Friday, June 11, 2010


In my book on Roman foods I rattled on for over fifty pages about Roman wine. That amount of ink was spilled partially because our evidence for Roman winemaking is relatively good, but also because I believe the role of wine as food in ancient Rome merits at least that much space. Clearly, whatever else it was, wine was an important food to the Romans. One of the best scholars in the area has estimated, based on production figures and comparative evidence, that average per capita consumption of wine in ancient Rome was somewhere in the neighborhood of 675 ml per day. Now that’s per capita, not per adult. Assuming their little tykes weren’t swilling as much as adults, the average adult Roman probably drank the equivalent of about a 750 ml-bottle a day. If that figure sounds farfetched to you, it is consonant with solid figures from Medieval Paris, Perugia, Milan, and a number of other cities in the period. Clearly wine was food for the Romans, and an important food, because it was a ready source of calories in the diet. It’s hard for an American to comprehend this, but in a pre-industrial city, obtaining a minimum number of calories in the diet is a very difficult endeavor indeed. A bottle of wine would have delivered about 1/3 of an adult male’s caloric needs, about 1/2 that of a woman.

So I don’t plan to excuse myself for nattering on so. But I have to confess there was an elephant in the scholarly room, one which I assiduously avoided talking about except in a very cursory way, and one which, clearly, I will have to deal with in the new opus. Not only was there one elephant in the room, there was a herd of them. And they were drunk.

In 1985, a herd of rogue elephants discovered a moonshine operation in West Bengal, drank up all the mash and went on a rampage. Before it was over they had trampled five people to death and knocked down seven concrete buildings. And they are not alone in their miscreant behavior. Colobus monkeys will drink the nectar which collects and ferments in the flowers of certain tropical trees and become so inebriated they fall out of the trees. Bees and other pollinators, all kinds of birds which feed on berries and fruits, as well as mammals of every description will avidly seek out fermented foods and binge until they are potted.

But nature has a way of governing such overindulgence, since the time span from ripe fruit to fermented fruit to rotten mush is small. What would the norm be if alcohol were available on demand? Actually, we have a pretty good idea. Experimental rats were given carte blanche at their own open bar and most eventually found a rhythm in which they maintained a modest level of intoxication pretty much all during their waking hours. Strangely, the whole group would consume an even greater amount during one period each day, typically right around five o’clock pm. Yep. Rats have happy hour. Furthermore, about every fifth day the whole group would overindulge, after which they would be especially abstemious for the next day or so. Rats have keggers too. Can it be mere coincidence that rats are highly social creatures with a complex social structure, very much like you-know-who? Alcoholic beverages are the nearly universal lubricant in human social interaction as well.

It’s easy to understand why critters seek out alcohol in the first place; alcohol is simply a by-form of simple sugars, and where there is alcohol there are calories galore. I have had shocked looks from my students on occasion when I mention this; hey, guys, there’s a reason they call it a beer gut. Most animals have the same struggle to obtain calories as their pre-industrial human counterparts. But saying that animals get schnoggered simply coincidental to gorging on carbs just won’t do. One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time is Ronald K. Siegel’s Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances. And Siegel makes incontrovertibly clear the simple fact that all animals, from bees to Bosnians, look for ways to deliberately alter their consciousness. Nor is this learned behavior; even toddlers will deliberately make themselves dizzy as a way to get a mild buzz. I remember as a second-grader how we would flock around the swings at recess, taking turns straddling the swings on our bellies as two cohorts would grab our feet and shoulders and wind the seat until the two chains of the swing were braided almost to the top bar and the seat had been raised four feet off the ground. On a signal the workers would fling heads and tails in opposite direction, the swing would gyrate crazily, and when it finally unwound itself we would get up off the seats and stagger about like hard-core winos. And then repeat the whole procedure. There were times when my best elementary school buddy, Tom Barton, and I would go back to Mrs. Lee’s class and be drunk as lords the rest of the day.

Why? Why did we do that? Even the act of swinging itself induces a mild form of intoxication as the two ends of the arc create a momentary weightlessness. That too has been experimentally confirmed. Are altered states somehow adaptive in the evolutionary scheme of things? And if so, how?

