Odds and Ends From the Old World

MY first visit to Turin dates as far back as 1831. We are so personal, that our impressions of things depend less on their intrinsic worth than on such or such extrinsic circumstance which may affect our mental vision at the moment. I suppose mine was affected by the mist and rain which graced the capital of Piedmont on the morning of my arrival there. Another incident, microscopic, and almost too ludicrous to mention, had no less its weight in the scale of prepossession. I was tired and hungry, and, while the diligence was being unloaded, I entered a caffé close by, and called for some buttered toast. My hair (I had plenty at that time) stood on end at the answer I received. There was no buttered toast to be had, the waiter said. “It was not the custom.” I confess I augured ill of a city from whose caffés, unlike all others throughout Italy, such a staple of breakfast was banished.

I am fond of buttered toast, I own. If it is a weakness, I candidly plead guilty. My mother—bless her soul!—brought me up in the faith of buttered toast. I had breakfasted upon it all my life. I could conceive of no breakfast without it. Hence the shock I felt. “Not the custom!” Why not, I wondered. A problem of no easy solution, I can tell you! It has been haunting me for the last seven-and-twenty years. If I had a thousand dollars,—a bold supposition for one of the brotherhood of the pen,—I would even now found a prize, and adjudge that sum to the best memoir on this question:—" Why is buttered toast excluded from the caffés of Turin?” It is not from lack of proper materials,— for heaps of butter and mountains of rolls are to be seen on every side; it is not from lack of taste,—for the people which has invented the grisini, and delights in the white truffle, shows too keen a sense of what is dainty not to exclude the charge of want of taste.

“Pray, what are the grisini? what is the white truffle?” asks the inquisitive reader.—The grisini are bread idealized, bread under the form of walking-sticks a third of a little finger in diameter, and from which every the least particle of crumb has been carefully eliminated. It is light, easy of digestion, cracks without effort under your teeth, and melts in your mouth. It is savory eaten alone, excellent with your viands, capital sopped in wine. A good Turinese would rather have no dinner at all than sit down to one without a good-sized bundle of these torrified reeds on his right or left. Beware of the spurious imitations of this inimitable mixture of flour, which you will light on in some passages in Paris! They possess nothing of the grisini but the name.

“I have it!” I fancy I hear some imaginative reader exclaim at this place. “The passion for the grisini accounts most naturally for the want of buttered toast in Turin. Don’t you see that it is replaced by the grisini?"

A mistake,—a profound mistake. Grisini are never served with your coffee or chocolate. Try again.

The white truffle,—white, mark you, and not to be confounded with its black, hard, knotty, poor cousin of Périgord,— well, the white truffle is—the white truffle. There are things which admit of no definition. It would only spoil them. Define the Sun, if you dare. “Look at it,” would be your answer to the indiscreet questioner. And so I say to you,—Taste it, the white truffle. Not that you will relish it, on a first or second trial. No. It requires a sort of initiation. Ambrosia, depend upon it, would prove unpalatable, at first, to organs degraded by coarse mortal food. It has,—the white truffle, I mean, not the ambrosia, which I have never tasted,— it has a shadow of a shade of mitigated garlic flavor, which demands time and a certain training of the gustatory apparatus, to be fully appreciated. Try again, and it will grow upon you,—again and again, and you will go crazy after the white truffle. I have seen persons, who had once turned up their noses at it, declare themselves capable of any crime to get at it. Nature gave it to Piedmont, "e poi ruppe la stampa.” Gold you may find in different places, and under different latitudes;—the white truffle is an exclusive growth of Piedmont.

To return. If it is not the want of proper materials, or of taste to use them, what can be the cause of the unjust ostracism against buttered toast?

