Thursday, December 03, 2009

Disparate housewives

Dear Readers,

"I could never move to Italy--it's too much work!!" said a friend of mine a while back (note: said friend is a proud, card-carrying Jewish American Princess). And she's right, of course. If you are a typical Italian wife, whether or not you're a casalinga or have a job outside the home--you work your ass off.

With Christmas approaching, I dread the yearly discussion of ironing which is inevitably brought up by my sisters-in-law at some point during the feast. Florence winters are notoriously damp and clothes hung on the line take forever to dry, thus laundry typically morphs to monstrous proportions. (No one has clothes dryers. No one, that is, except this die-hard). And since Italian women iron everything--even underwear--this means gargantuan mountains of clothes lying about already-cramped homes, waiting to be wrinkle-free and, if not snuggly-soft, at least not as rough as Velcro. Call them masochists, but it seemingly never occurs to these women to just, maybe, ease up a bit and let that t-shirt or pair of briefs go forth into the world with a crinkle or two. And so my sisters-in-law blather on and on: "Goodness, I have so much ironing piled up! Oh my, me too, isn't it terrible? Mercy me, this weather isn't helping! At least spending a couple hours over a hot iron warms me up" Since I am, in this regard, iron-deficient, and since discussing housework is about as pleasant to me as oral surgery, I sit there silently cursing and brooding--like some female Mr Rochester--bored out of my skull, and wondering morosely if I should stuff another piece of panforte down my gullet.

Case in point: my sister-in-law Silvia works part-time, has three kids, and a husband who doesn't lift a finger to help her with housework or matters related to child-rearing (this is, alas, still fairly common among Italian men of a certain mindset and upbringing). My mother-in-law has told me that often Silvia stays up til 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, ironing. She also does all the laundry, cleans the house, cooks most of the meals, takes out the trash, and ferries the kids to doctor's appointments and such. We assume her husband wipes his own behind after going to the toilet, but we can't be sure.

My dear husband--whom I often think must have been adopted--told me that when he was a teenager, he informed his mother of his desire to do his own laundry and ironing. She was aghast with horror and disbelief. "WHAT IN GOD'S NAME DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!" she yelled, when she caught him one night surreptitiously ironing his own clothes (in the living-room, in the dark). "That's for me to do!" she nearly wept, sensing that her entire raison d'etre was being snatched from her like the last bag of tortelli on special at the Coop.

At least her other son, Giorgio, is normal: when his wife is out of town, he dutifully drives his laundry across the city to Mamma's so she can wash, scrub out stubborn stains, iron, darn socks and replace buttons to her hearts' content.

Many italiane mop their homes (called "giving the rag," or dare il cencio) every single day. Seriously, you could eat off these floors, or perform complex surgeries on them without fear of infection. Often when walking along the street, I am showered in detritus as some old biddy on an upper floor shakes her dust cloth out the window. This past summer while at the beach, my American friend Kelly and I were endlessly entertained by our neighbor across the way--a lady "of a certain age", as they say here--cleaning her vacation home from top to bottom all day long, every day, while her husband sat on the terrace reading his newspaper. We were fascinated, and yet horrified. We couldn't tear our eyes away; it was like looking at a train wreck. "No, surely she'll stop now--my God, it's 110 degrees out!" She mopped the floor of the kitchen after every meal. She did laundry all the time, even though there was only the two of them. On her balcony was a full battery of cleaning products the likes of which we'd never seen outside of a hospital. Even her washing machine had a cozy to protect it and keep it from getting dirty. (We were surprised she didn't have one to put over her husband, who was about as animated as an armoir).

Bet you thought you'd seen it all

[As an aside, Kelly told me her Italian husband's grandmother used to starch and iron his dress shirts, fold them, wrap them individually in tissue paper, and stack them neatly in his wardrobe. She's in an insane asylum now.]

My husband and I recently left the kids with my mother-in-law when we went out on an errand. We had inadvertently left a basket of freshly-washed-and-dried laundry in the living-room. When we came back, we saw that she had folded everything with military precision, and it was lying in impossibly neat stacks in the laundry basket. I know it's unkind to say so, but I wanted to eviscerate her. Somehow the thought of her handling my undies (I'm 42 for God's sake!) made my skin crawl. But I know why she did it: she was bored. She can't just sit and do nothing. She can't just play a game or read a book with her grandchildren. She can't help herself, poor thing--it's a reflex, like genuflecting in church or giving candy to hyperactive children. I'm certain she would have ironed everything too, but my ironing board and iron are buried in the storage closet where no one--not even me--can find them.

Dear Readers, don't get me wrong, I don't want to live in a pigsty. I simply believe in moderation in all things. But I just don't understand this paradox even though I've lived in Italy going on 10 years now: where is la dolce vita when it comes to housework? Most Italian women don't seem to read, have hobbies (other than getting their hair done every week), or do any kind of recreational sports--so could it be that housework is their hobby? Their aerobic activity? Or is it a Catholic thing: guilt over leading Adam astray? Cleansing one's sins with rubber gloves, a mop bucket and a liter of Mastro Lindo?

I may never know. But I'll tell you this--the unwrinkled life is not worth living.

Yours, glorious dust bunnies and all,


Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Tale of Thanksgiving, or, The Body on the Pavement

Dear Readers,

I apologize for my prolonged absence, but I have been in the throes of a major home renovation project, which has left me among the poor (no, wait: very poor) and befuddled masses--as anyone who has undergone such a process will fully understand.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving (which by the way I will celebrate this Saturday with an American friend and our families, Turkey Day being alien to the Bel Paese), I shall recount to you a true story of something that happened to me. I recently e-mailed this story to a friend, but then thought that perhaps you may find it of interest as well.


Sometime last spring I was pedaling home from work on a gloriously sunny afternoon, at about 2pm. I was on Via Lamarmora, on the outer edge of downtown Florence, still within the ring of where the old city walls used to be. It was quiet--there was, strangely in that instant, no traffic on the street. A little ways ahead, I saw a body on the pavement, face-down in a fresh, spreading pool of blood.

The first thing I thought was: mafia hit. (Too melodramatic, perhaps, I know). No one was around--it was eerie. Then, as if from nowhere, a man appeared and began looking the body over. I realized that I had slowed way down, and was approaching warily, yet magnetized by the scene. The man glanced my way and saw me, then began walking swiftly toward me: "I saw him--he fell out of the window!" he shouted. I looked at the body--it was a young man, I couldn't really tell what age, maybe 25. He had light brown hair, and wore a dark sweater and jeans. He was still alive: after being so still he had slowly begun to move his head back and forth a bit, and one arm and one leg, ever so slightly. His other arm was limp, the bone at an ugly and impossible angle, clearly broken--and his other leg twisted almost backwards. He began to moan softly.

"Did you call an ambulance?" I asked. "Yes, I called right away. He just came out the window! I was going by on my mo-ped and heard a thud--and there he was! It was just a minute ago!"

I looked up and indeed, there was an open window--on the fifth floor of the apartment building. By now some passers-by had gathered. The pool of blood fanned out steadily from the guy's face, and he continued to mew and slowly writhe. The mo-ped man tried to talk to him, to no avail. We knew not to try to move him; we looked on, helpless, waiting for the ambulance.

A small unmarked car sped up and stopped--it was a doctor in jeans and a t-shirt, apparently the first to respond to the call. He rushed over with his kit and went to work, taking vital signs, inserting an IV. After a few interminable minutes, we heard the wail of the ambulance, and two pulled up, their teams spilling out in a froth of fluorescent orange and white--and the sidewalk, so eerily silent before, burst into life and the hurried business of first aid.

I had been barely breathing, I think, my eyes glued to that young man, and only when the rescue teams started their work did I feel myself take a deep breath. They gently rolled him over and his face was smashed and smeared with blood. They were tearing his clothes away and hooking him up to all sorts of tubes, working with methodical, yet swift desperation. More crews arrived: the police, more medics, traffic cops. The police busted into the apartment to see if there was anyone up there who might have pushed the guy out the window--in a minute an officer hung out the window and gave the all-clear. Neighbors had begun to gather and there was a young woman sobbing. The traffic cops were diverting the buses that had begun to pass. I kept looking up at that window. Did he jump? Did he fall out? Was he drunk or on drugs? A rumor went around the crowd that he had fallen out by mistake, had somehow lost his balance. I was thinking, "What? Like he was maybe hanging curtains or something and just--oops!--fell out the window??! A 25-year-old??"

And still they worked on him, there on the pavement. "Why don't they take him away?" I thought. It went on and on. I couldn't move. My adrenalin was pumping, emotion rising in my throat. He just looked so unbearably sad and alone there, crumpled on the sidewalk like a pile of dirty laundry. If he had jumped, what made him do it? How could anyone throw themselves out a window? I suddenly noticed that he had lost one sneaker in the fall, a well-worn Nike, dingy white with a black swoosh--it lay a few feet away from him: forlorn, desolate. His unshod foot, the one that was still able to move, wore a twisted navy-blue sock. It had a hole in it, at the heel.

