Have you, like Stefan Zweig’s Christine getting her hair cut in a salon in the Swiss Alps, ever experienced something so exquisite on vacation that the prospect of returning to civilian life demands you either blow up a post office or die with your lover Ferdinand? If you have, perhaps you’ve eaten a Monte Bianco in Rome.
It was a sultry 38 degrees or so — sorry, we’re not sure what that is in U.S. measurements — when we set out from Trastevere to walk for an hour to I Buoni Amici near the Esquiline Hill. The route took us past the Roman Forum and Colosseum, but by then we were slightly exhausted with the daily beholding of architectural marvels. Just that morning, or maybe a different morning, it had been pointed out to us that the bas-reliefs on the office buildings in Mussolini’s version of the Piazza Augusto Imperatore depict helmets, gas masks, uzis (?), and ammunition magazines like stalks of wheat. Our eyes were tired! We marched on. When we got there, one of us announced that we had an hour to kill. Why’d we walk so fast! the other one wanted to know. I dunno, I thought that’s just how we walk, said the other.
Travel (from the French travail, Spanish trabajo, Portuguese trabalho, from the Latin trepalium, instrument of torture) is itself laborious, in the sense that it’s not always easy to be so stupid, to walk thirteen shade-less miles at the height of a heatwave. It’s the most pleasurable diminution: the tourist feels herself physically, intellectually, and emotionally smaller, having vacated everyday life — and history, both immediate and national. Such relief in tacking between ignorance or curiosity, in either not knowing or desperately wanting to know, say, what was in this building before it became a chic restaurant. Excuse me… ? Where is… ? Is it possible… ? The trees spilling alongside a river are, we think, sycamores — we have those back home — but these ones are taller, heavier seeming. They bow in the wind port de bras like.
Dinner was a rowdy, possibly bawdy affair. All older women classicists, and us, one of whom is a middle-aged classicist, if life be seventy-two years. The classicists were in town for the memorial service of a beloved Carmelite priest and Vatican Latinist — maybe the foremost Latinist in the world, according to the Times — who’d taught at the Gregorian. At the ceremony for a dedicatory plaque, one of us had noted that the group, an assembly of Latinists, really seemed to be struggling to translate the inscription. The other had shrugged, saying, It’s a hard language.
One of the group leaders took it upon herself to order for the table. Plates of little octopuses, of swordfish carpaccio, of vinegary sea miscellany with celery and olives, calamari, a pile of arugula on something, a huge dish of cacio e pepe, some cinnamon (possibly anise) cookies shaped like rings, a gross but pretty good rum babà, and wine, wine, wine. One of us doesn’t drink, but one of us really does. By the time a most mysterious plate arrived on the table, after the drinking, one of us had gestured to the plastic-domed dessert cart and said Tutto! Everyone, for their own reasons, was in a distinct state of disarray. A stained carpal tunnel brace, an anti-theft traveler’s check wallet — the waterproof kind that you can wear in the shower — carelessly breezing atop a linen dress, proposed and forgotten toasts, forks venturing onto others’ plates, heads resting on shoulders.
What was that, one of us asked, pointing to an empty plate bearing flecks of beige and white. The plate, at one point, held an almost indescribable thing. Whipped cream, to be sure, undergirded by some kind of puff pastry, maybe, and then what looked like a pile of medium-brown hair, hair made of yarn, like Raggedy Andy’s hair — but sweet, and creamy. One of us asked a kindly waiter by pointing at the plate again, and he said, Oh! Monte Bianco! We googled it furiously, and came across nothing that seemed related to what we’d just eaten. We showed the waiter the phone in confusion. Ok, oh, ok, he said, Mont Blanc. And there it was. Chestnut purée, made into vermicelli. We gasped.
One name given to this summer’s weather in Europe is Apocalypse 4800, so called because that’s the elevation at which one can now find thermal zero, or 0 degrees, a temperature which was previously found some 3,200 to 3,500 meters above the sea during the summer. 4,800 meters also happens to be the almost exact height of Mont Blanc (4,807 meters), the tallest mountain in the Alps and thus Western Europe. It stands to reason, then, that all the snow west of Vienna, the so-called gateway to Eastern Europe, has melted. The product of what a translated page calls a “powerful anticyclone bulge in sub-Saharan Africa,” Apocalypse 4800 seems to be weather of the continental south dropped upon the continental north. The page, whose graphics include a map of Italy in neon red with the words MOLTO CALDO over it, continues even more ominously to say that as the cold and unstable polar air of Northern Europe drops in latitude, it may make the anticyclone bulge retreat on a “European chessboard [of] areas of convergence.”