A Genoese friend of mine accounts for it on the same principle on which another friend of mine, a Polish refugee in Londo n, accounted for the difference, nay, in many points, the direct opposition, between English and French habits of life,—that is to say, on the principle of national antagonism. Why does the English Parliament hold its sittings at night? my Polish friend would ask. The reason is obvious. Because the French Parliament sits in broad day, when it sits at all. Why is winter the season of villeggiatura in England? Because in France it is summer and autumn. Why are beards and moustaches tabooed in Great Britain? Because it is common to wear them in France. Why are new pipes preferred in England for smoking? Because in France the older and more culollée a pipe, the more welcome it is. And so on, ad infinitum.

Arguing on the same principle, my Genoese friend avers that buttered toast is proscribed at Turin because it is so justly popular in Genoa. The Genoese, in fact, excel in the preparation of that dainty article. They have, for the purpose, delicious little rolls, which they cut in two and suit to all tastes and whims. The upper or under crust, soft or hard, deep brown or light brown, with much or little butter, with cold or hot butter, with butter visible or invisible:—be as capricious in your orders as you like, and never fear tiring the waiter. Proteus himself never took so many shapes.

There is some speciousness in my Genoese friend’s argument. The Superba, naturally enough, cannot forget that she was first and is now second. Turin, on her side, does not intend to have her official supremacy disputed. No wonder that the two noble cities should look at each other rather surlily, and stick to their own individuality. “Hence it is,” concludes my friend, “that the comparatively easy Apennines have proved to this day an impassable barrier to the buttered toast on one side, and to the grisini on the other.”

“But not so to the white truffle,” I put in, triumphantly. “The Genoese have adopted that; and honor to them for having done so! What do you say to this, eh?”

My friend scratched his head in quest of a new argument. We will leave him to his embarrassment, and have done with this string of digressions.

I was saying, that my first visit to Turin dated as far back as 1831. On that journey I had a singular travelling-companion, a beautiful fish, a John Dory, carefully wrapped up, and neatly laid in a wicker-basket, like a babe in its cradle. The officers of the octroi, who examined my basket, complimented me on my choice,—nay, grew so enthusiastic about my John Dory, that, if I remember right, they let it pass duty-free. The mistress of the house, at whose table it was served, paid it a well-deserved tribute of admiration, but lamented the unskilfulness of the hand which had cleaned it: “How stupid to cut it to the very throat! See what a gap!” I laughed in my sleeve and held my tongue. It was a frightful gap, to be sure,—but not bigger than was necessary to admit of an oilskin-covered parcel, a pound at least in weight, a parcel full to the brim of treasonable matter, revolutionary pamphlets, regulations of secret societies, and what not. My John Dory was a horse of Troy in miniature. But Turin stood this one better than Troy the other.

Turin was, or seemed to me, gloomy and chilly at that time, though the season was mild, and the sky had cleared up. Jesuits, carabineers, and spies lorded it; distrust was the order of the day. People went about their business, exchanged a hasty and well-timed sciaô, (schiavo,) and gave up all genial intercourse. Far keener than the breath of neighboring snow-capped Mount Cenis, the breath of despotism froze alike tongues and souls. How could buttered toast, emblem of softness, thrive in so hard a temperature? I left as soon as I could, and with a feeling of relief akin to joy.

I was in no haste to revisit Turin, nor, had I been, would circumstances have permitted my doing so. The fish had a tail for me as well as for many others, and a very long tail too. Most of the years intervening between 1831 and 1848 I had to spend abroad,—out of Italy, I mean. Time enough for reflection. Plenty of worry and anxiety, and difficulties of many a kind. Rough handling from the powers that were, cold indifference from the masses. A flow of gentle sympathy, now and then, from a kindred heart or two,—God bless them!—a live spring in a desert. A hard apprenticeship,—still, useful in many ways, to develop the sense of realities, to teach one to do without a host of things deemed indispensable before to keep the soul in tune. I declare, for my part, I don’t regret those long years of erratic life. I bless them, on the contrary; for they opened my eyes to the worth of my country. The right point of view to take in physical or moral beauty, in its fulness, is only at a distance.

