Thoughts on Origins

31 08 2009

In the past on this blog, I’ve  credited much of my obsession with travel and cultures to my maternal grandmother, Gaga. But, while Gaga did speak seven languages and travel extensively, it’s not entirely fair not to give some of the credit to my Grandma Russo, my paternal grandmother, and the grandmother I actually knew.

For my whole life, Grandma Russo was a little old Italian lady (my mother tells me that, even long before I was born, and perhaps for her whole life, Grandma Russo was a little old Italian lady—and I’m inclined to believe her). She spouted crazy old adages like, “You eat mushrooms when your body craves wood” and was constantly “God willing” she would be around to see whatever event was coming up in a year, month or even a day. In a sense, she may have been Gaga’s polar opposite.

And yet, though she didn’t move to the U.S. on her own at age 22 or throw crazy 48-hour parties, Grandma Russo was fascinating in her own right, a real window into another time and another world. Not only was she a traditional New England woman but a representative of the “Old Country,” carrying on the traditions of Italy and passing them on to her children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, Grandma Russo was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was young, and by the time I was old enough to really appreciate and want to hear all her stories about Italy and Rhode Island, she wasn’t all there to tell them. But I still managed to retain a lot from her, including an obsession with our culture, through the songs and the food and the little sayings. All this came back this past week when I walked into Trattoria del’ Arte to have dinner with a friend, and there by the host stand were long strips of powdered cookie, curled and bubbled in the frying process, a cookie that I used to make with my grandmother. We called them Wandi but the host at the restaurant called them Guanti (I’ve since learned that the words are somewhat interchangeable and translate to something like “gloves.”

This brought back memories of visits to Grandma’s house, visits characterized by what might be everyone’s (Italian or not) stereotype of the Italian grandmother: little old lady rushing around whipping out a feast, all while saying she had nothing to serve you. But more importantly it brought back memories of cooking with Grandma, and with my father: pizza, pasta and, of course various types of cookies, including Wandi.  Our family’s English word for them was “bows,” because after cutting the very thin batter into strips and we tied them into knots before frying them and sprinkling the powdered sugar. Whenever I’d make them with Grandma, she would re-tie all my bows, to the ever-increasing anger of my father.

This never bothered me, though. For me it was all about the process of making cookies with my grandmother, and today it’s all about the inspiration that experience instilled in me: a love of my heritage, which has translated into a love (and desire to explore all aspects) of Italy.

 Grandma Russo and her legacy

Grandma Russo and her legacy

Social Media for Social Change

24 08 2009

Mark your calendars folks. My friends at Sosauce just alerted me that on Tuesday, September1, they will be co-sponsoring and taking part in the New Media & Youth Action Conference next month. The conference will bring young people together for a free all-day community youth forum discussing important issues from health to cultural diplomacy. The goal is to give young people an open platform to discuss and learn about how they can get involved in and better their worlds. Sosauce co-founder Sean Pfitzenmaier will join other media and non-profit players, including Angela Atchison of E+Co and Richard Graves of Fired Up Media to speak to and empower young people.

The focus here is in my opinion a brilliant one: teach young people how to use social media networks like Sosauce to effect change in their worlds. If there is one thing I learned in my days as a tutor at the Harlem Children’s Zone, it’s that young people are addicted to social media. Though this was the bane of my existence when it kept them from focusing on the learning we needed to accomplish, if that obsession could be harnessed in a productive way, I think we are headed for a much better world. Thanks, Sosauce, and everyone else who is working to make that possible.

The conference takes place on Tuesday, September 1 from 10 am until 3 pm at the Interchurch Center in Morningside Heights (475 Riverside Dr # 530). For more information about the New Media & Youth Action Conference, please check out the official site, or if you’re a social networking addict, visit New Media & Youth Action on Sosauce or on Facebook.

Cool, Unique Travel Site

18 08 2009

Atlas Obscura bills itself as a Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities and Esoterica. Even the phrase has you wanting more. The site itself is nothing short of spectacular full of some of the best and most amazing randomness the world has to offer, from Húsavík’s Phallological Museum in Iceland(yes, there does exist such a thing as a phallological museum) to the holy rats that inhabit Karni Mata Temple in India.

It’s the ultimate travel guide for the off-the-beaten-pathers, and, what’s more, it’s a collaborative project, meaning anyone can contribute an interesting (read: bizarre) place), the sorts of things like miniature cities and handwoven bridges (fear!) that are left out of the usual guidebooks.

