Alex isn’t home anymore

Hi all,

It is my sad duty to inform you that this blog will not be regularly updated anymore (as if it was ever regularly updated). Instead, myself and the wonderful Samuel F. Linder VII, with whom I am living in Uganda for the next several months, have started a sort of joint blog, for which I will probably write the same sort of trite schlock that graced these pages. You are welcome to come check it out right here (I already have a post up); take a look at Sam’s work as well, which is just as enjoyable and far more informative than my own.

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Olives Episode II: Return of the Jedi

I do not delight in other people’s suffering. This fact may put me on somewhat of a moral high ground compared to some denizens of a Mediterranean country rich in olives that will go unnamed1 who spend their free time plotting the bitter demise of gullible foreigners (if you have no idea what I’m talking about and suspect that you may have stumbled onto the wrong [racist] website, you should for your general edification read Olives Episode I before proceeding). My lack of sadism (sadon’tism?) also means that it physically pains me to leave you, faithful reader (hi, Mom!) with a post about my Italian adventures that ends on a gloomy note. It’d be somewhat like George Lucas deciding that he’d really prefer to leave viewers on an ambiguous note by ending Star Wars with The Empire Strikes Back.

Less of a cliffhanger than a clifffalleroffer. Also known as a bummer.

1 Rumors abound that the country in question is none other than Italy.

Since I emulate George Lucas in all I do,2 I will have mercy and gift upon you The Return of the Jedi. Featuring boiling water as Han Solo, a gigantic millstone as Luke Skywalker,3 and a forklift as Darth Vader, our story begins with hundreds of kilograms of little bitter green stormtroopers who…what’s that?

My roommate has informed me of his displeasure with this lengthy opening. Therefore, I shall commence the actual story.

2 My next blog post, for example, will introduce a character known only as Jar-Jar Binks.
3 Or Jabba the Hutt. Casting is still somewhat incomplete.

I was told over the course of our olive picking adventure that the goal of all the activity was not, as might be inferred, embarrassing foreigners, but instead making donkeyloads of oil. Once we had assembled the requisite donkeyload of olives, we loaded them into cars and set off to see the Wizard.

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Because of the wonderful things he does…

The tradition of oil production in Italy, they tell me, has changed little since medieval times. It is still a process undertaken by countless small landowners such as my hosts in little mamma e papà shops that provide the machinery to process the olives at low (I assume; I sure as hell didn’t foot the bill) prices.

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The most important part of this operation is a set of stones for which, despite extensive research4, I have been unable to unearth any name more accurate than “olive crusher.”5 These stones circle around and crush the olives into a sort of brown paste, as revolting to the eye as it is pleasant to the nose.

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Smells like victory

4 www.google.com
5 Even if I had found a more accurate name, let’s be honest, “olive crusher” sounds pretty cool. Like Superman’s Ancient Greek nemesis or something. Togas and tights. I digress.

While the rotation of the olive crusher was accomplished in earlier times by the force of a mule pulling a rope, today the same result is achieved by the force of electrons smashing into each other.

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For some reason, the olive crusher is still mule-sized

Before olives enter this ring, they are quickly washed. To one who has a slight tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, this could be thought of as something akin to a prisoner’s last meal.

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We who are about to die salute you, Caesar.

After the mashing is complete, the paste goes through a series of machines. I asked what purpose exactly these machines serve, and got answers ranging from an honest “no idea, but isn’t it cool?” to lengthy but faltering explanations that my Italian BS detector identified as attempts to hide the fact that no one really knows what goes on inside those sleek chrome-plated vats.

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Its hair is so big because it’s full of secrets.

Mussolini: failed the Italian BS detector test.

In any case, the final stage involves separating the oil from residual water, and then a nearby tap ejects a stream of some of the most delicious liquid ever tasted by man: cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil.

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As you might notice in the picture, the oil is actually opaque. As far as I’ve been able to tell, it must be something like concentrated flavor capsules that make it appear that way, because the resulting oil tastes like bottled heaven.6

Our batch of olives produced over 100 liters of olive oil of a quality one expert succinctly described as “dope as hell.”7 In related news, Italians win.

