Saturday, June 30, 2018

Colombia one, Senegal zero, an elegy

I'm pretty sure yesterday in this space I drew a curtain on the group stage of The World Cup and marked fresh a new starting line for the round of 16. But as I write now I only just saw my team, drawn for five dollars in my Library World Cup Pool, Senegal, eliminated from the tournament. They played pretty good and finished tied for second in their group. But alas they went out of The Cup on the decision of some minuscule tie-breaker. I think it was something about Japan having maybe two fewer fouls in The Cup than Senegal.

Well it had to be something.

And among soccer's great raft of structural flaws, ties always jostle aggressively for a good spot in the box. Plus they're tall. Today they scored.

Deep in its heart soccer knows this is a problem. As often as possible it just leaves ties sitting there. But when one absolutely positively needs a winner there's always something nutty that no one thinks is nutty because it's been around forever, like penalty kicks, or some arcane rule about fouls, like the one that just put Japan through and left Senegal behind.

I'm not mad. Like I said, it had to be something. I just want my five dollars back.

So does Africa.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The end of the group stage

The one major thing I predicted before this World Cup is that Germany would go out early. To the only person I know who closely follows soccer, Marcus, the former teen librarian, I said "I have one prediction and one prediction only: Germany will go out early. Mark my words."

I really hope he marked my words.

But as I wrote the following on the eve before Germany's amazing loss to South Korea, I did not dare to dream that Germany would go out. I tempted fate in a kind of reverse psychology, letting fate make me wrong for the sake of a result I delight in: Defending Champions Germany are out of the Cup!

As to everything else, besides that singular elimination, what I say in the following is still pretty much correct, and in some ways the end is even more true.


As I write we are still in the middle of the last round of the group stage of The World Cup. But as you read this the group stage will all be over. We will be on our first day of rest since the tournament began, waiting patiently for the round of 16 to begin. So I thought I'd go out on a limb here and sum things up, even if they haven't all quite happened yet. I actually hope they don't happen!

In the first round all was thrown into madness. Upsets reigned and unpredictable results seemed to throw the doors of The Cup wide open.

In the second round the great dramas were all set up, everything rising towards the great decisions of the final game.

And in the third round all order was restored. Everyone who everyone thought was going to go through ended up going through, and all the brave underdogs came up an inch or two short. The underdogs are packing their bags, while all the favorites are keen to wipe away all past uncertainties, and start fresh.

I don't live in Argentina, Brazil, or Spain, or France, where nearly everyone I would meet would be as informed and passionate about The World Cup as I am. I am in America, where only through a great effort have I wrung interest in The World Cup from the people around me. A few of these people have risen to the challenge and even watch some of the games. They might have even picked a team or two to cheer on. But mostly what I have gotten around me are what I think of as The Underdog Rooters.

Underdog Rooters are people with a modest knowledge of what's going on but not enough interest or attention to pick a team on some private reason. So they default to rooting for the underdog.

It's a nice enough sentiment, I suppose. I tell them who the underdog is. They cheer for them.

And while after round one it looked as if this approach might have some pay off, by round three, as I've noted, we've ultimately returned to form.

All the underdogs are gone. Who will these people root for now?

But as I look over all the group stage performances it strikes me that no one has been so terribly great. And so, if you want to root for the underdog just go ahead and pick anyone, anyone at all. There are no favorites left. Whoever wins now will defy the odds.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Argentina, Nigeria, Iceland, and the knife's edge

As I write I don't know what happens. It hasn't happened yet.

As you read you know what happened, I mean, if you care at all, because it has happened.

I could try to predict every scenario:

Argentina dysfunction and disaster, Nigeria goes through in a Cinderella story.

Argentina brokenly slips through as Iceland falls.

How about: Higuain the hero.

I strangely like this one: Argentina wins but Iceland stuns a disinterested Croatia and goes through on goal differential or fouls or some weird tie breaker. Did you know that eventually, at the end of tie breakers from play, they just do a coin toss? Imagine crashing out of the World Cup on a coin toss.

Or since we're going wild, how about a Messi hat trick but a three-three tie? Nigeria or Iceland through.

I'll admit my favorite scenario is far the least likely, six goals for Messi.

A boy can dream.

The point is I could spend hours writing scenarios, but it's the World Cup. And I have found even if you defy all the odds and predict it right, it's never quite right. There is always some twist to the story somewhere that time alone is willing to reveal.