MOLTO CALDO indeed. We did not then anticipate that the roof tiles of a museum in Chongqing would slide off upon the melting of their underlying tar, or that a column of ice would detach from an alpine glacier, or that wildfires in southwest Slovenia would set off hundreds of buried, unexploded bombs from the first world war. We did not yet know about the algae bloom that would kill all the fish in the lake, a lake we don’t even like, or that three prime ministers would resign, one concluding his speech with “Hasta la vista, babay,” shortly before the queen would die and the Indus River would flood. We did not foresee that crowds would storm the Sri Lankan presidential palace — where they would remark to news outlets on the air conditioning (even in the palace bathrooms, they said). For days, crowds would flock to Colombo to see its interior — swimming in the pools, trying out the gym’s treadmills, playing the piano.
The heat was extraordinary, like a thing of heretofore unencountered ontology, boiling our blood and brains. It conveyed in sweat an insight long lurking: history makes sport of us! Sumptuous too, this heat, like asphyxiation by cake icing, though imprecise in feeling, as pentimento, or a bird looking for something to light upon. We had never before encountered weather so willful and high-sheen, unheeding, like it would kiss you and confidently call you the wrong name, a lopsided silk bow, a shape-changing god, a faulty exploding gizmo in a cartoon. It was at once enervating and maddening. Sometimes, you can get so hot that the incivility of having your neck under the boot of whatever boot your neck is under becomes intolerable, and you storm the palace.
We were not storming any palaces, not even close. We watched the news and thought of Percy Shelley receiving word in Italy of the Peterloo massacre weeks after it happened. Is true critique abolishing ourselves — were we missing the point? The days were picaresque, full of narrow misses with peril. But this peril was like: we’re locked out of the rental, a duck chased me down a Siracusan road. The difference between a schlemiel, a clumsy person, and a schlimazel, an unlucky person, does not matter much, one of us said, if one can be called both.
All European police, it seems by oath, look gay, especially the riot ones whom we saw ride into Exarcheia in Athens, two by two on gay little motorcycles. Italy has the carabinieri with their tight, purple-striped pants and knee-high riding boots. The exception is the Finance Police who guard the banks — they look like U.S. cops, subdued and sinister in their European equivalent of Dodge Chargers, engines idling. You won’t catch one of them in purple livery on a horse.
In Venice, we stayed next to a Guardia di Finanza building, a palazzo of red brick faded to salmon. The GdF’s coat of arms depicts a griffin with one talon on a locked briefcase, standing beside the Cimon della Pala, a now snowless mountain in the Dolomites. Our balcony faced onto the canal adjacent to the waterside entrance of their building. Once, in heart-stoppingly, eye-wateringly, shockingly, obscenely lovely light, we watched, entranced, as they unloaded really old PC desktops and broken chairs onto waiting boats from their water door. The GdF is kind of like a militarized IRS, DEA, and ICE rolled into one; their purview includes smuggling, financial crimes, border control, and customs. They are, in so many words, business cops, and have had special units with names like Investigative Tax Police and Statistical Service, complete with a naval fleet.
Shortly after we left Italy, the government collapsed. Mario Draghi resigned, but not before many more pictures of him clutching his head were taken. Of note in these images, as well as throughout his tenure, is the presence of an Apple watch — in other words, if the GdF are the IRS, DEA, and ICE in one, it appears they’re not also the NSA (whose heraldic insignia has an eagle’s talons grasping a measly skeleton key, not a high-tech briefcase).
If the real cops are business cops, then the real gangsters are bankers. It was Draghi who saved Italy from catastrophe some ten years ago, when he and the ECB bought a fifth of Italy’s toxic bonds and stabilized the Euro. After pandemic-related measures, Italy’s national debt soared to 151% of its GDP, and the country was first in line for its €200B share of the EU’s €800B Covid relief fund. With Draghi at the helm, the EU seemed ready to part with such loot following the regular neoliberal promises of reform, restructuring, and market competition. With Georgia Meloni — founder of Brothers of Italy and Our Land — at the helm, the EU may instead review its policy of mutual debt relief. This wouldn’t be the first time. But unlike that other time, in which Greece seemed poised to leave the Eurozone in order to have its own currency to deflate, Italy is not likely to leave the EU.
The austerity measures that the EU imposed on Greece following 2008 started mildly enough, with salary freezes for government employees. The sixth austerity package of 2012 included salary reductions, pension reform, and tax increases. It continued the privatization of public/government holdings, along with drastic pension reductions, school closures, a 22% cut to minimum wage, reduced health spending, the removal of labor protections, and the privatization of Greek gas companies. The fourteenth austerity package of 2017 saw the privatization of electricity, railways, the airport, and the port-port. To date, Greece has received bailout funds totaling over €280 billion, and all austerity measures are still in effect.