6 With hints of garlic, butter, and apple, these three substances being conspicuously absent from industrial-grade bottled heaven.
7 If anyone tells you that the expert was me, they’re lying.
Note: As you may have noticed, I seriously skirted over some details of the actual process, largely through ignorance, but partly through a misguided desire to entertain rather than inform. If any of you are genuinely interested, Wikipedia actually has a decently complete article on olive oil extraction.
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How to Use Little Red Riding Hood to Improve Your Arguments

Dear reader (hi, Mom!),

Perhaps you have felt that in my previous posts I have rather mistreated Italy and its inhabitants. You were offput by the suggestion that the national sport of Italy is force-feeding foreigners inedible olives; miffed by the intimation that Milan is really one and the same as Soviet Russia; peeved at the implication that driving on Italian roads is only slightly less dangerous than taping feathers to yourself and attempting to fly.1 I come here (post here? Update here?) today to tell you: I don’t care, because sometimes this stuff writes itself.

1We’re assuming you’re not trying to pull a Daedalus here; but honestly, protip: tape won’t help you any more than wax.

Take fruit.

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That was not an imperative

The family I was living with usually has fruit for dessert and at noothertime, as per Italian custom. Although I find this a wonderful habit, I was raised to eat fruit at whenevertime. Attempting to elucidate the reason for fruit’s constant absenteeism from the whenevertime table, I inquired of my hostess why it could not be eaten, say, with a main course.

She responded (in Italian): “Would you eat Little Red Riding Hood?”

Somewhat wrongfooted, I stammered something intelligent like, “Ghwha?”

She repeated, “Would you eat Little Red Riding Hood?”

“Err. No.”

“Well, then, you can’t eat fruit before dessert either.”

Although initially baffled, I have since realized the brilliance of this “proof by Little Red Riding Hood” and the various corollaries which suggest themselves.

Such arguments can be used to dissuade you from giving candy to children:

“Would you sell Snow White a poisoned apple?”

“No, of course not. Are you hinting at something?”

Well, you can’t give kids candy either.”

They also offer a powerful defense against those who want to fence off their yard:

“Would you surround the castle in which you’ve trapped Sleeping Beauty with impassable forests, deep moats, and deadly rose thickets?”

“Dear holiest of holies no.”

“Then don’t put up a damn fence around your house, jackass.”

Another corollary can be used as an argument against slavery:

“Would you lock Cinderella in a room and make her work for you all day without recompense?”

What’s ‘recompense’ mean?”

“That you can’t own slaves.”

All those considering entering into a debate with me in the future, be warned: the ante has been upped.

 

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Olives Episode I: A Cruel, Cruel Trick

Note: This post concerns events that happened almost two months ago in a country that I left a week ago, but I’m going to post it anyways due to I can.

On my first full weekend in Milan, myself and my boss’ parents (with whom I was staying) packed up the car and headed to Liguria: the land of sea, wonderful pesto, sun, Ligurians eating wonderful pesto, mountains, fish watching Ligurians eat wonderful pesto, olives, and fish trying and failing to eat pesto after having been convinced of its excellence by the Ligurians formerly watched eating pesto by the fish who tried and failed to eat pesto.

As perhaps you can tell, I could devote many a brilliant essay to the joys of pesto, but I will use this space for other means, partly because, as evidenced above, writing about pesto causes my sentences to devolve into long, crooked, assymetrical blobs, and partly because, as I discovered to my great sorrow upon arrival, we had not arrived to eat pesto, but to pick olives.

After weaving through Italian traffic for several hours1 we arrived at Alassio, on the Ligurian shore. Nestled cozily on a nearby hillside—from which you can sea the see2 — waited their country home.

1 Benito is surgical with that bi…er…Renault.
2 Sorry.
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The nearest neighbor is a no-shit-mom castle

The land, which amounts to probably around an acre—although the steep incline of the land combined with my absolute ignorance as to what constitutes an acre leaves me unable to estimate more precisely—is quite literally covered in things to eat.

pesto

No, not pesto. I promised I’m not writing about pesto

It is home to a vineyard, huge stands of tomato plants, fig trees, pear and apple trees, and about 60 olive trees, which is all distilled into an olfactory cocktail of earthiness and sweetness with a hint of rosemary. From this plot, the family gets all the wine, tomatoes, jam, and olive oil they consume. All the tomatoes and olive oil an Italian family consumes.

