Espresso Con Panna

At my local Starbucks the other day, I ordered a doppio espresso con panna.The fresh faced barista behind the cash stood and stared. “Wow,” he  exclaimed. “No one ever orders that.”

I couldn’t see why not. It’s right there on the menu. And it’s also the cheapest beverage listed:  Just under $2 if you get a single, a little over $2 for the double. That’s the same price as Starbucks charges for a regular doppio,meaning the dollop of whipped cream on top is free.  Free happens to be one of my all-time favourite words. But that’s not the only reason I pony up to the coffee bar to order this particular brew. It might be low in price but to me it is also highly evocative of a beautiful time in my life:  Espresso con panna is my Proustian madeleine.

It conjures up sweet memories of the time when I lived in Siena studying art history as a University of Toronto summer student in Italy.

My subject was trecento and quattrocentosculpture, with a  focus on Giovanni  Pisano, son of Nicolo, and progenitor of what might be called the narrative style in sculpted stone.

Some of Pisano’s best work lies outside Siena, and so I was regularly compelled to travel throughout Tuscany to visit some of the region’s Gothic churches, almost daily journeying by public bus through fields of poppies and sunflowers bowing to the sun, in order to get a first-hand view of his expressive friezes that he had hand-carved into centuries old pulpits, gorgeously preserved despite the years.

I love nature to begin with, and so these encounters with beauty both in art and in the outdoors enriched me and made me feel grateful for being alive. I wanted to partake in all this gorgeousness of being, and so didn’t hesitate the day some of my classmates asked me to join them on a trip to a local swimming hole, located in the countryside beyond the town’s stone wall limits.

The locals referred to it simply as il fiume, the Italian word for river. We had to take a bus to reach it. When we got to the ticket counter, we simply said, “L’autobus per il fiume per favore,” and were promptly understood.

After paying for our tickets, we boarded the rickety old bus, settling into seats at the back.

It was a hot August day, and the bus was only half  full. I could see two young women toward the front of the bus, speaking German. I kept my eye on them as the bus trudged up and down hillsides lined with cypress trees. The river in question soon came into view. But the German girls didn’t budge, and neither did we.

I told my friends to hang on, not to disembark until the German girls did.

“They’ll know where to go,”  I said.

I was guilty at that moment of racial profiling. But I knew from experience that Germans had a keen love of nature and were great adventurers when it came to travel.

When I travelled through Greece and  Turkey in search of the ruined remains of the Greek and Roman myths that had so dominated my youthful imagination it was almost always Germans I saw around me on  windswept plains baking beneath under a unrelenting sun.

In these harsh conditions,  the pale-skinned English women in our group typically wilted.  I remember one even going half mad from the heat at Bodrum; the tour guide had to slap her face to calm her down.

But the Germans seemed never to even break a sweat.

They’d be 70 years old, and still be climbing (and half yodeling) up the steep stairs at Delphi, or hiking happily across the sand at the desolate place said to be the site of ancient Pergamon. I admired their zeal, the enthusiasm with which they embraced their surroundings.

They were also the ones who seemed more in awe of natural beauty than the rest of us on those trips.

It is why my eyes were now fixed on the girls in their tight shorts ahead of us on the bus. I was positive they had the situation well mapped out in advance. Their nature-loving inner German radar enabled them to predict,  precisely, where the best watering hole would be.

But as the bus stopped and started along the riverbank, letting off people who rushed to stake their claim on a patch of grass for their afternoon picnic, my Canadian friends nudged me, asking  me if I were sure I knew what I was doing.

I nodded my head and held on for the remainder of the ride.

Soon it was just us and them on the bus.

When they got off in the middle of a small square lined by three or four houses, we rushed to follow them.

We passed a cafe with its doors invitingly open wide that the German girls blithely ignored, despite the heat. They exited that sleepy town on the edge of paradise, finding a dirt path that they gamely walked,  chatting all along to each other,  rolled towels under each arm.

It was obvious that we were following them.

There  were no other people around and the path we were all walking wasn’t a well marked route. But I told my friends to look as if we also knew this was the right way. I told them not to hesitate. And so we kept on behind them, walking through tall grasses and feeling our throats constrict from the heat, and the effort.

It was long walk,  maybe 10 minutes. There was no sign of the river, only a thick wall of trees that the German girls were clearly headed for.  After some time, they disappeared through the foliage. We aimed for the spot in the trees into which they had entered, holding our breaths, not sure what we would find on the other side.

And then, lo!, the river at its emerald best.

