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.