Furthermore, in almost every animal species there are a few individuals who cannot control the urge to play with their brains; addiction is also seemingly universal. But as these individuals come more and more under the control of their addictions, social lubricant becomes the mark of deviant behavior and other members of flocks and herds will increasingly shun these poor tortured souls. Many range cattle every year die from ingestion of locoweed, which is in fact the generic name of a number of plant species that all produce swainsonine, a plant alkaloid which induces bizarre behavior before paralysis and death ensue. Obviously these plants don’t want to be eaten. But strangely, some cattle who recover from swainsonine poisoning will deliberately seek out the plant and ingest it again, obviously for the sole purpose of inducing the same altered state. Just like human addicts, they will develop a tolerance to the drug so that they must ingest more and more of it to obtain less and less of a 'high’, even to the point of self-destruction. Meanwhile, the rest of the herd will abandon them to their misery. Addicted cows, via their milk, will addict their calves and then mother and calf will loll about in a stupor, shunned by their peers, neglecting basic nutrition in their quest for the drug, until they literally starve to death.

It reminds me of a case Siegel treated, a young couple addicted to powder cocaine. Cocaine snorted up the nostrils plays havoc with mucous membranes and soft tissues, and thus the chronic runny nose associated with this form of addiction. One night the young man blew his nose and discovered a strange glob in his tissue; it was the cartilage from his left nostril! You would think such a gruesome episode would be enough to warn off the most hard-core, wouldn’t you? Not so. The couple actually kept this grisly memento, named it, continued to snort the poison, and two months later the young man proudly produced for Dr. Siegel to admire the cartilage from his right nostril.

So you might say I’m more than a little ambivalent about alcohol. It is, after all, Western society’s addictive drug of choice. I try to be especially sensitive in my classes when we discuss the role of wine in ancient Rome. In a class of thirty plus kids, the odds are overwhelming that at least two are dealing with alcohol issues at home. As a scholar I hope I can address the role of alcohol as intoxicant with a certain dispassion. As a father, as a teacher, as a man whose genetic heritage includes the predilection for substance abuse, especially alcohol, on both maternal and paternal sides, I struggle with it.

The ancients, of course, felt the same ambivalence. Dionysus/Bacchus, as the god of wine, is also the god of joy, of poetry, of drama, of inspiration, of regenerative powers, of resurrection. But he is also the god of drunkenness, of brawling, of madness, or filicide, of cannibalism, of oblivion.

So, what do you think, is alcohol a blessing or a curse?

I agree with you totally.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fabio's house (behind the bush).
Fabio's house just outside Agropoli



No, not par-tay, but pa-ri-tay. And, no, I’m not freaking out, I’m obsessing about the exchange rate. Parity, if you’re wondering, is the point at which two currencies reach equilibrium, and the unthinkable might just happen. Only last summer the idea that the dollar and the euro could ever see parity again was laughable. That was when one euro would cost you about a buck fifty. Lo, how the mighty have fallen! In the last week the euro has hovered around $1.20 and there is serious talk that within the year we could be seeing a one-to-one exchange rate. Which is all nice but pretty abstract to most Americans, until they travel to Europe. Look, I’m not wishing anybody in Europe any hard luck, but I’ve been at the mercy of the exchange rate so often that I figure it’s about time I caught a break. Think about the implications of that .30 euro slide. My purchasing power in Europe has recently gone up by almost one-fourth. That’s no great shakes if you’re talking about a week and a few hundred dollars. But for five weeks, including groceries, transportation, incidentals, that’s pretty significant. How would you like to get a 20% raise out of the blue?

And the nice thing is that my good fortune doesn’t come at the expense of my Italian hosts. That’s what’s so weird about exchange rates, they’re so abstract and...what, mechanistic? It’s like some monetary deus ex machina is jiggering the nominal value of currency to see how we mere mortals react. Their prices don’t go up or down, but what I’m paying in real terms does. Really weird.

I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been in Italy when the exchange rate was just horrendous. We’re talking $18 American for a take-out sandwich and bottle of water. Granted, it was an Italian sandwich, and absolutely delicious. But, come on, you know? You find yourself obsessively calculating prices and trying to convince yourself that there’s some way to justify $40 for that widget manufactured in Sienna that you could buy in the States for $20, manufactured in...well, Sienna. Same item, same quality, it’s the friggin’ exchange rate.