The great convulsion of ’48 flung wide the gates of Italy to the wanderer, and I returned to Turin. I had left it at freezing-point, and I found it at white-heat. Half Europe revolutionized,—France a republic, Vienna in a blaze, Hungary in arms, Radetzky driven out of Milan, a Piedmontese army in Lombardy,—there was more than enough to turn the heads of the Seven Sages of Greece. No wonder ours were turned. Serve a splendid banquet and pour out generous wine to a shipwrecked crew who have long been starving, and ten to one they will overfeed themselves and get drunk and quarrel. We did both, alas!—and those who are drunk and quarrel are likely to be overpowered by those who keep sober and united. We were divided about the sauce with which the hare should be dressed, and, in the heat of argument, lost sight of this little fact, that a hare, to be dressed at all, must first be caught. The first reverses overtook us thus occupied. They did not sober us; quite the contrary; we fell to doing what Manzoni’s capons did.

By-the-by, since that revered name comes under my pen, I may as well state, what every one will be glad to hear, that the author of the “Promessi Sposi" has perfectly recovered from his late illness. It cannot be but that the wail of a nation has reached even across the Atlantic, without the aid of an electric cable. He looks strong and healthy, and likely to be long spared to the love and veneration of his country. I have this on the authority of a witness de visu et auditu, a friend of his and mine, who visited the great man, not a fortnight ago, in his retreat of Brusuglio, near Milan.

To leave the author for his book. Do you recollect Renzo tying four fat capons by the legs, and carrying them, with their heads hanging down, to Signor Azzeccagarbugli,—and the capons, in that awkward predicament, finding no better occupation than to peck at each other? “As is too often the case with companions in misfortune,” observes the author, in his quiet, humoristic way. We were just as wise. Instead of saying. Mea culpa, we began to recriminate, and find fault with everything and everybody. It was the fault of the Ministers, of the Camarilla, of the army, of the big epaulets, of the King. Dynastic interest, of course, was not forgotten in the indictment.

Dynastic interest, forsooth! So long as it combines and makes but one with the interest of the nation, I should like to know where is the great harm of it. As if kings alone were defiled with that pitch! As if we had not, each and all of us, low and high, rich and poor, our dynastic interest, and were not eager enough in its pursuit! As if anybody scrupled at or were found fault with for pushing on his sons, enlarging his business, rounding his estate, in the view of transmitting it, thus improved, to his kindred and heirs!

But who thought of such things under the smart of defeat? I do not intend, by this post-facto grumbling, to give myself credit for having been wiser than others. By no means. I played my part in the chorus of fault-finders, and cried out as loud as anybody. The upshot was what might have been expected. Independence went to the dogs—for a while. Liberty, thank God, remained in this little corner, at least,—liberty, the great lever for those who use it wisely. I know of nations, far more experienced than we are in political matters, and whose programme in 1848 was far less complicated than ours, who cannot say as much for themselves.

The times were unpropitious to the buttered-toast question, and it had quite slipped out of my mind. I have never traced the string of associations which reminded me of it, on one certain morning. Once more I made bold to ask if I could have buttered toast. “Impossible,” said the waiter, curtly. I was piqued. “How impossible?” said I. "Erase that word from your Dictionary, if you are to drive the Austrians from Italy. Take a roll, cut it in halves, have it toasted, and serve hot with butter.” Long was the manipulation, and the result but indifferent,—the toast hard and cold, the butter far from fresh; but it was a step in advance, and I chuckled over it. For a short time, alas! Mine was the fate of all reformers. Routine stood in my way. The waiters fled at my approach, and vied with each other as to who should not serve me. I gave up the attempt in disgust. Shortly after, I left Turin,—without joy this time, but also without regret.