Our job was to gather the olives. I say “gather” instead of “pick,” because the latter conjures an image of a man in a tuxedo with a monocle daintily plucking an olive from a conveniently adjacent branch. Instead we used the ancient Italian method popularly known as “beat the trees with sticks until the olives fall off” (rough translation).

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My beating stick

Several local men came to help us, whom Benito insisted on calling peasants, which seems out of place to me. Italian peasants are supposed to eat spaghetti all day while steering a gondola and singing “O Sole Mio.” These did none of the three. Clearly not peasants.

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They did, however, bring their own beating sticks

We laid down our nets and commenced to waging war on the trees.

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Many a good leaf fell in battle

It was here that I made a crucial mistake. Dear reader (hi, Mom!), you may be asking yourself, “self, why has Alex not eaten any of the olives so lovingly depicted thus far in his tale?” If you are not asking yourself that, but rather anticipating grimacing or laughing at my foolishness, congratulations: you know more about olives that I did before this instant. You see, I too asked myself, “self, why is Alex not eating any of the thousands upon thousands of olives that surround him like so many grains of sand, if grains of sand were edible?”

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If grains of sand were both massive and edible

Having pondered this question and produced no plausible answer, I made with haste to the nearest olive tree, extracted an olive from a branch thereof, and proceeded to bite in.

In my previous experience, olives have proved not only edible but quite enjoyable. Therefore, my expectation for the olive’s taste can be expressed thus:

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Having actually tasted the aforementioned olive, my reaction can best be summed up as:

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Olives, as the bystanding Italians informed me in between gales of crippling laughter, are possessed of a certain alkaloid that renders them, well, really nasty. Only by curing in a mixture of olive oil, salt, and secrets3 can they be made palatable.

I would normally dismiss this as simply another episode of “Alex goes to another country and does something dumb,”4 were it not for two subsequent conversations in Milan. Therein I heard similar tales of olive mishaps had by unsuspecting Americans who were subjected to withering scorn and laughter for their susceptibility. I, friends, have discovered the secret national sport of Italy. Soccer has no power over their hearts any longer: instead, the entire nation has turned its competitive might towards the art of American Olive Shaming.

May God have mercy on us, for they will have none.

3 Italian secrets. Home-curing your olives with an all-American blend of secrets can only lead to disaster.
4 Syndicated and in reruns as all possible plot material has been exhausted by earlier episodes.
Tune in a couple days hence for the exciting conclusion to this saga, wherein Alex sends the olives to meet their maker and reaps the benefit of their transformation into a hundred liters of oil!
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The Best Laid Plans of Lions and Gazelles Often Go Awry

There’s an old saying that perhaps some of my faithful readers (hi, Mom!) have heard that goes like this:

Every day in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be eaten. Every day in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will die of hunger. And so it doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: what matters is that you start running.

In honor of my impending move to Uganda, where I will hopefully be playing the part of neither the lion nor the gazelle, I’d like to present the lion and gazelle story, set in the various places I’ve lived that are not Africa.

1) Every morning in Milan, Italy, a dragon wakes up. He knows that he must fight harder and more tenaciously than his most cunning challenger, or lose the spoils that he has worked so hard to gain. Every morning in Milan, Italy, a plumber wakes up. He knows that he must fight harder and more tenaciously than the dragon, or suffer a terrifying cartoon death while watching his beloved princess devoured. And so it doesn’t matter whether you are Bowser or Mario: what matters is that you aren’t Princess Peach.