But I’ve also been the beneficiary, let me joyously confess. I recall one of the most glorious meals I’ve ever eaten in my life, for which I would have gladly paid whatever was asked...but didn’t. We were leading a tour and had arrived in Rome on the day of our fifteenth anniversary, June 23. Many of the Italian restaurants run the tour groups through from 6 pm to 8 pm on a prix fixe menu, typically a primo, almost always some sort of pasta, a secondo, or entree, and a simple dolce. It’s usually not bad, but it’s usually not much better than adequate either. Then when the Italians come out to dine, beginning at nine, they’ve pretty much made their ‘nut’ as the restaurateurs say, and can focus on providing a premium dining experience for the regulars.

We were lucky that we had some wonderful kids along who didn’t have to be watched every minute, so we bailed on the prix fixe dinner and made reservations, through the good graces of our wonderful local guide, at a nice ristorante out on the Via Flaminia called “Da Benito”. Nina had passed along the word that this was an anniversary dinner, and when we arrived, there was already a table waiting with two glasses of prosecco, a delicious Italian sparkler made in the Veneto, and antipasti of melone e prosciutto, which I absolutely adore. Something about the sweetness of the cantaloupe in contrast with the salty funk of that cured porker is just perfect. It reminds me of how much Southern cuisine can mimic or at least parallel Italian; I love to salt and pepper my cantaloupe and almost sent one of my Food Nazi friends from the North into paroxysms the first time she saw it. No surprise, when I asked if she’d ever tried it before criticizing, she acted like I had proposed harelipping the Pope. But any good cook knows that nothing brings out sweetness like a hint of salt, and as far back as Roman cuisine pepper was being used with sweets as counterpoint.

Already by this time the two foodies were in transports of bliss. We ordered two pastas as primi and shared. One was excellent but the second was nothing less than spectacular, taglietalle con vodka ed’astice. After the first bite we were moaning softly and rolling our eyes to heaven. The pasta itself was handmade, of course, as it always is in a good Italian restaurant, preferably by a couple of nonne (grannies) who come in every day and are given their orders, so many ‘eggs’ of tagliatelle so many of tortelli, and so on. And that’s all they need to know to go to work: one egg per 100g of flour, plus salt, water and maybe a bit of olive oil, plus pure culinary amore. The astice is a type of spiny lobster that is common in Mediterranean waters. The sauce was exquisite, creamy, subtle, with vodka as a binding agent (the alcohol burns off and leaves a subtle funk which is irreplaceable. Believe me, I’ve tried to replicate it). By this time our moans were very nearly orgasmic and nearby patrons looked alarmed. The little shells of the lobster were incorporated into the sauce, and when the proprietor saw us greedily sucking the shells he began to beam. Needless to say it was pretty obvious we were enjoying our meal.

The secondi were veal cutlets with roasted potatoes and a veggie, excellent, but pretty anticlimactic after that pasta course. All accompanied by the simple, clean, delicious white wine from just south of Rome, Frascatti. Dessert was accompanied by more prosecco and was delicious frutti di bosco (wild berries) on panna cotta, a type of Italian flan. By this time I was so enamored of the chef that I asked to speak to him and proposed marriage if he would only agree to shave his legs, and Signore Benito was positively misty-eyed with pleasure. When we asked him to call us a taxi he refused and insisted on driving us back to the hotel himself, and to this day we treasure the pictures we have of him leaving us, stuffed but ecstatic, at the hotel door.

So, as I said, I would have happily sold Amy’s birthright to pay for that meal. But when I received the statement on my debit card a month later? Sixty-eight bucks. Sixty-eight shekels for a four-course meal and two bottles of wine, plus a very generous if well deserved tip and chaffeur service! I felt positively guilty! Exchange rates!