Well, my heart broke over that shoe. From some unbidden source, a tidal wave of compassion welled up in me and threatened to bring me, too, to the pavement. Buddhists and yoga practitioners speak of the power of the one-pointed mind. In those dramatic moments on the street, I tell you that my whole body was tense with straining toward this other human being; my mind was knife-edged, utterly one-pointed. Every cell in my body vibrated as I focused, unthinkingly, on that poor soul. Everything else fell away. I felt, too, that somehow my presence was necessary--I had to connect to him, send my prayer for his recovery on invisible channels that crossed the street and fed into the tubes that were trying to save his life.

At last, they prepared him for transfer to the hospital. He was carefully wrapped in huge sheets of something that looked like silver foil, and lifted onto a gurney. He was moaning very loudly now, the pain ripping through him and oozing out of him in spurts and spasms like blood. It was ghastly to behold. They loaded him into an ambulance, the doors snapped shut, and it roared off. The other vehicles left: police, medics, traffic cops--they shot away in their cars and on their motorcycles, to attend to other business, other emergencies. Those of us that had gathered were left there, in sudden silence. The sun was warm and bright. An almost bereft feeling rippled through the crowd, like the faintest of breezes, and we slowly dispersed. My heart was thumping in my chest. I felt spent and exhausted. I got on my bike and tried to ride home, but I kept stopping, trying to catch my breath and calm the adrenalin bubbling inside of me. My body was shaking. I finally made it.

The next day, I scanned the paper for news of him. I read that in Via Lamarmora at 2pm on the previous day, a young man, 18 years-old, had apparently jumped out of the fifth-floor window of his home, intending to commit suicide. He lived alone with his mother--who was separated from the boy's father--though she was not home at the time he jumped. It was not apparent why he did it--he had no known emotional problems or bad habits, no trouble in school or with girls. Though everything was done to stabilize him at the scene, he had suffered severe internal injuries and died shortly after arrival at the hospital.

This stayed with me for months, dear Readers. The image of that poor, broken body lying alone on the sidewalk haunted me--he was so utterly alone. But it ran deeper than that. I wondered at the depth of despair that could drive someone to throw their body and soul out of a window to crash onto the cruel pavement five storeys below. I marvelled at the courage it took that young man to leap into the abyss and free-fall toward a hideous death. Why did that same lion's share of courage fail him in life? Fail to help him face whatever tormented him? Fail to assure him that things were bound to get better, if only he persevered?

I am so very very sorry for that boy. Every time I pass that building and that spot on the pavement in front--and I pass it every day--I think of him. The image remains. And at the same time, I am thankful that my life has not known the kind of despair that makes jumping out of a window a less courageous act than facing down and conquering that same despair, and enduring. I hope that no one I care about ever experiences that kind of hopelessness.

Yours in gratitude,


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Troppo rumore

Dear Readers,

Upon returning from my August vacation, like so many of my compatriots, and having witnessed yet another frenzied rientro, I feel battered and buffeted by that which plagues nearly all Italian cities of a certain size: noise. Or rather, NOISE.

After the almost eery quiet of Michigan suburbs, and the orderly and hushed procession of American street traffic--the angry, impudent buzz of motorini and motorcycles and the penchant Italian drivers have of shouting and blaring their horns at every opportunity has me a bit green in the gills. Down in the mouth. Worse for wear.

It's quite jarring to see again the maniacal drivers bearing down on me and my poor old bike. I suppose the drama of Italian life is inevitably played out in revved-up decibels, speeding through the streets like hell-bent wasps from an upset nest. I am already craving and longing for that peace and quiet I managed to shore up during an all-too brief two weeks away--how I appreciated it. I breathed it in like mountain air.

Alas, if only it had lasted--at least in my minds' ear--a bit longer.

Yours, sognando di un po' di silenzio,


Friday, August 07, 2009

Beach vignette

Dear Readers,

To continue the Tuscan seaside theme...

At the beach, I often see things that make me want to flee in horror, or at least retch into the courtyard of the kids' sand castle. This, last summer at San Vincenzo:

An older couple lounge under a beach umbrella. He--with an enormous, bulbous belly which acts as a coffee-table for the sport section and his plastic cup of espresso from the kiosk--is wearing a microscopic leopard-print Speedo. Great tufts of black and gray hair top his shoulders and festoon his back, so he looks like he's wearing a medieval hair shirt. He's got a solid gold watch, bracelet, and chain. Her, TOPLESS. Nasty old-lady breasts that look like deflated avocados. Leopard bikini bottom, folds of slack flesh oozing over the top, and draped in gold, too, like the Madonna of Pompeii. A garishly pink lipsticked mouth that snaps open and shut with the rythym of her chewing-gum. She's reading a trashy gossip magazine. They wear designer dark glasses, gilt-edged, rhinestone-studded. Both smoke boredly and doggedly, and their skin is so tired, leathery and brown they look like old luggage that's been around the baggage carousel way too many times. They don't speak to each other in sentences, but now and then emit a serious of grunts that has clearly become their private language. They make one great effort at justifying themselves, heaving their bulk from the loungers and plodding along the water-line for 10 minutes--flesh jiggling, gold glinting, and ass-cracks in painful evidence.



Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Flesh circus

Dear Readers,

To quote the writer Ignazio Silone, "Non c'è popolo più triste di questi italiani allegri": there's no sadder people than these happy Italians.

Silone's words came vividly to life for me after I recently went to Marina di Grosseto for a few days' holiday at the beach. You must understand that the seaside--il mare--has both a mythical hold on the Italian imagination, and an iron grip on the collective consciousness. Everyone, I mean everyone must go to the beach for a summer holiday. Like sheeps to the slaughter, Italians go dumbly in droves to lay on their square-meter patch of hedonistic heaven.

Why do they go? It is no secret that Italians love ritual. The Catholic Mass, the morning coffee and brioche at the bar, lunch at 1:00 and dinner at 8:00, the evening passeggiata--all illustrate the ways in which Italians prefer to order their universe. (It could even be argued that these rituals are the anchors in what is otherwise an almost completely disorderly and chaotic existence). The yearly exodus from the cities to the beaches is but another example of the herd mentality that governs much of Italian life.

Now don't get me wrong, I like the beach too. It's just that the kind of beach holiday I have in mind is one of relatively tranquil stretches of clean sand, scattered with a few happily noisy children and their families, quiet couples reading and sunning peacefully, and shore and sea stretching gracefully before the eye like a cat on a sun-washed windowsill--a placid tableau of nature punctuated by some unobtrusive human elements. Il dolce far niente, after all, has its allure.

The reality of many Italian beaches, however, is jarringly different: a honky-tonk atmosphere of carnival madness--great swaths of riotously-colored beach umbrellas as dense as an Amazonian jungle; the bagni blaring announcements over loudspeakers ("Sono arrivati i bomboloni caldi!" "Buon onomastico all'Alessia!" "Oggi è venerdi 17!"); gyrating, noisy crowds; a shoreline that looks like the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela; third-world hawkers of cheap tinselly goods; coconut-sellers with their bawdy calls; sand flying in all directions from over-zealous children; and a sight-line that is wall-to-wall seething flesh. Flesh as far as the eye can see. Flesh of all shapes and sizes and ages: popping out of too-tight bikinis, oozing over tiny Speedos, lithe and muscled in the young and genetically-blessed, buttery and taut in children, withered and leathery in anziani, and watermelon-like pregnant bellies bobbing in the sun. Flesh lounging on chaises, flesh flung in adolescent torpor on towels in the sand, kid flesh industriously building sand-castles of medieval proportions, flesh jiggling, flesh browning, flesh glistening and oiled like some kind of offering to the gods--and always, always, flesh on the move: strolling the water line, going to and from the bar for espresso, gathered in raucous groups smoking and laughing and gesticulating like mad. Flesh flesh flesh! Other than the sea and perhaps a hazy outline of hills in the distance, nature is not visible through this writhing human canvas stretched to the horizons. It seems Italians are happy to swap the crush and madness and heat and traffic of the city for the crush and madness and heat and traffic of the beach--only with a lot less clothing required.

While hiding under my enormous sun hat and watching the spectacle before me, I had an epiphany: why, Italians don't go to the beach for relaxation, or to commune with nature, or for fitness, or even to play--they go for validation. It's the age-old obsession with fare figura (to cut a figure) taken to the extreme. They need to be seen at the beach, they need to show they have been there. They have always gone and they always will go--in short, they need to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves. Il mare--that watery redeemer--is an important social ritual to them, however empty it really is, just like going to Mass once a year for many is a knee-jerk reaction to Christmas. Of course, herein lies the monumental importance of l'abbronzatura: the suntan (and the deeper the better, cancer cells be damned) is proof positive of the pilgrimage completed, the gods appeased--it's the ultimate membership card, the prize, the grail brought home.

