Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kung Fu Christmas

Dear Readers,

"A real warrior never quits, and... I WILL NEVER QUIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Thus spake Po in Kung Fu Panda (surely one of the greatest animated films ever made), a present from Babbo Natale to my children this year. It occured to me that this is probably the unspoken battle-cry of most people when the holiday season rises up menacingly on the horizon, a tinsel-covered, raisin-studded juggernaut whose blows we must endure--and strive to subdue with every fiber of our being--or be crushed by the sheer soul-sapping force of its pernicious yuletide power.

Ever notice how the Christmas season is described in increasingly apocalyptic terms? Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Stores lure us to their doors at inhuman hours to suffer the tortures of the damned, with the prospect of saving twenty-five percent dangled in front of us like plenary indulgences. Thankfully, many of the crueler punishments of the season are absent or at least milder in Italy, but we do make up for it by packing in more actual holidays, and therefore more opportunities for agony. The beast rears its head here on December 8th--the Feast of the Immaculate Conception--and finishes by crunching the last of our weary bones on January 6th, the Epiphany. Christmas is technically a two-day siege (or two-and-a-half if you count Christmas Eve feasting), with the 26th being Santo Stefano. In Italy it is common to spend both the main holiday meal of lunch as well as dinner together with family (do the math--that's five family meals in three days!) which--if you factor in dysfunction, ignorance, bigotry, bad hygiene, endless hillbilly barzellette, and oafish table manners--makes for a hair-tearing, eyeball-gouging, fingernail-ripping experience. It truly takes a warrior spirit to tackle this most formidable of foes. 

If you're curious as to what the End Days will be like, then go to an Italian supermarket on the weekend before Christmas, where you will witness a roiling, writhing sea of frenzied humanity who wield shopping carts like bumper cars, frantically grabbing at shelves and filling their carts as if WW3 was about to break out, and where a thin-lipped, beshriveled old lady in an enormous fur coat will unceremoniously knock you to the ground and pry the very last tub of mascarpone from your twitching hands. (I can think of nowhere better suited to the execution of a few well-placed kung fu moves--if not an all-out Jackie Chan fight scene--than an Italian supermarket on the eve of a major holiday). This insanity is, unfortunately, as much a part of Italian culture and history as the Renaissance--though it's a little-known fact, Dante, in his original version of the Inferno (before the final edit), made suffering perpetual Christmases the tenth circle of Hell.

To further illustrate my point, I'll share with you this electronic missive--and clear cry for help--which I received from a friend on Christmas Day (I imagined him gasping for breath, his trembling hands clawing the keyboard): " killing being chained on my back to a rock while vultures tear out my entrails...." We all have an image of how we want Christmas to be, don't we? Something very Norman Rockwell--a snowbound cottage with a crackling log fire and stockings hung by the chimney with care, carolers, the scent of pine, a rustic table set with a glistening roast and rounded by family members whose joined hands give thanks, children whose faces are aglow with pleasure over their new Flexible Flyers. THIS is the Christmas we desperately strive for, the one we fight for--but it's not the Christmas we usually get. Instead, family holiday get-togethers are more akin to getting boils lanced, or having leeches applied--or having your entrails tinker-toyed with by scavengers.

A woman came into the shop a couple days after the holiday, one of our regular customers, a Brit with a clear eye and sassy haircut, and as conversation inevitably turned to Christmas coping strategies, she said matter-of-factly, "I don't think anybody really likes Christmas--it's just something you have to get through." Like amoebic dysentery or stomach flu or tax season. So why do we keep torturing ourselves? Flinging ourselves into the breach, year after year?

A wise warrior chooses his battles, dear Readers. And Christmas, with all its swagger and glittery trappings, is an invading army which I prefer to let march right past me, unmolested. Serenity is what I crave this time of year. I strive to be as still as a lotus on a blue pond, as resolute as a stalk of bamboo, and as free as a smooth-feathered crane in flight. It's the time for us four to hole up like moles, share some good food and wine, enjoy the fire glowing warmly in the hearth--while the holiday maelstrom rages outside our door. As kung fu master Oogway sagely observes, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called 'the present.'"

Christmas present, indeed.



Sunday, December 19, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

Dear Readers,

As many of you may know, Florence was hit with a Michigan-worthy blizzard the other day, and the city is still reeling from both the incomparable beauty of it all and the utter chaos caused by city bureaucrats being woefully--if not adamantly--unprepared. Without getting into the irony of the fact that apparently Tuscans don't believe in salting their roads as well as their bread, I wanted to describe to you a scene I observed on the evening of the snowstorm, after the worst of it was over and an otherworldly hush had settled over the land. It seemed innocent enough.

