1. Life and Culture
  2. Food
  3. Language
  4. Protest
  5. Padova/Alpine Adventure
  6. Jewish Ghetto

Life and Culture

You will never find an Italian sitting in a cafe with one hand navigating a laptop and the other prodding a bowl of pasta. Italians are prideful people and want to experience their culture par excellence. To indulge in work and food simultaneously would denude the essential elements of both tasks. As my host in Siena put it, “We have a time for work, we have a time for sleep, and we eat and only eat when its time to eat.” This spaghetti-yoga mentality is something that I greatly admired in Italy.

Italians lack faith in their bureaucratic and ineffective government. Around 15% of the Italian workforce is employed in the public sector.*  By law, a public sector employee cannot be fired save a grave violation of duty. According to an Italian I spoke with, even an offense as improper as embezzlement may only constitute a demerit and not a fireable offense. Thus, many workers are at best unmotivated. Nepotism reigns supreme. The same Italian posited that, since such a large percentage of the voting block works for the government, no political party has dared campaigned to change the status quo. (However, according to my research, Italy is ranked only modestly in its public sector employment percentile and ranks under the U.S.**) Since they cannot predicate their identify with political activity, Italians look to the cultural sphere rather than political life to, as Aristotle would have said, embrace the highest good.

*International Labour Organization (ILO), LABORSTA Database. Data for Turkey are from the Ministry of Finance and the Turkish Statistical Institute. Data for Japan for employment are from the Establishment and Enterprise Census. Data for Korea were provided by government officials.



One of the chief manifestations of cultural pride in Italy is its food. Italians take great pride in their foods and food is a tremendous source of rivalry between localities. As opposed to America, where foodies pride themselves in the cultural girth of their food explorations to the point of culinary masochism, an Italian foodie may never have tried some of the foods we take for granted as being part of the global foodie cuisine. The third-country eateries in the cities are considered of lesser quality — “cheap” foods (with exception of Sushi, which is chic in Rome) — and Italians tend to prefer familiar territory when it comes to having a meal.

Multiple exposure of Venice and wine bottles. The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari can be seen in the second bottle from the left.


For Italians, language is not only a means for communication but moreover a tool for maintaining their cultural heritage. Italy only recently unified as a nation and its citizens still identify strongly with their ancestral provinces. While Italian dialect spoken in Florence has become the national spoken dialect, when among hometown friends and family, Italians speak in their local dialects. Italians who come from different province have difficulty understanding the dialect of another province. Dialects don’t only differ in slang, but in very basic words, for instance, the names of widespread viands such as the name for “egg.”


Italians do not eschew political activity all together. Protests are common in the larger cities, particularly Rome, where protest marches begin in the city center, pass the iconic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and culminate in a rally in front of the Colosseum. Italians take to the streets to bring attention to issues such as global warming and working conditions. I witnessed a protest of sorts almost every day that I was in Rome, including man threatening to jump off the second story of the Colosseum.



Padova is the historic capital of the Padua province in Northern Italy. It hosts the 800 years old University of Padua, famous, among other things, for having had Galileo Galilei as a lecturer.

The Piazza Prato della Valle, located in Padova, is the largest square in Italy.

My memory of Padova will always be of the adventure I went on with my host there, which actually really occurred outside of the city.

When I arrived by train in Padova, my host, Matteo, who I had met through couchsurfing, picked me up at the train station and brought me to his humble but very nice apartment. Matteo is a librarian in the geological sciences department of the University. He is also a talented painter and the apartment is adorned with his oil paintings — mostly copies of famous works but very impressive nevertheless.

Matteo’s girlfriend and his friend, Florenzo, were waiting for us at the apartment. They prepared a big (vegetarian) Italian lunch of ravioli (from a box) and a very salty grits-like dish made with tons of cheese and butter. Of course, there was birra and vino to drink.

Florenzo had a solid conversational grasp of English. Matteo could communicate basics. Matteo’s girlfriend could not. I have a feeling Florenzo was invited along in order to translate, which he did very well and with much patience, even spending effort to translate or summarize conversations that I was not involved with.

I conversed at length with Florenzo who had just started a new job as an administrator in a science center at the University. The Center is tasked with orchestrating cross-disciplinary projects among the sciences. Florenzo had all but forfeited his Italian card when he came out as a vegetarian; he describes himself as a “citizen of the world.”

Matteo’s girlfriend is an employment attorney.  She spoke very little English and we relied on Florenzo to communicate. I looked directly at her when I spoke even though Florenzo was the medium through which my words would reach her. I learned this technique for communicating with through an interpreter while dining (during a function I was photographing) with a US Iraqi War Veteran who had been tasked with persuading Sheiks to accept cash in exchange for their clan’s allegiance to NATO. Eyes amplify the speakers of language.