Of course, calculating those rates has become exponentially simpler since the adoption of the euro, but I have to tell you, I sort of miss the dear old lira in a perverse way. How often does an American have the luxury of paying $113,000 for dinner? Makes you feel like a plutocrat, I’m here to say, even if it was only about $75 American. But the lira sure made paying for things a challenge. Imagine an assortment of $100, $500, $1000, $5000, $10,000, $50,000 and $100,000 bills...not to buy a new villa on the Amalfi Coast but to pay for groceries. And the coins! God as my witness, I once received two one-lira coins in change. I kept them as a souvenir. You think the penny is a useless inconvenience? Amen, bruthahs and sistahs! But imagine dealing with a coin worth $0.0007. And yet making change was such a pain in the tuckus for cashiers that they always asked if you had anything remotely approaching correct change. I finally gave up and just started extending my hand with all the change I had in my pocket, allowing the cashier to fish around for whatever he or she wanted from that seemingly random assortment. Did they cheat me? I seriously doubt it. Four times before I started this new system I had the humiliation of receiving back some of the coins I’d so proudly offered up as ‘correct’ change.

So I’m looking for parity. But even at $1.00:1.20, the mental gymnastics of paying the bill in Italy will be a whole lot more boring this year. I think I can deal with that.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How to Pack for a Month in Italy

1. Check passport for expiration. Notice the passport photo. Scream in terror. Sit quietly until hyperventilation subsides. Then remember that, if you really looked as bad as the photo would indicate, you’d be too sick to travel anyway.

2. Check the exchange rate. Laugh sadistically as the Euro continues its slow descent into oblivion.

3. Check the weather forecasts. Let’s see, RDU:

Thursday: 92° and insufferably muggy

Friday: 92° and insufferably muggy

Saturday: 92° and insufferably muggy

Sunday: 92° and insufferably muggy

Monday (cold snap): 90° and painfully muggy

Ok, ok, let’s try Agropoli:

Thursday: 82° with low humidity and a sea breeze

Friday: 82° with low humidity and a sea breeze

Saturday: 81° with low humidity and a sea breeze

Sunday: 78° with low humidity and a sea breeze

Monday: 76° with low humidity and a sea breeze

Sweet Jesse, get me out of here!

4. Check exchange rate again. Chortle derisively.

5. Pack bags. There are two basic systems, the Dave system and the Sandy system. The Dave system is based on the theory that you can’t haul enough for a month so you needn’t even try, plus there’s a remote chance that there’s a laundromat somewhere in Italy south of Rome. Pack four pairs shorts, seven polo shirts, one button-down shirt, one pair of jeans, a lightweight sweater, a lightweight poncho, deck shoes, seven pairs of underwear, four pairs of athletic socks, one pair dress socks. Neatly fold and roll up each item, and then pack it in the bag vertically. This has three advantages. First, it takes less room. Second, if you will be living out of your suitcase, so to speak, you’ll easily be able to identify each item to co-ordinate your outfits. Third, if you do it carefully, the clothes come out virtually wrinkle-free. You will wear on the flight a pair of khakis, a polo, a belt, sneakers. Sneakers are much better for hiking through airports. Screw fashion. Your only essential fashion element—and hear me well, it is absolutely essential— is a money belt, to be worn under your skivvies, on the theory that, even at your advanced level of decrepitude, if someone sticks his or her hand in your underwear, you’re probably going to notice. You will leave all other ID and credit cards at home except your driver’s license and one debit or credit card, both of which you will keep in your money belt at all times except during use. You will also store here the bulk of your cash, except as much as you think you can afford to lose without spoiling your whole day. I have walked the streets of Rome at 1 am with my wife and daughter and felt perfectly safe, but petty crime is rampant almost everywhere in Italy, even in churches. Lots of people there want your money; the legitimate ones are called the tourist industry, Italy’s second largest industry, and God bless ‘em. The illicit ones are various pickpockets and purse snatchers. And, by the way, Italians adore ATMs, so don’t feel that you have to bring a money vault or travelers’ checks. Just be sure your ATM card is linked to several of the major international systems such as Interlink and Plus.

Don’t forget toiletries, including OTC medications still in their blister packs, but don’t go crazy; there’s a farmacia on every corner in Italy (look for the green neon cross), and most pharmacists when queried will insists they can barely speak English and then proceed to speak it better than you. Furthermore, remember that in Italy pharmacists are your physicians of first and second resort and can prescribe for you all but the most serious of prescription drugs.