I'm sure more time and money is spent on the whole cult of the beach than on any other pursuit: there's the season's latest bathing suits that you must have, and only one won't do, you must have 3 or 4. There are the coordinating gauzy, see-thru cover-ups to acquire, and the sequinned infraditi or even high-heel wedgies to totter along the boardwalk in. There are the expensive sun-protection, tanning and post-sun products, the cute tote bags, the colorful towels and straw mats, the vast array of inflatable mastodons and sailing vessels, the shovels and pails and toy bulldozers, the pedicures, the glitter bandanas to protect one's hair, the temporary tattoos--all in service to unabashed hedonism and corpulent consumption. Surely a heavenly being, looking down on this scene, would bet his last shekel that the apocalypse is at hand--for all is vanity, truly.

Watching the undulating and shrill crowds around me, and basking like a cold-blooded lizard under the Tuscan sun, I couldn't help but feel that there is something desperate and rather tragic--yet perhaps even noble--about this beach mania all'italiana. Something akin to instigating a conga line on the Titanic.

My best regards,


Monday, July 27, 2009

The pilgrimage that never was

Dear Readers,

A while back, it was my in-laws' 50th wedding anniversary. As a gift, my mother-in-law Elena's sisters wanted to give her a trip to Lourdes. (They knew, of course, that that would be the ONLY place she would even consider going; her Catholic guilt would never permit something so hedonistic as--gasp!--a holiday. But if it's in service to the Lord, well then...). Elena seemed rather thrilled at the prospect--poor woman, she never goes anywhere, not even out for pizza or gelato--and she told Gaetano, my father-in-law, about the upcoming pilgrimage. The whole family was suddenly abuzz with the excitement of international travel to a glamorous destination. Meanwhile, cynical me was thinking: it'll NEVER happen. These are two people who have NOTHING to say to each other--when they eat meals together they sit in total silence and stare at the TV--how they would share an hours-long train ride was unfathomable to me. Moreover, I could not envision them off their home turf, in a hotel, eating strange food, having to deal with train schedules and stations, having actual conversations with normal people, etc. And foreigners too! It might even mean my father-in-law would have to bathe regularly.

Then, sure enough, the drama started: what would Gaetano eat??? He is used to eating those few things he always eats---his familiar Tuscan kibble. Breakfast, in particular, was discussed at length. For this meal, my father-in-law scarfs a great plateful of stale slices of Tuscan (saltless) bread soaked in olive oil and scattered with slices of raw onion. Depending on the season, he eats cucumbers and tomatoes---again, smothered in oil--or maybe a raw clove of garlic, a good many slices of thick prosciutto (hacked from the haunch with his large pocket-knife), and polishes off a half-bottle of homemade red wine. Surely he would starve to death in France. Their bread isn't Tuscan. Their wine isn't Tuscan. They don't have Italian prosciutto. He couldn't possibly have croissants for breakfast--they would constipate him, and he'd shrivel up from lack of energy and strength. The phone rang constantly for days with relatives weighing in on the problem; my sister-in-law Silvia and hubby Paolo were called in for a consultation on the logistics of taking a whole (mind you, we're talking a PIG'S THIGH) prosciutto on the train, along with a bottle of olive oil and as many bottles of wine as they could carry. Meanwhile, I'm laughing maniacally and shouting across the courtyard at Paolo, in English so they couldn't understand me: "Why take the train? Have them go by caravan because THEY ARE GYPSIES!! Maybe they should take along a GOAT and a couple of LIVE CHICKENS too!!!" And, "Yeah, they need to go to Lourdes all right, so they can pray to the Madonna for a healthy dose of SANITY!"

In the end, of course, Gaetano pounded his fist on the table and shouted, "I'm not going!" My poor mother-in-law seemed rather downcast and resigned. I think she was looking forward to a week spent at the feet of the Holy Virgin (perhaps to pray for a swift kick in the ass to befall her husband from on high). Life returned to normal. Breakfast remained unsullied, sacrosanct. They did attend the anniversary luncheon in their honor--a grim repast if ever there was one--at which, even sitting side-by-side (as rigid as two coat racks) they exchanged nary a word or smile with each other.

My dear Readers, we've all heard the clichés: Romance is dead, etc. etc. In my in-laws' case, Romance was stillborn.

My best regards,


Thursday, July 23, 2009

I live in a Renaissance toilet

Dear Readers,

Now, I don't like to complain... but yesterday morning as I was parking my bike in its usual spot near work, I saw--and unfortunately, smelled--two generous piles of human excrement by the curb. One pile even had a wad of soiled toilet paper next to it (since when, I wondered, is a street-defecator so fastidious about personal hygiene??).

I pretty much can't think of a worse way to start the day.

Mind you, in this little corner of Florence--spitting distance from the glorious Duomo--I normally have to skirt stagnant puddles of urine, broken beer bottles, and trash strewn about and decomposing forlornly--so my skin is fairly thick when it comes to urban blight. But this was the shit that broke the camel's back.

In a lather, I stormed into the shop raving about the degradation of the city. I told my bosses they ought to call the vigili and tell them that this corner of the city is turning into an open sewer. (I figured that coming from small-business owners, the complaint might carry more weight). They merely shrugged it off and called the quadrifoglio instead (the people who come and clean up after the horse-drawn carriages) and presently a man came and blasted the whole area with soapy water. I watched from the window, a-stew in impotent rage, and formulating an angry letter to the city's new mayor.

Of course, the larger issue here is one of civic pride. I can't help but ask myself why a Houston or Milwaukee or Cleveland suburb--places with the architectural interest of a port-a-potty--are kept in pristine condition (manicured lawns, gleaming paint, not a wanton wrapper or stray cigarette butt to be seen), while Italian art cities that are bursting with architectural and historical treasures grow shabbier and more tawdry as the years roll by.

Not too long ago, the ex-Mayor of Florence, in a Rudy Giuliani-like move, banned the squeegee guys from the intersections, saying they detracted from the overall quality of life. Oddly, he and everybody else turn a blind eye to the relentless graffitti that tattoos over virtually every surface of the city--even such monuments as the Accademia and Duomo are not immune to this scurvy. And everywhere you look, paint is dingy and peeling, the streets are filthy, the trash bins inadequate and overflowing, dog-poop peppers the sidewalk, even the backside of the Duomo is covered in black grime (the façade, strangely enough, is kept in mint condition--that is, after all, where all the tourists gather and where important civic events are held). I have heard many visiting Americans and Brits comment on the shockingly slovenly state of cities like Florence and Rome. When this happens, I feel rather sorry for my adopted city--like I would perhaps for a once-lovely pin-up star who now goes around in dingy underwear with dirt under her fingernails.

Why don't more Florentines care about their city?

I am truly puzzled by this. Florentine orgoglio floweth over--their pride in their Medieval and Renaissance past is unbounded. The glory of their statesmen, artists and thinkers is cause for much strutting, even to this day. Yet--yet--many Florentines do not go to the Uffizi or to the Accademia, they do not stroll the Boboli gardens, or gaze at the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. A great many Florentines no longer live in--nor do they ever go--downtown, to the historic center. To the cradle of all this Renaissance wonder, as it were. So, my theory is, they simply do not care very much what happens there. It is not the Florence that they live on a daily basis. (However, I must say that the state of cleanliness in the peripheral neighborhoods is perhaps only marginally better).

Downtown Florence is almost entirely abandoned to gawking tourists, foreigners and students who can afford to pay the exhorbitant rents and live there, or poorer immigrants who live in ancient squalid flats that haven't been updated since the time of the Medici. (There is a smattering of adamantly ancient Florentine widows who hang on to their apartments with every decaying fibre of their being. You see them shopping at Pegna and defiantly letting their dogs crap and pee all over the pavement. They tend to wear turbans of the silent film-star variety). Many tourists treat the city as a rollicking Renaissance Disneyworld, leaving a trail of empty water bottles and gelato cups in their wake. Other abusers are the Florentine (and American college) youth, who come downtown to hit the discos and get drunk in the pubs--their piss, vomit and vandalism are all over the place. I think, paradoxically enough, it is the foreign permanent residents that show some of the greatest respect to this city. For instance, recently, a group of foreign residents formed a "Clean Up the Mugnone [riverbank] Committee" and did just that.

And then there are the gypsies. Now, I'm sure there are some fine, upstanding gypsies out there--there must be. But I have to say that the ones I see--the ones that prey upon tourists in the historic center--are little more than human barnacles. They come to Italy in droves, are granted medical care and free daycare and school lunches for their kids, they don't pay taxes--and the ones I'm talking about paint their faces white like mimes and dress in white Klan-like robes and mercilessly buzz round the poor out-of-towners like pesky flies. They gather next to the bookshop and guzzle beer from great brown bottles, then smash the glass for fun. Their attitude is one of entitlement and disrespect--I even get the sense they jeer at their host country, and harbor the kind of resentment that comes from accepting begrugded charity. As an immigrant myself, I'm all for making room for others, but come on.

So who, then, was responsible for the brazen b.m.? Your average born-and-bred Florentine might shrug and say, "Who cares?" and abandon the potentially beautiful historic center to the uncouth masses.

