Category Archives: reviews

the great beauty

The SF Chronicle’s  picky movie reviewers are notorious for being tough as nails when awarding their highest rating –  the image of the little man jumping out of his chair and clapping. But today’s review of just-released Italian film, “La Grande Bellezza” – or “The Great Beauty” for the American market –  did just that. The little man is smiling, he’s clapping, he’s jumping and ecstatic. His hat even falls to the floor. I’m ecstatic too and I haven’t even seen the movie yet.

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Toni Servillo stars as Jep Gambardelle, turning 65, jaded from early success as a writer and experiencing an “awakening.”

“The Great Beauty” is directed by Paolo Sorrentino and was a big favorite when first previewed at the 2013 Festival de Cannes.

Lovers of Italy can spend more than two hours falling in love (again) with Rome (with all its decadence, beautiful and ugly) while immersing in the language since the movie is in Italian with English subtitles. The reviewer notes that you can’t watch “The Great Beauty” without thinking of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” with Rome as the movie’s focus.

Like “La Dolce Vita”, this movie is going to throw more at you than just a tour of the city’s sights and high society. An excerpt from the SF Chronicle review reads (you can read the review in its entirety here):

“Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardelle who wrote a masterpiece of a novel in his youth but has been unable to repeat the success. He’s become a journalist and bon vivant, living in an incredible apartment overlooking the Colosseum. He’s popular in his circle but jaded, and, having just turned 65, is starting to look at the big picture. When news arrives of an old girlfriend’s death, he continues to make the rounds of high-end gatherings and nightspots in the Eternal City, but in a “what’s it all mean” frame of mind. He informs us that once he wanted to be the king of Rome’s extravagant night world. But he no longer wholly buys into his cynicism, if he ever did. Delivering acerbic witticisms at over-the-top parties isn’t much of a purpose in life. The plot is…. a running account of what Jep sees and says during his often surreal urban wanderings. “

Something to put on the holiday movie list? You got me at Fellini.

autumn plate

It feels like fall outside. It’s feels like fall online too, inside the community of travel, culture, literature, home and garden bloggers. So I bought a new cashmere sweater today in pale pink, thanks to these tips for fall travel style from This is my Happiness.  And trusty Ciao Domenica has offered this inspiration for delicious recipes including a pumpkin-spice cake with pumpkin cream-cheese frosting.

The start of a season presents an empty plate, ready to be filled with fall’s favorite things, like slipping on a new warm sweater, brewing up tea, settling down to a new book or catching a movie.

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For me, that means reading Caleb Crain’s debut novel  “Necessary Errors.” Set in post- Iron Curtain Prague in the early 1990s, after the ’89 Velvet Revolution, the book is described as coming of age for idealistic young expat Americans abroad (for longtime BTH readers, no surprise this book is top of my list!).  I’m looking forward to learning more about Eastern European history and Czech culture. The Slate review writes “it recalls the dreamy pacing of Henry James or Elizabeth Bowan.”

enough

I’m also looking forward to returning to our wonderful local art deco theater this season. I’m still recovering from Woody Allen’s tragic Blue Jasmine and am ready to enjoy a lighter comedy this fall. Enough Said  stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Eva) and James Gandolfini  (Albert) who meet and a romance quickly blossoms, but Eva befriends – and gets an earful from – a woman about her ex. The twist is that she finds out that “the ex “is Albert.

What’s on your autumn plate?

 

 

 

48 hours in montreal

The only place I know offering francophone culture so strongly this side of the Atlantic is in Montreal, Quebec – an island city in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Montreal is a lively, international destination which offers much in history and architecture, arts and culture, festivals and dining.  We recently visited the city for a few days and found enough time to explore some of its best spots.

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Old Montreal

old Montreal

City Hall

 

Horse-drawn carriage in old Montreal

Horse-drawn carriage in old Montreal

A Great Night Sleep

Positive reviews from the NY Times Travel section prompted me to book a medium room at the hip and classy, no-snob boutique hotel, Le Petit Hotel,  in Old Montreal.

