Peeling An Onion

I like to prep my onions after I buy them by peeling off the papery outermost layers so that when I’m ready to use them while cooking I can skip the flaky mess. Today this onion caught my attention in a more poignant manner and I couldn’t help but capture it’s strange yet familiar form in a photo. I would say that we peel away layers, to borrow from the analogy, only by pushing ourselves into the hands of the unknown and letting it tear from us the skin we thought we had and reveal another that is thicker and juicier. By ever-changing experience, we break our shells, cut off our crusts and remove our rinds. The onion itself must be transformed, stripped of its outer self, cut and thrown on the fire, in order to bring out its higher essence, to provoke a deeper and more satisfying flavor. An onion that stays hidden within its papery mask will rot and be useless, serving no greater purpose. Likewise, a person who chooses not to rip off his or her clinging cloak of comfort and security risks losing the potential awareness of the higher self who is to be found naked beyond the fires of self-transformation.

The Mighty Dolomiti

Standing apart yet nestled among the Alps are several small clusters of mountains known as the Dolomites, or Dolomiti in Italian. Not dotted by pine or rising into soft ridges or high peaks like their famous cousins, the Dolomites are paler, quite literally, in comparison, having once been referred to as the Pale Mountains by the Ladin people of antiquity.

The Dolomites, named for the French scientist Déodat de Dolomieu, are in fact ancient coral reefs shaped by time and nature to their curious present state. Sharp ridges, points and drops define these pre-historic structures made of layer upon layer of geological transformation that began with Pangaea, Planet Earth’s supercontinent of yore. They are a marvel to scientists who have used them as a living timetable to explore the distant past. Each layer harbors fossil records from the Permian era through the Mesozoic, when what we now know as northern Italy was submerged beneath a tropical ocean. It was at the end of the age of the dinosaurs when these ancient coral reefs were raised from the waters as the Alpine ranges were being formed by the compression of Africa’s movement toward the European continent. With the passing of ages, the recession of glaciers, winds, and gravity, the Dolomites have been carved and molded into shapes that have captivated minds for millenia.

Many legends exist from the times of the Ladin people, post-Roman Alpine dwellers who were inspired by the Dolomites seemingly magical differentiation from mountains around them. One legend tells of a Moon Princess who came down to earth to be with her human lover. However, she began to long for the bright, pale surface of the Moon and wished to return home. Her lover, seeking the help of two salvani, wild men schooled in the magical arts, had them weave moonlight with which to cover the mountains in the pale splendor of the moon. The Princess returned to the Earth and to her lover, bringing with her some moon flowers, what we know as edelweiss.

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I, myself, was charmed by the otherworldliness of the mountains as I walked along the San Pellegrino Pass this Christmas Day. We were on our way to the Rifugio Fuciade for lunch. Many rifugi, or refuges, dot the Alpine range. Rifugio Fuciade was built in the sixties by three priests with the intention to offer shelter for mountaineers and travelers. It has since been converted into a rustic Italian restaurant and inn. We walked a few miles along a mountain road, past breathtaking vistas, through pine and fresh snow, and sat down here for a four-course lunch and a bottle of Lagrein, my favorite wine from the region of Trentino. Hats off to the chefs, who catered to four vegetarians and one gluten-free individual with all the gusto expected from a large Italian meal prepared in the middle of the mountains.

On top of the world, I witnessed ancient history and dined on local flavors. A very Buon Natale.

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That Time I Was Naked With the Europeans

Merano is another small, charming Italian city nestled in a fertile valley between split ranges of gray-capped mountains dusted with snow. Here is where kings liked to summer, drawn by its noble-born inhabitants and the glowing, white stone of which its buildings are, well, built. The jewel of its tourism, however, is to be found within the Merano Thermal Baths.

Several large pools of steaming water are dotted with people splashing about and basking in the late afternoon sun that is soon to slip behind the soft ridge of a green mountain. Jacuzzis sparkle here and there offering highly coveted seats to the bathers, who chat and laugh in their respective tongues: Italian, mostly, but also the German of Austria, Switzerland and Germany herself. We swam about for a while in warm waters which extended outdoors into the cool mountain air before retreating for a light snack in the cafeteria. Our next destination within the spa was to be the sauna…

Once we passed beyond the gate which we opened with our wrist passes, beyond which only adults are permitted, I was soon to experience a phenomenon so European I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it coming. We found some lounge chairs together in a quiet corner and it was suggested that we go sit in the steam room for a bit. “But we go naked, covered only with our towels until we get there.” I paused… Was I ready? I’m an experienced traveler, not terribly ugly, and I did live in the hedonist paradise of Provincetown for quite some time… Could I really get naked and run around a spa for two hours?