But I, dear Readers, know who was responsible: Indifference.



Sunday, June 21, 2009

Election Day

Dear Readers,

I often forget that Italy is a democracy, but two weeks ago I was reminded of the fact because Florence's mayoral elections were held. I was eager to use my new Tessera Elettorale (voter's card), having been granted citizenship not too long ago. The tessera--like so many Italian documents--is oversized, covered in fine print and official seals, and beautiful to behold. There are 18 squares on it, meaning I can use it to vote in 18 elections (receiving a stamp for each one)--after which I get a free cappuccino, and presumably a new card.

My husband Paolo and I headed down the street to the elementary school, which had been transformed into the official voting station. I was somewhat disappointed not to find tables of coffee and donuts on offer--like you see in America on election days--and that festive atmosphere created by jovial, white-haired, volunteer ladies' auxillary-types. Alas, not a bombolone in sight, just a bored-looking policeman hanging around to make sure things were kosher. We found the classroom where we were supposed to vote, but hung around first in the hallway in order to read all the election posters pasted over the walls. These posters not only listed the candidates and their respective political parties, but listed all the coalitions that were aligned with that particular candidate. Each candidate, and each coalition, has a graphic symbol or logo all its own--kind of like brand recognition. The symbols on the posters were colorful and about the size of pancakes--presumably so the illiterate peasants can make them out--and were so numerous and bizarre as to boggle the mind. I was relieved to see that we were not the only confused souls studying them, trying to tease out their esoteric significance--many voters were squinting and furrowing their brows over them, as if they were gazing upon hieroglyphics on ancient papyrus scrolls.

In Italy, politics, like pretty much everything else, is governed by a herd mentality. The coalitions group around, then dissipate, then reform and regroup around the candidates and political parties--rather like fermenting bacteria in a petrie dish. It's all about who is sleeping with whom. This time around, for example, the Partita Animalistica (Animal Lovers) and the No Tramvia (No to the Tram Line Short-Sighted Fools) groups--along with about a dozen others--were aligned with the right-wing, Berlusconi-backed party, whose candidate, Gialli, was an ex-soccer player with a penchant for tight jeans. The candidate for the left, the 34 year-old Matteo "Baby Face" Renzi, had an equal amount of coalitions lined up on his team. (I'm pretty sure I saw a We Love Cuddles coalition, a Virile and Vegetarian group, and one called, cryptically, Goodbye to All That). There were also the neo-fascists, the communists, the former porn stars--apparently anybody can form a coalition and/or a political party. The thing is, these coalitions are with one party one day, and tomorrow they might just as likely be with someone else. Call it electoral whoring, or high school, or what you will--such is the nature of the political beast in the Bel Paese.

I waited my turn until motioned forward into the classroom. There were three tables: one marked Women and one marked Men, and the one in the middle had large cardboard boxes on it for depositing the ballots. I sauntered up to Women and presented my card and I.D. A genial young man droned in an official voice, after locating me in his enormous ledger, "La Signora può votare." (The Madame may vote). This was announced with a flourish after every person (Signore for gentlemen, of course), doubtless part of the Drama and Spectacle of Election Day. I was handed a sheaf of ballots (there were also EU Parliamentary and Regional elections) and a pencil, and told which cabina to squirrel myself into.

The four ballots, or schede, were indeed lovely to behold: jewel-toned marbled paper in shades of saffron, verdigris, rose, and violet, each one bearing an official seal. They unfolded origami-like into a size considerably larger than at first perceived--and on each was listed the candidates and their clusters of coalition logos. Oddly, there was no line for putting your "X". I saved the largest ballot for last, the one for the Mayor of Florence. Once unfolded, this ballot was nearly the size of a bedsheet--seriously, my outstretched arms banged into the sides of the cubicle as I tried to read it. It was the only way, I suppose, that they could fit all the coalitions onto the ballot. I made my choice, then spent 10 minutes trying to fold the damn things back the way they were supposed to go, cursing under my breath and stamping my feet in frustration, no doubt to the perplexity of the others manning the tables. I emerged, feigning an air of ease and savoir-faire (my hair probably standing on end), and returned to the young man, who steered me over to the man by the boxes. My ballots were taken and solemnly and most carefully placed in their respective slots. While this was going on, I noticed a dour-faced woman with an enormous, tanned, hypotenuse of a nose at one of the tables--furiously stamping a mountain of papers. What these had to do with the actual election I could not fathom, but she certainly leant an air of bureaucratic authenticity to the proceedings. I relinquished the pencil, and was given my card back--one stamp closer to my free coffee.

Well, after all that, we found out that the mayoral candidates from two of the main political parties did not have enough of a percentage of the vote to win out one over the other, and there was to be a ballotaggio, or run-off election. So we went back to the polls today. Everything was as before, including Furiously Stamping Nose.

So there you have it, dear Readers. We will have a new mayor in Florence, and we will have laid waste to countless trees in order to do it. Such is the nature of democracy, Italian-style.

My Best Regards,


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bloomsday boon

Dear Readers,

The inimitable Mr. Joyce himself could not have sent me a better gift this June 16th: the internet, bless its virtual soul, has ferried to my shores a long-lost Dublin friend and neighbor.

His e-mail to me, bobbing up in my inbox like a message in a bottle, unloosed in me the rattle and hum of university days in a grayish city in an emerald isle:

"Dublin 1989. 101 Upper Dorset Street – spacious, fabulously-decorated, fully-furnished dump on the North Inner city (complete with plentiful supply of mice and non-functioning refrigerator). Upstairs: two young impressionable female “Yanks”. Downstairs: – a few semi-sober locals (male) – deeply impressed by their new exotic neighbours upstairs."

And to think I was merely going to celebrate the day with a pork kidney for breakfast. Dear Dave, this is much, much better. Thank you for finding me!

Yours in serendipitous pleasure,


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Four-way Stop installed in Florence

Dear Readers,

I could hardly believe my eyes when I read recently in La Nazione that Florence was to try out an American-style Four-way Stop at one of its intersections. I had to check it out for myself, so I headed over to the corner of via Ficcanaso and via Pelo di Gatto at about 10:00 am. (I must admit I was skeptical, since the concept of taking turns is about as alien to Italians as serving potato chips as a contorno). I stationed myself under a shady tree and proceeded to observe.

An ancient green Fiat 500, driven by a wizened gnome in a tweed cap, puttered right on through his Stop without the slightest hesitation.

A minute later an Alfa sedan reached the intersection and stopped, but the Lancia who approached from the other street saw this as weakness and took the opportunity to speed on through. Hearty curses from Alfa.

A Bravo, whose driver was a withered prune leveraging herself via the steering wheel so she could see over the dash--and sporting mega-size black blinder-style sunglasses--without so much as slowing down at her corner, braked dead center in the middle of the intersection and looked around frantically. Four cars immediately surrounded her on all sides and started blaring their horns. She was pelted with oily bread crusts*, but managed to drive off while crying out prayers to the Holy Virgin Mary.

A Carabinieri car rolled through with admirable indifference.

A truck, whose cab held 12 African immigrants, stopped, looked both ways, then proceeded prudently ahead. An Ape (essentially a motorized tricycle with a platform on back, for those of you who've never seen one), stopped, but instead of actually waiting for the truck to clear the intersection, jerked forward right into the truck's wheel well. The Ape's load of Sicilian oranges disembarked in a most disorganized and haphazard fashion, scattering the road with bright blobs of color. The 12 Africans piled out, began shouting in tongues, and gesticulating wildly. The Ape driver, a grizzled man in a dirty white tank top with great tufts of, apparently, a medieval hair shirt peeking from beneath--got out, yelled at the Africans for getting in his way, then sank to his knees, moaning to the heavens about his fallen fruit. Meanwhile, about twenty-five cars had piled up on all sides, horns clamoring and epithets volleying. It seemed things were at an impasse until one of the Africans lugged out a giant garbage bag filled with *designer* bags and belts. Ape guy was presented with a Rolex watch, which he instantly snapped around his hirsute wrist, looked at admiringly, then drove off satisfied.

Four cars arrived at the intersection at the same time. They all stopped. They looked at each other. They smiled. They shrugged. Then they all lurched forward in the same instant, only to come to a screeching halt, their four front bumpers forming a neat quadrilateral. Heads craned out of driver's side windows, "Ma che cazzo fai?! Toccava a me!" (What the f*** are you doing? It was my turn!) "No, macchè sei grullo [blockhead]! Toccava a me!" "Ma vaffanculo!" Just then an ambulance's siren signaled its approach, so the drivers, disgruntled and muttering to themselves and grinding into reverse, pinwheeled around and spun off in their respective directions.

An old Panda packed with smiling Benedictine nuns sailed serenely through the intersection--without so much as a genuflection aimed at their Stop--sure of their place in the afterlife, or eyes on the Prize as it were.

