Ralph and I knew this conference in Bari, Italy was not going to be your “ordinary” breast cancer conference (if there COULD be such a thing) just by looking at the photo on the brochure: a vintage 1930’s photograph taken by the celebrated and avant-garde photographer, Man Ray. The subject? A nude, Italian woman standing behind the large, metal gear-wheel of a printing press (huh?!), one breast poking through an opening in the wheel (HUH?!), and one arm, covered in black ink, raised to reveal an armpit hairier than my own. Other than the exposed breast; I’m not quite getting it…but, oh well! Leave it to the Italians!
Nor was it going to be an ordinary trans-Atlantic flight. Our usual juice fast is quite bearable; and the only time we have to “put on our big-girl panties” and “suck it up” is when we smell the food carts coming up the aisles (that familiar, overcooked-chicken-mixed-with-melted-cellophane smell), or when the flight attendants start pouring wine (even if it IS cheap, airline wine in plastic cups…what snobs we are!). Something you should know about Ralph: he’s usually a quiet, observant and very likable guy…but on an empty stomach, he can be a caged tiger. I know I have to treat him delicately on these long, international flights…especially if I’ve convinced him to fast. Enter the planeload of Hassidic Jews from Brooklyn, on their way back to Jerusalem. I’ve always been fascinated by them – their customs, their devotion to their religion, their hairstyles, their dress. Living in NYC, I’ve had the privilege of being around them and learning to understand and appreciate their traditions and customs. I’ve learned to be careful about offering foods that are not kosher. I’ve learned not to be offended when meeting a married Hassid woman and having her jerk her hand back in horror when I have extended mine in greeting, lest she break the law of another man touching her. It’s all good…I know I’ve got my own, quirky ways that can be puzzling to most – like not having a car, air conditioner or (God forbid!) a television. One of the interesting things I have observed with Hassids is their rather “laissez-faire” way of dealing with children who are behaving badly. (In all fairness, this is just my humble observation; but I just don’t see it as an effective method of discipline, which, at the very least, should involve the words “no”, “stop” or “enough”.) Not a problem, it’s their kids…but I’ve got a hungry, fussy wildcat on my hands; and in an enclosed fuselage for the next 8 hours, I’m thinking a bunch of screaming kids throwing fits and running up and down the aisles is not going to be good…not good at all!
In minutes, the stern, Alitalia flight crew is at wit’s end and, unlike ANY American flight attendants would DARE, they begin screaming at kids and parents, snatching wild, little hellions out of the aisles by their arms and tossing them into rows of seats, often to the wrong set of parents! Ralph, meanwhile, has his head buried into my shoulder, trying to block out the near-comical chaos and drift off to sleep next to me in the 11th row. (Thank goodness I had 1-1/2 Ambien tablets from our flight to Sydney 4 years ago still stashed in my toiletry kit!) Ralph has stuffed the bag of pretzels handed out by the flight attendants into the seat pocket, in anticipation of the first morning light, when it will become his pre-breakfast snack (and first solid food in over 24 hours). The cutest (albeit brattiest) little boy on the plane makes a beeline for Ralph’s seat pocket and grabs the package of pretzels, thinking Ralph is asleep…that is, bless his heart, until he looks up and encounters my uniquely horrific brand of The Evil Eye of Certain, Painful Death and Obliteration. (Some of y’all have lived to tell the tale of my death-stare and know how frightening it is!) Fleeing so fast he practically leaves his yarmulke floating in midair, the terrified toddler returns, traumatized, to his seat…sans pretzels, of course. (Score 1 for the mean bitch in seat 11L!)
Upon our morning arrival into Roma, my first REAL Italian espresso since my last visit here years ago reminds me that we Americans really DON’T know how to do coffee right. (Sorry, Starbuck’s…your Emperor has no clothes!) A second, short flight from Roma to Bari, located in the boot of Italy on the Adriatic Sea, and we reward ourselves for our day-long fast. We practically inhale crispy-chewy, blistered-crust pizza simply sprinkled with bits of bresaola (a full-flavored, dried beef), followed by a substantial, rib-sticking arancini di riso (a lightly-fried ball of rice and melted parmigiano), topped off by pistacchio gelati in a vivid shade of green that looked GORGEOUS dripping down my arm and chin. All served at cheapie snackbars geared to students of the Universita Degli Studi di Bari near our hotel, these would have garnered rave reviews from even the most unbearably uppity New York food critic; and they were just hints of the culinary pleasures to come.