Take a good but not expensive camera; Sandy and I have been shutterbugs for 30+ years, and these new little cameras with their microchips make better pictures in more challenging circumstances than we were ever able to do with the best SLR cameras and a world of calculation. Humiliating, but true. Take your laptop, absolutely yes, but remember to take an adapter for your charger. The laptop is essential for communication with home, for uploading pictures when your camera is full (Italy is a gorgeous country; trust me, it’ll be full after two days), and for keeping a journal. Take your cell phone. Much as I despise the accursed things, they are essential in foreign countries where the landlines are unreliable and operators incomprehensible. Either sign up for an international plan which you will cancel a month after you return home, or buy a cheap prepaid in Italy. Don’t forget to check on roaming charges; I recently heard of an Aussie couple that was so enchanted by the GPS capabilities of their cell phone while here in the States that they used it everywhere in Europe (they made the loop to get back home). When they received their bill they had over $3,000 in roaming fees.

The Sandy system is based on the theory that you can’t possibly pack for a month, but, by God, you’re gonna try anyway. In fairness I will allow her to detail the particulars, but let me just say that this system does involve the packing of rollers (not the portable kind, the clunky box) and a small microwave oven. Good luck with that 55 pound weight limit.

6. Check the Euro. Giggle fiendishly.

7. Decide on the dreaded blowdryer issue. Remember, if you take your own, there is a 100% likelihood that it will blow the circuits in your room and then you will be dark and wet at the same time. You may prefer to use the Italian blowdryer provided in almost all hotels, in which case you may expect all the turbulence of a fairy’s sigh or a butterfly’s wing. But you will not be in the dark, and in a couple of days your hair will be dry.

8. Don’t forget to take your positive attitude for the flight over. You’ll need it. There are going to be travel glitches, it’s a dead certainty. Especially if you travel Air France and/or go through any of the New York-area airports. You can either drive yourself nuts or roll with the punches and consider it part of the adventure.

9. Take a small carryon with a change of underwear, small bottles of contact solution, etc. (don’t forget the 2 oz limit) and a toothbrush and toothpaste. Remember you’ll probably be in transit the better part of a day, what with the time difference (Italy is six hours ahead), so prepare to clean up a bit. Nothing makes a weary traveler feel better.

10. Check the exchange rate. Begin to chuckle, but then remember that, as the Euro goes, so goes your retirement portfolio. Screw it, you won’t need retirement money for a few more years. Go ahead and chuckle.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I have been a lucky little sucker in my life, and that's not just window dressing. Consider: I'm a hick from the swamps of West Tennessee who happened to have a little talent and a passion for ancient cultures and the dogged persistence to follow that passion. There have been some disappointments along the way, but still, I've had the opportunity to live in a foreign country not once but twice in my lifetime. I don't mean visit, you understand, I mean live, albeit briefly, and there is a quantum difference in those two experiences. This trip has brought up wonderful memories of the first excursion to Italy back in '95. Here I was, a college instructor at UNCG with a fancy-shmancy degree from a fancy-shmancy university, and I'd never been to the classical world. Heck, I'd never been out of the country! So I proposed to my beloved that we spend a summer in Italy. I swear I think that incredible woman would follow her crazy husband to the gates of Hell, probably complaining all the time that I should have taken another route. We blew Amy's college fund (Hey, she's done well at Beulah's School of Cosmetology!) and spent a chunk of the summer in Tuscany. We were lucky that we stumbled across a travel agent (look it up online, young people) who was a retired shoe wholesaler. Now, for the benefit of any male readers (women just know these things), northern Italy is the shoe Mecca of the world, so this guy had traveled all over Italy from the Alps down to Rome. We explained our crazy ambition and our excruciatingly limited budget, and Bob took it as a challenge and went to work. First he found us a place to stay, an eighteenth-century villa that had been subdivided into condos for tourists. It's what the Italians call an agriturismo and it's the government's way to help Italian farmers stay on their land and maintain a semblance of a traditional way of life. There are generous tax advantages, the main qualification for which is that the facility has to be on a working farm. Our agriturismo was the Villa Saulina. It's still around and I highly recommend it, if you're interested. They are some wonderful people. So, this was way back before renting such places was a trendy thing to do in the US, and the price was dirt cheap, I'm telling you. My recollection is $600 per week. You can't rent a condo at Myrtle Beach for that, and you have to put up with drunk teenagers and rednecks there!

