Wednesday, May 30, 2007

VCN Ethnic Dinners go to Nigeria

(Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions) The last edition of the VCN dinners marked two sort of milestones: the 10th dinner and the 1st anniversary of the dinners as a whole. And in fact, just for the chronicles:

26/05/2006: Mexican dinner (Organized by Curt Wagner)
19/10/2006: Turkish Dinner (Organized by Curt Wagner)
07/11/2006: Eritrean Dinner
28/11/2006: Thai Dinner
23/01/2007: Peruvian Dinner
20/02/2007: Greek Dinner
08/03/2007: Egyptian Dinner
22/03/2007: Vietnamese Dinner
03/04/2007: Peruvian Dinner 2
15/05/2007: Spanish Dinner
29/05/2007: Nigerian Dinner

Some things have changed over the year, pictures were taken regularly, for instance, and I tried to make the dinners more periodic, yet I hope that the spirit, the idea of meeting new people in a relaxed environment and experimenting new accents together with new dishes, still remains.

This time, to be true, what ended up to be a Nigerian dinner was originally supposed to be a Cameroonian one, but, as I found out, the restaurant, which I had discovered the September of the last year, had since been transferred and transformed.

Honestly, the dinner was not the most successful one. The dishes were oddly tasting and while I personally appreciated the Suya (spicy chicken pieces on skewers), the groundnut soup and the banga rice (rice with cream of palm nuts), some other, especially an odd looking green rice of unknown name was simply inedible with its bitter and fishy taste.

The company, on the other hand, was more mixed up and colorful then usual. A good number of "core" people was present and several new faces showed up, apparently a group of friends who decided to show up together. Table's arrangements also caused some more problems as there was no space to form a single table and, consequently, we were forced to form two. Further on, at some point I realized I had not thought of forming the vegetarian corner (quite a problem, considering Susanne is one and with our original places we would had to split) and therefore I had to re-arrange places suddenly. Finally, despite several people calling for a later beginning of the dinner, the actual choice turned out to be counter-productive as several people had to leave before the actual end of the dinner.

Eventually, 20 people did show up, with Americans for once reaching the majority together with Italians (5), followed by Brazil, Australia and France (2) and Germany, Belgium, Norway and UK with 1 each. A non perfect dinner, all in all, which forces some re-considerations about the whole formula.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Siena: a tale of hunger for culture and not only.

(Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions) Susanne is in Rome, which usually means being quite more busy and usually much less domestic than usual and this week-end made no exception to the general rule. To make good of a promise I had made more than one year ago, I finally decided to take her to Siena from where I was myself absent since 2001 and of which I had quite nice memories when it came to think about them.

Some forewords are necessary anyway. Siena is today almost universally known for the wines produced on its hills and the landscape those very hills provide and only after for it's artistic and architectural masterpieces. Fact is, Siena had two blesses: it has been awesomely rich for the past 1.000 years (usually by lending money at high interest rates to anyone needing that) while being politically insignificant for the last 500, sparing her from most of the wars that ravaged Italy and making the demolishing of old buildings to build new ones a pointless task.

The same two blesses turned into a curse when it came to logistic: Siena is not connected to the rest of the country neither by a highway nor by a train line placed on the north-south backbones of the rail system, but only by a secondary line.

Another thing about Siena and its countryside is that it is indeed one of the best places in Italy (which, obviously, means of the world) for wine and food.

That said , we embarked in this journey and selected the train as the transport of choice, mainly to avoid having to drive after what I expected to be a major banquet of Chianti and local hams.
Of course, we woke up at 6 am on a saturday to take the first train. Obviously, the train departing from Rome was one hour and a quarter late. It goes without saying that we missed the connection to the train heading to Siena which eventually caused us to arrive in Siena well past noon which, in turn, would had devastating consequences over the rest of the day.

In the meanwhile, on the train taking us to Siena (a new one, paid probably by the city of Siena and looking like the interior of a Star Trek shuttle) the funny moment was brought about by a couple of young americans in their early twenties who boarded the train without waiting for their parents and, obviously, did lack the reflex of jumping down as the train started leaving the platform before they had got reunited. It followed a funny exchange between the two that ended with our offer of helping them in the remote hypothesis that a ticket controlled had came about (which, obviously, didn't happen).