Room with a view.

Room with a view.

Comprised of only 24 rooms and a lobby café, the hotel is housed in a beautiful 19th Century building on the quieter, more residential side of Rue Saint-Paul Ouest. Its helpful staff provide you with excellent services, and gave us good suggestions during our stay. Tips: Request the well laid-out top floor/street view room and indulge in the (included) delicious breakfast offerings, especially the pain au chocolat and perfectly-brewed cappuccino. Online promotions are available and business travelers can receive room discounts.

Eats and Drinks

Hands down, our favorite dinner experienced in Montreal was at the fashionable Restaurant Holder on Rue McGill (order the veal or salmon), thanks to a tip by our hotel staff.  I’m told you also can’t go wrong with lunch at the busy but delicious Olive and Gourmando if you can handle the crowds (we couldn’t wait). You can’t leave Old Montreal without experiencing an evening drink on a rooftop terrace.

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The rooftop terrace at Hotel Nelligan on Rue St Paul is a perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine at sunset with views of Notre Dame. Get there by 9 pm if you want to snag a table. Just look out for the characteristic Eastern Canadian summer thunderstorms, as we experienced a downpour minutes after this picture was taken.

Getting Around by Foot, Bike and Metro

If you stay in Old Montreal, there is no better place to walk the streets – or get lost –  and soak in its history and architecture. Make sure you look up. Like in Europe, some of the best architectural details of a building are found in the direction of the sky.

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One of my favorite buildings is the Royal Bank of Canada building, where my mother worked in the early 1960s. In fact, I can proudly thank the influence of Montreal on my mother – and her bank teller friend – for my French name. Banking ceased only about a year ago. The inside of the building and the ceilings are breathtaking.

Inside the Royal Bank of Canada building.

Inside the Royal Bank of Canada building.

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Notre Dame is a centerpiece of the old city.

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Notre Dame

Notre Dame

To get further out to fashionable neighborhoods like the Plateau, grab a metro map and a day pass (9 Canadian dollars).

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Or you can rent a Bixi Bike – the public bike share system – to ride  along the old Port and a grab a view of architectural landmark Habitat 67, a model community and housing complex  designed by Israeli–Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the World Fair in 1967.

Habitat 67

Habitat 67

If you are ambitious, you can get a closer look at Habitat 67 and other architectural icons like Biosphere by riding your bikes from Old Port to Parc Jean-Drapeau. Don’t repeat our mistake by aborting an attempt to reach the island via the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which looked shorter in distance from Old Port than it was.  Instead ride the opposite direction on the bicycle parkway.  This would be done best with a day bike rental, as opposed to a Bixi Bike, which charges you if you exceed a 30-minute time usage period.

Hike up Mont Royal

A hike up Mont Royal is lovely and a good way to walk off those morning pain au chocolats and rooftop terrace drinks,  and the view at the top is a nice reward. You can grab the #11 city bus back down to deliver you to Avenue Mont Royal, where you can find a metro station back to Old Montreal or wherever else you’d like to go.

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View from Mont Royal

View from the top of Mont Royal.

View from Mont Royal.

The Arts for Free (imagine!)

The permanent collection at Montreal’s Musee des Beaux Arts is always free. Please note special exhibitions are not, but on Wednesday nights tickets are half off. We visited the Museum’s current exhibit, “Utterly Breathtaking”  featuring Dale Chihuly’s large-scale, nature-inspired blown glass.

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While below the city surface, Francophone/Anglophone tensions are nothing to laugh at (unless you are Sugar Sammy, see my past post here), visiting Montreal offers travelers a uniquely bilingual, culture-rich experience in a place well-deserving of its lively reputation. Its residents seem to have a less- North American, more-European sense of enjoyment of life and leisure and we’re glad  we caught some of it there too.

(Please note Bringing Travel Home is not sponsored by any person or organization.  Both my travel and writing are independent.)

Chihuly at the Musee des Beaux-Arts Montreal

Blown glass fan or not, visiting American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s large-scale nature-inspired installation at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts – or Musee des Beaux-Arts – is a visual sensory experience.