I try to remember this when I am on the other end of it all, thinking, bitterly or suffused in joy, "I knew it would happen just like this."

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

France zero Denmark zero


I'm awake.

I read a book of letters between Karl Ove Knausgard and Fredrik Ekelund that was about watching the last World Cup, Karl from home, and Fredrik off where it was happening in Brazil. And when I say "read" I mean I made it about a third of the way through the book before tossing it aside. The first big thing that put me off was how Karl Ove Knausgard kept falling asleep during the matches.

After watching some chunk of 20 or so games I can only now have a shred of empathy and understanding for poor Karl in that last World Cup. Only France and Denmark have taught me that soccer can be pointless and dreary and stupid. I am forever in their debt.

My sympathy for Karl Ove Knausgard's struggle could only carry so far though, since he was always at pains to tell us about his love for disciplined, stolid, defensive soccer. You'd think he could stay awake forever watching Denmark back their way through a game. 

The early response to this awful game seems to be to blame France, maybe because everyone knows they should be good, brilliant even, but they are just not all that great so far. But two things about France here: one, as the game went, tied, they were assured of being first in their group despite all their unamazingness, and then two, France actually tried to score the whole time. 

This leaves Denmark as the true villain that the fans were justly whistling. Because Peru were clearly cruising to victory over Australia, Denmark had nothing to lose in losing to France. They still would have gone to the round of 16 as second in their group. But by scoring they could have been first in their group. They actually ceded first place in their group to France by not trying, and they did so for no actual good reason.

I wonder if Karl Ove Knausgard would like that!

I'll go wake him up and ask.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Best team in the World Cup (so far)

In my soccer day job I follow club soccer. And because I only have time for a few things my interests therein must have their limits. My scope is modest: I love Barcelona, and The Spanish La Liga, and my enemies are Real Madrid and The English Premiere League. 

But shouldn't The World Cup be a vacation from all that?

As I write, just after the end of the second round of group play I think we can safely pronounce the best team in The World Cup so far.

No, not the best National Team. At this point it is impossible to tell. Is Belgium good? After a mere two games maybe their opponents have simply been poor. England the same, and with the same opponents. Let's see them against each other before we so judge. Uruguay, Russia, who's to say? France, Croatia, Mexico, I am hardly ready to call it for any of these teams, as good as some have been. But after two games I am willing to say that the best team so far has been Real Madrid. 

Yes, hated Real Madrid. 

But aren't we on vacation from hating Real Madrid?

Luka Modric has had two of the best games of the tournament by anyone, playing now for Croatia. Marcelo has been thrilling on Brazil. Isco is bright and essential for Spain. Toni Kroos the reason Germany is still in it. And of course Ronaldo is the entire difference, after two games, for Portugal.

I don't resent it. Good for them. But the third game is still to come. And ever the story changes. Barcelona, the Barcelona of Rakitic, Messi, Iniesta (sort of), Dembele, Umtitie, Busquets, and Coutinho, who all wait in the wings of glory, some already having made great marks, some, not yet so much. 

But I will try, for awhile now, to not keep that score,the score of those teams of my normal life. The deck has been reshuffled. And while deep preferences persist, new, unheard of combinations have blossomed into being.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Germany 2, Sweden 1, Me 0

I don't want to be full of hate. I don't want a World Cup full of villains and heroes. I already have this in Politics. I don't need it to overwhelm soccer,  especially if the villains are all going to win and the heroes are all going to lose.

If I had to pick any team I was rooting against, above all others, it was surely Germany. So it was an early joy to see them lose to a favorite of mine, Mexico. But also, as the first round developed, I found a new loathing for all the stifling, defensive play of the Northern teams; Iceland, Switzerland, and yes, Sweden. So when it came time for Germany vs. Sweden I just wanted everyone to lose.

I certainly didn't want to hate watch a game. So I didn't watch it.

Except it's The World Cup. The World Cup. This happens only once every four years!

So I did watch it a little.

I wanted Germany to lose. Nothing was working out for them. Sweden scored. I was tolerating Sweden on this basis; the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But Sweden couldn't even do that right. They tried to play stultifying, desperate, defensive soccer. But its first round luster had worn off. Germany, with only ten men, still managed to sweep over them by, get this, trying to actually score.

They had the audacity to try and score!

Hats off, reluctantly, to Germany.