By noon, as said, we were in Siena and we headed straight to the main square of the city, Piazza del Campo, and, for the first time in my life, up its 84 meters (and 400 something steps) tall bell tower, called "La Torre del Mangia" from where we enjoyed an impressive view of the city and witnessed a japanese tourist looking down and then collapsing out of vertigoes. To be noted that at the beginning of the ascension there is this large sign saying that the place isn't suggested for people suffering of heart problems, giddiness, claustrophobia and similar niceties. The sign is not to be taken lightly, as indeed the height is impressive and the steps taking to the top platform are steep and running into such narrow corridors with such low ceiling that even I, despite my far from gigantic height, had some problems. The view from above is, however, truly magnificent.

Once climbed down from the tower, we headed for the palace, famous especially for the XIV centuries frescoes that, unlike many other operas of the same period which were over painted as the stylistic fashion changed over the centuries, here remained at their place.

By the time we had managed to finish the visit it was already 2 pm. Having arrived so late in Siena we took a decision that, by insight, turned out to be dramatically wrong: we decided to head for the cathedral by the way of a long sweep of the Eastern side of the city and only afterwards heading for a restaurant.

Not like the cathedral of Siena is not worth a visit as it is actually a majestic example of italian gothic. Originally thought to be only the right transect of the real cathedral (which, map at hand, should had taken almost one third of the whole city), the cathedral remained what it is now due the black death and the consequent economic crisis. Still, it's immense for such a relatively small city and contains incredibly works of art, among which the Piccolomini Library, the pulpit, not to mention those you would actually walk over if they hadn't fenced them: some incredible marble tarsias and mosaics, some dating back to the mid of the XIV century. Also the baptistery is commendable and, from the external, would look like a separate church by itself.

The problem was that, unknown to us poor tourists, the restaurants of Siena, and I mean every single one to them to the very last, close inexorably at 2.30 pm to open again to the public (but quite sadistically, at times, leaving the door open to raise the hopes of the hungry passer by, to crush them right after) only at 7.00 pm, not a minute earlier.

So it was that, after having walked for more than a hour in the desperate search of food in one of the shrines of italian tastes, we had to give up and resolved to just have an icecream, much to my desperation, which we ended up consuming in a typical Sienese fashion: sitting down on the brick floor of Piazza del Campo. The good side of this misadventure - one has always to find a good side - was that, in the quest for a place, we actually got to see many corners of the city that one would normally not even imagine the existence of.

The long search and the icecream pretty much ended the trip, as another short walk around brought us close to the time for our chosen train back home. At least the trip back went as planned, with trains being reasonably in line with their schedule and eventually making it back around 11 pm.

The hunger for culture and art was satisfied, the stomach's one, well... maybe next time.

Friday, May 25, 2007

God is in the details...

... and happiness in the small things, like:
  • having your girlfriend arriving in a few hours to stay almost a week;
  • preparing a day trip to Siena (tomorrow) which promises to be full of culture, good wine and good food;
  • having managed for 4 days (5 with today, I hope) to swim for 2,5 kms without suffering too much;
  • having discovered a place near the office that makes a pretty agreeable durum kebap;
  • having re-discovered that the closeby icecream place still makes quite good fruit icecreams;
  • having being called for scheduling an interview with the Admission Tutor of the LSBU the very same day they got my Master application papers (I don't know why, but I want to take it as a positive sign);
  • *and* having had a very supportive reaction from my job's boss as I went to tell him about the possibility of taking a year off from work (ok, it's mostly up to the HR department, but having your boss ready to back you up makes it quite better).
So yes, happiness is in the small things.

Friday, May 18, 2007

VCN Ethnic Dinners go to Spain

(click pictures to enlarge) The 9th edition of the VCN ethnic dinner moved back to Europe, but stayed in the same language zone than the previous dinner, from Peru to Spain.

Honestly, the Spanish dinner was hastily organized and that might have had an influence on the number of people present which dropped to the maximum ever registered the previous dinner to the lowest number ever of this one, with just 16 persons (7 Italians, 2 Americans, 2 Brazilians, 1 each for France, Belgium, Japan and Norway).