I returned home to find my nephew Giulio happily making a snowman in the garden. He smiled broadly and shyly and waved hello, his shaggy mop of dark hair framing his impish face, completely simpatico. A short while later when I went out to get some more wood for the fire, I saw he was still there, the darkening, snow-perfumed sky enfolding him and his Tuscan version of Frosty. Then a shadowy figure emerged from behind the snow-dusted hedge, which was partially screening my view--it was my sister-in-law, Giulio's mother, in the craziest get-up I'd yet seen during this bout of freak weather (thick legwarmers pulled up over sweatpants, a man's parka with a few sweaters oozing out of it at odd angles, a fishermen's hat that was three sizes too big, and bright yellow rubber clogs). After surveying her son's handiwork, she admonished, "Don't stay out too much longer, Giulio, you'll catch cold--besides, it's getting dark." "Sì, mamma," came the obedient reply.

Did I mention that Giulio is twenty-five years old?

Anglo-Saxon mothers of a certain smothersome and anxious stripe are sometimes called "helicopter moms." Well, then--comparatively speaking--Italian mothers are Sherman tanks. Nothing bulldozes a testosterone-laced Italian male and tramples his independence quite so effectively and absolutely as the crippling, hyper-concerned treads of la mamma italiana.

Don't get me wrong--naturally there's nothing askew about an adult having a little fun building a snowman (I might have gladly made one myself, but being a Michigan girl, I've probably surpassed the Wolverine State quota of 2,500 snowmen per life span). But the next day, while Giulio spent the afternoon proudly putting the finishing touches on his opera d'arte, enjoying the sun and the crisp, rarefied air, another scene was playing itself out....

My 85-year-old father-in-law was shoveling snow--huffing and heaving like an early steam locomotive--alongside Giulio's dad, Luca (who, quite honestly, was faring little better).

The family compound being situated on a large plot of land, we were practically buried by snow--there were no clear walkways, the driveway was inundated, and all the cars were blocked in. Thus there was a certain urgency over the driveway being cleared because Matteo--Giulio's brother, age 23--needed desperately to get out with the car (apparently he wanted to meet up with friends--perhaps to build snowmen of their own). You see, dear Readers, my nephews don't work and both live at home with their parents, like so very many Italians, and seem content to do so for years and years--and years--to come. And while they're the two sweetest guys you'd ever hope to meet, they remain utterly naive and as if frozen in some kind of perpetual childhood, like Peter Pan or Michael Jackson. Of course, the pathetic*, rather clownish figure of the Italian mammone is known the world over and is, I think, as indigenous to this sunny peninsula as wild boar and corrupt politicians with bad hair plugs. I have never seen my nephews take out the trash, help clear the table after meals (let alone assist--gasp!--with actual meal preparation or washing dishes), do laundry, do yardwork--do anything, really, that might be construed as chores or taking the bull by the horns.

My name is Giorgio.
I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.
So--let us consider for a moment the picture I have drawn for you, dear Readers, and then let us contemplate in whose hands lies the future of this funny, ungovernable, boot-shaped outcrop of civilized Europe. Soft and immutable--spending their parents' hard-earned money with alacrity, revving their motorini with careless abandon, gobbling meals with the heedlessness of lactating babes, buttoning up their Diesel jeans and lacing their Converse shoes--are these hands capable of scrabbling out a place for Italy in the world that clamors and groans with endeavor outside its very doorstep? To me, these butter-fat, enfeebled, mother-fed hands which prefer to dally with ephemeral pleasures--like snow in Florence--seem far more suited to Neverland than the reality the rest of us mere mortals inhabit.

Yours from the front lines,


*An admittedly--an unabashedly--Anglo-Saxon term of judgment for which I offer no apology. To most Italians, of course, there is absolutely nothing conceivably wrong in having your mother either buy or launder your underwear (at age 40 and beyond).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Search Words to live by

Dear Readers,

As you may know, most bloggers employ a nifty spy-like tool to see who's visiting their site--this involves a tracker that not only gives the readers' location, but any referring sites as well as any search words used to lead folks to the blog itself.  Here are a few of the searches that have recently led some intrepid souls to my blog:

"horny midwestern women"  This from someone (presumably also horny) in Illinois. I must say I took wicked pleasure in knowing that a lascivious corn-fed lothario seeking to satisfy his rampant lust with some sex-starved daughter of the Grain Belt was led to my PG-13 musings on Florence. That is, until I remembered that I, too, happen to be a, well--er--midwestern woman. Hmm. Maybe I ought to be flattered.

"brazen bm" (that's b.m. for bowel movement, by the way!). This from--who else?--a New Yorker. Now, I ask you, what kind of person needs this sort of information? Was he or she trying to establish the criteria for some kind of defecation Richter scale, presumably progressing from timid, tentative and meek b.m.'s to the boisterous, bold and brazen kind? And more importantly--why? Was this person seeking knowledge, advice, photos, or--god forbid--a YouTube video? At any rate, I'm sure my good, clean blog failed to provide the sought-after answers or relief; in fact, it probably caused the anonymous googler not a little constipation--I mean, consternation.