I don't want to talk about Sweden.

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all except "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Which, I think, speaks volumes.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Saudi Arabia, an apology, and Croatia 3, Argentina, zero

After the first round of The World Cup I wrote a piece about how after playing just one game everyone was still in it. And then the punchline came at the expense of poor Saudi Arabia. I said everyone was still in it, everyone except Saudi Arabia, who lost to Russia, five to nothing.

No one wants to talk about Saudi Arabia, and not least because I was right. But I wasn't right by much. Who can say what happened with Russia for Saudi Arabia, but against Uruguay they comported themselves with distinction and showed that everyone deserves to be there, all 32 teams in The World Cup earned their place and all 32 teams can play serious soccer.

Of course, I write this just as Argentina lost 3-0 to Croatia. But I've learned my lesson and will refrain here from punchlines.

Especially when they'd just make me feel worse.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

France, Peru, and 26 games all with a score of one to nothing

I am watching a game in which, in a complicated manner, I am pulling for both teams. One of these teams, though, is leading one to nothing. Lately in this World Cup, when it goes to one to nothing the game is over and you might want to go for a walk or something. It doesn't matter if there has only been six minutes of play, a score of one nothing and it's over. This is all very sensible to the announcers that I am sometimes compelled to listen to.

"I don't understand what these players are doing." One commentator criticizes. "There is only 42 minutes left to play and they're up one to nothing. Why doesn't the heaviest player just sit on top of the ball so that nothing can happen?"

That's an exaggeration.

But not by much.

Well it works. In the first truly sad elimination of the tournament a bright and sparkly and never say die Peru team will not be advancing out of the group stage. One can say that that's on Peru for shining in so many areas, but being so utterly unable to finish. But that's pretty harsh when virtually no one in this tournament has been able to finish. It's all own goals, penalties that never would have been goals without the penalty, weird deflections, and set pieces (which, even at their highest level, Ronaldo and Suarez, include a good dose of luck).

But as they say in soccer, you make your chances. 

And as they also say: All to play for.

Except, I am truly sad to report, for Peru.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Senegal 2, Poland 1, not to mention Japan

It was yet another morning for upsets. I was able to see the last half of Japan's amazing victory over Columbia before I was onto my main feature for the day: Senegal vs. Poland. Unfortunately I was only able to watch until the 78th minute, at which point I had to run out the door and make my way to work, on foot, riding a bike, and by car.

The good news was that thanks to a couple of admittedly fluky goals Senegal was winning 2 to 0. The bad news was that they did not look in full control of the game. Anything could still happen! And I had to leave.

So I left. In the pouring rain. And in my head, as I often do while walking and biking to work, I wrote my blog post. Only I couldn't just write the usual one blog post. I had to write two; one where Senegal won, and one where Senegal lost.

The one where Senegal lost involved biking in mud, and rain, and no joy in Mudville, and a bit about back pain, and having to work all day, and being late. But, as you see, I didn't have to write that one today.

The one where Senegal won had all the same things in it, but it was different. It goes like this:

I stayed too late at home before work and had to race out the door. The weather forecast said the rain would stop by noon, but it didn't look like it. So I started to get wet. As noon arrived it started to rain harder as if to mock me and my absurd trust of weather forecasts. I plowed through mud on the road and it sprayed up my back, which suddenly ached mysteriously. A man on his phone pulled out from a parking spot blindly cutting me off. It rained some more and I looked down to see that my pants were starting to saturate. It was going to take hours to fully dry out in the humid, itchy library I work at. Of course, I would have the hours to dry out because the rest of my day would be spent working. What glimpses I would have of the afternoon game, Russia V Egypt, would be paltry, furtive, and stolen as I can see my managers losing patience with my World Cup obsession and the way I've infected a surprising amount of the rest of the staff with it.

So the day wasn't looking too good.

But I didn't care. 

I didn't care!

Senegal won!

Senegal won!

