Thursday, April 28, 2005

My fabulous Italian writing career - not!

I have a friend, Giuseppe, whose family runs an adorable inn and restaurant in a small town about 60 kilometres from Napoli. I had visited them for about a week last summer (after a trip to il mio amore Rome) and Giuseppe wants me to write a small article about my visit that would be translated and published in an Italian magazine. Now since I'm suffering a bit of a writer's block in penning anything substantial (as opposed to trite gossip about my soirees), I thought I'd take first stab with a post about it. So if you see an Italian version of the post below (you're all fabulously bilingual, right?), fear not, there is no plagiarism involved. It's just dumpy old me, rendered oh so molto bella (hopefully). And in a supremely self-serving act, I would beseech you to comment, and help me improve the piece.

Thinking terroir in Campania

A few days ago, I met a man who enthusiastically told me about his near decade-long study on mozzarella, and his quest to reproduce it exactly in production facilities in Romania. His passion for the mozzarella was endearing, but for me it raised some interesting questions about terroir, about knowledge handed down over generations, and how traditional specializations and strengths can be translated in an increasingly globalizing world. Such questions perhaps do not trouble the buffaloes of Castelvolturno, as they happily graze in fields next to highways that connect nodes of a region that is becoming a huge urban agglomeration. Mozzarella di bufala and pizza are iconic of Napoli and the entire Campania region and draw in the tourists, as do the ruins of Pompeii and sunny Capri.

And yet, on the other side of the harbour that takes ferryloads of tourists to the gorgeous islands off the Neapolitan coast, is one of the biggest container ports in Italy, gateway to East and Southeast Asian imports and Italy's exports. Napoli's downtown business district is impressive, with skyscrapers reflecting cutting edge design that curiously do not seem out of place in a city where a large proportion of the settlements are built on hills. It is this fact that makes Napoli one of the most visually stunning cities I've ever seen, where the city seems to either tumble down to meet the Tyrrhenian sea, or, alternatively, rise up from the sea, white from the sea salt clinging to it. Napoli is growing rapidly, and taking Campania with it, as new homes and hotels and industries stamp the contemporary urban imprint all the way to Castelvolturno. The road that was built all the way to Rome when the Romans ruled one and all is now dotted with hotels, many jarring in their awkward architecture, built in a hurry to meet a growing tourist apetite.

Still some things are remarkably well preserved. I remember the surprise of a professor of coastal management in Los Angeles, who looked through a map of Castelvolturno and was amazed to see a large swathe of green marked all the way along the coast. "But we do not have anything like this here!". True, it has been harder to guard the California coastline against the greed for beachfront property, despite the best legal and preservationist efforts. The conservationist battle is perhaps just as hard in Italy, but the wide green belt along the Castelvolturno coast was reassuring, it provided a tangible physical barrier against excessive violation of the sea. However, as the number of tourists keep increasing, not just international but domestic as well, Castelvolturno and Campania as a whole will perhaps have harder preservation challenges, not just the green belt, but the agricultural lands yielding the finest in Italian produce, and the grazing fields for the oblivious buffaloes.

As my opening story suggested though, tourism and international trade are not the only agents of change. There are global movements of ideas and production technologies, and compared to the past these have become more rapid and widespread. In such circumstances perhaps the best response is to able to engage with the global forces with the confidence that your local knowledge and traditions contribute valuably to this global discourse. When I first met Giuseppe Ciambrone, architect and worthy resident of Castelvolturno, I was a bit surprised when he told me that he was doing comparative studies of the coastal management and development in California and Campania. What American lessons could you possibly be looking for, when most American scholars of planning I know seek ways to replicate European urban forms and transit facilities in the US. But then, I realised that perhaps it is not replication that is desirable, but the quest to find innovative solutions to common problems: the logistics and cargo transport issues related to a big port, growing influx of tourists, encouraging economic development, pressures on coastline, urban sprawl, etc.

Will the changing character and growing urban agglomeration in Napoli and Campania change the specific character of the place and render it part of an anonymous global urban network? Perhaps not. Away from the skyscrapers and the massive containeryards are sections of Napoli that have a quaint old-worldly charm to them. Houses built along steps that lead you up the hills, tiny lanes and by-lanes with pastry shops tucked away in unlikely corners, a barber shop run by Sri Lankan refugees who only spoke Italian. Besides shops that carry the best of Italy's fine designer wear are little stalls that almost beseech you to haggle. Not that different from Los Angeles, I think, with the gleaming downtown business offices flanked by the utterly chaotic bazaar-like garment district. Places change, but they also accomodate.

In this fine global world of ours, what will I make of a Romanian mozzarella? I find the concept interesting and may enjoy it on its own terms (a well-made cheese is a well-made cheese after all). However, there is a special pleasure in being seated in a restaurant covered in the warm, lazy sunshine of the Mediterrranean summer, savouring an insalata Caprese built around mozzarella that has perhaps made the journey from production to your plate in a few hours. It is the unique character of this experience, that is tied to the terroir of Castelvolturno and Campania, that will draw me to the place, even when my local speciality Italian groceries proudly proclaim that they can give me mozzarella di bufala identical to the one in Italy. I can only smile and shake my head, and think that the buffaloes of Campania have nothing to fear.

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