"renaissance toilet"  My favorite, from someone in Washington, D.C. A Lavatory Historian researching his dissertation on toilets through the ages perhaps? Someone trying to channel his inner Michelangelo after some bad burritos? Or maybe one of our illustrious politicians was looking to install an antique fixture in his Georgetown colonial, or--dare I conjecture?--the White House. It suddenly strikes me that the renaissance toilet is probably an altogether fitting place in which to deposit one's brazen b.m.'s, don't you think?

Let me just say how very touched I am that in matters scatological or pertaining to midwestern lechery, Google sees fit to lead the little lost lambs of the internet to my virtual doorstep.

Your humble scrivener,


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Medea with a touch of schadenfreude

Dear Readers,

To look at her, you wouldn't think my mother-in-law capable of murdering her children. Or poisoning her husband. Or lopping the head off the neighbors' dog with a scythe.

She's a diminutive, demure, hunch-backed, dwarfen old woman who has never worn a pair of trousers in her life. She sports sensible woolen skirts and thick, putty-colored hosiery--and, when around the house, always a long, chintz smock to keep her clothes in respectable condition. When she toddles through the neighborhood in her men's black clodhoppers, head bowed, a benign expression on her face, her hands--with shopping totes dangling from one arm like ganglia--are clasped together tentatively, as if in prayer.

But this is a woman who feeds on the cronaca nera--the sensational journalistic recountings of murder, mayhem and misfortune--like a leech on Jabba the Hutt. For years I have watched her riveted to every grisly news story of infants and fetuses abandoned in dumpsters, toddlers left alone to fall off balconies, and of mothers strangling, stabbing or drowning their own offspring. (Surprisingly, there are thousands of these stories in Italy--clearly, the land where la Mamma reigns supreme has its dark side). The frisson of excitement she experiences over such horrible events is as obvious as the potato-shaped nose on her face. She discusses them endlessly--never failing to interject a devout "O, Signore pietà!" (Lord have mercy!)--and describes all the gruesome details with novelistic brushstrokes worthy of Stephen King. Though my testimony wouldn't hold up in a court of law, I'd swear that at some point her grim narrative begins to sound like wishful thinking.

She's also partial to stories of dogs sinking their teeth into innocent passersby or chewing the arms off babies. She has always harbored the conviction that canines represent malign, satanic forces, and as such should be shunned--like Protestants or feminists--and preferably exterminated from the face of the earth. Even beribboned toy poodles and quivering, hairless chihuahuas send her into paroxysms of fear. When the neighbors' sweet, playful, little black terrier comes prancing and sniffing around, she flees into her house and locks the door as if he were Cerberus incarnate, bent on taking a bite out of her precious pious rump and propelling her into the dank chambers of Hell.

Understand, dear Readers, that my mother-in-law is the most repressed, self-effacing soul there is--she has swallowed her own desires and opinions so long they've metastasized. The notion of free will is as alien to her as, well, wearing pants or ordering in Chinese food. Fanatically serving others in the hope of some Eternal Reward, forever thirsting after a sip from the elusive cup of Life, she's a cross between a heavenly handmaiden with stars in her eyes and a wretched Miss Havisham in a rotting wedding dress.

She didn't choose her life--it was doled out to her like a losing poker hand. And though she endeavors to be a good Catholic, and perform her duties like the good little Christian soldier she is, resentment seeps from her like steam from the lid of a pot kept on a slow, steady boil. She has made innumerable sacrifices for her children and husband--even neighbors and fellow parishoners know her to be easy prey when it comes to their voracious needs. She has told me of the great difficulty she endured in giving birth to four children in under four years, while working part-time as cooks' help and taking care of impossibly demanding invalid relatives, with no help from her paleolithic husband whose only concern was that his meals be on time. Her teeth fell out, her hair thinned, she suffered fainting spells. The midwife told her to stop having children--or get measured for a casket. Her loathing of her husband (the man largely responsible for her servitude) is undisguised, yet she slavishly dispatches her Christian wifely duties--all but one, mind you--as if frantically trying to garner celestial brownie points.

But as the Bard says, "fair is foul, and foul is fair": a while back the doctor told her to slip some liquid valium into her husbands' minestra to calm him down and render him more manageable or some such nonsense, and my mother-in-law asked, "What happens if I give him too much?" with an unmistakable gleam in her eye. Whenever family squabbles arise, she makes sure to fan the flames by playing the "he said, she said" game, pitting one sibling against another with Machiavellian precision, while wringing her hands in feigned concern. If you dare cross her, she lowers her eyes innocently in seeming deference to your opinions--then mounts a campaign of passive-aggressiveness the likes of which would have made even Alexander the Great drop arms and surrender his troops.