A camper with Netherlands plates pulled up to a Stop, and a split-second later so did a Smart car with its blonde, tanned, cell-phone-chatting female driver. In a gesture of magnanimity and recreational gratitude toward this country that showed him and his family such a lovely time, Camper Man waved Smart Woman an invitation to pass ahead of him into the intersection. She gave it the gas, and him the finger.

A battered blue Citroen putt-putted up and with a great sigh of exhaust, stopped, with terrific conviction. Still staring straight ahead, the driver hit the pedal and the car staggered forward, on through the intersection and just past where I was standing. Next to him in the passenger's seat, sitting very erect, was a German shepherd. A white cane was on the bench between them.

Three cars, each with big letter P's taped to the rear window, reached their Stops almost simultaneously. (P is for principiante, or beginner, i.e. student driver). With contemptible naiveté, each P-eon in proper turn ventured forth cautiously through the intersection without incident, even using blinkers where necessary.

Just as I was about to leave, feeling a bit tired and peckish, sirens signaled the approach of a motorcade, and indeed the first pair of Carabinieri on motorcycles were coming fast down the street. Right at that moment, Wizened Gnome was back at the intersection in his Fiat, having approached from another direction. No one had any intention of stopping, that much was clear. I tensed up, sensing disaster. The advance motorcycle convoy missed the Fiat by a hair, but sure enough, there was a loud crack of metal when the politician's limo slammed into poor Gnome. The perennially-tanned fat cat himself--I'll call him S.B. to preserve his anonymity--got out of his limo and unleashed such a vigorous torrent of obscenities that his jet-dyed comb-over stood straight up from the top of his head, like some kind of fascist salute. Wizened Gnome, unhurt and unperturbed, struggled out of his mangled car, straightened his curved spine as best he could, looked S.B. straight in the eye--and bent his right arm up while slamming his left fist into the crook of his right elbow in a salute of his own.

Mayhem ensued: police and carabinieri choked the intersection, strutting like bumptious cocks and shouting like brokers in a bull market; angry civilians cooled their heels in cars and on mopeds, leaning on horns and yelling into cellphones; mothers and nonni gaped on the sidewalk with wide-eyed children licking lollipops.

The next day I read that the Four-way Stop had been summarily dismantled. It had been declared--by a certain powerful politician--to be unquestionably unconstitutional. And thoroughly un-Italian.



* credit for the oily bread crust pelting goes to my dear, and direly witty, friend Gordon.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dysfunction, Italian-style

Dear Readers,

I think it's time I introduced you to my in-laws. (The squeamish and overly-sensitive are strongly cautioned to read no further).

I'll begin with a photo--it hangs in my mother-in-laws' salotto. It was taken in the '70's, during the vendemmia (wine harvest), on the family property. In it my father-in-law, Gaetano, stands with a proud patriarchal tilt to his head, his arm resting on a wooden cask full of inky grapes. Dead center is my diminutive mother-in-law, Elena, staring stoically ahead, her lips pressed into a thin line. Leaning into her, their shoulders touching, is the youngest sibling, my sister-in-law Silvia, who even at age 13 was as meaty as a longshoreman. The oldest, Giorgio, 16, stands rigidly next to Gaetano, forcing a smile. And Luca, 15, next in line, hovers close behind Elena, almost completely obscured by her, a pained expression on his face. My future husband Paolo (third sibling, aged 14) stands apart from the rest--off to the far left and toward the back--cuddling a skinny little dog in his arms, a big grin on his face.

To me, this picture expresses the entire gestalt of the family. Gaetano is one of those old-fashioned, fist-pounding-the-table patriarchs who thinks his word is law, his wife is there to serve his needs, and his children should be seen but not heard. He is under the delusion (which the family conspires to perpetuate) that he rules the household--when it is clearly and unequivocally Elena who everyone turns to. But Elena has a passive-agressive way of wielding her power and influence: brought up to defer always to men, she uses subtle means to get her way. She is physically frigid--rarely caressing her children or grandchildren--though she expresses affection, I suppose it can be said, through her tireless service. Giorgio has always played his role as eldest son to the hilt--shouldering responsibility at an early age to win parental approval from an insensitive father and an emotionally- and physically- distant mother. He still tries so hard, poor guy (though the stick up his ass has to be a major impediment). Luca, who rarely opens his mouth (in two years he's maybe said five words to me), has never traveled outside of Tuscany or lived apart from his Mamma, having long been trussed by the apron-strings--even when he married his 19-yr. old pregnant bride, they lived in his parents house, raising their two sons there, and only moving upstairs into the newly-created apartment in the mid '90's. Silvia, poor thing, built like Gaetano (big-boned, thick square body, simian-length arms) has a fairly jolly disposition and has always been the dutiful daughter, never venturing far. Paolo was always the dreamer, convinced there was a life out there that merited exploration--he did everything to scandalize his provincial parents, and to get away from them: hiked the Appenines alone, practiced yoga and deep-sea diving, explored Scientology, visited the Hare Krishnas, started working as a teenager so he could buy his own wheels, insisted on doing his own ironing, taught himself English, got a job for Princess Cruise Lines and sailed the Orient, and moved to the States.

I think of my in-laws as the Italian version of the Beverly Hillbillies (minus the fortune, of course). They live on what is now about a million-dollar property (though Gaetano bought it in the early '70's for something like $7000), an ex-casa colonica on over an acre of land, with a pretty view of Fiesole--which sounds quite grand, but they camp on it like gypsies. Gaetano has always thought that land that wasn't used for growing vegetables and raising chickens and rabbits was land wasted, thus every inch of space is crammed, leaving no room for a garden to just sit in and (god forbid!) enjoy. He's got olive trees shouldered up to grapevines, with vegetables huddled underneath--no space between rows for walking, even. Ugly, cobbled-together shacks litter the property, and an old barn is stacked with mountains of junk Elena can't bear to part with: old mattresses, moldy pillows, termite-ridden furniture, rusted old bicycles and mopeds, even an ancient exercise bike she's convinced she may use someday to benefit her tired circulation. Old chairs and rickety tables lie about the courtyard, along with rags, buckets, laundry tubs and Elena's shoes (men's, size 41) left to air out.

[We live in the downstairs apartment of what used to be the single-family dwelling (with Luca and wife Patrizia upstairs). Actually, back when they first bought the place, it was still a rustic farmhouse, with our unit being the animal stall, and the living space upstairs. Now the nonni are across the courtyard in the converted garage, Silvia is just down the street, and Giorgio across town where he can be under the thumbs of his wife Rossella's well-off parents. Nice and cozy.]

My Father-in-Law

Gaetano, 83, is almost beyond describing, but I will try, dear Readers. He was raised as a sharecropper near Vicchio, a town north of Florence in the Mugello, and did not even complete middle school. His mother, Assunta, was a big, hard woman whose only thought was of work. She preferred chickens to people. Gaetano was the youngest of six children, the only male, all five of his sisters built like pachyderms and as ugly as pus (seriously, these are women so homely they can stop traffic). As a boy, he got up before dawn to work the fields--he told me once how he loved the big peasant breakfasts they would break for and eat at about 7:00am (a habit he keeps to this day): platefuls of stale bread soaked in olive oil and scattered with raw onions, maybe some boiled potatoes, and wine. He is doggedly religious, attending Mass and Rosary every week, regularly confessing, and mumbling from his prayer book every evening before dinner--but this does not keep him from pawing at women when he gets a sly opportunity, or spouting racial epithets, or refusing to fetch his long-suffering wife even a cup of tea when she is sick in bed. His conversation consists mostly of sayings--hillbilly rhyming wisdom of the "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" variety--repeated with the conviction that he speaks the scintillating truth. He has been known to, on occasion, regale the dinner table with the Hail Mary in Latin--perhaps his one great intellectual achievement.

As a child, he had pneumonia and apparently nearly died. Since then, he has harbored a mortal fear of bathing or getting wet and chilled. So, he bathes only once a week: Saturday evening. (Presumably, this cleans him up nice and proper for church on Sunday). Regardless of how much he sweats and works, regardless of whether or not it's July and 105 degrees out, regardless of the fact that he wears thick woolen underwear even in summer--the man will not bathe during the week. He continues his daily ritual of scarfing a huge peasant breakfast: a great plateful of bread doused in oil, thick slices of prosciutto hewn from the haunch with his pocketknife, raw onions and garlic, maybe some tomatoes and cucumber in summer, washed down with half a bottle of wine. He reeks--reeks--of garlic, onions and wine, and stale sweat. (When I was in the first months of my first pregnancy, I couldn't stomach being around him at all--the stench brought on waves of nausea). Amazingly, he goes around the neighborhood like this, even occasionally to the bank or doctor, his shirt stained with sweat crescents, his rough, sawed-off pants showing dusty socks and mangled once-were-shoes below. I guess cleanliness is not next to Godliness, after all.

Gaetano's fear of catching a chill is so great that even in the thick of high summer, he will not let Elena open the bedroom window at night to let air in (no air-con, of course!). He sleeps year-round with a wool scarf around his neck for protection. Poor woman, lying next to that rough, stinking maiale, suffocating in an airless room in 90 degree heat, never dreaming of speaking up or inconveniencing her husband--if that's not cause for sainthood, I don't know what is.

