Interesting links of the week

One of my favourite procrastination educational activities is to read about random weird stuff. Unfortunately, it gets a little hard to keep track of the articles I come across – even if I post them on Twitter or Facebook, over time they tend to get lost.

I’ve decided to occasionally list here the links to the most interesting findings of the week, tagging them accordingly, so they can be more easily found :).

Dark Victorian Portraits by Egregore Designs: I’m always on the lookout for more intriguing art, especially fantastical landscapes and creepy Victorian/steampunk stuff. Some of these unsettling portraits of people and disturbing creatures would make for great characters.

Dolci tipici veneziani: un interessante post del gruppo Facebook ‘Venezia Ieri e Oggi’ riguardo ai ricordi degli utenti sui loro dolci tradizionali preferiti. Un’altra sfaccettatura della vita quotidiana veneziana da inserire nelle ricerche per il dottorato.

How Early Islamic Science advanced Medicine: Great article from the National Geographic website about physicians during the Islamic golden age.

Early Muslim medicine drew on traditional practices from the region, some dating back to ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Babylon in the third millennium B.C. Traditional natural remedies, such as the use of honey or olive oil, and the use of suction cups (hijama) are still used today in many Islamic countries and around the world to treat ailments. An indicator of health in this early Muslim society was one’s dreams…

The Secret Libraries of History: from the BBC. There are few things I find enthralling as reading about how men have endeavored to hide and save books from destruction throughout history. This article features: the Library Cave in the Gobi Desert, among the Thousand Buddha Grottoes; the Vatican secret archives; the Cairo genizah in Egypt.

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Quando l’ispettore di polizia si chiamava Capitan Grande

Police in the Venetian Republic

True Crime

Prima della creazione della Polizia cosi come la concepiamo noi, chi materialmente eseguiva gli arresti al tempo della Serenissima?

La figura che aveva questo ingrato compito si chiamava sbiro ed il dizionario di Giuseppe Boerio ci offre una definizione estremamente interessante: sbiro dalla voce araba birron, ovvero giustizia, viene anche definito birro, sbirro, zaffo, satellite, berroviere ed in gergo bracco. Lo sbiro era un basso ministro della Giustizia notissimo mentre il satelizio era il corpo dei birri. Il termine zaffo traeva invece origine da zaffar ovvero acciuffare, imprigionare.

La Repubblica di Venezia non ebbe mai un organizzato e coerente sistema di polizia. Lo schema classico prevedeva magistrature=organismi di governo, giustizia, amministrazione e alta polizia, all’interno di questo schema le magistrature disponevano di squadre di sbirri, il cui numero variava al variare della situazione contingente, anche se si può calcolare che sul finire della Serenissima fossero circa duemila.

Quest’ultima classe considerata…

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Coffee Preparation Through the Ages, Part I

Comestibles

A two part article in which we explore the development of coffee preparation techniques from the 17th Century Ottoman Turks to the Italian Espresso of the mid-20th Century.

Europeans have been drinking coffee since about 1615 when Venetian traders obtained it from the Ottoman Turks. The first European coffee house outside of Istanbul opened in Venice in 1645. But if you were to hop into that secret time machine I know you’re working on in the basement for a trip to Venice in 1645, you might be surprised at the equipment being used by the baristas.

Here in the 21st Century we associate Italy with espresso, that intense potion that clears your foggy head even after the most dissolute of nights out. But back in 1645 coffee was being made the way the Turks still do it today. Finely ground coffee is boiled together with water and sugar in a…

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“I think that we are like stars. Something happens to burst us open; but when we burst open and think we are dying; we’re actually turning into a supernova. And then when we look at ourselves again, we see that we’re suddenly more beautiful than we ever were before.”

C. JoyBell C.

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Tokyo Alleys Blues

 

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Sono le due del mattino e, un po’ come mi piaceva fare a Londra, sto seduta a scrivere al tavolo della cucina, nel cuore della casa silenziosa.

Tokyo è come me la ricordavo e, dopo un paio di giorni di esplorazione, questo piccolo angolino di Shin-Okubo lo sto iniziando a sentire come casa.