And so it happens that Our Lady of Infinite Sacrifice (or Lady Macbeth--take your pick) relishes being the bearer of ill-tidings. You name it, everyone's ailments--including degrees of fever, cataracts, gout, kidney stones, depression, dyspepsia, etc.--along with their financial setbacks, unwanted pregnancies, and myriad other human dramas, is the stuff of conversation. She lays in wait for us to come home from work and accosts us in the courtyard with the latest tales of woe regarding neighbors or family-members. And while it is true that Italians love to discuss illness as much as the English like to talk of the weather, her capacity for ill-omen is unparalleled.

I tell you all this, dear Readers, because this past Sunday morning as soon as we opened our shutters (thus signifying that we were awake, up, and about) she appeared at our door, like a raven, her hands clamped together in what was either meekness or glee, with an air of wistful sadness, and informed us that our 94 year-old neighbor, Ottavino, had died during the night. She proceeded to recount verbatim his wife Lisetta's mournful ululations, and speculated about whether or not she'd now be put into a casa di cura by her daughter, or given over to the care of one those immigrant slave-girls called badanti.  She lingered at our doorstep, eyes downcast, shoulders shrugged at the inevitability of death, nursing homes, and thankless children--savoring her words and the moment.

The ancient Greeks coined the term catharsis--meaning (theatrically speaking) that in order to fully experience their tragedies on the stage, one necessarily entered into the unfolding drama, as it were, and emerged emotionally cleansed. Perhaps my mother-in-law--through her obsession with the calamities and misfortunes of others--is merely purging herself of her own latent fears and frustrations. Perhaps her behavior is harmless enough--however morbid--and I'm a wicked, wicked woman to suspect her of ulterior sentiments.

But be assured of one thing, dear Readers--I watch my back around that little gray-haired, chintz-covered goblin. Because how she really feels about having a wilful, outspoken, independent-minded American daughter-in-law is anybody's guess.

My best regards,


(*photo credit: above, Maria Callas as Medea in the film by Pier Paolo Pasolini)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Certifiably insane

Dear Readers,

After living in Italy nearly a decade, I am certain--though they would cagily deny their own existence, like the mafia--that there's a secret cadre of fiendish bureaucrats locked away in a dank room in a crumbling palazzo somewhere, smoking cigars and guzzling grappa, their flat, brittle, octogenarian bums scraping against cracked leather upolstery, plotting ways to make everybody's lives ten-thousand times more complicated than they need to be. They're the kind of villains you'd see in old silent films, curling their handlebar mustaches and rubbing their hands together with Machiavellian glee.

There are many, many examples I could give to illustrate their dastardly deeds, but I am going to focus on only one at present: the certificato medico (medical certificate). Italians love to certify just about everything--from acts of Parliament to acts of God. To this end, notaries do a brisk business (while making a killing, their fees being notoriously exorbitant), and you practically need a marca da bollo (official stamp) just to pass gas. But the medical certificate has to be one of the cruelest punishments ever inflicted on the Italian populace.

Let's say I fall ill. I'm wracked with fever, my nose is gushing, I feel like I've been run over by a bus. Naturally, I call off work. But do I get to crawl back into bed, perhaps with a hot cup of honey-laced tea, and slip into a restful coma? No! I have to haul myself over to my doctor's ambulatorio and wait two hours in an unheated antechamber with a bunch of ancient hypochondriacs who prattle on endlessly about their aching vertebrae and loose bowel movements, while inside my skull aboriginal rhythms are pounding themselves out mercilessly. I need to get my doctor to certify that I am indeed sick enough to miss work--even for just one day (apparently bringing my employer an enormous pile of slimy, used tissues is not proof enough). The process of certification entails the doctor listening to me say "I'm sick" while observing my variously oozing bodily humors, after which she fills out an official slip of paper and hands it over to me. Ah, but it doesn't end there, dear Readers! This piece of paper has two sections, one of which I am to give my employer upon my return to work, and the other is to be dispatched immediately to INPS (Istituto Nazionale della Previdenza Sociale), the government arm which pays out sick leave. This must be done--under penalty of death--by registered mail, which means (oh, joy!) a trip to the post office. So, after enduring the doctor's office, I'm forced to drag my flu-ridden mass of molecules over to the nearest branch of the Poste Italiane, take a number (usually #101 out of 500), and stand and wait, praying that I infect the dour-faced employees who move slower than indolent, dyslexic sloths.

Exhausted, I return home after 3 or 4 hours of divertimento. All this to absent myself from a five hour work shift. Complicating the whole endeavor is the fact that my doctor has her ambulatorio in my vicinity only four times a week--three miserly morning slots, and once, more amply, in the evening (though the place is usually teeming like a leper colony). The post office closes adamantly at 1pm, so you really have to hustle if you want to be beaten down and tormented in timely fashion.