Senegal won!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Who I like so far (and who I don't)

In the build up to The World Cup I thought a bit about some of the teams I might like to see do well. I probably even have a nice neat list somewhere with Argentina, Spain, Senegal, Mexico, France, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru on it. But I have long ago abandoned those lists, and everything gets complicated when it comes to actual soccer games being played by real teams. I still adore Spain but have developed a tentative loathing for their goal keeper, who by all accounts has played years of flawless football for some team in England and yet has managed in one game to make an error outdistancing any other in the World Cup so far. I desperately want Argentina to win but until they do I will cluck my tongue at their coach thinking "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" or something like that. Luka Modric, freed of being on an enemy team, now of Croatia, I find fairly awesome. I just couldn't help notice. I was a fan of Nigeria until the whole team gave up inexplicably in the middle of their game. Uncharacteristically I was pretty happy with the refs until they failed to red card any of the Swiss team. Which brings me to the Swiss team and every team that includes lots of tall blonde players. I wouldn't mind liking one, for a change of pace, but I don't like any of them; Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark. Maybe they have the right spirit though, that is: if everyone plays careful defense then for the whole game the ball can just sit in the middle of the field, untouched, and everyone can go home without losing. 

No one wants to lose, and I can't imagine any ball likes getting kicked.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The first games

Maybe about the time this post comes out everyone in The World Cup will have played their first game. And here's the thing about The World Cup:

Everyone gets three games, minimum.

And here's the thing about the first game:

The second game can kill you because two losses and you're out.

The third game can kill you because see above.

All the rest of the games, if you're lucky or good enough to play them, can kill you because they are elimination games.

But the first game, the first game, well, anything can still happen. It was just the first game.

Unless, I regret to inform you, you are Saudi Arabia, and you lost to Russia, Russia, five to zero. Five to zero. I am sorry to report that for you, it's over.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Brazil 1 Switzerland 1

I was so looking forward to The World Cup, and anticipated so much pleasure from it, that I forgot about one thing in soccer:

The pain.

I was telling a co-worker about this and she reassured me that the players grimacing, crashing to the ground, and writhing in agony would be okay.

"No, no." I explained. Not their pain. They're 25 year olds in the peak of physical condition. I'm not worried about their pain. I'm worried about mine."

The first several days of The World Cup did not go according to plan, more specifically it did not go according to my plan. Spain merely tying Portugal by managing to partly gift Cristiano two or even three of his goals, Messi missing the penalty and Iceland tying by acting as a wet blanket with Argentina. France, who I wanted to see play well, winning tepidly. Teams playing with a little life and joy, like Peru and Nigeria going down to order and organization. It was I who was moaning. It was I who was grimacing, crashing to the ground, and writhing in agony.

This, this pain is soccer. But it was no good. I can't do the whole World Cup like this, with this pain.

So I took myself in hand. "Self," I said. "You have got to find a way to enjoy this more. It cannot be about results. It cannot be so conditional. You must extract more joy from all these moments of beauty and skill."

The beautiful game.

And no sooner had I resolved this than Mexico, playing a lively, forward, adventurous game, brought down the mighty Germans! "This is what I'm talking about!" I cried. Here is joy. The first and biggest upset not brought on with fouls and defense and walls and a single moment's luck, but by a team playing and believing. It was wonderful.

I was ready for the exciting Brazil team!

And then Brazil filled me with happiness, playing exciting, Brazilian Football for 20 minutes, culminating with a firebolt goal from Coutinho. I had arrived!

And then, just as suddenly, it stopped. Brazil turned down the music. Half of it was they lost the thread of the game from out of nowhere, and half of it was Switzerland fouled them 137 times. The referees have gotten in the business of protecting defenses. I was furious.

But then I remembered what I was there to do. Look at the glorious way that Marcelo catches a 30 meter pass dead at his feet. See the miracle of Neymar almost magically passing through a Swiss player, leaving him clutching desperately at his shirt. I believe. Exult Switzerland in your tie. It was all you could do. I do not know who will win this tournament, but it will not be you and your ilk, Sweden, Iceland, Switzerland, Germany. Mark my words, joy will win.

Joy will win.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Spain 3, Portugal 3, Ronaldo hattrick

As an inveterate supporter of Spain (ranking them only behind Argentina and Senegal in my list of preferred teams), it quite pained me to see them tie Portugal. But I was fully aware it was a great game, full of drama and wonderful skill. And it showed plenty of promise for Spain.

It showed an odd kind of promise for Portugal too.

In the era of Futbol I belong to, and possibly the only one I will ever belong to, there are two defining players: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. While Ronaldo is an extraordinary soccer player, anyone who watches the whole game and the skill of a player with open eyes understands that Messi is on another level, the most gifted athlete in his sport that there has ever been. And yet in terms of success Ronaldo has pretty fairly matched him throughout their careers. He has also vastly outstepped him as this World Cup has opened.

