Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Vineyards of the Langhe

Langhe, Italy (August 4, 2014)

Don't trust the GPS. One would think that I would know well the area in the south of Piedmont where my family is from. After all I have lived there for many years, and spent many summers in a little valley where the Alps starts, right at the head of the wine region of Piedmont. Yet, when at the end of the long drive from Trieste, Waze decided that we should get off the road to take a "shortcut" through the hills, I decided that technology must trump memories. Sure as hell, we found ourselves in the middle of the Langhe, in pitch dark, driving on roads getting ever smaller and steeper.

Vineyards in the Langhe
The Langhe are the wine region at the south of Torino, where the finest wines of Piemonte are produced (and the more-precious-than-their-weight-in-gold white truffles are found). Traveling through the area is like reading through a restaurant wine list: Barolo, Barbaresco, Neive... all little towns on the top of a hill, with a castle, a church and vineyards producing the unique wines carrying the local toponyms in their names. To those famous wines one should add the least known ones, among which the red Dolcetto and the white Arneis, which I actually prefer to their better known brethrens. The center of the Langhe is Alba, a pre-roman town that became a free city during the late middle ages, and was a center of fierce resistance against the german occupying forces in WWII. Cesare Pavese, one of my favorite writers, was from Santo Stefano Belbo, one of the centers in the area. My family has also their roots in the Langhe, with my paternal grandparents born in Bra and Cherasco. On the other side of the river Tanaro these two small centers are in sight of La Morra, an ancient village where the Nebiolium (Nebbiolo) wine was already grown in roman times. It is said that the vineyards were so highly regarded that the penalty for cutting down a vine were as severe as hanging, or having the offending hand amputated.

My only regret of getting lost in the finest wine area in Italy was that it was the middle of the night, and in full darkness we could not enjoy the beautiful vistas of the region (recently declared UNESCO World Heritage Site), nor the wines or the food. This was however to be remedied just a few days later, when we went back to the area on a wine expedition.

Mr. Drocco and his dogs
The attitude I was taught as a kid with respect to alcohol consumption, is that you drink wine for its flavour, not because of its inebriating qualities. A corollary of this is that there is no point in drinking crap wine: you go for quality. While in the US that would be synonym with expensive, in Italy it rather means that you only drink the wine from a producer you trust. That often means going to the source. The trusted vineyard of my family is a friend of my father, Mr. Renzo Drocco. A small family business, his production is mostly sold to local restaurants. And to a few friends. So, the next day after getting lost at night in the hills of the Langhe, we did the same route in reverse, in full daylight, to Mr. Drocco vineyards in Rodello. You can see the landscape in the area in this post's photos: rows after rows of vines, owned by small producers that strive for quality, rather than quantity. You can see him in the little photo on the right, in the cellar where his wine matures, and where he offered us a taste of his wines accompanied by a fresh slice of his own excellent salami (the latter explains the laser-focused attention of the two very interested pooches in the photo).

As I am writing this post, now that I am back in Iowa, one of his bottles is on the table, in front of me. A bottle of Arneis, a highly perfumed wine with the aroma of apricot, peaches and pears, sometimes called "Nebbiolo bianco". In the local dialect, Arneis means "little rascal", and refer to the difficulty in properly growing the vine. An art that Mr. Drocco has mastered to perfection.

Langhe, Italy (August 4, 2014)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Troubled Life of an Unlikely Emperor

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

There was a time in history when a selected group of individuals, because of their birth, marriage or money, were more equal in society than everybody else. A few families controlled the governments of Europe, and the flow of capitals across the world. Their offsprings were groomed since a tender age to be the future enlightened leaders of their nations. Borders were drawn to accommodate their rightful necessities, and preserve the balance of power among these powerful families and their entourage. To us, living in the modern world of full equality, where everybody has the same political influence, economic possibilities and education opportunities, regardless of gender, race or inclinations, this may seem a quaint world out of touch with reality. But this was the world at the beginning of the XIX Century, after the Congress of Vienna in 1814 repaired the upheaval caused by the Napoleonic wars and set a new order by restoring the old powers to their rightful place.