Ci sono gatti appollaiati sui cancelli, e sotto le biciclette, e vicino ai distributori illuminati di Calpis.

C’è l’odore familiare della metropolitana.

Ci sono onigiri con gli ingredienti scritti in giapponese, così ogni volta ne pesco uno a caso e addento riso e alghe per scoprire il ripieno misterioso.

C’è matcha amaro in polvere venduto in bustine, pronto per la mia tazza da té.

C’è ramen istantaneo fumante, con le rotelline a ghirigori e le bacchette di legno ruvido.

Ci sono remoti labirinti di stradine con vecchie bici e giardinetti silenziosi e, poco più in là, le luci rutilanti e la folla di Shinjuku.

Ci sono, seminati per le strade, tombini decorati con alberi, petali e fiori.

C’è la ragnatela di cavi scombinati che corre lungo tutte le vie, aggrappata a pali e palazzi.

C’è una teiera che, quando bolle sul fuoco, anziché fischiare emette una melodia.

Ci sono gru di carta colorata da costruire.

La sera, nella stradina vuota verso casa, da una finestra illuminata vengono le note lente di qualcuno che suona lo shamisen. Per un po’, rimango ferma al buio ad ascoltarlo.

Inizio a stare meglio, credo.

 

 

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Canada Cupcake Café

About a year ago, I had for the first time come across the website Workaway.

The concept is simple: people all over the world offer food and accomodation, or sometimes just accomodation, in exchange for a few hours of work every day. I had idly browsed the website, between helping in farms in New Zealand, or pubs in Ireland, or hostels in Ibiza, or babysitting in Brazil… but I was on the track to domestic life, at that time, so the workaway experience had been filed among those things that I would no longer have the chance to do.

So, after the life-earthquake, I went and opened an account on the website.

And that is how I somehow ended up in Alicante, Spain, helping out the owners of the lovely Canada Cupcake Café!

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Shawn and Arthur are lovely, friendly and easygoing. They moved to Alicante from Canada a couple of years ago and opened this bakery/café, where they also hold weekly ‘language exchange’ nights, and are full of ideas and plans for future initiatives. I help out in the Café before opening and after closing time – cleaning, doing the washing up, setting the chairs and tables outside. I love hanging out in Shawn’s kitchen – all those tiny instruments and colorful icing are spellbinding, and I look at them curiously as I wash them veery carefully, wiping all traces of yummy sugary icing, and melted chocolate, and ice cream…

So far, my favourite have been the carrot & ginger ice cream – YUM! – and the chocolate vanilla cupcake, paired with a nice Iced caramel Macchiato… which I now know not to stir before drinking as it makes it much yummier, thank you Shawn for the tip :). I have now spotted an Oreos cupcake in the shop window. I have a feeling tomorrow it will be mine…

Check out pictures of their yummy cupcakes on their FB page...

I also am in charge of groceries and dinner, and since Shawn and Arthur are vegetarian, I found myself with an interesting challenge – while I’m not a huge meat eater, I do tend to have some cold cuts or a bit of fish or chicken with most meals. And I confess, most of the veggie cooking is done by my wonderfully talented grandma! Balancing proteins and making sure the meal is complete just with vegetables is something I never really had to think about before, but I think – according to my hosts’ comments 😉 – that I’m doing pretty well!

The meals so far have been:

– rice with zucchini and sautéed mushrooms with spinach and cheese on the side;

– potato-and-cheese croquettes with beans, onion and tomatoes salad;

– potato omelette, onion omelette, sautéed mushrooms;

– quinoa with broccoli plus carrots cooked with butter and garlic;

And for tonight I have made from scratch burgers of mashed lentils, carrots, onions and a sprinkling of curry, and they’ll be served in bread buns with salad and a garlicky yoghurt sauce. Nom! It was a bit of a fight… first the blender wouldn’t comply, getting clogged with all the lentils. Then the burgers would refuse to remain in one piece when I put them in the pan, crumbling. Then they just wouldn’t cook properly, remaining either half burned and half raw… phew! I’m glad to report that a good sprinkling of breadcrumbs did the trick and held the burgers together. I still have a ton of boiled lentils in the fridge – I wonder whatever shall I do with them? Any ideas?