Here's another example: recently, I wanted to enroll in a yoga class, having decided that I ought to start looking after my well-being and de-stressing in a way that doesn't involve popping a cork. I went for a free trial lesson at a lovely yoga studio, tried not to blanch at the enrollment fees, and was given a brochure that explained their policy. When I got home and read it, I was surprised to see that a certificato medico was required before one could participate in classes. "A medical certificate for an hour of beginner's yoga a week?" I thought to myself, "We're not talking rugby, pole-vaulting, or the four-minute mile here--this is downward dog, the sun salute, the corpse pose for god's sake!" So I did what I usually do in these cases of bureaucratic water-torture--I narrowed my eyes, clenched my jaw and prepared to submit. I dropped by the pharmacy the next evening and asked the pharmacist if she would leave a note for my doctor (who'd be in her office next door the following morning) asking for a certificate saying something along the lines of "Ms. Petrosian is unlikely to drop dead of cardiac arrest if she were to do a wee bit of yoga."

"Ah, but for the certificato medico sport non agonistico [non-agony-inducing?] you have to pay," said the pharmacist. "Oh! Ah, um, much is it?" I asked, with trepidation. "Usually around 35-65 Euro." I nearly went into cardiac arrest right there. "Does that mean she has to examine me? You know, give me an EKG, stress test, repeated flagellation with a yoga strap?" "Typically no--it's just for the certificato itself." I see. Just to have a simple piece of paper from my primary-care physician, for whose service and the national health service in general I render lavishly and unfailingly unto Caesar, I was being asked to shell out an extra tithe. Disgruntled and fuming, I went home and tallied up the total real cost of doing yoga (I discovered that these certificati for sports have to be renewed every year) and thought, to hell with it. I ordered some yoga dvds from Amazon UK instead.

(By the way, in order for children to participate in any remotely sporty after-school activity, they need to have a medical certificate--which needs to be re-issued every year, of course. If you have two or more children, doing at least one activity each, you can see how the costs swiftly add up. If you add in parents who might like to join a gym or something profligate like that, there's some serious lining of pockets going on).

One last anecdote and then I'll leave you in peace, dear Readers. My son suffers from a few food allergies, and in order to eat at the mensa every day at school, he needs--you guessed it!--a certificato medico attesting to the fact. Naturally, as his mother, I am the last person on earth qualified to communicate a health condition to the school (though, apparently, I am deemed responsible enough to pay the lunch bill of €140 for two children every month). This certificate has to be re-submitted every scholastic year, though thankfully it is free of charge. So, at the beginning of September, I girded my loins and set out to procure this year's certificato for Giacomo.

Our pediatrician only takes calls from--get this--8:15-9:15am, Monday thru Friday. Not a minute before, not a minute after (always tricky, given that I have to squeeze my work commute into this time-frame).  Usually the line is busy because 400 parents are trying to reach him simultaneously, and I have to hit re-dial, oh, maybe 62 times before getting through. (You could call during his afternoon ambulatorio, interrupting him during office visits, but only if a kid's on their death bed--and be prepared to grovel). Anyway, eventually I get through, ask for the certificate, he agrees to have it ready for pick-up the following evening, my husband brings it home. I hand it over on the first day of school, quite pleased with myself.

Well, two days ago the school called because Giacomo ate something with egg in it and had a mild reaction. Egg wasn't included among the allergens listed in the medical certificate, I discovered--apparently the doctor forgot, and I, being so distracted from running around after all these damn certificati, didn't catch the omission. I was told that a NEW (and improved) certificato was needed immediately so my son wouldn't be served any more egg.

If this is all starting to sound like a play by Beckett or Ionesco, then you're beginning to understand what it's like to live under this uniquely Italian form of bureaucratic despotism.


An enlightened Italian pediatrician--bless his subversive soul--wrote a wonderful article railing against useless medical certificates.* In it he makes the following calculations:

--Italy has around 7,000 pediatricians, who are writing on average 10 medical certificates a day, thereby producing some 70,000 certificates per day (these certificates are needed for many absurd reasons besides sports and food allergies), and consuming an estimated 14,000 reams of paper per year.

--He supposes that for every certificate issued, a parent must spend at least a half-hour in getting it, which adds up to some 35,000 hours per day. This in turn adds up to a conservative estimate (based on 200 days) per year of 7,000,000 wasted hours, or the equivalent of one year of work by 4 full-time employees.

--He rightly assumes that most of these trips required to pick up and deliver medical certificates are made by car. Estimating a minimum of 2 km distance per certificate, on any given day, then, some 140,000 km are being traveled! That's 28,000,000 km per year, with a consumption of gasoline estimated at 2,000,000 litres.

He concludes by saying that maybe--just maybe--this "festival of idiocy" will one day end, and that all the time and energy expended over medical certificates (requesting them, producing them, procuring them, distributing them, reading them, organizing them, filing them, saving them, etc.) can then be invested in things that are infinitely more useful and gratifying.**

So lest you wonder why Italy's economic growth rate is something like minus 22%, or why we're not producing any more Nobel Laureates, the answer is easy: everyone is far too busy chasing after certificati medici.