Votivkirche, Vienna
This was the world in which Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine was born, in the imperial palace of Shönbrunn in Vienna. The second surviving child of a cadet branch in the Austrian imperial family, he devoted himself to a life of study and military action when his brother Franz Joseph become the new Holy Roman Emperor (that is, the ruler of Austria and half of Europe). Franz Joseph (Ceco-Beppe as he was nicknamed by his faithful italian subjects) had been elevated to the crown to bring some new, militaristic blood to a throne tainted by the European revolutions of 1848, and roll back some of the democratic concessions forced upon his feeble-minded uncle. After suppressing a revolt of the Hungarians, that somehow resented the Habsburg centralized rule, the emperor suffered an assassination attempt by the hands of the Hungarian nationalist János Libényi. He barely survived, and to celebrate this event (the survival, that is) the emperor's brother Maximilian called upon the reigning families of Europe to donate for the construction of a church on the site of the attack. Thus the Votivkirche in Vienna was constructed, located, as it happens, just facing my hotel room when I was in town two weeks ago for a meeting. The little photo on the left was my view from the window. Thanks Maximilian for your efforts.

Miramare marine reserve 
Maximilian efforts, however, didn't stop with the beautification of my hotel room view. At just 22 years of age he became commander in chief of the Austrian Navy, and was instrumental in the creation of the naval ports of Trieste and Pula. He was then named Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia (at the time part of the Austrian Empire), but he didn't last very much in that role. The emperor became enraged by the liberal policies attempted by Maximilian, and he was removed from the post. He then retired in Trieste with his wife Carlota. In Trieste he built their love-nest, the Miramare castle. The villa (built with the characteristically eclectic architecture of the time) is shown in the large picture above. It happens to be just a few step down from SISSA, the school where I did my graduate studies, and ICTP, which is where Mayli took a year of courses after her university degree.  You can say that Mayli and me met on the grounds of Maximilian and Carlota love-nest. The residence is surrounded by a beautiful park facing the gulf of Trieste, now a protected marine reserve. Next to the reserve and directly at the end of the road to the SISSA/ICTP buildings, there is a stone and concrete pier projecting into the gulf. The only public access to the sea, between the protected waters and private marina, this pier is where SISSA students spend the late afternoons waiting for the traffic to abate along the coastal road, before heading back to the city for dinner. You can see the pier in the small photo below (you may notice, keen-eyed reader, as women of any age sunbathe topless in Trieste, and nobody makes any fuss about it).

Miramare, Trieste
Maximilian however was restless. When a delegation of Mexican conservatives approached him in Miramare offering the crown of the newly created Empire of Mexico, with some little hesitation he accepted. He embarked on the imperial yacht Phantasie with his wife towards this new american adventure, ready to bring to his new subjects the wisdom and the enlightenment of his european education. He received the blessing of his peers: the benediction of Pope Pius IX and a ceremonial firing salute ordered by Queen Victoria as his boat crossed the Gibraltar strait.  He was not told, however, that the plebiscite supporting the creation of the new empire succeeded only with considerable help from the french bayonets of the occupying Napoleon III armies, nor that the liberal forces of Benito Juárez were less than ready to recognize his rule. He landed in Veracruz on 21 May 1864 welcomed by the wild enthusiasm of the crowds, and an ongoing revolution of the republican forces led by Porfirio Díaz. He didn't last long: his liberal policies once again enraged his conservative supporters, while the republican revolutionaries made huge gains as the french troops were retired, and with indirect help from the post-civil-war, Monroe-doctrine-directed United States. While Carlota was in Europe trying to rally support for her husband, Maximilian was taken prisoner by the forces of Juárez, court-martialed and sentenced to death. Despite the pleas of many liberals of the time (including Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi) to spare his life, he was executed on June 18, 1867. His wife had a nervous breakdown following the news: she never acknowledged his death and spent the rest of her life, insane and recluse, on the grounds of the Miramare castle.

From the terrace of the Miramare castle, Trieste, Italy (Aug 3, 2014)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

About Writing

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

+Rurousha tagged me in her blog to write about writing. She wants to know "how/where I find the time to take so many photos and write posts that are both scientific and lyrically beautiful". Uhmmm... I don't know about beauty, but the question about the time is easy to answer: I don't [find time], as evidenced by my taking more than two weeks to raise to the challenge and write this post. Now, I am supposed to comment a little more about my writing process. I'll do that while posting a few photos from Trieste taken last week, which is where I was while not writing this post.

What am I writing?