However, the dinner went along nicely...and slowly, as the restaurant was probably the slowest one in serving that we have ever been so far. Yet, to some nice (and pretty italian) focaccias and some tortillas, served as appetizers, three different kind of paellas followed: the classic Valencian one, a meat and (just for one person, but abundant enough to be tried by several people) a vegetarian one, the whole thing accompanied by abundant sangria.

I must say I'm not an expert of paella, but I found all three of them pretty tasty and rich, if a bit greasy (but I suppose that's as meant). The sangria surprisingly went along pretty well (and fast!) with the food and conversation kept nice and lively, hopefully making feel the new faces (making about a quarter of the whole) feel welcomed and integrated.

The only bad point of the evening at least for me, was that the service took so long that eventually we finished right about the time of the last day-buses' and metro' run, which meant that suddenly almost everyone had to run away without having had the chance of enjoying the free coffees and limoncelloes offered by the restaurant's owner. Personally, I closed the evening escorting Yoko to the closest (and crowded, just to be on the safe side) bus station and Lucia (Yoko's friend) directly to her place, lost in Rome's suburbs... quite a trip, I must say.

The lack of our semi-official photographer (Laura, where are you!?) was heavily felt as, I do not know why, two thirds of the pictures I took came out unfocused, with only 4 surviving... my apologized to the ones who intervened and didn't show up in the pictures here.

Next time it will be Africa time again.. Cameroon? Senegal? Nigeria? We'll see...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Britons are out of their mind, it's official.

From UK:

"Ministers have bowed to pressure to allow the creation of human animal hybrid embryos for research.

Public Health Minister Caroline Flint denied that the government had staged a climbdown, saying they had always wanted to "leave the door open" for this type of research to be allowed on a case-by-case basis.

She said scientists had put forward more evidence about the importance of using hybrid embryos.

We saw this was an area where these could be used for scientific benefit
Public Health Minister Caroline Flint

"We saw this was an area where these could be used for scientific benefit."

The draft bill allows the creation of human embryos that have been physically mixed with one or more animal cells."

That said, I think it's official that Britons are totally out of their minds. Sometimes they are characterized as being pig-headed... well, that could be, in a not so distant future, more literally than figuratively said.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Family and family day

Ok, I'm a conservative and that's nothing new. I hope a wise conservative, possibly a corny conservative and surely, to the eyes of some people, a hopeless or even sleazy one, who knows. But that's what I am, at least in the large majority of subjects, and I've never been ashamed of being one nor to publicly show my standing and my beliefs, and that in a country when, as a teenager in mostly left wing schools where professors openly do political propaganda and literally brainwash their pupils, coming out as a right wing person is worse than coming out as a gay in the most conservative states of the Bible belt.

Now, while on some things I can be borderline progressive and on many others I can at least open up a discussion, there are a few selected subjects where not only I feel my point of view is the best one (which is not uncommon), but with absolutely no manoeuvring space about it, as some unfortunate ones discovered along the years, last of them my girlfriend a few days ago. One of these things, possibly the cornerstone of my own beliefs, passed to me by my father and to him by his own, who knows, possibly since roman times, is the concept of family.

Family is, by my standards, which in this case I assume as absolute standards, the union in marriage (religious or civil doesn't matter, but marriage as solemn commitment to each other AND the community AND the state) of a man and a woman aimed at, first and foremost, having children. A married couple is not a family, even if it can be a family to be. An unmarried couple with children, although very close to being a family, I can't but see as an odd social group where two adults are acting as kids refusing commitment and although they should be granted some legal and social protection in consideration of the children, shouldn't be elevated to the same level of social and legal consideration that a married couple with children should.

I know, by now half the people reading this few lines will have labelled be a bigot and another good number as an oddly old fashioned one, but so be it. I will even go further and add that families, my kind of families, should be encouraged by proper legal provisions, contributions and fiscal measures that shouldn't be granted to the other "family like" social aggregations. And even more, I get annoyed by the people who say that legislation should follow the reality of the time they are forged for, while I always believed that the State should change for the better, not simply certify, the social reality it deals with. Old concepts, ancient ones actually, totally out of fashion these days, but that's me.

