Ghoulies and ghosties

October 31, 2006


From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
Traditional Scottish prayer

Trick-or-treating was new to me when I came to the United States. It wasn’t a custom when I was growing up in England, but apparently it’s now made its way across the Atlantic—though my aunt tells me the children are not in costume, and they ask for money, not candy.

Until 18 months ago, I lived in a townhouse in a very close-knit neighborhood. I used to enjoy giving out candy to the small devils, and ballerinas, and ghosts, and Teletubbies who knocked at my front door, their parents hovering far enough in the background to give the little ones the illusion they were doing it on their own. On the whole, the trick-or-treaters were quite young children because the townhouses there are very small and once the children get bigger or multiply, families move to bigger houses. I didn’t dress up myself (as a couple of my neighbors did) but one year I made myself a Scream mask, though I was careful to put it on only after opening the door as my real self. Just because you’re dressed as a scary person yourself doesn’t mean, when you’re six or seven, that you can’t be frightened by another scary person.

Around 8 PM, the children started to get quite a lot bigger, and that’s when I turned off my porch light and stopped answering the door. I learned my lesson the year I said to one teenager, who had clearly started to shave, “Aren’t you a bit old for this sort of thing?” The next morning all the bushes and the tree outside my house were festooned with toilet paper. At least they had grasped the “trick or” part of the mantra, unlike the little boy I once asked, “If I don’t give you a treat, do you have a trick ready for me?” He looked completely blank, as if I’d addressed him in Sanskrit.

I now live in a condominium apartment where there are few children. I shall miss the groups of little hobgoblins proffering plastic pumpkins and paper bags tonight.

Torquato Tasso

October 30, 2006

Sorrento’s most famous native son, the poet Torquato Tasso, was born in 1544. Tasso was educated by the Jesuits in Naples and went on to the University of Padua to study law and philosophy. He was only 18 when his chivalric epic poem Rinaldo made him famous. He spent many years as a poet at the court of the Este at Ferrara. His most famous work is the Gerusalemme Liberata, a lengthy epic poem (which I read at university and am ashamed to say that I remember absolutely nothing of) that celebrates the exploits of Godfrey of Boulogne during the First Crusade.

Tasso became a man tormented by religious scruples about his life and poetry. He suffered from something of a persecution mania and was, perhaps, a schizophrenic. He began to revise his masterpiece, a six-year undertaking from which emerged a much inferior work, the Gerusalemme Conquistata. Tasso died in Rome, the day before he was to be crowned poet laureate.

Sweet and Sour

October 29, 2006

amalfi_store.jpgMuch in evidence in shops on the Amalfi coast are small hot peppers (which apparently have properties beyond culinary—in several stores I saw a sign by them saying “Viagra naturale”) and lemons. These aren’t the small, bright yellow, waxed-to-a-shine lemons you see in American supermarkets; they’re large, paler yellow, often with irregular, pitted skins. Lemons in southern Italy are grown for taste, not looks.

The traditional liqueur (now popular throughout Italy) is Limoncello, beautiful to look at, fragrant, and highly potent. You drink a very small amount, ice cold (but not over ice), after dinner as a digestivo. The closest I got to Limoncello when I was in Italy was a Limoncello gelato, though I did take a bottle back for the friends with whom I stayed in London.

I don’t actually care that much for for it. Like champagne, the idea and associations are—to me—better than the reality. Part of the trouble is that it’s too sweet and not lemony enough for me. But the recipe’s simple (lemon peel, 100 percent proof alcohol, sugar, and water), so I’m making my own and taking liberties with the recipe to make it more tart. You can’t get 100 percent proof alcohol here (I don’t think) but many recipes give as an alternative 100 percent proof Vodka. I had half a bottle of 80 percent proof left over from a long-ago party, and I’m using that.

Here’s the traditional recipe (which I halved):

2 pounds of lemons
4 cups of 100 proof alcohol
3 cups of sugar
3 cups of water

Peel the lemons thinly—there should be little or no pith. Steep the peelings in the alcohol at room temperature. Instructions for the time vary from three days to several weeks, but it seems to me that longer is better. (I’m going for three weeks.) The alcohol will take on the flavor and color of the lemons. At the end of the steeping period, make a syrup from the sugar and water, add to the alcohol, strain, bottle and store in the fridge for 40 days.


A week into the process, it looks pretty and smells wonderful. When it comes time to add the syrup, I’m going to make it with the juice I squeezed from the peeled lemons instead of water and probably cut back on the sugar. It should be ready around Christmastime, and I’ll let you know what it tastes like.


