing North Sea oil platforms, and gateway to the fjords. Norwegian trains are very comfortable and the ride was predictably scenic. And since The ZOTA™, especially the Asian version, is strong amongst the fjords, the passenger manifest included some Chinese tour groups.

The most noteworthy event of the journey occurred when the train made a brief stop at a particularly desolate but incredibly scenic high-altitude station. We saw an elderly lady get off the train and take some photoz. We heard the signal indicating that the train was departing the station. We observed the elderly lady running toward the train as it pulled away. We do not know if she managed to get back on.

[DumbAss Tourist Sidebar - No, not the nice Asian lady, although that wasa pretty dumbass move. I refer to myself. Here I am in one of the most scenic places on Earth and what do I do? I leave my camera at the hotel in Oslo. But I got lucky. Thanks to some very nice hotel staff in Bergen and Oslo, I am eventually reunited with my camera, sans photoz of Bergen and Trondheim, alas. Idiot check, my ass.]

We finally arrived in Bergen, where we checked in, reported the DumbAss Tourist Incident, then set off for a fine dinner at Enhjørningen Fiskerestaurant (The Unicorn Fish Restaurant), located in Bryggen, the historic wharf area that was once part of the German Hanseatic League trading empire. (The place reminds me of the shoppe houses in Singapore.) After dinner, a leisurely amble back to the hotel via the fish market, where I procured some excellent moose sausage.

Day 4 - We did not have the luxury of enough time to extensively explore the fjords, so we elected to take an express boat on Sognefjord, the “King of the Fjords,” the longest (206 km) and deepest (1308 km) - though not the most tragically scenic - in Norway. We cruised four hours (with scheduled stops) to Balestrand, where we spent five hours walking, eating, shopping, and taking mental snapshots. (It wasn’t nearly as boring as you might think.) Then, fours hours back to Bergen.

(Continued in Reflections From Roma #09)