The Ceramics of Vietri

Vietri sul Mare 2007Yesterday we went to Vietri sul Mare, or Vietri on the Sea, a small town of Etruscan origin built on a terrace of land overlooking the sea. In 1997 it was added to the UNESCO’s Heritage of Humanity list, together with the rest of the Amalfi Coast. Deservedly so. We didn’t go to Vietri to lie on its beach or swim in the sea, but to locate a small pottery shop where we had bought a few lovely items three years ago. We found it almost immediately. I asked the owner, who is also the potter, Giovanni Mosca, if I could take a few photos of his shop, and he told me very cheerfully to go right ahead. Ceramiche Mosca 2007Here are a few examples of the work he does. Giovanni Mosca is 45 years old and has been making and decorating pots since he was 15. He told us that he never goes on holiday because of his passion for making ceramics and fiddling around with new techniques. (And in fact his ceramics really stood out for beauty, originality and quality compared to the rather kitsch, frequently almost identical, pottery we saw yesterday in other Vietri shops.) We bought several of his small raku items, exquisite and very reasonably-priced. And an absolutely gorgeous raku wall lamp. Ceramiche Mosca 2007

After buying up a small storm at Ceramiche Mosca, we wandered around the narrow winding streets of the town of Vietri, which in many ways seemed frozen in time: men sitting outside a café chatting and arguing loudly (in dialect, which here in the region of Campania is wonderfully colorful) while gesticulating furiously and an elderly lady lowering a basket from her terrace to collect an item from a woman in the street. So slow-paced, so peaceful, so ancient.

Majolica wall tile, Vietri 2007But what I loved most about Vietri, apart from Ceramiche Mosca, of course, were the majolica tiles (these are just a few examples of the photos I took). We saw tiles everywhere: the names of the streets were painted on handmade tiles, colorful hand painted tiles hung above and sometimes all around the storefronts of Cheese and salami shop signmeat and cheese shops (see photo on left), and tiles, both old and new, haphazardly decorated building walls almost at every step. On the right is the photo of a large decorated wall tile with a view of the Amalfi Coast and a sailboat. We saw entire sides of buildings covered with ceramic scenes of everyday life. Extraordinary. Below is the photo of a ceramic fountain (depicting, in the foreground, a person devouring a piece of watermelon) that we encountered while climbing up toward the 17th century Church of San Giovanni Battista, which, surprise surprise, has a brightly-colored majolica dome.

Ceramic fountain, Vietri 2007As you may have guessed (!), Vietri is famous for its ceramics. There are pottery shops everywhere you look. This ceramic tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and became well-established in the 15th century. In fact, Vietri has its own ceramic museum (which we did not visit yesterday) that has pieces dating back at least to the 15th century. This small seaside town now has its own registered DOC ( di origine controllata ) high quality trademark. The DOC trademark, by the way, has traditionally been given to high quality Italian wines and cheeses, and it is only in recent years that it has been assigned to ceramics as well. A personal note: when Stefano and I bought and renovated our first (and only!) house several years ago, we decided to have our bathrooms decorated with colorful handmade Vietri tiles, which turned out beautifully. At any rate, yesterday’s visit was not our last one to Vietri sul Mare or the Amalfi Coast. But the best time to visit the Costiera is the fall or early winter, not the middle of August!

Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, Vietri 2007

Pompeii, Part II

After our huge ferragosto feast yesterday, today we are going to take a well deserved rest. πŸ˜‰ Tomorrow morning we are heading for the Amalfi Coast, or Costiera Amalfitana in Italian, but, in order to avoid the huge crowds of tourists and endless traffic jams that are typical of the Costiera at this time of year, we will stop only in lovely Vietri, which is the first Costiera town you encounter after the city of Salerno. That way, we will be able to make a quick escape when it’s time to return home. Or so we hope! This will be our third visit to the Costiera, our second to Vietri.

Pompeii, estate 2007Back to our Pompeii visit. This (on the left) is one of my favorite photos, taken inside a house (I stupidly didn’t write down which one it was!). On the left is a lovely little fresco, on the right a window framing a (real) tree outside in the garden. I really liked the contrast.

One of the things that you cannot help noticing when wandering around the streets of Pompeii are the wine bars that were clearly very popular, since they appear on almost every street corner. My photo shows a wine bar with a counter that would have contained three clay pots filled with wine to be sold to thirsty passersby 2000 years ago. Wine bar, Pompeii 2007Day before yesterday, after walking around the hot city for a few hours, I almost wished that it had still been open for business! The wine of Pompeii was apparently excellent. It was highly praised by the Roman philosopher and naval commander Pliny the Elder–who, by the way, died during a vain but heroic attempt to rescue (with his ships) some of the unfortunate Pompeians during the 79 A.D. eruption–who reported that Pompeian wines were aged for 10 years (10 years!?! Modern wine-producers would go broke were that still the case!) inside clay jars, or dolii, buried to the lip.