My best regards,


*"Tutto bene: ecco il certificato medico inutile," di Vincenzo Calia, in Un Pediatra per Amico, n.1, gennaio-febbraio 2007. For those of you who read Italian, it's worth a google.

**I would add that if you're reading this it means you are at least minimally computer-literate. And therefore you--like me--may very well ask yourselves why, in this the 21st century, Italy doesn't avail itself of technology and have these interminable certificati simply wing their way through cyberspace, granting us all--our much-suffering environment inlcuded--some relief?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dieting, Italian-style

Dear Readers,

I am surrounded by temptation. Everywhere I turn there are wonderful things to eat: luscious cheeses, heavenly breads, fresh pasta topped with ambrosial sauces, pastries that make you go weak in the knees, and a dizzying variety of inexpensive, excellent wine to wash it all down with.

I'm only human. And American, at that. Let's just say that I have been wantonly overindulging a bit lately--oh, maybe for the past two years--and I've put on weight.

So, last spring, I decided I would avail myself of the national health service (the SSN, Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, for which I am taxed mightily) and go see a dietician. After getting the referral from my primary-care doctor, I rang up in May and was given--according to the dragoon I spoke with--the earliest appointment available... in late October. "Holy crap," I thought to myself, "are there that many fat people in Florence?" I consoled myself with the fact that at least it was in 2010.

Meanwhile, I kept eating....

Let me say right off that I have a natural antagonism toward diets. Apart from the obvious fact that they suck all the joy and spontaneity out of life (no more "Oh, look--there's a big plate of fried calamari! I do believe I shall eat it!"), it's the pictures of dieting women in magazines that really turn me off. These photos invariably depict winsome females enjoying healthy, low-fat meals--usually a dwarf-size bowl of leafy salad greens standing at crisp attention, cupped in the slender and well-manicured hand of a dewy-cheeked maiden dressed in white, who is serenely slipping a cherry tomato into her rosebud mouth with her fingers. Head tilted back, creamy throat exposed, her eyes are closed in profound rapture and the expression on her face is one of pure ecstacy--a pomodororgasmo. I don't know about you, dear Readers, but starvation rations turn me into a wild, hollow-eyed beast craven with hunger, hair standing on end, and itching to pick a fight. (That wouldn't be a very pretty picture, now, would it?)

Anyway, five months and four kilos later, the appointed day finally arrived. Of course, it's a miracle I even remembered I had the appointment. Well, actually I had ample time to have the date tattooed on my arm.

After getting off work, I cycled across half the city on heavily-trafficked viali, dodging double-parked cars and fiendish buses like Frogger, to get to a forlorn clinical outpost on the far edge of Florence's wild west side. "They better hand me the dietary holy grail, after all this!" I cursed to myself.

After the usual bowing and scraping, I entered the waiting area for Dietologia/Allergologia/Neurologia. Besides me, there was a lone, elderly Asian man who was so thin he looked like a Giacometti. I flopped into a chair, overheated from my two-wheeled odyssey, expecting to wait because I was 20 minutes early. But instantly a door opened and a white-coated woman called out "C'è qualcuno per dietologia?" Since Chopstick didn't move, I shyly stood up, like a schoolgirl caught off guard and asked to name the state capitol of North Dakota. "Prego, Signora. Si accommodi." I followed her into her office, somewhat perplexed. If it takes five months to get an appointment--or better, an audience--shouldn't that waiting-room be teeming, like Purgatory? Shouldn't there be fat people wedged into every chair, sprawled on the floor, banging on the door to get in? Shouldn't there be the din of bulimics retching in the bathroom?

Nope--I just sailed right in, all ______ kilos of me. (If you think I'm going to disclose my real weight on this blog, you're off your tarallini, dear Readers.)

The dietician, a sturdy woman with an attractive mop of curly gray hair and disconcerting pink frosty lipstick, seemed amiable enough. She weighed me in, and I couldn't help but blurt out, "Of course I was THINNER back when I made the appointment!!!"

Then we got down to business--she asked me what I normally eat. I said, "Why don't you ask me what I normally DON'T eat and we can get through this a lot quicker?" She seemed surprised at my breakfast, a marked departure from the typical Italian colazione of cappuccino and a cornetto. When I told her I usually eat two slices of whole wheat bread topped with some cottage cheese, butter, or even peanut butter and a dab of jam, along with my caffelatte, she raised her eyebrows as if I'd said I was polishing off a side of beef every morning. And when I complained that this Grand Slam breakfast--eaten at 7:00am, before walking the kids to school and before bicycling to work--didn't carry me through til 2:30pm when I get home and have lunch, she was mystified, "But you should be fine after having such a big breakfast!" After much cajoling/groveling/begging on my part, she conceded me a medium-size piece of fruit or a couple of crackers as a mid-morning snack--like Marie Antoinette tossing a crust of bread to the rabble.