The waters were so deep and transparent we could see large trout swimming lazily beneath the glass-like surface. Nearby was a waterfall, as well as a lithe Italian in thigh-high wading boots who was on his own, serenely fly fishing where the waters grew dark in the shadows of branches hanging heavily overhead.

We heard the the German girls call out, and looked up. One had already scaled a cliff and was poised on the edge of the very top, preparing to dive into the waters below. The other was in the midst of climbing the cliff wall to join her.

One by one they sailed like swans through the azure sky, with no fear,  no feeling of limitations.

We threw our swim bags onto the sandy river bank to prepare to swim.

The German girls went their way and we went ours, locating some shallow rapids that we called the jacuzzi. We lay in them for hours, luxuriating in the waters carving around our bodies.

The sun was setting and it was time to leave.

We found the dirt path and trudged back to the town square, hoping  the bus would know to come back to fetch us.

The cafe doors were still open when we arrived. We were so thirsty after our long day of swimming and sunning. We entered to order some aqua minerale. But no one there.

An overhead television was on, showing a soccer game. All the lights were off. It took some seconds for our eyes to adjust to the darkness after the glare of the outdoors. We soon focused on a large metal bowl in an open  low-lying refrigerator  that seemed to glow in the dark. The bowl was filled with swirls of freshly whipped cream. Looking at it, we realized how hungry we were.

“Bona sera, signorini!”

Just in time, a man entered behind the bar and greeted us.  He noticed how big our eyes had become just from looking at all that whipped cream.

“Espresso con panna?” he asked us.  Coffee with whipped cream?

“Si, si!” we shouted, lustily, in unison.

He made us each a demitasse of inky black coffee and then artfully spooned the cream on top.

I remember it being a delectable experience, both hot and cold, tart and sweet.  It instantly satisfied all my cravings,  for food,  drink, beauty in faraway, haphazardly found places.

I vowed to myself on the spot to always remember that moment in that strange little riverside town: the smiling daredevil German girls who had lead me there, the courtesy of the stranger behind the bar, the fisherman with his eyes flitting over my tanning body, the taste of sweetened coffee on my tongue.  My taste of heaven.

Even when the drink is served up in Toronto at Starbucks.

Moulin Rouge: A Ballet To Forget

 

 

 

 

It’s been a long time since I felt bored at the ballet. But not even half way through the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s homegrown production of Moulin Rouge, I was so adrift on a sea of ennui, I started looking at the other audience members sitting around me to better pass the time.

They were a lot more interesting than the characters ripping through the stale baguette of a 19th century Paris-inspired ballet by RWB choreographer Jorden Morris on the stage of Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

The RWB, at 74 the country’s oldest classical dance company, used to be cause for celebration whenever it came to town. It was why the seats were filled with such esteemed Canadian ballet alumni as Nadia Potts, Vanessa Harwood, Mary Jago, Timothy Spain, Svea Eklof, Patti Caplette, to name some of the notables  surrounding me now.

When directed by the legendary Arnold Spohr, who died almost four years ago, in May 2010, the RWB was the ballet company everyone who cared about ballet in Canada went to see whenever it made a rare visit to Toronto. Tonight was no different.

The RWB was the only company which kept its rival, the National Ballet of Canada, on its toes. That rivalry was captured by each company’s leading ballerinas. The National Ballet had Karen Kain, the dark-haired technical dynamo. But the RWB had Evelyn Hart, a poetic dancer, pale and gossamer light, who became known world-wide as one of the great Giselles when she commanded the stage more than a decade ago.

Now retired from performing, and having abandoned Winnipeg for Toronto where these days she ekes a living as a ballet coach, Hart was one of the faces I fixated on while wilting in my seat. She sat slightly behind me, to my right, sporting a new platinum do which made her look like a million. But she wasn’t smiling.

Rigid in her chair, Hart had a look of concern frozen on her small, pale visage. Next to her, Rex Harrington, the former National Ballet principal dancer and Hart’s frequent on-stage partner, hid his in his hands. During intermission, I was behind him as he trudged up the aisle, griping aloud. “I’ll never get these two hours back,” he said.

I shared the sentiment.

The new-look RWB, under the direction of former dancer André Lewis, was a major let-down.

The company’s dancers were competent. Vanessa Lawson and Gael Lambiotte looked highly committed to their roles as boho lovers who had to contend with  pimps, prostitutes and other members of the demimonde before their love affair could soar high above the Paris rooftops.

It was the choreography that was flat. The steps and movement patterns were so rudimentary as to seem lifted unedited from daily ballet class with little concern for innovation. Demi-plié, echappé, en pointe à la seconde, plié. If I saw this variation once, I saw it a hundred times.