Well, the Mastrobernardino family (famous southern Italian wine producers) has recreated this wine with the help of ancient frescoes, plant breeding and archaeological finds. The five tiny modern vineyards (one of which we saw during our walk on the outskirts of the city but duh, I neglected to take a photo!) have been planted on the same spot where the ancient vineyards of Pompeii used to be. How about that? Indeed, the same type of grapes that would have been used at the time were used to produce the modern version, called “Villa dei Misteri.” The first modern Pompeian harvest took place in 2001, and the first bottles were auctioned off in 2003. The proceeds from the auction were used to fund the restoration of the ancient wine cellars, which I think is absolutely brilliant. Every year, fewer than 2000 bottles of Pompeian wine are produced; they cost about 100 euros and are not easy to find. Of course, the experts cannot be sure that this recreated version is the exact same wine that the Pompeians drank, and in fact the first modern tasting apparently was met with an embarrassed silence. Perhaps Pliny was right: this type of wine needs to sit for 10 years before it can be fully appreciated. πŸ™‚

Today is Ferragosto

Ferragosto derives from the Latin Feriae Augusti, or feast in honor of Augustus: a pagan festivity. Ferragosto in fact was introduced by the first Roman emperor Augustus and originally coincided with the entire month of August. Even slaves were allowed to participate in all the feasts and banquets. An interesting little historical fact is that in the sixth century the Catholic Church wisely chose to Christianize this popular pagan festivity, and as a result August 15 became the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Nowadays ferragosto refers only to one day: August 15. It is THE big summer holiday for Italians. Everything is closed today, and there are religious processions all over the country. By the way, “andare in ferie” means “to go on holiday,” so the original meaning of the Latin feria has been preserved.Dolcini mangiati a ferragosto

Stefano, with the help of many willing sous-chefs, prepared a huge feast for lunch today. A wonderful meal. We ended up eating for hours, with small but necessary rest periods. The meal ended with some delicious typical southern Italian mignon pastries (see photo), which just about sent me rolling under the table, more stuffed than a turkey at Xmas. Around 4 PM I finally said basta! and came upstairs to take a nap. I woke up at 5:30 PM. Yikes! Well, after all, I AM on holiday! πŸ™‚

Wandering Around Pompeii

What a splendid day! No sudden thunderstorm drove us away from the magic of Pompeii this time. We set foot in the ancient city yesterday at 11 AM and left at 5:30 PM, Pompei, frescoexhausted and dusty but ecstatic. I cannot explain what happens to me when I visit Pompeii (yesterday was my second visit). The first time I was overwhelmed at how enormous it was. I had no idea! Back then, we spent several hours wandering around, and still only saw perhaps a third of it. This time, I was expecting the hugeness of Pompeii, but was still overwhelmed in part, with fatigue after walking for so many hours under the hot midday sun. I am consoled by the fact that so were the others Γ’β€šΒ¬”Stefano (my husband), his aunt, a cousin and the cousin’s girlfriend.

Villa dei Misteri 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First thing, we walked from Porta Marina (the most imposing of the seven city gates) to the Villa of the Mysteries (see photo of the red fresco known, I think, as the Great Frieze of the Dionysiac Mysteries). Extraordinary. Words simply fail me.

After spending some time at the Villa, we walked around a portion of the city walls up to Porta del Vesuvio. From there we strolled down Via del Vesuvio to the Teatro Grande, or Great Theatre, and rested a bit in the park above it, near Porta di Nocera. It was cool and wonderful there. We also braved the crowds of hot and tired (like us) tourists and visited some of the more famous houses Γ’β€šΒ¬”the House of the Amorini Dorati, House of Pansa, House of Loreius Tibertinus, House of Venus in the Shell, etc. Spectacular. Unfortunately, the famous House of the Vettii was still being restored, so once again we were unable to see it.

Foro, Pompei 2007We headed back toward Porta Marina on via dell’Abbondanza, which cuts through the city. This is a view of the Forum with Mount Vesuvius in the background. If you look closely enough, you will see two black dots. The dots are actually two big black dogs. There are dogs a bit everywhere in Pompeii. In fact, we came across a female dog sleeping peacefully on a cordoned-off mosaic floor inside one of the thermal baths, oblivious to the tourists walking around her. Terme, Pompei 2007Here is a shot of the Thermal Baths…without the dog, though. The light filtering in from an opening in the ceiling made it all very surreal. Too bad there were so many tourists in there with us!