I, like many fans of Messi, bristle bitterly at this fact, and ever hope for Messi to prove the final proofs of his greatness. But on the one hand we seek some kind of proof for something already apparent. And on the other hand, and I say this with a touch of reluctance, we may be missing the whole of soccer.

If there is any real taboo in the discussion of soccer it might be the dreaded issue of luck. Partly this is true because there are a lot of sour grapes to any discussion of luck in sports. But there are two other reasons people don't like to discuss luck. One, soccer is a narrative game. A game happens and everyone writes their narrative for it. Luck in soccer is, when taken seriously, in the end openly hostile to any decent narrative. And the second reason is that there is a slightly bigger slice of luck in soccer than in most other sports. This doesn't set well in a game that so revels in skill and in the justice and destiny of winners and losers.

And so we come to the missing piece, Ronaldo is luckier than Messi. But contrary to how that sounds it is not a condemnation of the great Ronaldo. In this sense we must accept that luck is an essential aspect of soccer and that if someone's luck is strong, it counts among his talents and achievements. Watching one of the most acclaimed goalkeepers in the world literally fumble a ball hit at him into the goal is still a goal for Ronaldo, just as one of Messi's teammates sloppily getting in the way of an on target shot is still distinctly not a goal for Messi.

I myself tend to watch soccer for skill. But I will admit when I am screaming in agony at some game where my team is outplaying the other but unable to win, I might be willing to trade just a smidgen of all that wonder for a couple moments of destiny.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Germany V Mexico

As this post goes live, a few days hence from where I write now, the great Germany, co-favorite of this World Cup (with Brazil) will be getting dressed for their game with Mexico, who I really really hope are very good even as I suspect they're just pretty good, or even merely all right.

But this post isn't about that game, not exactly.

As an expression of my nearly fanatical interest in this World Cup, and too to provide a kind of distraction from the pain of returning to work after two blissful weeks in Rome with my wife, I undertook to put together a rather elaborate World Cup pool at my workplace, the library. This current group of my co-workers (an ever evolving equation) has an unusually strong interest in sports, and though these sports are mainly Baseball, Hockey, Women's Basketball, and Football (American), they have all quite taken to the World Cup spirit. My World Cup fever is much less lonely with co-workers taking an avid interest in the fortunes of Panama (good luck with that!), Switzerland (probably good luck with that again), Belgium (it could happen), and Brazil (oh hello!).

Nevertheless, with the former teen librarian on vacation in Iberia, all of these co-workers are very much at a remedial level of World Cup understanding. So far I am very much in the position of explaining the absolute basics of the tournament over and over as well as things like why someone was quite fortunate (possibly) to draw Uruguay, or I'm putting a brave face on as I gently explain what the chances are for the person who drew Nigeria, or Panama, Saudi Arabia, or Peru (notice how I don't mention Senegal here? Senegal is going to surprise everyone! Did I mention how I drew Senegal in the pool? Sadio Mane' for life. I am only sorry that they have to lose to a Messi hattrick in the finals).

So while all this pool stuff is going on, but just before the World Cup starts, we began training a group of new employees. Some of them were destined for other branches, some are training to be subs, and all of them are too late, alas, for my World Cup pool as it was all subscribed. But there was still a lot of fanfare as people were in the process then of ceremoniously picking their team in random draws.

On one of these days a new trainee walked into the break room. He was maybe in his thirties I guess, and it seems safe to say he is an immigrant from a soccer country in Africa. I explained all about our World Cup pool and we fell briefly into a soccer discussion.

He then commenced to give me a thoroughly informed 15 minute dissertation on the tactics and history of the German National Team.

I understood then how I must sound to everyone else.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Argentina V. Iceland

Technically speaking, as this is posted on the Internet, Argentina's first game of this World Cup will be underway. and by that same token so will wee Iceland's first World Cup game ever be underway. This latter is a mighty achievement. Iceland is, by population, the smallest nation ever to play a World Cup. Their pluck, determination, and fortitude are truly admirable. By every right I should be cheering them on and reveling in their every moment of against-all-odds skill and their tireless focus.

But they are playing Argentina.

And so 30 minutes into the game I hope that Argentina is winning 37 to nothing.

It's not personal.

I mean, it's not personal against Iceland. And I hope they don't feel bad.