Late in his wanderings, Odysseus lands in Phaeacia. King Alkinoös receives him, setting him in a shining chair, displacing his beloved son Laodamas. A maidservant brings bread and water for Odysseus, pours it from a golden pitcher, holding it above a silver basin for him to wash. Throughout his travels, Odysseus is often the recipient of such xenia, or guest-friendship, the principle that anyone might be a god at any time, and so — let them in. Not just let them in, but anoint them, fill their bellies, cover them in fleece and purple cloth, lay out beds of down and wait till morning to ask who they might be.
In 2020, the Greeks made roadblocks to stop emergency supplies and medics from reaching migrants at the fire which incinerated the refugee camp Moira, not far from where both Achilles and Odysseus passed through Lesbos, traveling under the hospitality of xenia. It might be easy to wonder who these guests are that Greece tries, and the rest of Europe manages, to refuse. But in a country that has been so thoroughly pillaged under the name of relief, maybe this welcome is inevitable.
We stood just outside Navarinou park in Exarcheia once, seeing what had become of post-Syriza, post-Varoufakis self-governance. Bitter orange trees, potted yucca cane, banners decrying a new metro station and the development of nearby Strefi Hill. We stood in line for the pharmacy and watched a scuffle break out in the park. One man wanted to fight; many more didn’t. Cops in riot gear rode in, gayly, and they — they wanted to fight.
It’s unclear whether the Monte Bianco originated as such in Italy, or as the Mont Blanc, in France. No matter its national origin, it’s clear that the dish visually references the giant mountain straddling the two countries through its only two consistent ingredients — chestnut purée sieved or piped into some kind of noodle form for the mountain, and whipped cream for its snowy peak. Sometimes there is a puff pastry base, à la classic pâtisserie, and sometimes a genoise sponge as in Japan, where the dessert is both very popular and — so kawaii — often made with one whole chestnut hidden in its whipped-cream snow cap.
A Mont Blanc can be a very uncool-looking dessert. It looks old-fashioned, in the way terrines do, as if it were a dish developed before basic advances like food coloring or refrigeration. Beside a handsome summer galette or even a bowl of figs, a Mont Blanc is the bookish, tea-length-skirted girl at the school dance. But like the girl at the school dance taking off her glasses and letting down her hair, a Mont Blanc reveals herself as super foxy all along.
While every flavor and texture is hypothetically available to Proustian memory, the chestnut seems remarkably well-suited to the task. It tastes like a thing you can’t quite put your finger or tongue on, and like every good accompanist, serves to make the star shine. One of us grew up eating roasted chestnuts every winter, peeled hot by her father and dropped into her waiting hand as they watched movies together. They taste like movies, like Au Hasard Balthazar, like blankets, seeping up the atmosphere into their strange, dry-banana-like consistency.
The mountain itself saw no shortage of Romantic perception and projection, thanks in large part to the Shelleys’ Alpine sightseeing, giving us both the lyric “... in the Vale of Chamouni” and Mont Blanc’s appearance in Frankenstein. To reference Mont Blanc as Percy does — as a rousing conduit for the imaginative processes of the mind — is about as obvious as referencing Proust with respect to memory. But we prefer such unequivocal gauges, blunt tools for brutal times. In Mary’s novel, Victor’s father suggests to his despairing son that they take a mid-August trip to the Chamounix valley. When everyone goes to sleep, Victor stays at the window to hear the rushing Arve and watch the lightning, strobe-like, above the mountain.
When we got back, we looked everywhere for the White Mountain. We found it months later as a seasonal offering at a nearby bakery in an area that was and is known as the Gourmet Ghetto, even after Berkeleyside reported on a neighborhood meeting at which “tensions ran high” due to the “pressure cooker” created by local complaints about the racist implications of the word “ghetto.” Efforts to rename the area NoSh (North Shattuck) haven’t, to the best of our knowledge, been fruitful. It’s possible for us to go home again, but there was never any xenia here. No matter the neighborhood’s name, you might pass the stalwart walking shoe store, the shuttered Philz, or the Episcopal church where a mountain lion once hopped a fence and ran for its life. Which is all to say that history, when you know it at this level, stifles — not like cake icing, but like a wet sweater. Home is too well-known, always some gutting or maybe just boring version of Argos the dog recognizing Odysseus playing out in run-ins, hellos.
We promptly ordered a party-sized rectangle. Instead of puff-pastry layers we encountered a compact, cement-like crust trussing a thick layer of chocolate, meringues, whipped cream, and a chestnut puree tasting of brandy. A chocolate rose stood on top. We sadly ate two enormous slices. Non-thrilling non-likeness, disillusion, and certainly unsated fervor — all of which seemed to only verify the main ingredient’s evocative might. Apocalypse 4800, the baker who’d written the decorative plaque read out when one of us picked it up. That’s optimistic, isn’t it? he asked. One of us replied, Depends, I guess.