He typically comes in from his orto (where he spends the entire day, from pre-dawn til dusk) filthy, his white hair dusted brown with dirt and bits of hay sticking from it--and without washing even his hands, plops down in his chair, sets his pocketknife next to his plate, flicks on the TV and waits to be served his meal. Once, Elena yelled at him because he had ants crawling all over him, and he barked, "they're my friends!"

He rarely drinks water, even in the heat of summer, always preferring wine (his own homemade, of course), which he insists is better for you than water. He probably goes through one and a half big, bulb-bottomed Chianti flasks a day--and easily two or more in summer. Last summer he drank too much of his own brew during an outdoor family dinner, and when teased and chastised about it, got all macho and indignant and bragged that he wasn't drunk because he could stand on one leg. So, to prove it, he stood on one leg....then promptly fell into the patio umbrella and knocked it, and himself, to the ground.

My Mother-in-Law

Elena, 77, is the epitome of the well-meaning woman: the dutiful daughter turned dutiful wife, the striving Christian, the good neighbor, the tireless nonna. She was born and raised in Luco di Mugello, the second-eldest of five children. Her mother, Nonna Anita, a wonderful woman, lived to be 100, passing away just last year. Elena, like many others, had a pretty tough life--they were not well-off and during the war, because they lived in town and did not have access to their own crops, they experienced real hunger. She met Gaetano at a church social. She told me she was never "in love" with him--it was simply a matter of them both "wanting the same things", i.e. to fulfill their Christian duties to procreate and create a god-fearing family. Poor Elena got pregnant right away and remained that way for the next four years. She was nearly destroyed physically--the midwife told her in no uncertain terms that she better take a break or risk serious consequences (so she did, permanently, informing Gaetano that she was now to be regarded as off-limits. Naturally, as good Catholics, birth control was out of the question--but my guess is that she was secretly relieved to have an excuse to banish those grubby paws). During this time of four kids being born in four years, Elena was also living with and taking care of Gaetano's invalid parents and an aging uncle. (And she got no help from her husband, let's remember). I don't think she ever gave a second thought to all this craziness--she was brought up to believe that life was hard and that the only salvation was to do one's duty without complaining, and that the pay-off would come in the next, more heavenly, life.

Her understandable loathing for Gaetano does, however, express itself in the only way she deems morally acceptable: ceaseless wifely nagging. We're talking a marathon of nagging that has lasted some 50 years, nagging of staggering proportions, great tsunamis of nagging that roll over his hulking frame, trying to diminish him, causing him to pour another tumblerful of wine out of the flask that is always within his reach.

Elena's only real way of expressing any affection (and discharging her Christian duty, of course) is through her helping of others--and this she is always ready to do, whether it be family or neighbors from the parish. She is the classic Italian mamma in that food is also her way of spooning out generous heaps of love to those she does, deep down, care about. She is the typical donna di casa e chiesa, housewife and church-goer. Her world literally consists of the radius of home, the little church down the street, Silvia's house, and the shops and open market of Piazza delle Cure, a 10-minute walk away. That's it. She has never visited the Uffizi, never seen the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel, never been to Pitti Palace. She is always busy, bustling about the house doing endless chores. I have never seen her sit on the sofa--she only sits on a rigid, high-backed wooden dining-chair. She has never worn a pair of trousers in her life, instead preferring demure woollen skirts and thick hose, and sensible shoes on her enormous feet. She stands at about 5'3", wears dentures (has since age 40), is slightly hunch-backed, slim but with thick wrists and splayed rough hands and those platypus feet that plant her squarely on the ground. In her multi-colored smocks over hodgepodge clothing, kooky flowered straw sun hat (summer) or mushroom-puff wool cap (winter), and men's shoes which she often prefers--she looks like an immigrant clown. The only convictions she holds is that the Church is always right, that Jesus is our saviour, and that one must sacrifice everything for family. The thoughts in her head never dally with the existential or dance on an intellectual plane: she's thinking what should she prepare for lunch, do Gaetano's socks need darning, will her grandkids' fever turn into something worse, the plants need watering.


Surely this is not a typical Italian family--more like something Fellini would conjure up in one of his darker moments. Does one laugh or cry or splutter in unbelieving dismay at their existence? Dear Readers--I simply don't know. I myself waver between all three of these behaviors, perhaps favoring "splutter in unbelieving dismay."

Yours--in spluttering, unbelieving dismay,


Thursday, April 23, 2009

A parent-teacher meeting--or--The glories of besciamella

Dear Readers,

The other day I attended a meeting at Giacomo's school. I must say that I am overall very pleased with the public school my children attend--I find their teachers warm and loving, the program satisfactory and attuned to the children's age-level and individual needs, and there is this touching atmosphere of what I can only describe as sweetness that pervades.

My son, who's in first grade (or prima) has the typical tag-team dual teacher classroom that, for now, all elementary schools use. His teachers are Vanna and Stefania, and they are experienced and wonderful, having worked together for many years. Vanna has a disheveled mop of curly gray and white hair, an arrestingly simpatica face dominated by laugh-lines, sports bright orange and red eyeglasses, and tends to wear clothes in shades of blue and purple. Stefania, herself the mother of 7 children, is a bit younger, with no-fuss short dark hair, and a face that looks pleasantly like a squirrels'. Vanna's voice is soothing and husky, while Stefania's is high and strident--kind of a vocal yin and yang. Vanna imparts primarily Italian, and Stefania math. (There are separate teachers for English and Religion. Religion gets 2 hours a week, English 1--in this global age I think Italy has its priorities skewed a bit here).

At the meeting (surprisingly, not many parents were in attendance), Vanna and Stefania updated us on the class's progress. The academics follow a national program (Italy's school system is centralized), and the kids have been on track, except for math. Stefania reported that they are lagging a tad behind on the math program as a group, but that she prefers it this way, stating quite reasonably that math skills are acquired step by step, each building on the other, and that if things are rushed when the kids are showing they need extra time, next year in second grade they may find themselves having to spend time reviewing, a more difficult process. You see, in Italian elementary schools, the same teachers are with you from first grade through fifth. (So, quite logically, Stefania was attuning her math lessons to her class's needs, knowing that she can "catch them up" next Fall. The flip side is that if your class is showing precociousness in one area, you can give them more challenging work. I think this is a very positive aspect of Italy's school system). Of course, if you get bad teachers, you're stuck with them for a long time. But if you get good ones, it's a boon--nice because the kids, at a tender age, develop a familiarity and relationship with their teachers that supports them through their academic endeavors. They don't have to waste time or wrack their nerves over getting used to so many new classmates, and a new teacher, every year.

Once academics were dispensed with, the meeting addressed class comportment. Overall, the kids behave quite well given their age, we were told. The only trouble area was mensa, or lunchtime. Apparently, the kids are not always "showing the proper respect to food," this being made clear by their mutilating poor defenseless fruit or spearing fresh mozzarella with their forks and waving it around in militant fashion, and other culinary misdeeds. The meeting then degenerated--as happens in Italy--into a lengthy talk about food. The teachers reported the class's eating habits--how much they ate, the estimated collective appetite, etc. (They were somewhat scandalized that the class eats so little, on the whole. But, they conceded--with deep dual shrugs--the kids seem healthy and energetic enough despite this). Then a Neopolitan mom spoke up in the class's defense, saying that she thought the lunch menu was boring and repetitive, lacking in spicy/tasty items, and it was this that was likely causing a kind of collective gastronomic ennui among the children, and hence their disrespectful behavior. She suggested that besciamella (béchamel sauce) be served on the pasta--this being a favorite of her son--and thence was launched a heated debate on the merits and practicalities of cooking and serving besciamella on an institutional scale, its high calorie content, its relative heaviness, its life-affirming properties, the fact that not all kids like it. A parent pointed out that when the kids are served lasagne, there's besciamella in that, and they love it. "Yes! Yes! It's true! Everyone likes lasagne!" chanted the parents. Then, parents with kids who love mensa spoke up, saying things like, "Alessandro tells me 'Mamma, you can only dream of cooking food as well as they do at mensa,'" or "Giulia says 'ma quant'è bona la mensa, Mamma!" On and on it went, a gastronomic tennis match, the mensa ball being lobbed back and forth endlessly. Finally, my head numb, and after looking at my watch for the fiftieth time (I had to buy groceries and get dinner on, see), the meeting was adjourned.

Yours in besciamella solidarity,


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How many strikes before you're out?

Dear Readers,

Today was another of the many, many strike days in here in Florence. Buses don't run, teachers are absent, public offices are closed, etc. I am convinced that Italian workers love to go on strike more than they like to eat white truffles or drink barolo. They certainly seem to spend more energy protesting than actually working.