As a city worth exploring, however, Bari proved to be a bit of a dud – a slightly-masculine Sister Raymunda Aquinata (the one with a slightly hairy upper lip and clunky shoes) in a nation of Sophia Lorens and Gina Lollobrigidas. Despite its seaside location and beautiful weather, it is highly industrial, with almost no tourism industry to speak of. (Come to think of it, neither Ralph nor I had ever heard of it before!) The day Ralph was slated to present his talk on ultrasound breast cancer screening, I decided to walk the miles into the Centro Storico, the historical center of the city. Passing block after block of uninspiring, concrete Soviet-era-style apartment buildings from the 1960’s, I finally reach the train tracks that separate the ugly post-war neighborhoods from the 19th-century city built by Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law. At least the architecture in this area is interesting – old, Parisian-style mansions and civic buildings, grand avenues lined with palms and fountains leading to the sea. Alas, they are dusty, dirty, neglected and crumbling today. As you walk along the promenade bordering the littered, stinking harbor, you are sorrowful in the knowledge that this city may once have been as beautiful as Nice or Monte Carlo. Grand, columned buildings graced by stately date palms overlook the blue sea beyond the harbor. Ornate and imposing theaters, now empty of great performances, once welcomed the upper crust Baresi in their carriages to the opera. House servants now long-gone once greeted the little wooden boats in the harbor, to haggle with the “pescatori”, the Italian and Greek fisherman, bringing in the sea’s bounty. Now, it seems that bounty encompasses mainly tin cans and plastic grocery bags. It’s all a bit depressing to me; so I press on, to the peninsula jutting into the Mare Adriatico, containing the “Barivecchia”, Old Bari, the medieval town. Also run-down and neglected, this area is nevertheless the most fascinating: a twisting-turning neighborhood of skinny, dark passageways, ancient churches, and the beautiful (but empty) Castello Svevo, the Swabian Castle, built in 1233 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. This city has so many possibilities, so many beautiful sites and buildings, blue ocean made vibrant by bright sunshine…not to mention the resting place of San Nicolas, the city’s patron saint who spawned the legend of Santa Claus! The American in me, the designer in me, wants to pretty everything up, “gentrify”, bring in farm-to-table restaurants and artisanal retail, plus wine bars and bed-and-breakfasts for good measure. But, as Ralph reminds me (and I guess he could be right), perhaps Bari is just the way the Baresi like it – low-maintenance, unimposing, unbothered, off the radar. (OK, y’all, whatever…but this just isn’t clicking with my gay sensibility and sense of aesthetics.)
But Bari has a trick up its sleeve – one that more than compensates for its dullness and drabness – cucina pugliese, its regional cuisine. The capital of the region of Puglia, noted for its food and wine, Bari is covered in olive groves, the silvery, twisted, ancient trees literally dripping with green and black fruit. On the edge of the sea, it also has the freshest seafood. This all makes for restaurants that will knock your socks off. Ralph has always told me that a) doctors love to eat and b) moreover, doctors love to eat for FREE…and he wasn’t kidding. I’ve observed this at more than one of his professional, social soirees; but I cannot protest – I was an utterly indulgent participant, I’m afraid. This conference was no different – gather a group of mostly-Italian doctors in a region known for its cuisine; and you’re going to eat well. And when you speak at the conference, you (and your partner) get to eat for free…lucky me! I could go on and on about the food; but I’ll tease you with just a tiny fraction of the foods we were served our first 2 nights in Bari:
Bright pink, thinner-than-paper-sliced prosciutto, perfectly salted and soft as velvet in your mouth…ice-cold heaps of the freshest frutti di mare: silky baby calamaris nestled between salty cockles and smoky mussels…spiny, black sea urchins cracked in half to reveal bright, orange-red ambrosia the taste of the sea itself…giant yellow melons sweeter than honey…nearly-fluorescent, fuchsia-fleshed “fichi d’india”, a cactus fruit with a taste somewhere between watermelon and rose…the freshest (made right at the table, in fact!), creamiest mozzarella you ever tasted…highly-sought-after, cheese-of-the-moment, burrata: a chewy mozzarella skin filled with a sweet, heavenly, cream-and-mozzarella center…gigantic, porcelain platters of elegant, coral-colored langostinos, sliced lengthwise to reveal the sweet, white flesh within…tiny, orecchiete (“little ear”) pasta made right at the table, quickly boiled and served with the simplest tomato sauce…tiny glasses of Sicilian-style, house-made cordial liqueurs: almond-mandarin, fragola (strawberry), and (my favorite) rose petal, “rosoliu”.
The night of the 2nd dinner, Ralph’s last official participation at the conference, was a beautiful affair held at Sala Zonno, a nice restaurant located at the end of a jetty into the harbor, with beautiful views looking back at Bari (which, I must say, looks lovely all lit up at night, her “shiny jewels” reflected in the black water). During pre-dinner cocktails, Ralph and I meet a young, Italian surgeon, Angelo, and his Filipina wife, Denise. Raised in New York since she was 9 years old, Denise worked in an interior design firm in Manhattan before Angelo, educated at Columbia University on the Upper West Side, took a job in Milan and moved their family of 2 small children to Italy. Eventually, they ended up moving south, to Monopoli, outside Bari. Needless to say, the 4 of us find lots in common with each other; and we dine together at a gorgeous table set with white, wax-paper luminarias, glowing from the candlelight inside. Throughout the whole meal, Angelo and Ralph are as heavy in left-brain conversation as Denise and I are in right-brain chatter. Denise and Angelo also happened to live in Washington Heights for years, where Ralph and I now live. It is uncanny how much we “click”; and when the bus begins boarding to take all of the visiting doctors and their spouses back to the hotel, Angelo and Denise ask us to please allow them to drive us back instead. Unwilling to cut our conversations short, Ralph tells the group coordinator to leave without us. We have great conversations and lots of laughs on our drive to the hotel; we exchange email addresses; and we say our goodbyes, with promises to meet up in New York City or southern Italy, whichever should occur first. (I’m rooting for southern Italy!) Before departing, Denise and Angelo recommend a few nearby towns that are must-sees before leaving Italy: Polignano a Mare, Alberobello, Lecce, Matera. We feel fortunate to have met the perfect dinner companions tonight and to have been given “insider tips” to the best offerings of the region. Funny how life puts things (and people) right in front of you that are so perfect for you. (I LOVE that about life!) We can’t WAIT to continue exploring these ancient Italian villages…but for now, we thank Bari for a wonderful evening…and bid her goodnight.
*For my full photo album from Puglia, Italy (including Bari), feel free to click on the link below. Enjoy! http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150400435413541.368658.761823540&type=1&l=fd65477ed4