Ten years have elapsed, and here I am again, on my third visit. The journey from Genoa to Turin took, ten years ago, twenty-four hours by diligence. Now it is accomplished in four by railway. To say that this accelerated ratio of travelling represents but fairly the average of progress realized in almost all directions, within this space of time, is no mere form of speech. To whatever side I turn, my eyes are agreeably surprised by material signs of improvement. From what but yesterday was waste land, where linen was spread to dry, steam-engines raise their shrill cry, and a double terminus sends forth and receives, in its turn, merchandise, passengers, and ideas. At the gate of the city, so to say, a gigantic work, the piercing of Mount Cenis, is actually going on. Where I left, literally left, cows browsing in peace, two new quarters have risen, as if by magic,—that of Portanuova, aristocratic and rich, and that of San Salvario, less showy, but not less comfortable. A third is in contemplation, nay, already begun,—to be raised on the spot where once stood the citadel, (and prison for political offenders,) of sinister memory, now levelled with the ground. I take this last as a capital novelty. Another, more significant still, is the Protestant Temple, which stares me in the face,—a poor work of Art, if you will, but no less the embodiment of one of the most precious conquests, religious freedom. I would fain not grow emphatic,—but when I contrast the present with the past, when I recollect, for instance, how the Jews were formerly treated, and see them now in Parliament, I cannot help warming up a little. Monuments to Balbo, the stanch patriot and nervous biographer of Dante,—to General Bava, the conqueror at Goito,— to Pepe, the heroic defender of Venice, grace the public walks. One to Gioberti, the eminent philosopher, is in course of preparation. If these are not signs of radically changed times, and changed for the better, I don’t know what are.

Nor is the moral less improved than the material physiognomy of the city. I see a thriving, orderly community.—no trace of antagonism, but a free, goodnatured intercourse between all classes, and a general look of ease and contentment. Of course, there are poor in Turin, as everywhere else,—except Japan, if we may credit travellers; but nowhere are my eyes saddened by the spectacle of that abject destitution which blunts, nay, destroys, the sense of self-respect. The operatives, especially,—what are here called the braccianti,—this salt of all cities, this nursery of the army and navy, this inexhaustible source of production and riches, impress me by their appearance of comfort and good-humor. It gladdens one’s heart to watch them, as they walk arm in arm of an evening, singing in chorus, or fill the pits of the cheaper theatres, or sit down at fashionable coffés in their jackets, with a self-confidence and freedom of manner pleasant to behold. The play of free institutions is not counteracted here, thank God, by the despotism of conventionalities. No shadow of frigid respectability hangs over people’s actions and freezes spontaneousness.

But this is all on the surface; let us go deeper, if we can, and have a peep at the workings beneath. I knock for information on this head at the mind and heart of all sorts of people. I note down the answers of the Minister and of the Deputy, as well as those of the waiter who serves my coffee and of the man who blacks my shoes, and here is what I find,—a growing sense of the benefits of liberty, a deep-rooted attachment to the Rè galantuomo, (the King, honest man,) a juster appreciation of the difficulties which beset the national enterprise, (the freeing of Italy from Austria,) and an honest confidence of overcoming them with God’s help. This last feeling, I am glad to say, is, as it ought to be, general in the army. This is what I find in the bulk. There is no lack of dissenters, who regret the past, and take a gloomy view of the future. I describe no Utopia. Unanimity is no flower of this earth.

This improved state of things and feelings, within so short a period of time, reflects equal credit on the people which benefits by it and on the men who have lately presided over its destinies. Among these last it were invidious not to mention, with well-deserved praise, the active and accomplished statesman who introduced free trade, caused Piedmont to take its share in the Crimean War, and last, not least, by a bold and skilful move, brought the Italian question before the Congress of Paris.