I will be posting a few more of our best shots in the days to come, just a tiny sample of the many photos we took. My recommendation: if you are planning a trip to Italy and have enough time, visit Pompeii and Herculaneum. My second visit to Pompeii only made me want to go back immediately!

My Tests: IgG Count and Monoclonal Component

My brain must be on holiday, too, since yesterday I didn’t make a rather obvious connection between two markers: the IgG count and the monoclonal component (MC). While my IgG level went up slightly, my MC went down. That puzzled me somewhat, yesterday. The first thing that I noticed was an increase in my IgGs, and that did not please me. But I completely missed the connection, i.e., the GOOD news.

A friend of mine just pointed out to me that the IgG increase and corresponding MC decrease means that my GOOD IgGs have increased, not the nasty evil MM cells. Duuuuh, Margaret! Of course! Well, an increase in my normal immunoglobulins is good news, for sure. Indeed, excellent. Cause for celebration. I want to thank my wonderful friend (whom I call Sherlock in our frequent e-mail exchanges) for pointing this out to me. Grazie mille!

Doing the Tomatoes (Part II)

Before finishing my chapter on bottling tomatoes the Italian way, I wanted to make a comment on another test result (see yesterday’s post): my active form of vitamin D, or 1,25-Dihydroxycholecalciferol, is right at the low end of the normal range. A close friend of mine, who is my vitamin D expert, told me that I must start taking a vitamin D supplement. I am sure she is right, so tomorrow I am going to a pharmacy to see if I can find the brand that she recommended. In the meantime, since it’s lovelPomodori, sabato mattinay and very cool here (we are in a small town near Avellino, about 40 minutes from Naples), I will sit out in the sun and do some reading.

Pomodori 2007

 

 

 

 

Now for the tomato story. Yesterday morning we boiled the remaining tomatoes (the ones that we had not pressed into cauldrons and put inside the wood oven on Friday afternoon) which were then left to drip through a kitchen towel (photo on the left). Once ready, the tomatoes were passed through an electric tomato strainer (photo on the right). This wonderful machine separated the peelings and seeds from the tomato pulp and juice. Easy!Pomodori, sabato mattina 2

And this was the result:

We then bottled the cooked and passed tomatoes and put the bottles inside a homemade caldaia, or water bath canner. Since I am not an expert tomato-bottler (but mainly I think that my husband and his kind relatives wanted to spare me most of the hard work), I was given small easy tasks. It was fun, lots of teasing and good humor and laughter. We are all bushed today, though. So today will be a day of rest and relaxation. And of course, we shall be eating pasta al pomodoro! πŸ˜‰

Tomorrow we are almost certainly going to Pompeii, so I should have some good photos to post on the blog on Tuesday. Stefano and I have been to Pompeii before (several years ago), but just as we were about to enter the Villa dei Misteri, or Villa of the Mysteries (which refer to secret initiation rites), a loud and scary thunderstorm sent us scampering toward our cars. We were thus forced to leave early and missed seeing the villa’s remarkable frescoes. Tomorrow we will visit the villa first thing!

June Test Results!

Finally, my June 26 test results! The reason it took so long to get them is that I wanted certain vitamins etc. to be tested. Normally, you get your test results in two weeks. My mother, who is cat-sitting for us back in Florence, read them to me over the phone a short while ago.

In a nutshell, my MM is still stable. My IgG has indeed increased from 28.8 to 30.6, BUT most of the other markers have improved, in some cases remarkably so. For instance, my blood viscosity has halved. No kidding. It’s still not within the normal range, but it’s going in the right direction, and that’s what matters. My platelet count has gone up from 262 to 283, which is also good news. My albumin went up a bit, so now it is even more within the normal range. And my monoclonal component went down one entire percentage. Yippee! Total protein and my other immunoglobulins (low, as to be expected), no change; my calcium is down slightly, still way within the normal range.

Okay, not everything is shining and bright and glorious. Since my April tests, my ferritin has gone from 11 to 7 (the normal range is 15-200 ng/ml), which is abysmally low. So I will have to eat some red meat (sigh!) and other iron-rich foods, otherwise I fear that my hematologist will tell me to take iron pills. I should note, though, that my serum iron is way within the normal range, and there is no big change in my hematocrit and hemoglobin. My Beta-2 went up slightly compared to my April tests, from 1.5 to 1.7, but is still way within the normal range, which is 1.2-2.5 mg/L. Those are really the only two “bad” values.