After lunch, Matteo, Florenzo, and I piled into Florenzo’s car. The plan, as I understood it, was to visit one of Florenzo’s friends in Treviso — a town around an hour north of Padova. The friend was selling vintage records at some convention or something. We did make that stop first, which turned out no to be Treviso, but some other town in the foothills of the Alps. We were only there for a few minutes.

Next, the guys asked me if I wanted to go to Treviso, which they had criticized during the drive over for its corporate culture, or a little bar is some town were the locals hang out. Of course I said the little bar.

We drove for and hour or so through Italian wine country, (well, the north of it) which is reminiscent of Napa Valley save for the factories populating the hillsides. I was excepting something close by, or at least back in the direction of, Padova, but when I looked at Google Maps as we ascended higher into the mountains, I saw that we were many miles from Padova, in near a town called Valdobbiadene.


At some point we pulled into a dark road. There was an abandoned house overlooking acres of vineyards cascading down the mountain. A couple cars were parked among vestigial rows of grapevine nearby. No people were in sight and I started feeling a bit on edge being in such a desolate place with two guys I had just met hours before. My instincts told me it was okay and I observed that Florenzo and Matteo seemed just as unsure as I was.

We park and get out the car. At this point I’m not exactly sure what’s going on and I’m not sure what I’m supposed be looking for. After a few moments we start walking uphill away from the abandoned house. We arrive at a large stone antiquated farmhouse nestled into the curvaceous alpine slopes. Aside from a pair of milk cows occupying an open room in the bottom of the structure, it looked completely abandoned. The upper level also had an open room in which I could see what I took to be ancient grape harvesting tools. I couldn’t imagine that we were in the right place.

We came to a heavy wooden door adjacent to the room with the cows. Florenzo tried to open it but it was locked. We were just about to start walking again but then the door opened from the inside.

About fifteen twenty-somethings sat jammed packed into a room the size of a standard freshman dorm. A bearded Italian Waldo was roasting chestnuts in a fireplace that took up an entire wall. Tables and bodies were pushed in so tight together that the fire flamed up the chimney as the three of us jammed our way inside.  A couple to my right sat under a nylon string guitar hanging from the wall. I watched as they made sandwiches from a block of cheese and Roman-size pillar of salami. There were thousands of business cards pinned to the walls. An iPhone, stuck into a ladle having from the rafters, digitized the smoky air with afro-electronica. The scene was half hipster and half medieval.

After a brief discussion with the guy who had opened the door for us, Florenzo learned that we had to go somewhere else to get the vino and that you paid for the bread, cheese, and salami by an honor system abetted by an automated LCD screen cashiers machine.

We ventured back into the alpine cold to get the vino. It appeared as if the guy at the door had only roughly indicated were to go as Florenzo and Matteo still seemed unsure. We started climbing higher on the mountain away from the farm house along a dirt path. We walk past an overlook with a couple making out before zigzagging on a path higher still. The terrain is getting more wooded. Only moonlight is lighting the path.

We turn one more and climb several wooden steps onto a different path. This path is lighted by a blinding source of light — a vending machine displaying full sized wine bottles — high up on a mountain in the Alps! We all chuckle. 

We purchased one bottle of Prosecco — a fruity, sparkling regional wine— and returned down the mountain.

Back in the room we divvy up the wine and help ourselves to cheese and bread. The cheese is some of the best I’ve ever tasted although Matteo and Florenzo describe is at mediocre. The wine was very tasty although I prefer the dryer taste of Champagne (probably because I’m a distant relative of Garrison Keillor).

The three of us stood backed into a side wall. We talked a little between us but mostly just observed our surroundings. Every now and then Florenzo would translate some of the conversation. I discovered that all the twenty-somethings had mutual friends but that this was the first time some of them were meeting.

At some point, I began to ask Florenzo a question right at the moment of an all-inclusive lull in conversation. In room packed with drunk Italians this shift from hight to low entropy was surely on order par with all the loose pages of the Brothers Karamazov landing in precise order on a windy day.

“What is this? An Americano!?” (or something, along those lines) a girl in the room cried. Chatter exploded with me as its object. I started laughing very hard as the chatter resumed back to a statistically normative cacophony.

A few minutes later, Matteo pointed at the guitar and said, “Maybe you should play?”