I just don't understand all the fuss. Call me naive, brainwashed by protestant-work-ethic-capitalist-customer satisfaction thinking, but to me, Italians don't have it so bad. For one thing, they barely work at all. Public offices are generally only open for a few hours in the morning, with maybe one afternoon a week in which they open for another couple hours after the interminably long lunch break (typically 2-3 hours). Many shops also close for a good chunk of the midday, presumably so the staff can go home and stuff themselves with a three-course lunch. And banks! They're the worst: open for a few hours in the morning, and then only 45 minutes to an hour again in the afternoon--and for this stellar, 21st century service you pay ridiculously high monthly account fees (and each ATM card linked to your account is an extra charge, too, thank you very much).

The funny thing is that even when Italians are at work, many are not actually working. They are smoking, chatting on their cells, having their 12th espresso, or shuffling papers sternly and looking pissed off. Or they put forth the absolute bare minimum of effort to execute their duties, to the point that a smile, kind word or any kind of problem-solving, trouble-shooting skills proves far too fatiguing to attempt.

Often, however, they are simply absent.

Take the recent scandal in Portici, near Naples, for example. In one of the city's administrative offices, 36 out of 70 employees were arrested for chronic absenteeism. A lengthy investigation, complete with hidden cameras, revealed that the employees were using their I.D. cards to sign in (or having cohorts sign in for them), then leaving: they simply went home, or went shopping, or went to other jobs. Apparently, this was going on for years, and is a practice endemic to the area--another 58 city employees are currently under investigation. Indeed, officials in the prosecuter's office say that this is an Italy-wide phenomenon. Portici's mayor, Enzo Cuomo, under harsh criticism for his bald refusal to acknowledge any wrong-doing or admit his own incompetency, had the coglioni to accuse his accusers of "faziosità"--fatuousness.

Again, I think Italian workers have it pretty good: at least a month's vacation per year, and the endless feste religiose and feste nazionali add up to another good week or two off. When you marry, you are entitled by law to an additional two weeks' vacation for neo-conjugal purposes. If you have a baby (the inevitable result of those post-matrimonial two weeks, I suppose), you get up to a years' maternity leave, with reduced hours to accommodate breast-feeding when you do go back to work. It is nearly impossible to get fired, the intricate web of labor laws always favoring the employee--if your boss wants to get rid of you he'd be better off lacing your espresso with strychnine. Sick days? As many as you need as long as you have a doctors' note (and these are handed out in wanton abundance, like Jehovah's Witness pamphlets). In addition, everyone has umpteen ore di permesso, or hours of "personal time," which you can take at will for things like doctors' appointments, bureaucratic errands, or wild-boar hunting.

So who's complaining?!

Apparently, everybody. In about a weeks' time, we have another scheduled general strike day to look forward to in Florence. Workers have the god-given right to not show up, to protest--although most simply treat these days as a holiday--and to generally disrupt the lives of everyone else. (My husband scoffs at this practice, saying that interminable striking serves no real purpose: it's like the boy who cried wolf. No one pays attention anymore. It's overkill).

But what can you do? Italians are fed the concept of workers' rights from birth, like formula or breast milk. It's an Us vs. Them mentality that is rooted, I'm convinced, in ancient provincial prejudices of Family vs. Outsiders. They believe with every fiber of their being that they have the right to a secured job and all the perks therein, and that once they attain it, no one can touch them. (The idea of actual merit gathers dust on some forgotten shelf of collective conscience).

Dear Readers, I submit to you the Constitution of the Republic of Italy (a copy of which was given me at my new citizen's induction ceremony, and which I am in the habit of perusing while in the loo), whose opening line illustrates my point:

FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES: Article 1:  "L'Italia è una Repubblica democratica, fondata sul lavoro." "Italy is a democratic republic, founded on work."

There's a typo in there. The correct text ought to read: "Italy is a democratic republic, founded on the theory of work."

Yours in industrious labor,


Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Dear Readers,

What would you tell your children to pass the time on a long journey? Perhaps you would tell them about other journeys, journeys that took place a long time ago....

"In 1901 Leonardo Campobello, a stone mason from Palermo, set sail from Genoa for the green, brazen shore of the New World. He was headed for the wild, steaming hills of West Virginia, where he would peddle his craft. With compact body, rough hands, flinty eyes and energy to burn--this was a man who could cleave stone and carve out a life for himself. He sighted New York Harbor and a chill of anticipation raced up his spine. It was winter, bitterly cold, a gray pall obscured the famous skyline, and the fragrant lemon groves and springtime orange blossoms of his native Sicily were but a strange memory. Like so many others before and after him, he passed through the portals of Ellis Island, and was transformed. He emerged, a phoenix risen from the ashes, an almost-American, your ancestor--Leonard Campbell."

This is what I might tell mine.

My Best Regards,


Friday, February 27, 2009

Don't mess with my pasta

Dear Readers,

Today's newspaper announced that an Anti-trust commission handed down a fine of some 12.5 million Euro to Italy's major pasta producers (such as Barilla, De Cecco, et al.). The companies involved represent some 90% of the pasta market, and had conspired collectively to price-gouge. Since 2006, average pasta prices have risen over 30% and it has been the consumers that have borne the brunt.

We're dealing with a culinary sacred cow here.

Italians put up with a lot of crap: a top-heavy government that barely functions, an essentially zero-growth economy, ridiculously high prices on toiletries--but they will not, I repeat, will not stand for over-priced pasta.

Indeed, it is rare to see such heavy-handed punishment in Italy. This is a country where you can drive the wrong way down a one-way street with impunity, where you can park in a handicap spot and proceed to skip from your car past the two vigili who are invariably chatting on cellphones, or where you can be elected to a high-ranking government position and have a criminal record and/or criminal cases pending against you.

Clearly, Italians know their priorities.



Thursday, January 29, 2009

What I love most about living in Florence

Dear Readers,

Without a doubt the best thing about life in Italy is the food, and the thing that makes me happiest about my decision to make Florence my home is my kids' school lunch menu.

No kidding.

For a little over €7 (about $9) a day, both my kids (ages 7 and 4) get a tasty, nourishing three-course meal. (Parents know exactly what their children are eating because the menus arrive at home by mail). The food is delivered fresh daily and prepared on-site. They're served from large platters by the lunch staff and sit at long tables with their classmates. The tables are set with placemats, real plates and silverware--a shallow bowl for their primo and a plate underneath for the secondo. The glasses--they drink water only--are glass, even for the preschoolers. [Aside: Though they drink water at meals, Italian children are brought up with an appreciation of wine that starts early. In September around the time of the wine harvest, my kids made wine at preschool]

I saw pictures of lunchtime, taken by my son's teacher, and it brought tears to my eyes. It was a cultural epiphany. The table was set for Christmas-time, with red napkins and such. To see these sweet kids, smiling, laughing, eating together--crowded elbow-to-elbow at the communal table, looking so civilized, so convivial, was very moving. This is how the seeds are sown--the love of good food shared with friends, the early exposure to simply prepared seasonal food that forms the habits of a lifetime.

Now understand this, I don't pretend to be a culinary saint, nor am I much for culinary evangelism--elitist foodie zealots drive me crazy--but when you live in food-blessed Italy sometimes you feel you must spread the gospel. And while there are many things that Italians don't know how to do (like wait in line, drive in lanes, or govern themselves), in one aspect they are right on the mark: they know how to eat.

Barack and Michelle Obama, according to the New York Times ("Obama's New Chef Skewers School Lunches", Jan. 29, 2009), are serious about food and trying to tackle America's problems with obesity and overall bad eating habits. They promote eating fresh, eating locally, and eating according to the seasons. I say, hallelujah! I hope they make progress, but I fear the way America eats is entrenched. The main problem seems to me to be the fact that fast food--and the paradigm of the fast food meal--has permeated our culture too deeply to be removed. Why do we have to always eat stuff that doesn't require utensils?!!

To amuse myself, I pick American school districts at random and go online and look at their elementary school lunches. Here's what I found, and it ain't pretty:

In Rochester, Michigan, the daily menu might have these items on it:

-Baked Chicken Fryz [just love the cute spelling, as if it's not real food--well, maybe it isn't] with Goldfish Grahams
-Tater Tots [safe to assume these babies are frozen]
-Crispy Tacos
-Fish Nuggets with macaroni and cheese
-Sliced apples with low-fat caramel dip [apparently fruit is so boring and tasteless it needs a sugary dip]
-Crazy Cheesy Breadsticks with Pizza Dipping Sauce [I guess dips are for kids]
-Mini Corn Dogs [are we at school or an amusement park?!]
-Baby Carrots with Ranch Dip
-Dominos Pizza
-Clux Deluxe Chicken [god only knows what this is supposed to be]
-French Bread Pizza
-Sloppy Joe
-Broccoli with cheese sauce [I suppose if the veg is not fresh or seasonal, it needs the mask]
-Cheese Hot Pockets [okay, this one just makes me angry]
-Bosco's Cheese Stuffed Breadsticks

The school has "All Amercian Day" every now and then, in which they serve:

-Hot Dog in an Enriched Bun [I'm sure the fact that that bun is enriched is a load off everyone's mind]
-Hamburger/Cheeseburger Bar
-Fun Size Cheetos

Now, to be fair, they do also offer a salad bar, and "Assorted Fresh Fruit and Veggies" almost daily, and one day they do offer Roast Turkey-Gravy-Mashed Potatoes, but I think we can see pretty clearly which way the culinary wind blows.