2) Every morning in Leningrad, Soviet Russia, a true son of the proletariat wakes up. He know he must strive harder than the most nefarious capitalist scoundrel, or the worldwide revolution will come to naught. Every morning in Leningrad, Soviet Russia, a nefarious capitalist scoundrel wakes up. He knows that his outmoded and cruel ways can never impede the glory that is a centrally planned economy. He is sad.[1]

3) Every day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a grad student wakes up. She knows she must sleep less than the most workaholic professor, or she will be removed from the program. Every day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a professor wakes up. He knows he must publish more than the most prolific grad student, or he will lose his job to that grad student. And so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a professor or a grad student: what matters is what the hell are you doing on the internet when you should be in the library!?[2]

4) Every day in Brooklyn, New York, a pigeon wakes up. He knows that he must fly faster than the fastest car, or he will be smashed. Every day in Brooklyn, New York, a car wakes up. It knows that it must be driven faster than the slowest pigeon, but it has no control over its destiny and is subject to the whims of others who might decide to bike to work that day.[3]  And that’s why there are so many pigeons in New York, kids.

5) Every morning in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, a wilderness trip leader wakes up. He knows that he must make sure the pickiest of children on his trip eats enough food that day to keep pace with their calorie loss, or they will be unable to go on. Every morning in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, a trip participant wakes up. He knows he must eat enough food that day to keep pace with his calorie loss, or he will be unable to go on. And so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a trip leader or a participant: what matters is eat your damn gado gado and go to bed.

6) Every day in Oak Park, Illinois, an environmentalist wakes up. He knows that he must be more persistent than the most die-hard Republican industrialist is evil, or the forests he loves but can’t quite talk himself into living near will die. Every day in Oak Park, Illinois, a die-hard Republican industrialist wakes up. His house has been egged, because the environmentalist woke up at 3 am.[4]

7) Each fine morning in Virginia’s Capital, Williamsburg, a musketeer in the Exalted Service of His Majesty King George III arises from His Rat-Infested Straw Bed. Foremost in his mind is the Knowledge that he must perform to the Highest Standards for the Crowds of Impatient and Bored Tourists or suffer the Eternal Displeasure of Those who note that, Demand for his Job being What It Is, he could easily be replaced by a William & Mary History Major willing to Work For Free. Every day in Williamsburg, an undergrad wakes up, looks at the clock, decides to skip class, rolls back over, and falls asleep. And so it…you know, I’m not sure that there’s a moral here.


[1] In addition, he is probably dead, but as he’s already sad, I felt it would just depress him if he saw that in the main text. Let’s hope he doesn’t look down here.

[2] For the record, I was 18 months when my family moved from Ann Arbor, so I obviously don’t remember having to study 12 hours a day, but I’m sure it happened.

[3] Aside from the fact that it can’t, you know, wake up.

[4] I’m aware that in real life his house, which wouldn’t be in Oak Park, would be tp’d, but that’s so prosaic.

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Uganda!

Apologies to you, dear reader (hi, Mom!) for the week-long gap between posts: in addition to my usual irresponsibility, the blame can be laid at the doorstep of Uganda.

Otherwise known as Rwanda

Right there, at the bottom, is Uganda’s doorstep

I got taken along on a business trip by my boss for a foundation that he runs which works on various development projects, mostly of the academic variety, in and around Kampala.[1]  I got to meet various exciting persons with him, including the Italian ambassador to Uganda, who decided during our meeting (indoors, naturally) to light up a cigarette, because apparently in Africa, you do what you want.[2]

“Doing what you want” also means having Western-friendly areas of downtown that are a ridiculous contrast with the rest of the city

Much of the time, though, I was touring around the various facilities run by the NGO I’m going down there to work on and talking to people with whom I’ll be working. The most important of these are several schools, where I will be teaching English language and literature for five months beginning in January.[3]

The boarding secondary school

I’m incredibly excited for all this, of course. The schools are big (more than three thousand students spread out over one elementary and two “secondary” schools; I’ll be teaching at both of the latter) and the class sizes are bigger: sixty to seventy students at times. That doesn’t bother me too much, however; what’s more worrisome is the fact that Uganda, being a former British colony, has adopted the Queen’s system of learning. Therefore, I’m already practicing my accent, saying “lorry” instead of “truck,” and “piss off” instead of the bad words that I’d never say in America.

The school from the main road

Both the school and the place I’ll live are located in somewhat of a suburb of Kampala, called Luzira. It’s very poor, very hectic, very beautiful, and very foreigner-free. So I’m brushing up on my Luganda[4]  and preparing to not be able to lose myself in a crowd the way I’ve always been able to in a city.