As it describes itself, “Atlas Obscura is about celebrating a different way of traveling, and a different lens through which to view the world.” In other words, it’s a way of opening up travel, and of uniting people and their stories. Score on many counts.

Those About To Die… Photos

17 08 2009

It’s even better than I imagined it. Special thanks to photographer Jason Geller who gave me permission to share some of his photos.Check out his album here.

Summer Reading List, Take Two

16 08 2009

NPR’s reading list got me thinking about the nature of summer reading. Bookworm that I am, summer has always represented a time to catch up on the books I didn’t get to read during the school year, and now it’s just as good a time as any to read all those books I’ve always wanted to read, but do so outside, soaking up the sunshine (or, as in the case of this summer, inside, listening to the rain). Anyhow, in honor of summer reading, a list or two of my own…

What I’m Reading This Summer

  1. Devil in the White City: a look back at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, examining the man responsible for building it and the man responsible for destroying the lives of many who visited it. It’s fascinating not only for the mystery but for the grandeur of the fair and for all the “new” things introduced there (Wrigley’s gum, the Ferris Wheel…) It’s a trip back in time and a great read.
  2. In Our Time: Uplifting? No. One would hardly call this light summer reading. And yet the nature of Hemingway’s short, succinct sentences lends something to the nature of the quick summer read. The original New York Times review in 1925 credits “every syllable” as “count[ing] toward a stimulating, entrancing experience of magic.” And it is so. Not to mention, Hemingway is always a good read for the traveler because he does such a good job of evoking the true experience of Americans and natives abroad, even if the fact of it being in another time makes it seem another place altogether.
  3. Nine Stories: I know, I know, enough with the Salinger already. But the truth is, for me, there will never be enough Salinger. And these stories, with their heavy ideas and light, ironic and generally humorous tone, are the perfect summer reading, especially if you live in, are visiting, or simply love New York.
  4. I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Bill Bryson is great any time reading, but especially great subway reading because it doesn’t get much lighter than this. And yet the man is so insightful that you don’t have to feel guilty about reading “light” (like I did when I became oddly engrossed in—and simultaneously, it must be noted, horrified by—a Danielle Steel novel one summer. Bryson’s notes on returning to the U.S. after living abroad for 20 years are simply hilarious. Just be careful about reading in public. You will certainly find yourself laughing out loud.

Favorite Reading of Summers Past

  1. The Poisonwood Bible: it’s a little on the heavy side, but lovely and endearing and altogether engrossing, the tale of a family of missionaries and their experience in the Belgian Congo, as seen through the eyes of the wife and four daughters of a fierce evangelical Baptist. It’s not only a glimpse into another world, but a story of female strength and solidarity.
  2. Harry Potter…: What can I say? I’m fresh off of seeing the latest movie, and, well, they’ve gotten me through many a summer.
  3. The Human Comedy: It’s strange really, because I recall very little about the plot of this novel, except that it follows a young boy (Homer) as he delivers telegrams and struggles to survive in the small fictional town of Ithaca, CA. I do, however, recall sitting by the pool engrossed in said novel and thinking of it every time I hear the word “Ithaca.” Perhaps it is time to get reacquainted…
  4. The Great Gatsby: I know it seems like a cop out, but in my mind this remains a quintessential summer novel, possibly because of the colorful, raucous summer it portrays, but more because I can clearly recall the summer I first read it. It was the summer before heading off to college, when I realized that I’d made it all the way through high school without ever reading this classic work. Every time I see the cover, really, it takes me back to the floor of my bedroom, on a hot summer day, reading “and so we beat on…” Perhaps that was the beginning of my obsession with New York…

The Tale of the Urban Nautical Adventure

14 08 2009

Alas, I wasn’t able to witness the bizarre yet fascinating extravaganza that took place last night at the Queens Museum of Art. But the picture in my mind is enough to hold my amusement: grown men and women in togas (representing the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and El Museo del Barrio) pelting each other with watermelon cannon balls and fighting with baguette sword.