Our little apartment was actually in one of the old agricultural buildings, but don't think barn. This was an old three-story masonry building, with walls three feet thick, which had been lovingly decorated in the stylish way only the Italians can do with such panache. Beautiful living area with open beams, a tile floor, a sofa which pulled out to make a bed for five-year-old Amy, a truly functional kitchen, God as my witness, in an armoire, and a dining area with a window that looked out above the terrazza and pool over the Tuscan hills to a fifteenth-century church and, on a good day, to the barely perceptible dome of the Duomo of Florence on the distant horizon. The bedroom was small but equally stylish and had the same priceless view. And all this plunk in the middle of a working vineyard, some 13 miles west of of the city. Heaven.

As to airfares, the cheapest commercial airfare we could find was $1150, and that in 1995 dollars, mind you, so that was impossible. But Bob found us a charter fare (that's another adventure, but maybe later) for $550 per person, and the trip was a go.

That trip was memorable for so many reasons, but I suppose most importantly because we were able to share it with daughter Amy, and, unfortunately, she has to stay stateside and work this time around while her prodigal parents run off to cavort. Mind you, I'm not entirely sure how much Amy derived from the experience. Back home and after the dust settled a bit, her teacher parents were eager to learn what their little prodigy had enjoyed most about the trip: the incredible architecture, the fabulous art, the food, the thrill of a new culture. Amy furrowed her brow in concentration and then announced confidently, "Pijjins!" Oh, great, all she'll remember twenty years from now is chasing the @#$#% pigeons across half the piazze in Italy! OK, ok, she's only five, let's try again: "So what did you like second best?" More serious concentration, and then the oracular response: "Horthiz!" She had a lisp at the time that her father thought was adorable...up to that very moment. Oy! So much for culture. But I know that somewhere in that little subconscious my daughter was learning to embrace things new and different and to look upon the world, not as foreign, but as another wonderful neighborhood to explore.

So this trip is a bit of a sentimental journey. And yet it is perhaps more precious still. First, if we were people of great means, we'd easily be able to make the trip, but would we ever be able to appreciate what an incredible opportunity it is if it weren't so far beyond our limited means but for the grace of a wonderful friend? No doubt Donald Trump travels to places I'll never see, but does he really enjoy any of them as much as we will this trip, knowing what the odds against our making it are? The other factor which points up the preciousness, if you will, of the trip is our age. There is a very good chance that Sandy and I will not have another such opportunity again, though I am hopeful we will. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not being morbid. Sandy and I have enjoyed robust health for the last ten years, almost disgustingly so. I'm a youthful 60 and she a youthful, uh, thirty-nine....ish. Still, we have enough close friends who are dealing with various health issues to know that it truly is luck, and maybe some good genes. We both abused our bodies pretty badly in our wild and reckless youths. If that weren't enough, when we were in Italy last summer my brother-in-law died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 58. My poor, sweet, sensitive niece had to come into her parents' bedroom to confirm that her father was dead...on Father's Day. Then when we returned, we went to visit my best friend of forty-odd years and learned when we arrived in Nashville that he had terminal cancer. We had a wonderful time in spite of the pall--just being in the presence of those precious people is food for the soul--and Steve and I had a chance to say openly things which guys are so often reluctant to say, even when they know they should. On the way home we stopped by Kingsport to visit Sandy's family and pick up some furniture for Amy and headed home three days later. I was driving the rental truck and Sandy leading in the car; we had made it all the way to Winston when Sandy called sobbing into the cell and told me to pull over: despite being told that he had several months to say his goodbyes, Steve was dead of a brain hemorrhage three days after I last saw him. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think of that sweet soul without a smile and a tear.