Luzira from the boarding school; the other secondary school is in the background

Kampala itself is beautiful, but exceptionally crowded and chaotic. As an example, I was asking the Italians I met who live there whether they had found it hard to transition to the barbarian custom of driving on the left side of the road, until I realized that, given the general traffic patterns and driving habits prevalent in Kampala, that was somewhat akin to asking a man being simultaneously burned alive and crushed to death whether his shoes were a bit tight:[5] you’re simply missing the big picture. Or all of the picture.

I don’t have anything else to say, so here are some low-resolution pictures of Lake Victoria.

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[1]    As a probably unnecessary aside, my boss is the coolest.

[2]    Or in the Italian Embassies in Africa, you do what you want. Not sure on the distinction yet.

[3]    As I’m sure most of you can guess, I begged and pleaded for a desk job, but one was not forthcoming.

[4]    Where “brushing up” has the meaning of “trying to figure out how the hell a language could be this complicated”

[5]    Of course, I am not implying that the traffic in Kampala makes your shoes feel too tight.

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Driving in Italy: A Beginner’s Guide

Last weekend, I had the dubious pleasure of driving from the town of Lecco to Milan, a journey of about an hour. This would normally be a undubious pleasure—I love driving and do not have many opportunities to do so—were it not for four facts:

1) All Italian cars are stickshift.

2) I learned how to drive stick more than three years ago in a parking lot in Madison, WI at 1 a.m., and I’m afraid my friend’s car on which I performed my cruel research into exactly how many times a vehicle will stall before it gives up forever has never been the same since.

3) I have had about 5 total chances to practice driving manual since that fateful trip.

4) Italians drive in a manner that for the sake of not resorting to profanity can best be described as “reckless beyond comprehension.”

Since I am a believer in the advancement of human knowledge and cultural understanding, I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I learned, in the form of a how-to guide.

Driving in Italy: A Beginner’s Guide

Finding Parking: An Easily Satisfied Need

If you can’t find a place to park, just park in a place you find!
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The sidewalk is your best bet, although double parking, parking on top of other cars, and simply leaving your car in the middle of the street are socially acceptable alternatives.

This isn’t Eastern Europe; you don’t have to fear something like this happening to you.

Your Overlords

This is what is called a moto.

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They run this anarchic world. You are merely passing through.

Informing Your Fellow Motorists of Your Displeasure with Their Actions [1]

At some point during your driving career in Italy[2]  you will be unhappy with someone else on the road. Italy is not quite a state of nature, and so you have options for resolving your dispute that do not include bashing the offender over the head with a rock.

1) Hand gestures: the preferred means of communication among Italians. What better way to tell the man who’s just cut you off that he should be taken off the road than by suggesting that his wife is not entirely faithful to him?

2) When flipping the bird does not suffice to give voice to your rage, instead consider retaliating verbally. For inspiration, listen to the things Italian drivers are yelling at you, and repeat!

3) As a last resort,[3]  you may use your horn. Honking varies by region, but a blast of 12-15 seconds is generally considered appropriate: any more, and you risk giving grave offense; any less and you will neither be heard nor heeded.

Speed Limits

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Lanes

On Italian roads, lanes are really more a set of guidelines than actual rules. Milan demonstrates that admirably by stalwartly refusing to paint any lane signs on any street.[4]  Therefore, the number of lanes on any given street is given by the algebraic equation where L=W/C, where L is the number of lanes, W is the width of the street, and C is how wide other drivers believe their car to be.[5]

Buona fortuna and please don’t get yourself killed by actually following my advice.


[1] NB: You undertake all activity recommended in this section at your own risk. Telling people to piss off in Italy is a well-articulated system with its own etiquette and rules and you must understand them perfectly before relaying to  another driver the fact that he has, by cutting you off, shown himself to be a moral imbecile of the first degree.

[2] 5 seconds after you begin driving and every 5 seconds thereafter.

[3] Or, alternatively, whenever the hell you want to.

[4] Mostly true.

[5] Thus producing the first maxim of Italian calculus: the limit of L as C approaches 0 is infinity. And C generally damn near approaches 0.

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