My eyes starting to glaze over, I started to see the dancers as all weak and wobbly, as if I, not the male lead on stage, was the one drunk on absinthe.

But they weren’t. I was feeling punch drunk.

As a whole, the company is solid and well trained. Lawson, in particular, has a ferocious technique. Lambiotte is as handsome as he is elegant, a dancer you’d like to see again, in another piece, where he really could show what he’s made of.

Pity, then, to hobble their talents with pedestrian choreography as this. Moulin Rouge certainly didn’t show off their collective talent to advantage.

Morris, the ballet’s creator, came off as laughably unimaginative. His best bits appeared lifted from other ballets. The bridge scene pas de deux in act one was oddly reminiscent of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. The death scene looked like the end of the first act of Giselle. The high-stepping café scene owed a debt to The Merry Widow.

If Morris was desperate for ideas, then why didn’t he look to Leonid Massine’s 1941 ballet, Gaîté Parisienne, or Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 ballet, Manon, other Paris-inspired works which really do capture your imagination.

Morris’s ballet doesn’t, weighed down as it is with clichés.

The characters could more accurately be called caricatures, as we’ve seen them all before: the starving Paris artist; the whore with a heart of gold; the street painter with his easel in Montmartre; giggling coquettes in frilly French underwear; mustachioed waiters on the make.

These portraits are so uni-dimensional, it’s no wonder the ballet feels shallow. There’s no emotional depth, nothing n audience member can cling to in the dark by way of empathy. There’s no joy, either.

Making matters worse was the canned can-can music, a veritable pastiche of Paris muzak through the ages. It’s the kind of weary sound-score you’d expect from a third-rate bus tour of the City of Light: a little Strauss and Offenbach here, a little Debussy and Piazzola there, all of it annoyingly familiar.

Somewhere in the middle, I swear, was the children’s ditty, I’m a Little Tea Pot (Short and Stout).

I would have laughed, but honestly it wasn’t worth the effort.

To pass even more time, I started counting the rotations made by the windmill set on stage, a replica of the real Moulin Rouge in Paris. I wondered if the ballet would end up scaring off people from wanting to experience the real thing. Morris took an idea of Paris and made it insipid.

As the French have been known to say, off with his head.

Reading Paul McCartney

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British music critic Howard Sounes measures Sir Paul against his Beatles’ successes, taking him to task for his post-Beatles experiences with Wings, a band he dismisses as worse than banal. Sounes bases his assessment on the bottom-of-the barrel lyrics he believes Sir Paul churned out during the 1970s while perpetually stoned and overly dependent on Linda, his devoted yet glaringly untalented (in the music department)  wife. (As George Martin once said, Linda was no subsitute for John Lennon, just as Yoko was never a subsitute for Paul).

Sounes does one better than Peter Carlin, who also recently published a book on McCartney, in suggesting that Sir Paul may have a character flaw preventing him from scaling again the heights of greatness such as he knew when a member of the greatnest band on earth.

McCartney, people who know him say, can not brook criticism and rarely allows others to guide him, even when he’s so “Mary Had a Little Lamb” wrong.

He also has grown too fond of playing it safe. The section of the book in which Sounes quotes Sir David Putnam saying that Macca tends more to rest on his natural talents rather than pushing them forward into the rarefied realm of genius, is especially thought-provoking in this regard.

But is the criticism a fair one?

When I shared Sir David’s pointed jab at fellow knight Sir Paul with my cultural anthropologist husband, a popular music expert who did his dissertation on rock music, he deftly countered it, and he is not Beatles besotted as I am.

Professor Victor Barac said that rock and roll is a young man’s pursuit and it is unfair to hold an aging rocker to the standards of his own past.

McCartney, nearing 70, no longer is guided by the same impulses as he was in his youth. From the perspective of rock and roll, he is an entirely different man, a more mature artist who surely is entitled to call it “Another Day.”

Het, if you’ve seen McCartney in concert lately, it’s clear that he himself is measuring himself against his own legend. The Beatles are his standard of excellence.

Not that that’s entirely a bad thing: His Beatles set list is sublime and it’s heart racingly exciting to see him standing in front of projected images of himself with the other Beatles during their heyday.

He really was great, along with the other Fabs. Perhaps it is too much to ask for him to be even greater than he once was.

As the recent Heather Mills debacle shows, described by Sounes as the greatest mistake of McCartney’s life, the man is only human, after all.

Good Food and Me

I think of myself as an anti-foodie. Unlike most people I know, I don’t dream of food and I don’t plan my vacations around reservations in 5-star restaurants. I don’t read cookbooks in my bed, and I hate garlic. I am indifferent at best about food: I eat to live. I don’t live to eat.