She then prescribed to me the typical Italian diet for shedding unwanted weight: basically I have to eat the equivalent of one full meal (that is, a primo of carbs and a secondo of protein) divided in two between lunch and dinner, with veggies galore, and only three miserly spoonfuls of olive oil per day. Other austerities were thrown in for good measure: 40 grams of this, 70 grams of that, blah blah blah. Oh, and I'm supposed to eat all this wretched fruit (Italians are obsessed with freakin' fruit!). She quickly wrote everything out in inky swirls on my personal pre-printed diet form. Then she delivered her below-the-belt blow--but I suppose it's no surprise really--no wine allowed. I stifled a sob.

However, I was somewhat mollified by the fact that she was clearly very impressed with my 40 minutes round-trip of biking to and from work everyday (admittedly at a cautious snails' pace, given the bloodthirsty nature of Florentine traffic). To her I was Ironman. "But shouldn't I do more? Break a sweat with some intense cardio?" I asked. "No, no! What you do is enough!! If anything, perhaps add a passeggiata* with your family on the weekend."

Common sense, dear Readers--while utterly sensical--is just so damn boring. I was half-hoping to be given a crazy, exotic diet--say, the All-Gnocchi Diet or the Wild Boar Diet or the 3-P's Diet (pizza-polenta-pasta). The whole experience, I must admit, was a bit of a let-down. After waiting five months, I had built up a lot of expectations. It was rather like going down the rabbit hole and finding...a rabbit.

And there was no inspirational spiel forthcoming either--the dietician said gravely in what I suppose is the Italian version of a pep-talk, "Now, with this diet you will lose the weight very, very slowly. But it is better that way. And don't expect to ever go back to how you were before you had your children." (Sane? Able to speak in complete sentences? Permitted to pee in private?) She tucked my diet plan into a large, white envelope and gave me her benediction. Then I was back on the swarming viale, sitting on a bench in the waning autumn sun before setting out, and contemplating my immediate, lean future.

I could sure go for a juicy bistecca

So--considering I had to wait five months to be told that I have to eat like Gandhi until the kids are in college--I went home that evening and popped open a bottle of Grecanico and a carton of my beloved pistachios.

Gandhi could wait til Monday.



* these traditional über-leisurely strolls are performed equally well by women in three-inch stilettos, stumbling toddlers in poo-laden diapers and, well, stumbling octogenarians in poo-laden diapers. Hardly the kind of no-pain/no-gain advice I was hoping for.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Christmas Cake that nearly ate Halloween

Dear Readers,

I returned home from work late the other evening and an unspeakable horror met my eyes.

There was a panettone sitting on my kitchen counter.

For those of you unfamiliar with this traditional Italian (originally Milanese but now ubiquitous) yuletide cake, it looks rather like a plump, burnished-brown cupola. Or a squat, toasted chef's toque. Or a giant, megalomaniacal cupcake.   It is typically studded with candied fruit and is --unless you get a really good one--probably the most unimaginative, boring, dirt-dry, holiday dessert you're ever likely to eat.  But, in any event --and this is really the crux of the matter--it's supposed to be served at Christmastime. Mere custom, of course, being of no consequence to my mother-in-law (she of the demure woollen skirts, thick support hose, size 10 men's clodhoppers, and hoard-mentality), who was without a doubt responsible for the abomination.

For a second I just stared at the thing, stunned, while it sat there in all its tawny malevolence, and my mind did some quick calculations. Was this one of last year's leftover panettone? Or the year before that??? Or, if I were to examine its packaging, would I find the expiration date as sometime soon after the Protestant Reformation??!! Then I realized--egads!--she's already stockpiling them for this year!

I'd heard rumors that some of the supermarkets were already carrying Christmas items, and you see, dear Readers, my mother-in-law suffers terribly from POCD--Panettone Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She can't help herself. As soon as they hit the shelves, she methodically makes the rounds of all the supermarkets within a 15-mile radius, gathering discounted panettoni, and squirrelling them away god-knows-where. She's hasn't the slightest interest in quality--she lives for the rock-bottom, two-for-one, bargain-basement panettone--it's all about quantity. (Forget the true Christmas message of selfless giving, forget that there are millions of people starving in the world--she is determined to build a bunker of hoarded panettone and barricade herself within, a shriveled Eva Braun clutching a plastic shopping tote and her tessera sanitaria).

This mite of a woman--who normally never ventures beyond the confines of the neighborhood--will actually board a bus in her quest for €1 cakes. During the month of December, she is always seen humped-over and carrying a panettone or two--along with kilos of mandarins, dates, and walnuts, in preparation for the Yuletide Onslaught--returning home from her shopping expeditions far afield. To facilitate her obsession, she cadges all the fidelity cards of everyone in the neighborhood in order to score the best deals on panettone in every supermarket chain in the city. She does this without shame.