October 25, 2006

The classic view of Positano is from the sea. That’s the view that captivated me as a young teenager. I forget where I saw the photograph and read the article, but I was enchanted by the picturesque village hanging on the side of a cliff on the Amalfi Coast, a well-kept secret favored by the occasional in-the-know artist or writer. I decided I would go there some day, and more than 40 years later, I did.

We arrived by road, my cousin and I, not by sea. The bus dropped us at the top of the village. We had two options: to wait for the local bus to take us down or to walk. We chose the latter. It was a good decision, and not only because in the hour or so it took (we stopped for coffee on the way) the local bus didn’t pass us. The walk down the serpentine road to the seafront demands attention, and on the whole it’s not especially companiable. The road’s narrow and there are no sidewalks, so much of the time you walk one behind the other, hugging the wall so that the cars, vans, and fearless motorini riders don’t take you out. The seafront, when you get there, is like that of any seaside resort, and the sand on the beath is gritty and unappealingly grayish. For me, the point of the visit was the journey, not the destination. It was the walk down, passing a little school, a dentist’s office, houses, cafes, and ordinary shops, and every so often, stopping to look at the view and marvel at the buildings that seem to perch so precariously on the steep cliffside.

The whole vacationing world has discovered Positano now and it’s no longer the sleepy fishing village of the article I read. (Maybe it never actually was.) Even in October, tourists were plentiful, and the souvenir stores and restaurants were doing a good trade. But it’s still charming.

I felt sorry for the people who live in Positano. What a price they pay for the beauty and quaintness of their village. Then again, they make a killing on the tourist trade, so the same beauty and quaintness pay them. I wonder, though, how many of them would like to have Positano back as it once was.

Berry Picking

October 22, 2006

The place: the people mover between the plane and the terminal at Dulles Airport last Friday. The time: about 3:30 on Friday afternoon.

As soon as they sat down, the people on either side of me whipped out their BlackBerries or BlackBerry-equivalents, as did two people standing up. “This is always scary,” said the woman on my right to her standing companion, loudly enough to let us all know that, important as she was, the eight-hour flight from London would have meant a vast accumulation of e-mails demanding her immediate attention. A true candidate for Pseuds’ Corner.*

Once upon a time, people spent a few hours on a plane or went away on vacations, and their companies actually soldiered on without them. Whatever had to be done was done by someone else (if it was really that important) or else waited until they got back to work after the trip.

I doubt that the urgency of work-related tasks has increased significantly over the years, and I suspect that the business calls conducted loudly on cell phones from buses and metro trains and the compulsive e-mail checking over restaurant lunches are frequently unnecessary and can probably be summed up by a cartoon I saw some time ago in the New Yorker. A man is sitting in an empty subway car, mobile phone to his ear. The caption is, “Do you mind if I call you back later when there’s someone around to overhear?”

*Pseuds’ Corner: for the uninitiated, see Private Eye.
Not my picture of the berries. I didn’t have the nerve to whip out my camera and photograph the important people around me, so I took this off a gardening Web site. I’ve forgotten which one, so I can’t properly credit it, but if notified, I will.


October 7, 2006

I’m off to Europe for just under two weeks—southern Italy, then London. When I come back, I’ll have photographs and observations to share.

Ci vediamo!

Culinary tip: How not to make toast

October 5, 2006

I walked into the office this morning and dropped two slices of bread into our antique toaster for breakfast. The toaster usually takes five minutes to induce a slice of bread to turn slightly brown, so I stopped by a friend’s desk, and we got into conversation. Right about the time I started to smell my toast, the fire alarm went off. The whole nine yards: flashing lights, blaring sirens. The entire corridor was blue with smoke. The thing that is supposed to pop the toast up when it’s done had failed.

I assume that people on the two upper levels of our three-level building followed the standard procedure and evacuated, thinking there really was a fire. A trio of my colleagues (who were on their way out anyway) left with a dramatic show of crouching, coughing, gagging, gasping—and, of course, laughing. The rest of my department stayed. I was mortified, though no one else (including the boss, fortunately) seemed to think it was anything but funny, and by lunchtime, when everyone had made at least one smart remark about it, I was laughing too.

The fire department showed up to reset the alarms—a fire engine bearing three firemen in full gear, carrying axes and oxygen tanks. The boss had called to let them know it wasn’t a real emergency, or I suppose they’d have come in with hoses; even without hoses, they were impressive. On balance, though, I think I made the right decision in not asking to have my picture taken with them.