Those About to Die Salute You, brainchild of the controversial (and sea-obsessed) artist Duke Riley, took place in  the World’s Fair-era reflecting pool in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, just outside of the Queens Museum of Art. Prior to the battle, Riley and friends have spent months in what was once the World’s Fair ice skating rink (now a room in the Queens Museum) building the vessels that took sail last night. And a motley crew of ships it was: 30-foot-long Spanish galleons, Egyptian river boats, and Polynesian war canoes, to name a few, most built of salvaged materials.

“Why?” one might ask, but the answer to that question is simply another question: “Why not?” In times of economic downturn, it’s exactly this type of silliness we need, and Riley found his inspiration for the show in the Roman era  naumachia, a type of bloody sea battle meant to amuse the hungry masses. (For more background, check out this interesting article). I find the whole thing hilarious and fascinating, and am sorry I missed it. At least I can looke at the pictures.

Summer Reading List from NPR

13 08 2009

This morning on while getting ready for work and getting my daily NPR fix, I heard children’s author Lesley Bloom give her picks on summer reading for young adults. There are some winners there, a few I’ve read and a few I now want to read. I subsequently found myself entrenched in NPR’s seemingly endless maze of book lists, and have all-to-quickly amassed a summer reading wish list of my own (even though summer is nearly over). The short list:

  1. The Photographer: a combination of graphic novel/photojournalism about a Doctors Without Borders team entering war-torn Afghanistan. Bizarre, yet fascinating.
  2. The School of Essential Ingredients: about an unlikely group of cooking students, who, the write-up assures, you’ll want to spend your lunch hour with. That line sold me.
  3. Woodsburner: historical fiction (my favorite kind of book) that re-creates the Thoreau’s historic burning of 300 acres of the Concord Woods one year prior to building his cabin on Walden Pond. It’s said to be a look at American freedom, and I’m guessing it may make an easier summer read than Walden itself.
  4. Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware: a travel book about the adventures of a young L.A. native in Japan, caught in the mystery quest for an ancient Japanese concept. The book itself is said to resemble a work of art, which is an added bonus.

There were many others of interest on these lists, but for brevity’s sake (and since summer is all-too-quickly coming to an end) I stop at four, and I think they pretty much run the gamut. They enlighten, provoke thought and yet can still be read on the beach or train or wherever the summer may take you. Ah, summer reading, what would we do without you?

Simple Sustainability

7 08 2009

A California Academy of Sciences takeaway: we may not all be able to live or work under a living roof, but little steps count too. Upon leaving the Academy of Sciences, guests are offered miniature pamphlets titled “Sustainability Made Simple,” chock full of pointers that make going green easy in all aspects of daily life. Some of my favorites:

  • When you go shopping, bring your own reusable bags: a pretty common one, but such an easy (and fun) one to carry out. Reusable bags are everywhere, and they are often cheap and attractive. You can even get shopping sets. I’m a fan of Baggu Bags, for their fun colors and their little saks that make them easy to toss in the purse.
  • Choose local restaurants over chains. Not only does this make life (and meals) more interesting, it generally means that the meal is sourced close to home, which means fresher food and less strain on the environment.
  • Take the train or bus instead of flying or driving. This may not always be possible, but when it is, it’s better on the environment, and tends to be more scenic and enjoyable as well. Sometimes travel is in the journey as much as it is in the destination.

For more tips, well, visit the Academy of Sciences. I guarantee you’ll take away a lot more than a pamphlet.

California Academy of Sciences – Finally!

1 08 2009

Last weekend while at home I finally made it to the California Academy of Sciences. I’ve been wanting to visit since it reopened last year, after nearly 10 years and $500 million of renovations.

It was worth the wait. The new building is pretty spectacular, complete with a living roof that not only collects rainwater to prevent polluting runoff, but reduces energy needs, provides a habitat for local flora and fauna and is pretty darn lovely to behold on top of it all.

We visited Madagascar, Borneo and Costa Rica in four stories, compliments of the museum’s tropical rain forest, which is teeming with vibrant butterflies, but, lucky for me, the birds tend to remain well hidden. The penguins never fail to please (don’t believe me? watch them), and the planetarium was pretty fantastic, though I think the highlight may well have been the albino alligator that graces the swamp part of the aquarium.

I visited this place as a child, but I have to say the awe I feel as an adult far exceeds any I could have felt then. As an adult, I fully appreciate the scope of the place, and all the effort that went into making it what it is today. It’s been a key feature of Golden Gate Park, and now its sustainable design ensures that it will continue to be so for a very long time. And that makes this girl very, very happy.