And if things go the other way for underdog Iceland? Well, kudos to them! I will be taking to my bed for a few days. Please draw the curtains.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Not about the World Cup

I do take some joy in looking out for your, the reader's, interests here. But sometimes I like to balance it with my own sense of rambling fun. Thus I am allowed (by myself) to discuss the World Cup, despite it being hardly appealing to most of the people reading this, but nevertheless I try not to discuss things like the uninteresting opening game between two not particularly great teams. And so after dutifully watching Russia plaster a truly horrible looking Saudi Arabia 5-0 in said opening game of this World Cup, I decided I'd better head on outside to look for a blog post to write. It would be better for everyone involved if we waited until tomorrow to ramble on about the upcoming Argentina v. Iceland.

In Minnesota it is still beautiful out, just. A mass of turgid, very hot air is pushing towards us, and ahead of it is high Spring and some dramatic, gusty winds, produced, I assume, by the volatile collision of air masses. Everything was green. There were flowers. I didn't find anything to write about except some version of my introductory comments here. For some reason this seemed like plenty while I was walking the sidewalks of my city. Of course sitting here, more sober in front of a computer, we can both see that it's not.

I probably should have talked about soccer.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Fatamorgana: greatest gelateria of Rome

I must confess that it pains me just a little that the single greatest gelateria I have ever been to, the greatest ice cream I have ever eaten, the triumph in my exhaustive study of Roman gelato eating, aye the greatest gelateria in Rome, and all with a bit of room to spare, is Fatamorgana.

There are a few reasons for these feelings of irksomeness:

1. It is a chain. I hate that it is a chain, albeit a minor chain. It appears to have several locations throughout Rome and, get this, one on Ventura Blvd in L.A.; a street that I more or less grew up on. I do not believe that the Ventura Blvd one could be up to the Campo De' Fiori one's standard, but it's certainly possible. Fatamorgana defies human understanding.

2. It looks like pretty much any run of the mill Rome gelateria. That's a pretty charming standard, but still...

3. The counter help was... uninspiring. Oh, they weren't mean, or rude, they were just colorless and bland and uninterested.

So did all this leave a bad taste in my mouth?

Noooooooo! Because of all the good tastes in my mouth. There were too many good tastes in my mouth!

I don't know how Fatamorgana does it. I swear to you it must be sorcery. 

I am suggesting that someone may have sold their soul to the devil here.

Look, I have been to quite a few great Roman Gelaterias: Come Il Latte, San Crispino, La Strega Nocciola, and dear little Gelateria Del Viale, and great gelaterias do this: They make fresh, consistently excellent flavors, occasionally they might have one creative, off the beaten path flavor that actually works, and once every 15 or 20 flavors these masters of gelato transcend, they extract the essence of a fruit or flavor, bringing it to its brilliant, singing Platonic ideal. Lavender at La Strega, Pistachio (and whipped cream!) at Come Il Latte, Rose at Del Viale. These are flavors that fill one with wonder.

But at Fatamorgana they achieve transcendence not with one or two flavors, but with a full third of all their flavors. They put out their own weird and inventive flavors in a handful, and then they achieve transcendence with those. Avocado lime, Banana sesame, Pear Gorgonzola may look to be gimmicks at first, but they are among the best things I have ever eaten. But these work only because of their deep mastery. Their cherry was a Caravaggio level rendering of the true flavor of the sour cherry, satisfying, hiding nothing, illuminating all to full effect. The banana, oh the banana. Long have I counted banana as my favorite ice cream flavor, but almost on a conjectural basis. They say bananas were better and more flavorful in the sixties but they were all killed off and we eat a different variety today. Does Fatamorgana have a secret stash of this lost banana? Because I have waited my whole life for this banana. This is Ur-Banana, these are purified flavors. Nothing candy, nothing false, never too sweet or not sweet enough, it all tastes real, yet transformed by mystic alchemy into gelato, cold, smooth, creamy gelato.

The King is dead.

Long live the King.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

How to taste gelato in Rome

I love gelato, and last year when I went to Rome for a month I decided to do a thorough survey of the gelaterias of Rome. Some of my fanaticism conflicted with having a good time with my wife, and I wisely defaulted to having a good time as much as I could. Nevertheless I was able to test out something close to 30 gelaterias in Rome and come up (just barely) with an overall best:

Come Il Latte

And a favorite flavor:

Lavender, at La Strega Nocciola.