My favourite culinary experience remains the cheese sandwich that my mother made for me when I was about 18, wrapping it in waxed paper for me to eat on the subway. I remember it was white bread with large chunks of orange cheddar mixed in with chunks of butter. I was hungry, which is why I think loved that sandwich so much. But it was also because she made it for me, and at a time when I wasn’t sure of her love, so that made it feel special.

When I shared some of this story recently with Malcolm Jolley, the charming founder and editor-in-chief on the on-line magazine, Good Food Revolution, he said that it only showed that I really was a foodie at heart. “Food is emotional, ” he said to me. “You seem to have got it.”

We met at Le Select, a french bistro near my workplace, and he was interviewing me about my book, Paris Times Eight. He wanted  to focuse on the book’s food-related moments.

At first, I was skeptical.  All I could recall was only drinking a lot of coffee in Paris, and rarely eating becuase I was (a)0 always broke (b) worried about getting fat (c) unsure how to order (in French) off a fancy French menu.

But when pressed, I realized my book does have a lot of food references in it. See what a good interviewer can do?

I will let Malcolm tell you more about that story. He assures me the video he took of our interview (featuring me me with a serious case of hat head) will be published on-line, soon.

Here’s a link to his scrumptious website:  goodfoodrev.com

 Enjoy.

Miss O’Dell

I am just about finished Chris O’Dell’s autobiography, Miss O’Dell, documenting her hard days and long nights with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and her sack of drugs. She was a young  American hired by Beatles PR man Derek Taylor to work at Apple when the Beatles’ notorious business entity was just launching in London.
She ends up becoming close pals with George Harrison (he writes a song about her as does her erstwhile lover, Leon Russell) and a little too close with Ringo, if you know what I mean.
Her guileless, first-hand observations of my idols (still a Beatlemaniac, after all these years) are thrilling beyond words.
She is an insider who talks about George in his kitchen making tea and in his garden planting flowers.
She also writes of the so-called Quiet One as being supremely moody ( a classic Pisces) who could be fun and happy, sarcastic and mean, karmically-focused and out-of-touch with reality (eventually alienating his own wife, Patti Boyd, who goes on to marry George’s best friend, Eric Clapton –his song, Layla, is about her) depending on which way the incense was burning on a given day.
O’Dell confirms what I’ve long suspected: that George is more responsible for the break-up of The Beatles than most people usually let on.
He was known to have held grudges, and it’s well-documented how he long resented Paul McCartney, feeling the older Beatle constantly talked down at him, and held him back. (Read Howard Sounes’ new Macca bio to see how unfair a portrait that is).
O’Dell doesn’t tread into this murky territory of bad blood among the Beatles, with one glaring exception: Her eye-witness account of George’s love affair with Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s wife, in George’s  own Friar Park, and right under wife, Patti’s nose!
Maureen was still married to Ringo at the time and one evening George blithely announces to his old pal at the dinner table, in front of everyone, “Ringo, I am in love with your wife.”
More bizarre, perhaps, is Ringo’s response:  “Better you than someone we don’t know.”
That scene got me thinking.
George, always on about sharing the love, not only took the directive far too literally, he was callous in how he treated those who actually did love him. Imagine doing that to Ringo! It is why the Starkey’s marriage broke up. Also imagine Ringo eventually forgiving him!
There seems so little is written about George from this angle;  O’Dell’s book makes me want to write his biography.
Her cast of famous dysfunctional characters aside (read the chapter on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and weep at how loathsome a gang of guys they were), the charm of her book belongs to O’Dell, herself.
Throughout, she is essentially a small-town girl nobody living the dreams of millions. Even she says so: “I wasn’t famous. I wasn’t even a little famous. But I was there.”  In that way, she like most of us: Fans who’d likely have given anything to be at the centre of the rock and roll circus that was the mid 19602 and 1970s.
It’s easy to relate to her when she says, “I just stood in front of Paul McCartney with a stupid smile frozen on my face,” in describing the first time the uber Beatle walked into Apple when she was there applying for a job.
I’m just at the point in the book where she’s just finished tour managing Santana (she wasn’t a groupie as some have said of her but was indeed on the rock and roll payroll, though she infamously did get around: Dylan and hunky two-timing playwright Sam Shepherd, included) and she’s stopped the drugs but not the drink.
I peaked at some of the  photos and know there’s a happy ending, as she now has a grown son of whom she’s proud. She’s today a rehab counsellor, living back in the USA.
I recommend this book, highly, and it’s the next best thing to having been there duringwhat was definitely a mind-blowing time.