Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Trastevere: not all roads lead to Rome

Note: This was written for an travel e-zine which never took off and was always about to. After waiting around for almost two years, here we are. Photographs are mostly mine.

We were swallowed whole, eyes first, by the Vatican City Museum. After three hours of circulating within its gorgeous entrails, we were spat out on the sidewalk, gently. We were more than ready for an enormous lunch. Several hunks of fish and multiple Tiramisus later, we realised, there was such a thing as fine art indigestion. Low-brow for the rest of the day was the way to go. Tiber had to be crossed, we had to be at Trastevere.

Rome with a small r

Trastevere is a neighbourhood on the west bank of Tiber (which I know now, I was completely direction-challenged in Rome) and it has always been the outskirts of Rome. Far from all things towering, gilded and regal, Trastevere is as down-to-earth as Rome can get. From a neighbourhood studded with posh second homes (garden villas) for the ancient Roman elite, it has become a charmingly run-down area which means all things to all people. The artists come here for the low rents and graffiti-friendly walls. The tourists come here for the flea markets, winding alleys and dainty little eateries. The writers come here for spending hours in cafes and doing nothing, and accomplishing both for very cheap. And the students come here, because, well, they have signed up for it. (several major American University campuses are around). The fact that there are gorgeous churches, lighthouses and villas too is besides the point. There are enough of those on the east bank. The Rome with capital R.

I meet a hobo. And a Panda.

What are those white tents on the banks of the Tiber? And is that a homeless man elaborately washing himself over there? These questions circled our mind as we crossed the Tiber via a footbridge. Then we saw the same movies we left back at Mumbai, (Kung-Fu Panda 2, for example) running there in tiny, retro theatres. A sight that was equally disappointing and comforting. Trastevere didn’t care either way. Just like the skinhead dad who washed his son and dogs in the roadside tap.

 The elite Rome bullies your senses into submission with its gold, granites and marbles. Trastevere walks around, whistling a slow tune and doesn’t seem very eager to either impress or harass you. You almost forget that you are a tourist in a foreign land. Then you start feeling really comfortable with yourself. And then you get lost.

Aamchi Mumbai at Mia Roma

Trastevere patiently keeps you company while you get lost. Now it will show you a charming vine-decked house. You will feel like climbing up and stay back. Then it will show you faces. One from a torn poster, another, a graffiti, looking at you with faces that rhyme with each other.

Tiny cobblestoned alleys will introduce you to their first, second and third cousins. It will take you a while before you realise you are lost. And a while longer to get over the inertia of staying lost.We were told that Piazza Santa Maria is the centre of Trastevere. That might be a better place to get lost in, we thought. So we ‘Mi Scusi’-ed ourselves to catch hold of the closest strangers we could find. One of them was a nun, so she must know Santa Maria Basilica, we reasoned. They turned out to be a couple of Marathi Manoos-es from Mumbai. They gave us thorough directions and thankfully didn’t want to chat us up about the Mumbai weather. Once we knew the way, we were suddenly in no hurry at all to reach there. We decided to get ripped off at a roadside book stall instead.

India, Continued

The stall owner turned out to be a mild mannered Bangladeshi man (the predominant nationality among the Roman immigrant workers) who had no intention of overcharging us. Emboldened by the single digit pricing of used books, vintage post cards and amusing posters, we managed to pick up quite a few. Me being a post card-freak ( Viva !), it was part treasure hunt, part time travel.

The find of the trip was a vintage Italian poster promoting Indian tea. In an era when there was no Google Images to fall back on, the illustrator had captured a ‘Bhartiya Nari’, spot on.

We were just two days into our Europe trip and we caught ourselves exclaiming ‘cute!’ way too often. Being word-nerds it bothered us. We decided to deposit 50 cents in a virtual swear jar each time either of us says the C-word. After one hour in Trastevere, we realised it was a lost cause. How on earth after seeing these you can say anything but?

We could just eat these up too, only if they were edible.

We gobbled up some real watermelons though, part of a mixed fruit salad called ‘Macedonia’, again sold by a Bangladeshi lady. The heat became bearable for a few brief moments. (It was as unbearable as Mumbai, if not more.)

We continued to wander, slack-jawed and puppy-eyed among the cobblestones which were just the right size, afternoon sun rays which fell just at the right angle, charming bric-a-brac heaped in shelves and eateries that looked as good as they smelled. Amongst all this ambience-admiring and neo-hippie watching we got some serious shopping done too.