I had wanted to test resveratrol between April and June, but I ran out of resveratrol capsules at the end of May or thereabouts, and the new shipment I was expecting from the U.S. in May was stopped by Italian customs (by the way, the shipment arrived safe and sound…about three weeks ago! Oh well…better late than never). So I ended up not testing any new substance but just taking my usual daily dose of curcumin, quercetin and oil capsules. Therefore, all in all, these results are quite satisfactory. Sure, I would have preferred a huge IgG decrease, but after all, as this Italian proverb wisely states, chi s’accontenta, gode (I found this translated as: “well pleased is well served”). Right? πŸ™‚

Doing the Tomatoes

The next couple of days we will be helping my husband’s Pomodori 2007uncle and aunt a fare i pomodori, or “do the tomatoes.” 100 kilos of tomatoes in all. This is an ancient tradition that is still observed in central and southern Italy in particular. Quite an experience, similar to participating in a vendemmia or grape harvest (I have done that, too, but I was a bit younger then!).

The process is simple: you put on some old clothes (at the end of this process, they will be completely splattered with tomato juice and seeds, so you don’t want to be wearing your good Ferragamo suit πŸ˜‰ ), wash the tomatoes and leave them to drip a bit, then you slit them in half, squeeze out some of the seeds and pulp and toss the inspected and approved tomatoes into a cauldron (see photo). Pomodori 3 2007Each one of us has to make sure that all the rotten tomatoes get discarded. The seeds and tomato juice are later poured onto the compost heap, so anything useful gets recycled. It is a very efficient system, but also a lot of hard work, I assure you (my back is killing me right now!). However, in the end the families that still follow this tradition have enough homemade bottled tomatoes to get them through the winter months. And doing the tomatoes with the right group of people can be a lot of fun. As it was today. There were only five of us at work this afternoon: the two of us, Stefano’s aunt and uncle, and a 6-year-old niece, as cute as a button and full of beans. I know, it sounds a bit like child labour, but I assure you that for her it was all a big game. Pomodori 4 2007And besides, this is how traditions get passed on to the next generation. Anyway, we chattered and laughed and teased one another and had a jolly good time. In less than two hours we filled 7 cauldrons, which have now been put into the wood oven (see photo) to cook overnight. We will process those tomatoes tomorrow morning, when we will also prepare another huge batch of tomatoes that will be boiled, passed, bottled and sterilized. There should be a few more family members helping us tomorrow. I say, the more, the merrier (and the more laughter and the more gossip to be heard)!

Parthenolide and MM

I have known about this extract for more than a year, but haven’t posted about it yet. This, by the way, was the non toxic anti-MM substance I mentioned in my previous post. Anyway, even though (starting today) I am officially on my summer holiday (bliss!), I happen to be alone for a little while this morning…with access to a computer, Internet and all of my research data! Too much to resist. πŸ˜‰ So I decided to write a quick post about this plant extract, even though it deserves more than a passing mention. At any rate, what follows is a tiny part of what I have found, the part that concerns MM, specifically.

Parthenolide (PTL) is a sesquiterpene lactone Γ’β€šΒ¬”in simple terms, that is a chemical that can cause an allergic reaction, see http://tinyurl.com/2p67dh Γ’β€šΒ¬”extracted from a daisy-like plant called feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), a medicinal herb that belongs to the sunflower family. Feverfew has been used in European traditional medicine to treat headaches, arthritis and digestive ailments, and also to reduce fevers and relieve menstrual pain. But more importantly, its active component, parthenolide, has been found to kill various cancer cells, including pancreatic, breast cancer, acute myelogeneous leukemia cells, and, ah yes, MM cells.

A 2006 study published in Apoptosis (http://tinyurl.com/2dv39g) explains that PTL has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-cancer properties, and also activates the tumor-suppressor p53 and inhibits NF-kappaB and STAT-3. Excellent! Thanks to a good friend (grazie!), I have the full study in my possession. In addition to all the above, PTL also induces intracellular oxidative stress, which is manifested by elevation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels and activation of c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK). Because of the induction of oxidative stress, the researchers conclude that PTL works in a similar manner to Bortezomib, which I thought was quite interesting. In the end, they report: We here demonstrate that an active component of medicinal plants, PTL, induces apoptosis in four different MM cell lines, and the concentrations required for its proapoptotic effect are less than those that induce toxic effects in normal lymphocytes and hematopoietic BM cells. Our results encourage the belief that PTL can be applied clinically in the chemotherapeutic strategy for these MM cells. Another 2006 study (in Chinese, but the abstract can be read in English: http://tinyurl.com/26jzbz) also examined the effect of PTL on MM cells. Apoptosis was again the result.