So, Fates, please don't willfully misunderstand me; I'm not bragging on my health, I know perfectly well that every day after 55 has been a gift. If I had any doubts, studying a classical culture where, we think, the average life expectancy was something less than thirty years has cured that. On the other hand, if it's all the same to you, dear Fates, I wouldn't mind a few more years, so, Ladies, keep right on weaving that tattered old tapestry if you please, and Atropos, I know how busy you are with those shears ("Snip, snip snip, all I ever do is snip, snip, snip!") so feel free just to pass me over as long as you like. In the meantime, I promise I will not take a single minute for granted, and I will raise a toast every day in Italy to those who would and/or should be there with me but are not. And that includes you, gentle reader.

T-minus one week till Dave and Sandy will be winging their way to the land of good food (oh, yeah, and some research on ancient Roman wine) for five weeks. Already I'm so psyched that twice in the last two weeks I've awakened for my usual 2:35am pee and, in that twilight of semiconsciousness as I'm drifting back to sleep, I've begun thinking about the big event and become so excited that I literally can't get back to sleep.  Both times I've finally succumbed about 4:30am...and then the blasted alarm rings at the usual 5:04. Just a wee bit hyper about the whole deal.

This all started last summer, I should explain, when I gave a talk at the archaeological museum in Paestum, near Salerno, on ancient fermentation. The talk was well attended by an assortment of local foodies, food purveyors, and interested academics (some of whom are also foodies and/or food purveyors. It's true! There are places in the world where food is considered a legitimate subject for academic research and even an important element of culture!) and, despite my bad Italian the audience was receptive and a great discussion ensued afterwards, moderated by my friend Elisa Lanza, some of which I actually understood. Afterwards the organizers of the talk were nice enough to take me to a local restaurant and wine and dine me with some of the modern analogues of the bread, wine, cheese and sausage which were the main topics of my talk. I had mentioned in the course of the talk that my current scholarly effort was a book on ancient Roman wine.

Afterwards as we were waiting for the check to be paid, my dear friend Fernando LaGreca asked about my plans for the next (i.e., this) summer and I said that I really had to return to southern Italy to see some of the indispensable archaeology for the book, but that since I didn't have a university affiliation and therefore had little chance of finding grant money to finance it, I was going to have to find more creative ways to make the trip work. I mentioned a house swap with an Italian academic--our house is within 25 minutes of three world-class research universities--and Fernando interjected, "Dave, wait just a minute until Fabio returns." Fabio is Fabio Astone, a grad student in archaeology at the University of Salerno and a protegé of Ferndando, who is a senior professor there. When Fabio returned, Fernando and Elisa reiterated our discussion and Fabio said, "But, Dave, I have an apartment in Agropoli which I don't often use and you are welcome to stay there as long as you like next summer!"
After I picked my lower mandible up off the terazza, I thought surely I was the victim of wishful thinking and more bad Italian on my part, but this wonderful young man was absolutely sincere. I should explain that Fabio, in addition to his pure academic interest in the Etruscan presence in southern Italy, is also quite involved with what is now called archaeotourism, that is, recreating elements of ancient culture (including foodstuffs) to make the experience of such places as Pompeii even more immediate for tourists. Much more about this later, but as an example, Fernando and Fabio had recreated a so-called Lucanian sausauge, what we in America would call a pepperoni, after an ancient recipe from the famous Roman gourmand and cookbook author, Apicius. I should mention that Fernando has done extensive research on the Lucanian (what hasn't Fernando researched?). The sausage was delicious, by the way. In addition to being keenly intelligent, Fabio is also extremely good looking and single, ladies, so I highly recommend a trip to the Bay of Salerno if you're interested.

Fabio's hometown is a beautiful little town called Agropoli at the southern end of the Bay of Salerno and at the entrance to a mountainous area called the Cilento which is famous for its rugged beauty. It is also about an hour from the Bay of Naples and therefore from Pompeii, Stabia Oplontis, Torre Anunziata and many of those other ancient towns buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, as well as being a skip and hop from the A-3 autostrada, the main north-south interstate in southern Italy which connects with all others, either directly or indirectly. The upshot is that we will be within easy range of an almost unlimited number of sites of interest for my research, as well as living in a gorgeous little town perched on a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Geez, maybe I shouldn't have posted this. I feel another sleepless night coming on. But it will be a very, very good sleepless.