Some people overheard and, amidst more excited chatter, the guitar was cut from its noose and passed to me. It was missing a string and my hands were still cold from the climb to the wine machine. But to decline would have been like outing myself as a Nazi collaborator in a meeting of the Resistenza. I had no choice but to accept the guitar and try to assess whether all five strings were in tune while the room chanted: “Viva la Comitato di Liberation Naziale!  Morte ai Fascisti! Combattiamo per la morte!”

After doing my best to tune the instrument, I took a few moments to stroke the strings to get some circulation in my hands. I did not intend to discover how the Resistenza treated traitors.

“Tell them I’m going to play an American folk song,” I said to Lorenzo.  I was lying. I had no idea what I was going to play.

“Just make sure they understand,” I reiterated to Lorenzo, noticing the two bambinos who had turned to face me, “ and remind them that the guitar is missing a string.”

What to play? The dilemma made the symbol grounding problem seem like a game of Parcheesi. John Fahey? John Fahey would be fun, novel for them. Oh, right, the guitar isn’t in open G and I don’t have the low E string. Well, I better just start and see what happens. Start with the top four strings — it would take longer until I run out of depth — arrant improvisation would lead to a shallow grave for sure.

With all the alacrity of a flat bottle of Prosecco, I began with a quiet banjo roll on a simple D chord. When I could hear the crackle of the fire, I added a three note melody in the bass. It was pretty but subtle — antagonistic to Italian spirit like a delectable vegetarian secondo. Time to carbonate my appeal to the Resistenza. I invoked the fifth string, doubling the melodic span.  

This, I quickly realized, was a grave mistake. The 5th string — the lowest string on the invalid guitar — was my retirement fund that I had just all but stripped of its assets. Still, I had not left the key of D major. There were still jazz chords which I could monetize to appease the Resistenza. I did one final pass of the melody before exiting the banjo-roll treadmill (which had been warming my hands up nicely) and landing on a G minor sixth chord with the high E in the melody.

Playing a guitar with a missing string is like walking in a pair new sneakers. It totally feels weird and skews your bodily awareness. After a few fecund jazz cadences, I made the mistake of thinking I could play on the first 5 strings of a 6 string chord shape. I attempted such a chord shape and totally missed the chord I was trying to play. Instead of playing onward, I just sheepishly smiled and shrugged my shoulder while alluding to the string with my eyes as if saying, “What can you do?”

This gesture was a big hit with the Resistenza and applause compounded by the slaps of sticks of salamis lamming (slamami?) against the table ensued.

“His playing makes me need a drink!” Italian Waldo said. Everyone laughed including me. Then he poured me a plastic cup of Prosecco and tossed me a raw chestnut. “For good luck,” he told me in English. The two bambinos turned back to face the freedom fighters. And that was that.

Matteo, Lorenzo, and myself hung around, eating cheese, drinking wine, and chatting with the Freedom Fighters who, as it turned out, where college kids from the city. Waldo was earning his PhD in Neuroscience.

Eventually we left and drove to another small, historic town with an old stone fort, ate more bread and cheese, and drank more Prosecco, before heading exhausted back to Padova.

Me schmoozing with Italian Waldo.

Me schmoozing with Italian Waldo.

Roman Jewish Ghetto

For most of the period between 1555-1945 CE, Roman Jews were required to live in the confines of a miserable four-block ghetto. (Incidentally, the word “ghetto” is Italian in origin derived from “Ghèto,” which is the Italian word for slag — the undesirable co-product of a metallurgic process. The term was used by sixteenth-century Venetians to describe the part of the city to which Jews were restricted and segregated.)  The Roman Ghetto was established as a result of a papal bull, Cum Nimis Absurdum, promulgated by Pope Paul IV, revoking the rights of the Jewish communities in all the Papal States and imposing restrictions such as only allowing Jews to practice unskilled jobs such as second-hand goods dealers, and prohibiting ownership of property, and requiring Jews to wear identifiable clothing. Jews were also required to attend to compulsory Catholic service on Shabbat. The name of the bull refers to the absurdity of which Jews, whom Middle Age Christians blamed for the death of Christ, could live side by side with the Christian population.

View of the central drag of the historic Jewish ghetto.

View of the central drag of the historic Jewish ghetto.

Many of the 16,000 Jews living in Rome today can trace their Roman ancestry to before the birth of Christ, making them the oldest continuous Jewish community outside of Israel and a sui generis ethnic division predating the Ashkenazi - Sephardic distinction (which only tracks Jewish pedigree from the emergence of the Jewish diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, at which time most of the Jews in historic Palestine scattered across Europe, Asia, and Africa).