So, keeping all that I've said in mind, is no surprise that last Saturday I did something that conservatives very rarely do: went to a huge rally. Yes, conservatives usually don't do that, they usually are the silent majority (or minority?) that think it's impolite to protest, to rise their voices, to invade the streets and cause so much troubles to the ordinary life of their fellow citizens, so it is kind of extraordinary that there was a rally organized in favor of the traditional family and against a bill soon to be discussed to the parliament which basically recognizes and practically parifies traditional families and cohabitations, same-sex ones included.

(Click on the pics to enlarge)
Not only I did go, but I did go with my parents and I must say it felt good to be surrounded by between (even more extraordinary) 750.000 and 1.300.000 people who, apparently, did share my own point of view. People coming from all the country, from different backgrounds (although admittedly the catholic organizations and the groups organized by the churches around Italy played the prominent role), all age groups (the baby carriages were uncountable, with grandparents keeping a extremely watchful eye on their nephews for them not to be lost in the crowd), talking, singing, playing old forgotten games.

People who were so evidently, just like me after all, not used to go to rallies that were wearing the wrong kind of shoes, or had no hats to protect them from the already hot sun (Good thing that my father is a veteran of the '60s and '70s and prepared us properly). People who invaded the immense square in front of the cathedral of Rome, Saint John, a place traditionally used by the leftish parties for their own mass demonstrations (ironic, thinking about it, as they tend to enjoy the shadow offered to them by the tall walls of the church which so majestically represents the institution they usually despise), with the statue of teh said seemingly waving to the crowd.

People who could be met already a mile away from the square and that became more and more thick as the walls of the city approached (Saint John is, for historical reasons, very close to one of the southern gates of the city rather than in the center of the city) to become a second wall themselves right after having passed the gate. People smiling, rather than yelling to make their point across. People playing with their kids, rather than devastating the streets. People laughing rather than setting cars on fire.

Good people. And a good day.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

VCN Ethnic Dinners go to Peru... again

Late, late, late report, but better late than never, as we say here (and boy if that's a popular saying in Italy). As usual, you can click on the pics to get a larger version...

The 9th edition of the VCN Ethnic dinners should had seen as "host" country Brazil, yet, as it turned out,it was extremely hard to find a suitable Brazilian restaurant in town. In fact, after a whole week of search, I found out that half the restaurants that were to be found in the various lists were either out of business (one in particular, since "at least 8 years", as I got to know from their former-neighbors) or in places logistically impossible to reach, way in the suburbs or simply in area with no public transportation whatsoever.

So it was that, the day coming closer and closer and with no real alternatives, I decided to organize a second Peruvian dinner, relying on the fact that over the previous months many new faces had shown up and many hadn't been there at the first dinner.

Three factors were actually in play that could had turned the night in a nightmare: first of all, I had announced the dinner very late, just days before the day and right before a week-end when most people were likely not to have a Internet connection. Secondly, as it very often happens when it's time for our dinners, the weather was a mix of hail and heavy rain. Thirdly, I even added on it by mistaking the number of the restaurant communicating 43 rather than 44 and, obviously, it turned out that the wrong number was exactly on the other end of the street.

Then, quite surprisingly, things went precisely the opposite way: not only the turn-out was the higher ever (more than 30 people), but people just kept arriving as some of the guests called announcing they were taking someone else with them or showed up with a friend of them without any warning at all. Although I lost track of all the ones who showed up, I know we had people from Japan, Philippines, USA, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, UK, Finland, Norway, France, Brazil, obviously Italy and another couple of countries I can't recall. To make it even sweeter, we also had a canadian couple just about to get married (on the right... and married by now, congratulations Rachelle and Renè).

Being the menu exactly the same that we had successfully experimented the previous time, the satisfaction was just as complete, with lots of food left on the table and eventually taken away in the most common north-American "doggy bag" tradition. Unfortunately for the first time there was a little mix-up with the numbers, but the ones who eventually paid an extra euro to fix the bill were rewarded with free drinks (and a wide array of them, between limoncello, amaro, grappa and I can't remember what else)... the owner actually made the mistake of leaving us the bottles for us to serve ourselves, without imagining the mistake he was doing...

So, I think I can say everyone had fun, and to make it even better, the rain had gone by the time we were out of the restaurant...

Now, some weeks have passed and it's time to be back to dinners and it's Europe time now and while usually the locatons are voted upon, this time I will decide and Spain will be... Paella, Tortillas, Sangria and, who knows what else...