During the summer of 1848, I rented a couple of rooms in the Via dell’ Arcivescovado. There often fell upon my ear, wafted across the court from the windows opposite mine, a loud and regular declamation. I fancied it was a preacher learning by heart his sermon, or an actor his part. I was told one day that it was Count Cavour, the owner of the house, who, as a prelude to his parliamentary career, was addressing an imaginary assembly. The fact struck me the more, as the Count was not a member of Parliament at the time. He was elected a Deputy and took his seat not long after. I was present at his début. It was not brilliant. Count Cavour was not born an orator; his delivery was far from fluent. He had many things to say, and wanted to say them all at once. The sense of the House was not favorable to the new member,—that of the public galleries still less so. No man was less spoiled by popularity than he. I have no other reason for mentioning these particulars than to put in relief the strength of will and the perseverance which one so situated must have brought to bear, in order to conquer his own deficiencies and the popular prejudice, and attain, against wind and tide, the high place he holds in the estimation of Parliament and of the country. That Count Cavour has made himself, if not properly an orator, in the high sense of the word, a nervous, fluent, and most agreeable speaker, is sufficiently attested by the untiring attention with which his speeches, occupying sometimes two whole sittings, are listened to in both Houses. He never puts them in writing, and seldom, if ever, makes use of notes.

Life is substantial in Turin, and on a broad, homely scale. By which you are not to understand, either that the male portion of the inhabitants feast on whole oxen, like Homer’s heroes, or that the fair sex are draped in tunics of homespun wool, like the Roman matrons of old. They are not so primitive as that. You may have at any restaurant a smaller morsel than an ox or even an ox’s shoulder; and as to ladies’ finery, there is no article de Paris, no indispensable inutility, no crinoline, hoop, or cage, of impossible materials, shape, and dimensions, which you may not find under the Portici, or in Vianuova,—a facility of which the Turinese beauties give themselves the benefit rather freely. What I meant to say, when I spoke of life on a broad, homely scale, was simply this:—that in Turin, generally speaking, the great art of putting the appearance in the place of the substance, and juggling the principal under the accessories, has yet to be learned. If you ask for a room, a dinner, a bath, they take you in good earnest, and supply you with the genuine article. When I put up at the Hôtel de Londres, from which I am writing, I had to run no gantlet between a double line of solemnlooking, white-cravated waiters; yet I have only to ring my bell, to be attended to with promptitude, with zeal, nay, con amore. My kind hostess, Signora Viarengo, does not wear a triple or quadruple row of flounces, but looks after my wardrobe when I am out, and, if anything wants mending, has it mended. The room which I occupy is not furnished in a dashing style, nor has it a parquet ciré, but it is on the first floor, and thrice as large and lofty and half as dear as that I had at Meurice’s on the quatrième; and a Titan might stretch himself down at ease on the bed in which I sleep. The dining-room of the hotel is not glittering with gilt stucco and chandeliers; but the dinner served to me there (and served at any hour) is copious and first-rate,— four dishes of entremets, butter, salame, celery, radishes, to whet the appetite,—a soup,—a first course of three dishes, two of meat, one of vegetables,—a second of three dishes, one of them a roasted fowl, —salad, a sweet dish,—a mountain of Parmesan, or Gorgonzola, with peaches, pears, and grapes, for dessert. Gargantua would cry for mercy. For all this, and a bottle of wine, I pay three francs. For the bath establishment, close by, I lack the satisfaction, it is true, of seeing my revered image reproduced ad infinitum, by a vista of mirrors; but I have a bathingtub like a lake, and linen enough to dry a hippopotamus. If I go to the theatre, (there are five open at this season, November, without reckoning three or four minor ones: Italian opera at the Nazionale and the Carignano; Italian play at the Gerbino and the Alfieri; French vaudeville at the d’Angennes,)—if I go to the theatre, the relative obscurity of the house, I own, allows me to enjoy but imperfectly the display of fine toilets and ivory shoulders; but the concentration of light on the stage enhances the scenic effect, and is on the side of Art. At least, they think so here, and like it so. It is the custom.

This takes me back some twenty-seven years, to the waiter’s answer, à propos of buttered toast, “It is not the custom,” and recalls to me that important question. Well, even that has not remained stationary in the general movement. Not that buttered toast has received its great or even small letters of naturalization. But you have only to ask for it, and it will be served without demur. So far the neck of routine is broken. What next? We shall find out on our fourth visit, if God grants us life. Meanwhile I feel that Turin will be regretted this time.