I wanted to tell you all more about Alicante and about the other exciting workaway plans I have lined up, but it’s time to get back to translating. I am way behind on work, which annoys me to no end. 2014 had started out so well in terms of productivity, for me – finally at home, stable, able to focus on my work! But alas, it was not meant to be. Back to work, then, and tomorrow I shall have an Oreos cupcake as a reward!

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Tea Tasting: Tè della Fortuna (Tea of Fortune)

Today’s tea is produced by an Italian brand, Neavita, which features an interesting selection of blends and tisanes. (Incidentally, they also produce my current favourite tea, which I will review soon :). Their infusions are sold by a shop nearby (along with natural beauty products and healthy snacks), and I was immediately attracted by their packaging. It’s absolutely beautiful, which makes them ideal gifts! I especially love their tins.

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Some flavours: mixed berries, Sicilian citrus fruits, strawberry & cream…

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‘After Meal’ and ‘Good Night’ tea tins

Unfortunately the company seems to be a little disorganized – their website is a Flash monstrosity featuring teaware and knicknacks for the house, but I can’t seem to find a Tea section or, God forbid, a list of retailers where all the products advertised on the website may be purchased. Or an email address. Oh well! You can have a look at their selection (as well as more lovely packaging) at Erboristeria Arcobaleno Online Shop.

The blend I will be reviewing today is a tea blend called Tea of Fortune that comes in a beautiful tin in shades of terracotta red and mustard yellow. The ingredients list is a little long: green tea, black tea, sugar butterflies, rose petals, osmanthus flowers, sunflower petals, cornflower petals. I love rose-flavored tea (I’m so bummed that I can no longer find the rose Twinings tea I reviewed here), and I love cornflower, and I love green tea. And I was really intrigued by the sunflower petals – what would they taste like?

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notice the beautiful Van Gogh mug that my boyfriend brought me from Amsterdam!

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look how pretty! rose, cornflower and sunflower petals, and the sugar butterflies…

The scent is strong and pungent, really fresh. But unfortunately, the taste turns subdued and really heavy – this tea is a bit of a miss for me. There’s just too much packed in, and the different flavours end up jumbled together, suffocating each other. The overall taste isn’t bad, per se – it’s just very heavy, and it brings to mind a dish where too many different spices have been tossed in the pan to the point of completely hiding the food’s taste.

I absolutely love the peculiar sharpness of green tea, but here I can’t even taste it; all that’s left of it is a light bitterness at the back of my mouth. There is no rose, except perhaps a sweetness lingering in the mouth (as this flavour always seems to do) only after the savoury mess has been swallowed.

I was intrigued by the sunflower petals, but the truth is, I can’t even distinguish which could possibly be their taste. Far from the flowery, spring-inspired flavour I was expecting, this tea is a heavy, dusty pout-pourrie, reminding me of old drawers with perfumed sachets.

I will be drinking this tea and enjoying the black tea base with its pout-pourrie of flowers when I feel like drinking something… filling, and strong, but I have to admit I expected better.

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New release – Just Met 2013

I’m happy to announce that this year’s anthology for London Metropolitan University’s creative writing competition is now out!

As always, it includes a brilliant selection of poems and short stories from under- and post-graduate students at LondonMet. It’s the fourth time I participate to the competition and am featured in the anthology, and I gotta say – it’s always great! The anthology was launched in a lovely event at the uni on November 14th, and it was so great to catch up with tutors and fellow students and to listen to everyone as they read samples of their work.

This year, my contributions are a steampunk poem – Golden Heart – the fairytale-like story of a French baker and his golden clockwork heart; and a short travel writing piece entitled Licata. It’s about my experience in the town of Licata, in Southern Sicily, as I navigate my way between the beautiful landscapes, the delicious food, and the historical secrets hidden in the alleys of the old Arabic quarter, in the veteran’s retirement home…

I’m also happy to announce that Licata won one of the Sandra Ashman Prizes awarded in the competition, and also bagged the the first prize, the Vice-Chancellor’s prize! The news ended up in a couple of newspapers in Italy, both in my region and in Sicily. They reached Licata’s Pro Loco, the organization for the promotion and preservation of local cultural heritages, and I’m thrilled to say that they’ve invited me as a guest in their beautiful town once again to present the story and take part in an event at the local literary café. I can’t say how excited I am! We’re still ironing out the details, but I will keep you posted – and can’t wait to share some pictures from the event 🙂

In case you’d like to check out the story, as well as all the other great contributions to the anthology, you can find it online for free over here on CompletelyNovel!