Turquoise Reeds

Turquoise Reeds spring from trunks of old growth western cedar.

71 years old, blinded in one eye from a head-on car accident and having suffered a shoulder injury, Chihuly now serves as what he calls choreographer and visionary of his art, and employs others to do the actual muscle work of making his glass creations. Other than the color and beauty, I was struck by the size of the glass pieces. They are really big. To transport, it must take a lot of packing (miles of bubble wrap?) to keep his art safe from breaking.

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Persian Ceiling

The extent of my experience with blown glass is collecting the small figurines in Venice, and I was blown – pardon the play on words – away by the effect this exhibit, called “Utterly Breathtaking”, had on all those present, this writer included. Visitors can sit leisurely on cushions placed on the floors in the corners of the Chandelier room and take it in.

Chandeliers and Towers.

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Gardens – Mille Fiori.

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Glass Neon Forest.

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Boats. (I read he purposely dumped pieces of his glass art in the water to be retrieved onto a boat and liked the effect).

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Macchia Forest. (Macchia means “marks or spots” in Italian and he worked with spots of color in these pieces illuminated by light shining down into the bowls).

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If you are in Montreal, take advantage of the half-off tickets ($10 Canadian) on Wednesdays from 5 – 9 pm. “Utterly Breathtaking” runs until 20 October, 2013.

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the great fitzgerald

“The Great Gatsby” is out on the big screen and a good time for fans of fellow     ex-expat F. Scott Fitzgerald to focus again on one of his greatest works.

If you are like me and can’t separate the man from his works – where he draws much from his personal life and even has character Daisy quoting his wife Zelda –  you, too, may have held your breath at the movie’s rolling credits waiting for “based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald” to appear. (It appears, although third or fourth down. I’d argue he deserved to be first.)

grgatsbyThe movie, from Baz Luhrmann, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. Movies rarely imitate its novel perfectly and “Gatsby” is no exception. While the modern adaptation to a classic story was entertaining (over-the-top music and performers and lavish party visual effects, for example), I was pleased it mostly followed the novel’s themes – the decline of the American dream, social class differences, and 1920s jazz age. It features symbols like the dock’s green flashing light and Dr. Eckleburg billboard in the Valley of Ashes. On the other hand, Luhrmann’s Daisy I found confusing as deeper and more complex than Fitzgerald’s deliberate one dimensional, superficial character. But a key question remained the same –  what role the past plays in dreams of the future – a sentiment Fitzgerald and his fellow Lost Generation expat friends, like Hemingway and Sara and Gerald Murphy, shared.

gatsby

Remember, Fitzgerald found fame and fortune early on, he then lived mostly a tragic life, struggling with alcoholism, and struggling in Hollywood writing scripts and short stories to meet the expenses of his wife Zelda’s psychiatric bills and his daughter Scottie’s education. “The Great Gatsby” received mixed reviews and sold poorly. He died believing the book and his career unsuccessful.  His earlier days in New York, Paris and the Riviera were an enchanted past he remembered often and expressed in his correspondence a wish to return to.

Reading or re-reading “The Great Gatsby”  helps you get the most of the movie and fill in the blanks. To dig deeper, I recommend the recently released historical fiction of his wife “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler ( NY Times review can be found here ) and “F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters”.

Additional Bringing Travel Home posts on the Lost Generation can be found here:

Discovering Expats of the 1920s

Living Well is the Best Revenge

longtime love affair with the cinquecento

Let’s for a moment pretend I’m not a carpool mom of two active school-age kids, who require school drops offs and pick ups and rides to tennis and soccer and playdates. Let’s pretend my kids don’t also have friends who require drop offs and pick ups, and backpacks and sports equipment that require storing. Let’s just pretend.

If that were me, a non-carpool-driving, equipment-lugging mom, then our next car would be, without doubt, the recently resurrected Italian-designed Fiat 500 –  or Fiat “cinquecento”as it’s called in Italy.