Now, there is a reason why I have not written a post about PTL until today, in spite of its anti-MM effects: it is a blood-thinner. Since I already take curcumin, I am wary of adding another blood-thinner to my daily intake. But I do have a listserv friend whose SMM has been stable for years, and PTL is on his A list of supplements. So who knows? Perhaps some day I will have the courage to stop taking curcumin for a couple of months in order to test parthenolide. Not any time soon, though.

I have lots more to say, but my time is up now. I have to get back to my holiday. πŸ˜‰

The Cause of Rosacea

I was going to post some of my research on yet another non toxic anti-MM substance today, but that will have to wait because this morning I read a bit of interesting news about rosacea. As I have mentioned in a previous post, I have this facial skin disorder, which used to bother me a lot but now troubles me much less. Having cancer can give you a different perspective on things that used to matter, like appearance. Not that my appearance doesn’t matter to me, but you know what I mean! Anyway, I read this morning that 14 million U.S. citizens have rosacea. That is not just a handful of people, is it? This condition can have a real effect on your social and professional relations, as exemplified in this excerpt from the National Rosacea Society’s homepage: In recent surveys by the National Rosacea Society, nearly 70 percent of rosacea patients said this condition had lowered their self-confidence and self-esteem, and 41 percent reported it had caused them to avoid public contact or cancel social engagements. Among rosacea patients with severe symptoms, nearly 70 percent said the disorder had adversely affected their professional interactions, and nearly 30 percent said they had even missed work because of their condition. So, you see, having rosacea is no fun. It’s a real nuisance. I confess that I still put on a bit of makeup when I go to work; the rest of the time, I simply forget about it. Just about anything can trigger a flare-up: heat, cold, any change in temperature, stress, exercise, spicy foods (so I have read, at any rate, but that is not my case), embarrassment, and probably coffee. Concerning the last item, I have regular flare-ups after drinking my morning coffee. But hey, what is a little redness compared to the pleasure of drinking a glorious hot cappuccino first thing in the morning? πŸ™‚

But let me start approaching the point of my post. What causes rosacea? The National Rosacea Society’s homepage states that the cause is unknown. And in fact, in the past, whenever I tried looking this up, I’d find heaps of could be this and could be that, but nothing conclusive. Until today. A study, titled Increased serine protease activity and cathelicidin promotes skin inflammation in rosacea and published in the August issue of Nature Medicine, has apparently identified THE CAUSE: an overproduction of two interactive inflammatory proteins leads to excessive levels of a third protein that makes your face turn as red and blotchy as that of an adolescent. (Indeed, I have always wondered if my MM could be connected to this chronic inflammatory condition.) The study has been published so recently that I was unable even to locate and read the abstract. However, I read several online news reports providing enough details, so for now that should suffice. The two above-mentioned overactive proteins are called SCTE (stratum corneum tryptic enzymes) and cathelicidin, which under normal circumstances protect the skin from getting infected etc. But it turns out that we rosacea folks have higher levels of these proteins in our facial skin than regular folks. And these two proteins happen to be the precursors of the rosacea-causing peptides, which are small proteins present in our immune system. Too much of one thing can be harmful, I guess (unless, of course, the “thing” is chocolate! ;-)). However, this (in a way!) is great news. It means no more antibiotics, no more antibiotic creams (which never seemed to work anyway), because rosacea apparently is NOT caused by bacteria but by an overzealous immune system response. So if we can manage to inhibit these enzymes/proteins/peptides, whatever you want to call them, we should be all set. Oh wait, I just read that H. pylori is implicated in the development of rosacea. Well, well. So my research is not even half-finished. And what if wait a sec!, let’s see: rosacea may be caused by an excessive immune system response and may be linked to H. pylori, which in turn may be linked to MGUS hmmmm, ok, I need to connect a few of these dots but this is enough for today.

Today, by the way, is my parents’ 53rd wedding anniversary. How about that? Congratulations, Mom and Dad! I love you!

Tomorrow Stefano and I are going off on our summer holiday (we will be in southern Italy, near Naples). We will be gone for two weeks, but I will still have access to the Internet, my blog and e-mail. I probably won’t be posting much, other than holiday photos but after all a holiday is a holiday. πŸ˜‰