Trieste, Italy
I am not actually writing, this is a photoblog. Well at least it started as a photoblog, than I got distracted by the photo captions, and the photos became secondary to the text. Early in my career as an astronomer I traveled quite a lot, often in exotic locales which is where observatories are situated, or where conferences are held. Add to these work trips the visits to our families (mine in Italy and Mayli's in South America) and my photoblog rapidly morphed in a sort of unstructured travel diary, where lots of words are spent over-analyzing the places and situations utterly unfamiliar (and for that exciting) I come in contact with. Even after many years I still enjoy to be surprised by people and locales outside my comfort zone, which is what keeps me on my toes and keeps me real. I share a lot of this thinking on this blog. More recently, mainly because of my teaching duties as university professor, my travels diminished a little, and my posts have detached from the topics directly related to the photos. The images have become only the excuse to talk about whatever touched my mind, be it science, or society. And this is where usually I get in trouble.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, I am not sure my blog adheres to any specific genre. I mainly write to scratch the itch of the day (or rather of the month, considering the sparseness of my posts, lately). For a photoblog, my posts are way too wordy. For a blog, my images have way too much prominence. I am stuck in this in-between land where I cannot decide if I like more taking pictures or writing about them. Since I write mostly for me, this is not a problem, but this lack of focus is something I would not advise to anybody interested in increasing the volume of their readership (mine is ridiculously small)!

Trieste, Italy
My style is heavily influenced by a bunch of italian journalists that are more writers than reporters, spaghetti Hemingway of sort. First of all Paolo Rumiz, reporter for "Il Piccolo" of Trieste (you see, there is a connection to the photos) first, "La Repubblica" now. Rumiz is a gentle man writing with huge sensibility of his slow-paced travels around the world. One time he traveled from north to south in Italy with a "Topolino" (a car from the '50s) through little roads and even smaller villages (in "The Legend of the Floating Mountains"). Another time, he traveled along the path of Hannibal, from North Africa to the tip of the Italian peninsula. A few years back, he went all the way to Vladivostok along the Trans-siberian railway. The stories of his voyages are the high point of my summer months. From him I have learned that great stories are not written by focusing to the heroic acts of few actors, but rather on the daily struggles, little victories and annoying defeats of the ordinary people; like me, like us...

Sometimes I write about science. Science is what I do in my daily job (yes, astronomers work mainly in daytime, like everybody else). The science posts that appear in my blog are very different from my official science writing, the one of the scholarly articles. In my ApJ papers every word is measured and exact (at least it tries to be), a direct translation of math into english. My science posts have instead escaped from the cage: they liberally use forbidden analogies and figure of speech, and blur the lines between scientific rigor and misleading fantasy. My goal is to stimulate curiosity, not provide answers: don't try to learn science from my posts! I think I fault this to Italo Calvino.

Why do I write what I do?

I have no agenda. Well everybody has a hidden agenda, I just don't know what is mine. I started to write as a way to practicing English. When I arrived in the US my American English was quite awful. The little English I knew was British/international slang (my Ph.D. thesis advisor was from the UK), with a technical slant focused on my field of studies. American everyday-life-language was a big mystery for me (I remember a long conversation with the car insurance guy that ended with the poor man hanging up in frustration after saying "oh my dear God" because of my lack of understanding; I still hate to talk by phone). Writing a blog was a way to experiment without anybody hanging up on me (at least on my face). The topics I chose don't have a method: they are just something that happen to cross my mind, upset or elate me, or result from free association chains from the subject of a photo I shot.

How does my writing process work?

I use a computer, of course. If I had lived in the XIX century I would have used a quill, but now we have the magic of electronics that makes publishing easier. Oh wait, you mean to ask about my writing method, do you? Oh well...

Trieste, Italy
I am not sure I have a consistent process. I spend a couple of hours every day, weather good or bad, walking my dog. During these walks I let my mind wander; sometimes thoughts occur to me that I cannot easily shake off. Writing about them is a way to exorcise these mind-worms, a physical way to purge them from my mind and let them roam free one electron at a time, from my keyboard to the screen. Digital catharsis. When this happen, I mumbe for a few days about the subject, then try to find some photo in my archive that is remotely connected to the topic, and I start to write. Inevitably ending up to a different place from when I intended to be. But that's ok, isn't that what happens to characters anyway, once they leave the fingers of their writer (this is a reference to Luigi Pirandello)?

At the beginning (10 years ago, when I started the first incarnation of this blog) I posted more frequently, and the process what the reverse: first I chose the photo, then I wrote a caption for it. Now that the internet has changed (with the raise of social media) my photos go mostly on Google+, freeing my hand to tell stories on my blog, albeit at a slower pace.


Ok. what's next? Ah, I have to tag somebody to continue with this. Mmm, let's send the ball back to Japan to +Elizabeth Tasker. Why? Because she is a fellow astronomers and she also writes a mix of science and lifestyle posts in her blog. If you think I travel a lot, think how she has made her travel status permanent by moving to beautiful Sapporo. Elizabeth, the ball is on your court!

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

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