The Ghetto is situated along the banks of the Tiber River in a now chic and affluent section of Rome. However, in 1555, this part of the river frequently flooded making it an undesirable part of the city.
Conditions were indeed miserable for Jews in the wet and crowded ghetto. Every night the gates of the ghetto were locked. When Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto in the morning, they had to pass by Churches built around the perimeter to entice Jews to adopt the Christian way. One such Church, which still stands today, bears Hebrew texts inscription under the crucifix quoting the Jewish prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 65:2) “All day long I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and faithless nation that has lost its way.” The text is quoted out of context, giving it anti-semitic overtones. (See images below.)

Despite the harsh conditions inside the ghetto, Jews who left the ghetto faced even worse. Jews commuting into the city for work were routinely kidnapped, stuffed into barrels, and rolled down hills. From 1466 to 1668, during Roman Carnival, Jews were forced to race naked through the streets to the jeers of onlookers and mud-slingers.

Brief respites from ghetto confinement included the period of Napoleonic rule from 1808 to 1815 and under the Roman Republics of 1798-99 and 1849. However, it was not until the unification of Italy in 1870 that the ghetto was dismantled and Jews enjoyed equal rights as Italian citizens. When this secular governance ousted the Papal State, the shoddy ghetto dwellings were demolished and replaced by Jewish owned established. In 1904, a new synagogue, the biggest in Italy — The Great Synagogue of Rome — was completed. Although now Jews could and did reside outside the ghetto, the ghetto remained a hub for a vibrant Jewish community.

Tides turned against the Jews of Rome when Italy fell to Nazi occupation. By this time, the Roman people were friendlier to Rome’s Jewish population and stymied Nazi persecution of the Jews. When SS officers wanted to transfer Jews from the ghetto to concentration camps, the Roman municipality helped to reach a deal in which the Jews could avoid deportation in exchange for 110 pounds of gold — in 24 hours. Every Jew in the community and many non-Jewish Romans consolidated their gold and the demand was met. Alas, the Nazis proceeded with the planned deportations two weeks later. Out of the 13,000 Jews of Rome, 2,000 were sent to concentration camps. Only a handful survived.

The Holocaust decimated the Jewish community. However, for reasons unknown, the Nazis did not destroy the Great Synagogue. After the war, Jews were able to reestablish a community in Rome, the heart of which remains in the historic ghetto.

The Papal Declaration, Nostra Aetate, promulgated on October 28, 1965, by Pope Paul VI, absolved the Jews for the death of Jesus and helped to repair relations between the Jews and the Papacy, which world Jewry blamed for not doing enough to save European Jews from the Nazi persecution.

On October 9, 1982, just as morning Shabbat services were letting out, four Palestinian terrorists armed with hand grenades and submachine guns attacked worshippers exiting the Great Synagogue. A 2-year-old toddler, Stefano Gaj Taché, was killed and 37 others were injured.

In 1986, Pope John Paul II, visited the Great Synagogue, marking the first known visit by a pope to a synagogue. In his speech given from the Synagogue that day, the pope admitted that the Papacy could and should have done more to protect Jews during the Holocaust. This gesture helped to foster a dialogue between the Jewish population and the authority that had made Jewish life in Europe miserable for centuries.

Only a handful of building predating the demolition of the ghetto remain standing. This picture shows the border between the ghetto and the rest of the city. The building belonged to the ghetto while the building on the right did not. The two buildings are exactly the same height. However, the building belonging to the ghetto has six floors while the building on the right only has three.

Only a handful of building predating the demolition of the ghetto remain standing. This picture shows the border between the ghetto and the rest of the city. The building belonged to the ghetto while the building on the right did not. The two buildings are exactly the same height. However, the building belonging to the ghetto has six floors while the building on the right only has three.

The bridge that Jews commuted from the ghetto into the city — named Pons Judaeocum or “Jews' Bridge.” Today the bridge is a busy artery connecting central Rome with Trastevere and is lined by peddlers.

The bridge that Jews commuted from the ghetto into the city — named Pons Judaeocum or “Jews' Bridge.” Today the bridge is a busy artery connecting central Rome with Trastevere and is lined by peddlers.

The main sanctuary of the Great Synagogue. Architects designed a square dome to make it distinct from a church.

The main sanctuary of the Great Synagogue. Architects designed a square dome to make it distinct from a church.

Falafel joint on the main drag.

Falafel joint on the main drag.

Jewish elementary school.

The information presented this section was garnered from Rick Steves Audio Walking Tour of the Roman Jewish Ghetto, information I received in the Jewish Museum of Roman, and from my tour guide in the Synagogue. I also looked to wikipedia for some basic fact checking.