I learned a lot about gelato, gelaterias, and gelato tasting. In prepation for tomorrows huge, giant, thrilling reveal of the new, from my latest trip, greatest gelateria in Rome (Spoiler alert; close your eyes if you don't want to know yet: it's Fatamorgana) I wanted to share some of the useful things I've learned.

Oh, and the spoiler alert is over so you can open your eyes again.

1. Flavor combinations are dangerous.

Yes, it's a thing to have three or four flavors in a cup, but they tend to easily muck each other up. Two complimentary, but distinct flavors are far safer and more likely to be enjoyable. One might be ideal, but a foil is useful and, see item four.

2. Popularity is not a reliable indicator of quality.

Most of the gelaterias of the central city are pretty busy on a warm afternoon, and massive crowds queuing at Giolitti have more to do with fame, herd mentality, and location than mastery.

3. Chocolate flavors make for poor test cases.

I'm not saying don't get all chocolate flavors all the time if that's what you love, but chocolate is too easy and too constant a flavoring to tell the story if you want to be an unpaid semi-professional reviewer like me. Some say Fior di Latte is the way to go as what it comes down to is unflavored gelato, but that goes too far the other way to me in its subtle plainness, and, for comparisons sake, it isn't offered everywhere.

4. One or two (or even three or four) flavors might not tell the tale.

Really good gelato is tricky stuff, based as it is on real ingredients. This is because real ingredients vary. Some strawberries, or avocados, or pistachios, are fantastic, some are simply okay and all this comes through in really good gelato. The ideal gelateria would only work with fantastic organic ingredients sampled constantly and would manage to have maybe six or seven flavors a day at best instead of the more usual 20 or 30. And a gelato there would probably cost 7 or 8 euros. But I haven't seen this sort of approach anywhere yet. 

If the gelato is mediocre or poor somewhere the gelateria should probably be dismissed. And if it's amazing you should see what else they can do. But if it's simply really good you'd probably need to work through eight or nine flavors to have a good picture of the place. But that's a rule few to none of us are intrepid enough to follow.

5. Weird is good!

If someone can pull off pear/gorgonzola gelato then they seriously know what they're doing. But you're taking your life into your own hands here.

6. Don't get distracted. Okay, get distracted.

Try not to get too caught up on your counter experience. They may be mean, or unfriendly, or charming and wonderful, but it will all be over quickly and the cool gelato will be in your hot little hands and the judging should begin there. You don't have to go back. On the other hand if all the gorgeous buildings and visions of Rome distract you and dazzle your heart and make your gelato seem better than it is, well, let it. Your gelato has earned that one.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Conceding the point

I have long grumbled at the evolution of the library into a kind of social service agency. If we put half the energy into our collection as we put into teaching computers to seniors, providing community resource advocates, and throwing tech camps and Anime Proms for teens we would, um, have way better books around here. Why, this very week we are starting a program in which kids can come to our library during the summer and get a free lunch!

As an aside I can't wait until some kid comes up to me at the front desk and asks "Where can I get my free lunch?"

"Ha kid!" I will reply. "There's no free lunch in this world!"

Then I'll add "Just kidding. It's out by the Children's Garden. Bon appetit."

But seriously, when has the library been in the business of simply handing out free stuff?

Oh, right.

Never mind.

Carry on.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Italian postal service

In what I believe is 26 and 27 days, respectively, after I mailed them, my postcards from Rome arrived at their destinations. This is my second week back at work, so for most of my colleagues it's quite a tiny footnote to my trip to receive a postcard from me at this point.

Part of me shrugs and says "Non importa" which is Italian and means "Nothing usually quite works out but isn't that building amazing?" Part of me is ruefully not at all surprised but still kind of irritated, and part of me can't help reflecting upon the amazing, tortuous journey my many postcards have surely been on. 

A journey that goes something like this:

Day 1:  I carefully choose postcards in the Doria Pamphilij gift shop because the Doria Pamphilij gift shop is nearly as brilliant as the Doria Pamphilij Museum itself!

Day 2: In a Tabacchi I buy stamps. They are for postcards only and so expensive that one would naturally think one must be being cheated. One is not being cheated. One is just being discouraged from sending postcards by the Italian Postal Service who doesn't like them for some reason. 

"How expensive are these stamps?" You want to know. More expensive than two cappuccinos at The Emporio Della Pace! 