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Review: “The Burning Sky” (Halcyon #1) by Joseph Robert Lewis

So, a few days ago I discovered one of my new favourite authors ever. His name is Joseph Robert Lewis, and he’s the author of one of the best steampunk books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (and I’ve read plenty!)…

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The Burning Sky – Amazon.com

Blurb: Taziri Ohana is an elite airship pilot, though the long hours away from home have taken a toll on her family and she longs for a simpler life. When the Northern Air Corps is wiped out in a catastrophic fire, only Taziri survives to help the marshals pursue the suspects across the skies of Marrakesh. Their investigation reveals a vast conspiracy of deposed aristocrats, wealthy industrialists, and warmongers plotting against the crown. Taziri discovers that her own inventions have been perverted by the conspirators, the cities plunge into violent riots, and their only hope for salvation may be an exiled princess, her swashbuckling escort, and a crippled airship plummeting out of the burning sky.

 

Review: 5 stars!

Refreshing. Addictive. A breath of fresh air. Innovative. It’s not often that I fall completely, head-over-heels in love with a book, but when it happens – oh, when it happens it’s the best feeling in the world.

This book hits all the right notes for me. A steampunk book where the entire power structure of the world as we know it is subverted? A steampunk book that’s not focused on British or American white imperialism? A steampunk book where, in fact, the US and Britain – as well as the other main English-speaking countries- aren’t even among the main players? As a reader, writer, and in general citizen living outside the English-centric clique that seems to rule all cultural products, I very nearly wept with joy. I hadn’t realized how dearly I needed a book like this before I started reading this, and now it will be painful to go back to the same old stuff. I’m glad there’s another two trilogies set in this world I can look forward to!

[…]in this world, Europe never emerged from the last Ice Age and only the southern areas are habitable. North Africa is cool, wet, and fertile. Ancient nations such as the Persian Empire have persisted, though others, such as the Romans, never rose to power.

I loved how North Africa is the leading country in terms of technology and economy, here. I loved how the different areas had very different strong points – technology for Marrakesh, religion and supernatural for Espana, nature for the Incan Empire. I LOVED how an Incan woman described the Catholic religion from her perspective – it was delightful, for once, to see Europe portrayed as irrational and primitive through someone else’s eyes instead of always the reverse.

And oh, the women. It was just so wonderful to have all these diverse female characters, capable, smart, generous, brave but also scared, prideful, greedy… interacting, working together or fighting, for pages and pages. Such a huge leap from the all-too-common trope of the one perfect heroine surrounded by a cast of women accurately put down in order not to overshadow her magnificence. The best, unexpected part is how, most of the time, when some secondary character comes along, especially in a position of command… it turns out it’s a woman. And I realized that I was surprised by this, that I was so used to all these characters being naturally male that I was just assuming everybody in an important role would be a man. This was another huge breath of fresh air, and again, I hadn’t realized how much I needed this before I opened this book. It will be painful to go back to the usual tropes.

The characters in general are very three-dimensional, realistic, with good sides and flaws… which sounds normal, doesn’t it, except in most books – especially genre fiction books – characters tend to fall in the usual tropes and stereotypes. I hadn’t realized just how much those tropes were radicated in my head until I found myself getting frustrated because this book wasn’t following “the rules”… and of course I loved it even more for it. Main characters slowly become unlikable as their bad sides emerge. Bad guys crawl their way into your heart and eventually become the good guys almost without you realizing it. It’s frustrating at times, confusing, gives a lot to think about… it’s so delightfully REAL. And in a world where fiction demands 100% perfect, saintly protagonists and bad guys who are 100% evil for evil’s sake, this was such a relief. Harder. More painful. But so much more gratifying and involving in the long run.

