Italian Notes

One of the perks of being professor's wife is the opportunity to travel. This summer my husband was invited to teach in the North-Italian city of Trento and our family spent a few weeks immersing ourselves in the local Italian life. Here are my brief notes of this experience, which, as you might expect, are spiced with some simple math.

Evening strolls to the Piazza for gelato or sorbet. Pick apricot, fig or granny-smith-apple sorbet made with 50% fruit pulp. Or contemplate between creamy Stracciatella vs. Sicilian Almond gelato. Great news is that a fantastic Italian gelato chain called Grom is starting to conquer the US - first shops opened in New York. Their all-natural gelatos are scooped with an elaborate whipping technique and served at slightly higher temperatures than ice cream. Therefore, they melt fast - cone lovers beware.

I devoted my Master’s Thesis to teaching computers to recognize human faces, believing it to be one of the most complex problems of object classification. Little did I know about the varieties of Italian pasta. Penne, pennette, rotini, conchiglie, tagliatelle, mezzelune. The endless American supermarket shelves do not hold even 1/100 of the actual selection. To make things even more complex, some of the names vary by geographical region. But if you are in the mood for a salad, life is easier. No need to decide between Italian, Blue Cheese, Thousand Islands or Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing. Most of the places we visited only offer Insalata Mista (mixed salad) served with a tray of olive oil, vinegar, and salt-and-pepper.

Beware when ordering randomly from the untranslated restaurant menu. There is approximately 5% chance that you will get a horse or donkey meat.

The evolution of Pesto knowledge:
Stage 1, Ignorance. You don’t know what pesto is.
Stage 2, Naive. You buy off-the-shelf pesto in you local supermarket and proudly dump it on your pasta.
Stage 3, Smarty Pants. You figured out the pesto ingredients and now make your own home pesto in a blender or food processor.
Stage 4, Expert. You understand that the blender heats the olive oil and basil, which, for the trained, absolutely spoils the taste. You meticulously hand chop the ingredients for an hour or/and use mortar to slowly pound them into a flavorful mix.

How many types of coffee drinks can you name? Italian coffee machines offer at least 15:

But you wouldn't find cafe Americano on it. It is served only out of a pity in some tourist spots as a tiny Espresso with a bucket of hot water to dilute.

You can tell time of the day by looking at the café tables: coffee with milk is a breakfast drink, no milk accompanies coffee in the afternoon or post-dinner.

Espresso cups are cleverly positioned off-center on the saucers – leaving space for a treat or at least spoon and sugar.

Bambino Menu is translated as a Baby Menu but a 14" diameter pizza it offers could easily satisfy a teenager or 3-4 real babies. Pizza is consumed with fork and knife.

Beachwear seems to be twice more expensive than in US despite being half the size. Men wear Speedo. Women wear bikini. My American friend, wearing tank-and-skirt bathing suit, was constantly bypassed in the changing line because people assumed that she is already dressed.

It was very hot and we slept with the balcony doors wide open, which did not allow closing the shades. Every night I would wake up because of a strong light from the neighbor's balcony in our L-shaped building. I waited until the jet lag subsided, but the light was still bothering me. I tried eye covers, but the light rays found their way through. I blamed the neighbors from whose balcony the light was coming, and was waiting for them to return from vacation and turn it off. They did come back, but the light was still shining away my dreams. It turned out to be an externally attached street-balcony lamp. I tried visualizing my enemy - sharp arrows of light thrown directly into my eyes. Wait a minute, can I create an obstacle? Can I hide behind a shield? A simple geometrical breakthrough! What if I can move the bed a bit (those light European beds from the 70th are so easy to move) so that the new straight line between the pillow and the light will pass through something else like balcony door or a wall that will block the light. Eureka!

The trip to Trento took over 24 hours - on two planes, two trains, two cabs - it is a small university town not yet discovered by hoards of tourists. One day we open our apartment door and bump into an English-speaking couple from across the floor. Where do you think they are from? Turns out that our homes in MA are just 1 mile apart! What are the chances? If we assume that everyone in the US has equal probability of traveling to Italy, and that anyone living in our assigned apartment complex is from US, then the chances would be:
Our town population/total US population
30,000 / 307,000,000 = 0.0000977 or 0.00977%
Doesn't look realistic. Aha, let's take into account that all those American visitors living in our apartment complex actually came to work in the university. And that Boston has the highest concentration of academics in the country, and that many academics live in our suburb. Then chances would look very real.

"Mommy, Daddy - are we there yet?
How much longer is the ride?
When are we supposed to arrive
If this sounds familiar, here is an answer that works magic:
"Look at this road sign. It says that our destination is 8 miles away. Now, let's check the speed: 65 mph. Can you figure out how much longer?"
Then, make sure to wait 5 minutes and tease your kids. "Are we there yet?"

And once you prime your kids’ brains with simple daily math, they start noticing or even inventing it themselves. Our daughter posed a math puzzle after visiting a real Medieval Castle. She was also probably cued by our "what she needs to do for her allowance" discussion.
"These guards that lower and raise the castle doors every morning and evening to prevent enemy entry at night. If they earn 1 euro for each of these operations. How much would they earn in a year?"

When I showed her how to add 365 to 365 in a column, she thought this to be the coolest trick and to my sincere amazement demanded more of such additions to play with. It is all in a context!

Some of Italian frescoes, such as this one by Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506), are fascinating studies of perspective. Imagine painting this, without a slide projector, directly on the ceiling.

Italy is lavishing with pleasures to offer: emerald lakes, warm seas, cultural events for any taste, human history, celebrated food, sophisticated fashion. But eventually it is always great to be home. I am still coping with the jet lag that makes me drowsy and sleepy. Is the magnitude of suffering proportional to the distance traveled? Do you think it is a linear or an exponential relation?


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