More expensive than one big cappuccino at San't Eustachio!

More expensive than an espresso ordered at a table at San't Eustachio!!!!!

Day 2 and 3: I write postcards, eight or nine of them, to my workplace. I don't like to brag, but, hmm, well, sometimes I like to brag and, well, this is one of those times. They are witty! They are delightful!

Day 4: I put my stamped postcards in a yellow box. I was carefully instructed that there is a special yellow box for them. Don't go putting them in the crappy, inferior red box! They go in the awesome yellow box. I put them in the yellow box outside the Tabacchi across from San't Eustachio. Emboldened by this exotic experiment I buy more stamps and write more postcards.

Day 5: I put more stamped postcards in the same yellow box. Being of a suspicious nature I suspect yesterday's postcards are all still there, waiting...

Just...  waiting.

Day 8: An Italian Postman inspects the postbox and decides it is not yet full enough to collect the postcards within.

Day 12: An Italian Postman decides the box is now full enough to warrant collection. Then he has an espresso. Then he chats with a co-worker until the day is done. His bag of postcards is set aside to be dealt with tomorrow.

Day 13: It's his day off!

Day 14: He dumps the postcards in the bin they go in.

Day 15: High tech automated equipment sort my postcards for International Routing and so they are dispatched to a facility in Vietnam where this is ultimately done.

Day 18: My postcards arrive in the Vietnam dispersal unit where, because they are from Italy, they are assigned a low priority. The Vietnamese know that the Italians understand about the Buddhist lifestyle and taking time for a coffee and visiting with friends. If the postcards are meant to get there they'll get there.

Day 21: They go here.

Day 22: They go there.

Day 23: They go anywhere.

Day 24: They go on a ship to America, like so many hopeful Immigrants of yesteryear.

Day 28: They arrive in the U.S.A.

Day 30: They are delivered to their intended address by a professional American mail carrier who is secretly very angry and has a drinking problem. 

Well enough then. My friends and co-workers rejoice at my mail. And thanks to the Italian postal service I get to watch them.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

200 Reviews of Rome: Stadium of Domitian (Piazza Navona Underground)

Stadium of Domitian, Piazza Navona

Negative 11 stars out of 5 stars.

Rome is my favorite city in the world, and when it comes to amazing sites, museums, history, and the glories of the human craft, surely there is no place so rich with them as gorgeous Rome. So I don't easily hand out negative 11 stars to any museum in such an amazing place. I also am vastly more inclined to become unhinged in my love for a place in Rome, and so unable to provide accurate information, and it is a unique situation wherein I dislike a place so much that I cannot not speak in a review with the proper scholarly dispassion.

That said: don't go to the Stadium of Domitian.

My God! I beg of you! Don't go to the Stadium of Domitian!

Don't go if you have only three days in Rome, and don't go if you have been born in Rome and will live there for 120 years.

"Wow", you exclaim. "It must be terrifying and horrible."

No, it's fine, you know, in its evil way. It's a small bit of ruins of what used to be a stadium a couple thousand years ago in the place that is now Piazza Navona. If you walk by this, I guess you call it a museum, along the North exterior of Piazza Navona you can look down through a pretty neat window there and see the museum and some of the ruins. Looking through this window you have now seen pretty much everything worth seeing in the museum.

But you want to go in? We wanted to go in too. It's only 145 euros per person. The audio guide is free with the admission. One of the things that drew us in was a dignified mention somewhere near the entrance that this was a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

That sounded neat.

After our visit I was going to do an expose' on how there was something terribly wrong with the whole UNESCO World Heritage Site thing.

There is nothing wrong with the UNESCO World Heritage Site thing! 

As far as I can tell the whole of Central Rome is, quite appropriately, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Stadium of Domitian is as much a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the Tiger Store where I bought a hand crank personal fan for one euro.

I'm pretty sure I gave that Tiger store five stars. And why not, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So was the Apartment we stayed in, and our toilet. Yes, our toilet was a UNESCO World Heritage Site! But our stupid, crappy apartment shower was not. I simply refuse to say our funky, decrepit, handheld shower was a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Even if it was.

Just like The Stadium of Domitian.

The exhibits are well labeled and full of information. The gift store is pretty good. Which saved it from getting minus 12 stars. But only just.

Don't go.

I'm not suggesting or asking...

Don't go.