During my research lately I’ve read too many books that were stereotypical ‘Chosen One’ YA romances with the steampunk elements used as nothing more than a backdrop for the plucky heroine and dashing hero, but this, this right here is what steampunk should be like. A radical re-imagining of society, a true exploration of what the world would be like if the balance of power shifted, with technology taking on a poignant role (the positivity of progress, yes, but also a critical look at the dangers and de-humanization that machines and factories bring) rather than being limited to quirky clockwork accessories for the rich bourgeoisie. This truly brings to the table the ‘punk’ element that should be the core of steampunk works but that, alas, is all too often lacking.

It hurts me that a book so wonderful is almost unknown in a world that desperately needs, and wants, more diversity in characters, settings, stories and dynamics. I was beginning to despair in my search for a steampunk book that wasn’t just a white bourgeoise gaslamp fantasy romance masquerading as such… and I can’t describe how glad I am to have stumbled across this little gem. It will definitely be one of the main case studies for my PhD dissertation, and I will do whatever I can to bring it more attention.

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Tea tasting: Kelp tea with Japanese plum

There are times when you buy a type of tea because it looks like a challenge rather than because it looks inviting.

I have to confess this was the case when, last April, as I browsed a small ‘everything for 100 yen’ shop in Tokyo, my eye fell on this particular item and I looked up the translation of the ingredients. Gyokuroen Ume Konbucha: Kelp tea wtih Japanese plum, tea from Kombu seaweed.

.ImageDespite reading gyokuroen and ‘cha’ (tea), I was still a little bit uncertain – I had never heard of kelp tea before – so I chased down a shop assistant and, with a display of my nonexistant Japanese skills, pointed at the packet and asked: “Cha?” just to make sure. When she confirmed, I promptly purchased it, as well as another orange packet of pure kelp tea, without any added flavours.

Life gets distracting, however, and the Italian summer is hot, so it wasn’t until this morning that I finally sat down to taste this tea, having breakfast with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

The little envelopes contain small granules, not powder as I would expect. After mixing it in hot water, the result is what looks like ever-so-slightly murky transparent water (a bit like Miso soup) with the palest green tinge, brought by the algae powder suspended in it, with pale pink flecks floating at the top (that look like dried tuna but are, I would guess, plum blossom petals) and a white-ish foam coating the top.

All in all, a not too inviting look, I have to confess, which brings to mind a kind of light soup rather than tea. And in fact, I suspect that this product might be used for more than just tea: if you look at the back of the packet, it would seem that there are instructions to cook in different ways. In fact, I think Konbucha is also used the way we Italians use bouillon cubes, as food flavouring and occasionally to replace salt with something more tasty:

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However, I was sadly forced to conclude that kelp tea – at least with added plum blossoms; I will soon try the pure kelp tea and make sure – is really not my… cup of tea. The scent is salty and very, very heavy; it reminds me of seawater stagnating on the rocky piers where I used to look for crabs as a child. I remember the strong smell of the small seawater puddles, that smelled like algae and little dead shellfish; well, sniffing this tea makes me feel like I’m about to take a sip from those puddles, except boiling hot.

However, provided I hold my breath as I bring the mug to my lips, the first taste is not that bad. It’s hot, salty water, with a slightly bitter taste. It’s not too different from simple miso soup, which I really like (and my trip-mates loathed, so every time we went to a restaurant, I ended up with five or six miso cups lined next to my plate!). However, it gets worse after swallowing the mouthful down: the aftertaste spreads at the back of my mouth, heavy and sickly-sweet in a way that really doesn’t match the salty taste. That sweet bout is completely out of place according to my mouth, and it ends up being simply heavy and nauseating.

Japanese cuisine has, obviously, very different flavors and combinations compared to Italian cuisine – every country has their trademark style, after all! And while my trip-mates struggled with the salty algae and pickled vegetables and bitter sauces and variety of savoury soups, I found myself right at home with the light, uncomplicated cuisine, the soy and rice and and light ingredients, to the point where I had heartburn for a week when I returned to Norhtern Italy and its heavy meals, its bread and pasta and roasts and generally heavier, more elaborate cuisine.

But this time, this time I have to admit defeat: my palate just can’t make its peace with the kelp-plum combination.

 

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