In Mount Lebanon, PA, the menus follow similar lines: BBQ Rib Sandwich, Chicken Patty Sandwich, Chicken Nuggets with Dipping Sauce, Chicken Tender Wraps, Cheese-filled Breadsticks with Marinara Dipping Sauce. In San Francisco, there was a glimmer of hope when I read they are eating Wheat Penne Pasta with Meat Sauce, Teriyaki Glazed Chicken with Fried Rice, Salisbury Steak with Mashed Potatoes--but these items are more often than not muscled out by Cheese Pizza Dippers, Bagel Dog [what the ??], and Hot Diggety Dog.

Only in Berkeley, home of Alice Waters, did things sound really promising. The school district's website said they are committed to using fresh, local products as much as possible, the food is cooked on site, and the meat is all organic and grass fed (I almost wept for joy at this). Unfortunately, the menus were not viewable at the time--darn, I was beginning to salivate.

As you see, dear Readers, these menus are dominated by concepts of fast and frozen food. It's clear the thinking is that kids will only eat "kid" food, i.e. food that has been manipulated--probably against its better nature--into a fun, kid-friendly shape, with a gimmicky name slapped on it, and a pot of dip placed next to it. As if to say, "Look, no forks required! Have fun, kids, while you pile on the pork and develop Adult Onset Diabetes!" It's culinary dumbing-down. How are kids nourished (and I use the term lightly) on this stuff supposed to all of a sudden make healthy "grown-up" choices later on in life?

In my house, my husband and son like a good burger, and I'm sure there's not a person on this earth that doesn't like fries. I have been known to dish out the popcorn, chips, pretzels and such on occasion (I couldn't call myself American if I didn't!). But we practice moderation in this regard, and we typically eat healthily, with most things made from scratch, using fresh, local, seasonal products. Our food preparations tend to be simple: things are grilled, lightly sauteéd or oven roasted, drizzled with olive oil, with only salt and fresh herbs to enhance the natural flavor. And all around us, the culture supports, indeed feeds, our desire to eat well.

This is why I am so happy about my kids' school lunches. Here's what they've been eating this winter (menus follow the customary Italian procedure of first course--usually pasta--second course, side dish and dessert. There are always baskets of fresh Tuscan bread on hand, too):

Baby gnocchi with vegetable ragù
Fried sole
Salad (olive oil and vinegar dressing always)
Fruit (always seasonal and unadorned)

Pastina in meat broth
Bollito misto (mixed boiled meats) with salsa verde--a very Tuscan dish; the sauce is made with anchovies, parsley, parmigiano, olive oil and lemon--very tasty!
Boiled potatoes

Green spaghetti
Oven-roasted pork loin
Stewed carrots
Fruit salad

Rice with tomato sauce
Fresh Mozzarella
Fennel gratin

Penne with butter and parmigiano
Roast veal
Stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce

Rigatoni all'amatriciana
Chicken breast with sage
Sauteéd spinach and swiss chard

Vegetable soup (passato)
Pizza al prosciutto

Pasta snails in tomato cream sauce
Fish livornese style (with tangy tomato sauce)

Lasagna with meat ragù
Fresh mozzarella
Fresh vegetable crudité

Risotto alla pescatore (seafood)
Chicken bocconcini ("mouthfuls" or nuggets) in savory stew
Oven roasted potatoes

Well, dear Readers, it is nearly lunchtime... I think I'll just nip down the street and see if I can sneak into the school lunchroom. Today's menu sounds good.

My best regards,


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thoughts on citizenship

Dear Readers,

Not too long ago, I became an Italian citizen (I maintain dual citizenship; over my dead body would I ever relinquish my rights to free speech, the pursuit of happiness, and midnight grocery shopping). My main reasons for tackling this gruelling bureaucratic procedure were that: 1) the bureaucratic procedure for renewing the permesso di soggiorno and then the carta di soggiorno was even more gruelling, and more frequent; 2) I wanted to have full rights to any benefits which might eventually be due me (I missed out, for instance, on the 1000 Euro government bonus for having a second child in 2004 because mothers were required to be Italian citizens--apparently, the father being Italian was only good for getting pregnant in the first place); 3) I wanted to have the option of being able to live anywhere in the EU should I desire it; and 4) my kids were born here and are dual citizens, so I thought I should cement my status as well.

The first step toward citizenship in Italy is to try to use your connections to jump ahead of others (this concept, vital to all aspects of Italian life, is actually codified in the Italian Constitution, a copy of which was given to me when I was sworn in). So, through my sister-in-law who works at the Prefect's Office, I was actually given an appointment in this century in order to present all the documents I had assembled, and instead of the normal two-year turnaround time they tell everyone to expect, my citizenship was granted in a year-and-a-half.

I was sworn in in the Red Room of the Palazzo Vecchio, along with a few others (me the only American) by a blind consigliere who wore over-sized black ladies' sunglasses (perhaps Fendi), and in addition to his official tri-color sash sported a rainbow pace (peace) pocket hankie. He shook my hand warmly and pointedly asked me to read an anti-war passage from the Italian Constitution. I was given an Italian flag.

I must say I do not feel one ounce Italian. I have lived here for eight years, have always worked and paid taxes, have two children in the public schools. Speak the language, albeit imperfectly. I am recognized in my neighborhood for being the wife of Paolo who grew up here, and here I am smiled at, greeted, more or less made to feel welcome. However, in nearly every other aspect of my life here, and certainly outside the neighborhood, I am made aware of the fact that I am "foreign." I am simply not Italian--no matter what the government says--because I neglected to be born here. There is a palpable sense of exclusionism in Italy, of outsiders and insiders, of--quite simply--Italians and non-Italians.

It's a regional thing too--open your mouth in Italy, and if you are Italian, you will be immediately placed by your accent: Florentine, Livornese, Tuscan, Milanese, Sicilian, Neopolitan, whatever. My mother-in-law was recently the victim of a con-artist, and afterward she said with profound surprise, "But he spoke Florentine!" as if to say, "he wasn't even foreign, but one of us!"

At my old job at the church of Santa Maria Novella, many Italian tourists would rudely dispute the museums' hours (insisting on their right to enter after closing-time) or the fact that there was an entry fee--often very ugly arguments would break out. Once, when trying to calm down an irate woman who insisted that her status as an architect made her exempt from such trivialities as posted opening times, I was bluntly cut off with, "Excuse me, but this doesn't concern you [insert withering scorn]--this is our cultural patrimony!" Huh. Never mind that I was hired to safeguard that same patrimony and promote its appreciation to masses of visitors.

In some ways, even though Italy needs and thrives on tourism, and is technically open to legal immigrants and a resonable amount of globalization, I get the feeling that it would rather turn its back on the whole mess and just have everybody stay where they belong, and mind their own business while they're at it, mannaggia! Years ago, my then-future father-in-law (surely one of the most ignorant men on God's green earth) said to me and Paolo (recently become engaged) at the dinner table, an idiotic grin on his face, "donne e buoi dai paesi tuoi!" Which means "women and oxen should be from one's home town." i.e., Stick to your own! [Aside: my father-in-law can always be counted on for an ass-backward axiom, a peasant platitude, a choice piece of hillbilly wisdom]

For many Italians, anyone Asian is simply cinese (chinese). Anyone with a darker skin tone (including southern Italians) is often described as di colore (colored). Now, officially, folks here are anti-racist and all that, blah blah blah. But there is a definite disparity between how people would like to think they believe and how they actually behave. The party line vs. the reality.

Even though my Italian is pretty good, many people unabashedly give me what I call "The Squint." They wrinkle their foreheads and squint their eyes as if it requires great effort to comprehend what I am saying, to see through the murk of my accent. I have to fight the urge to smack these people, to shout at them, "Haven't you ever heard someone speak with an accent before?! Don't get around much, do you?!"

Many Italians just seem puzzled by foreigners, afraid, and--something I find rather shocking--not in the least bit curious about us. Italy is a land of provincials struggling to appear sophisticated and modern.

Luckily, we have a number of international friends, other mixed couples like us with whom we can socialize and commiserate--and we do know a few enlightened Italians, ones who have travelled, or at least read books and watch educational television. It helps me feel like less of a freak.

So... I know I will never feel truly Italian--Italy does not embrace me in the way, I think, America collectively embraces immigrants (with lapses, of course), allowing me to blend in, allowing the simple fact that I partake of the economy and lifestyle to suffice, allowing for my difference. I don't want to seem ungrateful to the Italian government for granting me citizenship, I just wish that, now that I am indeed a citizen, I wasn't made to feel like a second-class one so often.