The so-called flea market in Trastevere is completely devoid of fleas and full of hole-in-the-wall shops of all kinds. Tourist traps, design student start-ups, the SALE!SALE!SALE! kinds, overpriced fripperiums and everything in between. Word of advice? Don’t turn your nose up at any kind. If you look close and long enough, there are enchanting discoveries to be made in every shop. And if something utterly takes hold of your heart and soul, buy it immediately, provided it doesn’t break your credit card or suitcase. Chances are you will find the exact same thing for much cheaper some time later in your trip but you will have no money left or you will never find it again and regret it for the rest of your life. I bravely picked up Pinnochio dolls, Japanese ceramics (don’t judge me) and leather bags among others.

Pay especially close attention to the shops around Piazza Santa Maria. You will have more than enough options to bleed Euros here. With pockets empty and shopping bags full, we finally paid attention to our dog-tired butts and plonked them at the closest chairs available.

The waitress paid us no attention. She was flirting with three guys at the same time, somehow makingeach of them feel equally gratified. The pedestal fan turned our way though, showering us with a fine mist of ice-cold water. And the summer was switched off, just like that.

I could not take my mind off the sheer genius of the fan-cum-sprinkler. Till the gelati arrived, that is. Two fine scoops of cioccolato and few stolen spoonfuls of  fruit custard. The Santa Maria Basilica stared at usfrom the other side of the piazza, we kept ignoring. But the fountain at the Piazza was too gorgeous to ignore. How could I? I just love sea food.

One blind mouse, one blind bat, two big meals

Though we were very tempted to take a nap at the fountain like the rest of the tourists, we noticed the Sun was about to set. It was high time we got into dinner mode. Being the kind of direction-challenged noobs we were, we had to find our eating hole before darkness descended. Otherwise, we could be lost forever in the labyrinths of Trastevere. And that too, in an empty stomach.

We decided to dine at Panattoni. That was apparently the most down-to-earth, no-fuss place to loadup on authentic Roman food. In spite of starting early, walking up and down the main street and triplechecking our directions, we failed to find it. Why didn’t we heed to the siren calls of all those chequered table-cloths, fancy candle stands, designer chairs and striped canopies on the way? We thought. It was time to go ‘Mi Scusi’ again. One good Samaritan, pointed at the restaurant, with an amused smile on his face. It was right opposite to where we were standing. D’uh.

The tables were empty. We trotted in and was sucker-punched by an invisible heat ball. It was the woodfired pizza oven compounded by heat wave outside. There was a reason, everybody else was sitting outdoors. Like any other place which serves excellent food, the service was terrible. At one point of time, we wondered whether they are being racist, but when the American family in the next table was coolly neglected, we were reassured.  We chomped on our four-cheese pizza, followed by Napolitan pizza (tiny anchovies in a sea of cheese) and washed both down by copious amount of aqua naturale (just plain water). Then came the grand finale, the stuffed zucchini flower.

Here is why I am so excited about a stupid orange flower. As a Bengali, I grew up relishing Pumpkin flowerfritters and it’s a dish as quintessentially Bengali as it can get. So when I came to know that Italians love their Zucchini flowers (a cousin of pumpkin flowers) frittered too, it got me amused and excited to no end. It was like a comparative culture lesson deep-fried and stuffed with cheese. It was of course, delicious so we ordered one more, which left no room for Suppli El Telephono (Telephone Rice Croquets stuffed with mozzarella, named thus because of the telephone-wiry mozzarella that comes out in every bite. ) We pushed down our disappointment with steel spoons full of Panacotta.

Though the long trek to Panattoni was worth it, we need not have taken so much trouble. When we walked into a random eatery the next day (it was a grocery store cum deli cum bar cum restaurant, the Trastevere equivalent of a Irani chai shop) we were rewarded with unexpectedly superlative four-cheese gnochhi, crisp salad and divinely charred Italian sausage. It’s possible to get ripped off, but it’s next to impossible to have a bad meal at Trastevere. Bless the poor, they always manage to eat better than the rich.

When we headed home that night in a Taxi, making sure we don’t get lost again, we were in a blissful coma that only half a day of shallow sightseeing, mindless shopping and thoughtless gluttony could induce. Amen.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Google Art Project Experiment: Groping Around in Gigapixel Land

In Google Art Project , each partner institution has to submit  the image  of  an artwork in
one gigapixel resolution.  This allows the viewer to zoom on and on to the heart’s content, reaching
out to the essence or stumbling upon the warts.  Depending on how committed you are to this
zoomathon (and how sturdy your browser is; mine kept crashing) it will be either a blind man
groping an elephant or a journey to the centre of the masterpiece, or a bit of both.

But one thing will happen for certain. Every work of art will turn abstract (or into higher levels of
abstractions) and suddenly you are in another dimension with your zoom -print screen-crop tool
looking for a slice that deserves its sovereign status as a work of art.   Modiglianis turn into Pollocks,
Holbeins turn into Seurats, and Seurats turn into satellite views of earth.  And you, with a humble
keyboard, have made that happen. 

Here is a selection of original images and their choicest crops from full gigapixel zoom.