The new Fiat 500 in white available now in the U.S.

I, like many Europhiles, have seen these Italian iconic cars over the years when traveling there.

We’ve snapped photos and posed in front of them. They live in our scrapbooks now.

My scrapbooks over the years include photos of me posing in front of original Fiat cinquecentos when traveling in Italy.

If we could, we would tie our hair back in a scarf like Sophia Loren, slip our Armani sunglasses over our eyes and drive it home.

Now we can.

In this 2011 NY Times review of the Fiat 500,  we learn “the consensus of people I invited along as passengers was that traveling in the car made them feel young, sporty and ‘very European.’ And the arrival of such an economical car as gas prices flirt with $4 a gallon seems timely.”

A fun, new advertising campaign for the American market – “The Next Wave of Italians has Arrived” – was filmed on the Amalfi Coast and launched earlier this summer.

Small, sporty, affordable, European, easy parking?  At around $16,000? Forget the Honda Odyssey minivan that has taken over my town. Forget the kids (this time). We can use the other car for field and road trips.

 I’m not pretending.

Standing next to our friend’s red Fiat 500 in Tuscany a few months ago.

la bella lingua

One of the best things about being back in Italy was speaking Italian again. Like riding a bicycle, words we haven’t spoken in years were plucked up from somewhere deep down, and we found ourselves effortlessly communicating again in our adopted language at dinner parties, restaurants and other countless conversations with old friends. My Italian isn’t too sophisticated –  I often take the easy road by constructing  sentences around the easier grammar tenses while my husband is much braver – but it was back. Using the formal Lei without a missed beat. Extending long greetings when you say goodbye to someone. Buon Giorno, salve, ciao, ci vediamo, grazie a lei, arriverderci, a  domani!  Getting in a heated argument- which feels even better in Italian – at the best place for a fight, a ticket booth line at an Italian train station. The Italian language is old, complicated, challenging, and different depending where in Italy you are  – but pays off as the most beautiful, expressive and delightful language to speak.

Confirming my love for the Italian language, I just finished “La Bella Lingua” by Dianne Hales.

“Learning a new language is like growing a new head…You see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with a new tongue.” – La Bella Lingua

  Right before our trip, I picked this book up at our local bookstore with the intimate knowledge that it’s always a gamble when choosing a novel from the travel section. But this is the real deal.

Ms. Hales has done her homework (and more). The book is a love story to the Italian language, providing anecdotes through her experiences living and traveling in Italy and pursuits in studying the language. Her über thorough research reveals interesting and little known aspects of Italy’s history, literature and culture, and demonstrates how several key Italians and scholarly groups – past and present – have contributed to helping the language develop and survive.  This book has inspired me to search at the local library for “The Divine Comedy” (or “Divina Commedia”)  by Dante Aligheri,  any film by De Sica, and the opera Madama Butterfly (which I was surprised to learn  opened in 1904 at Milan’s La Scala and bombed, then reopened in Brescia,  where we lived for several years, to then triumph in Paris and around the world!) 

Hales makes the point that while a unified Italy is fairly new, the Italian language  – which has served as  the great unifier – is very old. The 14th century dialect of Florence – the language of Dante Aligheri himself – is little changed and what is taught and spoken in Italy today.  English may be the language everyone needs to know, Hales writes, but Italian is the language people want to learn. With only 60 – 63 million native speakers Italian barely eclipses Urdu, Pakistan’s official language for 19th place as a spoken tongue. Yet Italian ranks fourth among the world’s most studied language. (Only four countries other than Italy recognize Italian as an official language.) The soaring popularity of the language is hardly surprising, she writes, with its exported food, fashion, art, architecture, music and culture … and I’ll add, Italian boyfriends.

For lovers of Italian – those of us who have lived or traveled to Italy and keep going back, who are fascinated with Italy’s history and culture and protagonists, and consider ourselves lifelong students of Italian,  “La Bella Lingua” shares our passion and provides a new perspective and adventure through the world’s most enchanting language.

Next up: My favorite study Italian abroad schools in Italy