Yes, yes I could. And I did. After my moment’s hesitation, I modestly stripped off my very American swim trunks–everyone else was in a Speedo… or nothing at all–and wrapped my towel around my waist as it seemed only appropriate. Lo, and behold, several dozens of Europeans who were walking about as if they had never been clothed in their lives, uncircumcised penises swinging like fleshy ornaments on odd trees, breasts bouncing perkily (or not) and ever so proudly beneath the dignified gazes of unabashed women. In the steam room, couples scrubbed each other with handfuls of sea salt as they soaked in the steamy half-light. I spent the first ten minutes with my hands placed modestly on my legs, not fully hiding my manhood because truth be told I have nothing of which to be ashamed, but modestly nonetheless as I acquainted myself to the feeling of celebrated public nudity.

After the steam room, and the recovery of my towel and flip-flops, we pondered what to take on next. As we stood by the door leading to the outside jacuzzi and its neighboring cold bath, a pair of what I was told to be Sicilians marched by, unceremoniously nude, and went straight through the door and plopped themselves into the cold bath. It’s true that a cold bath after a hot sauna is the best gift the skin can receive and I watched bemusedly and amusedly as this bit of scientific fact was tested and proven beyond the hypothetical before my very eyes. Perkier, and, for him, a bit smaller, they marched back inside and proceeded to their next stop. I opted for the sauna next and, after being briefly berated by the attendant for not having left my sandals at the door, I found some quiet comfort in the dark room, as I sweat out my inhibitions, naked on a soft towel, stretched across the hot wood bench.

We spent the next twenty minutes in the jacuzzi outside where I was befriended by a nice Italian man, 40-something with good hair and pretty eyes. He and his friends began chatting me up, as it was obvious that I was the only American in northern Italy that day. I am not fluent in Italian, so conversation is challenging, but I learned many tricks during my days as a server in the restaurants of Provincetown, and I am sure that he thought I understood every word he said. Apparently he was attracted to me but I honestly couldn’t tell… All Italian men have the style and the energetic presence of gay men. Too bad for me, as I have been suffering whiplash getting glimpses of the treasures of Italy, only to be reminded by the unreturned glimpse that, Oh, sorry, I know that everything I’m wearing would make me look like a homosexual in America, but alas, I’m just goodlooking and stylish.

I’m beginning to become convinced that the old American adage is the reverse here: All the goodlooking ones are actually straight, in Italy.

After an interesting fifteen minutes in another sauna where an amusing old man held a hell-hot holy court as he swung a towel around pushing waves of steamed heat which carried rosemary and lemon around the room to singe my nostrils, I took a quick dip in the cold bath. Before I passed out from the extreme change in body temperature, I was fed a few pieces of apple, and the sugar abated the hangover. We had a fresh pressed juice as I said goodbye to my new friend, who I still couldn’t tell was gay, until just after he left and my friends told me so. I was only briefly disappointed by having missed out on my first European daddy, but quickly found consolation in the continued evidence of my outward grace and beauty. As you read this, you may be questioning the inward counterparts… I assure you, they are still there, and I am only pulling your leg.

Outside the spa, Merano was jammed with thousands of tourists who came from far and near to partake in the giant Christmas Market (“mercato di Natale” or “Christkindlmarkt”). Hundreds of vendors in cute wooden stands purveying cheeses and breads and soaps and clothes and booze and sausages, as the mountains retreat into shadow and the twinkle of strings of holiday lights outnumber the unseen stars. We wandered for a while in the throng before returning to the car and to Moena, the even smaller mountain valley village where I was spending the weekend. Thankfully, the crowds were missing along with the winter snows, although for the local economy which depends on wintry weather to welcome ski-happy tourists, the sparse streets are probably rather dire. Fully clothed and jacketed, I reflected on the time I spent naked with the Europeans, and was glad. And my skin was glowing.

MOENA

Moena, Trentino Alto-Adige

Merano Thermal Baths

http://www.termemerano.it/index.php?lang=3

Piazza Terme 9
39012 Merano
tel. +39 0473 252 000