And she typically starts serving panettone at every meal (that is, breakfast, lunch and dinner) from Christmas onward, desisting only for a brief hiatus around Pasqua (when she begins hoarding colomba--the dove-shaped Easter cake). Summer usually sees her dishing out an alternating mix of panettone-colomba, supplies of which only tend to exhaust themselves sometime around the Feast of the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (This may or may not be coincidence: I'm sure if Mary ate that much panettone, she could only have ascended into heaven with the aid of a forklift).

"My kingdom for a panettone!"
Normally all this insanity begins in say, late November. So you can understand, dear Readers, why I was utterly caught off guard to see one of her cursed Christmas cakes this early on. Clearly it's a sign of the degenerative nature of POCD. She ought to be sedated.

What to do with the damn thing, I asked myself? I toyed with the idea of carving a jack-o-lantern out of it, lighting a candle inside and such--but I was afraid it would caramelize and then explode in a shower of candied citron and raisins. So instead I attached this note to its jaunty cellophane wrapper and, under cover of darkness, stealthily and summarily dumped the thing on her doorstep:

"Dear Madame: please remember that I am a CHRISTMAS CAKE, who particularly resents being foisted on heathens* well before the Anniversary of the Birth of His Most Excellent Lord, Our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Your cooperation is most appreciated. In dulci jubilo, etc. etc."

Yours in all the spirit of the season,

Campobello (the Wicked Witch of the Jest)

* We weathered my mother-in-law's full-watt, passive-aggressive displeasure not long ago when we informed her in no uncertain terms that our son would NOT be going to catechism this year (since we ourselves don't go to Mass and generally think the Catholic Church is just another kind of mafia, or Baywatch with cassocks). She moped around with a muso lungo for three weeks.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cultural imperialism, one sandwich at a time

Dear Readers,

I'm feeling guilty.  I served a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to an Italian child yesterday.

Granted, the ingredients were top-quality: unadulterated peanut butter from the Netherlands, delicious locally-produced strawberry preserves, durum-wheat bread.  And yet, I couldn't help but think that I was being horribly blasphemous.

To be completely truthful, I have never been a huge fan of PB&J--sure, I was fed Skippy and Welch's as a child, but as soon as I hit middle school, the days of such gloppy kid-grub were behind me.  Peanut butter reappeared in my life only when I was pregnant with my first child, in the form of a major first-trimester craving--but I Italianized it somewhat by eating it plain on top of fette biscottate.  Recently, however, while racking my brains to try and come up with a new act in the culinary variety-show all we moms stage for our children, it occurred to me to try and introduce this quintessentially American concoction.  After all, I thought, it's part of their heritage--like baseball and televangelist sex scandals.

Well, my son gave the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich rave reviews, and for the past couple months has been devouring them happily, even for breakfast.  But yesterday I was unprepared for the timorousness I felt when Giacomo asked for one as an after school snack while his friend Marco was over.  My experience with many Italian mothers is that they are very particular about what goes into their childrens' mouths, and most of them seem to cultivate bizarre, arbitrary culinary aversions and eccentricities: no tomatoes for Alessandro, nothing fried for Gaia, Leonardo only eats pasta, Matilde won't eat cheese, absolutely nothing spicy for Francesco, Irene is strawberry-intolerant, Pietro hates bananas, no-primi-only-secondi for Maria Giulia, no beans in Mirko's minestrone, etc.  Italian mothers love to regale you with the list of all the foods their kids refuse to eat and how impossibly picky they are.  I've discovered, in the course of such conversations, that it is really the parents themselves who are impossibly picky, and this culinary fastidiousness gets handed down to their offspring like DNA.  As you can imagine, in this kind of hostile atmosphere, consuming ethnic food, or cibo straniero, is tantamount to digestive treason.

So--I asked the notoriously-picky, little sandy-haired bambino if he was sure he wanted to try a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.  By way of explanation I said, "It's kind of like Nutella, only peanutty," (Italian kids scarf Nutella like it's manna).  I opened the jar and let him smell it.  Since he neither fainted nor recoiled in horror, I thought, "okay then, here goes!"  I carefully prepared the foreign sandwiches like an offering for the Black Mass and set them before the boys. 

The verdict?  Marco LOVED it.  He went on and on about how good it was: "è buonissimo! Buonissimo davvero!"

But while I smiled inwardly at this small triumph of American culinary firepower, part of me felt as if I was corrupting this child.  I couldn't help but wonder about Marco going home and telling his mother what he ate at our house.  "You ate what?  Cosa?  Burro d'arachidi e marmellata???  Ma non ti fa male la pancia? [your tummy doesn't hurt, does it?]."

Of course, I need not expound on the glories of Italian cuisine here--its merits have been exalted in countless cookbooks, televsion programs, journals, etc. to the point that it's now part of the collective unconscious. Italians themselves have unbounded faith in its being the best cuisine on the planet.  In fact, more Italians worship their mamma's recipes than they do any deities within the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately, we Americans have earned a very bad reputation for our culinary paganism--which makes serving a humble, un-pedigreed, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to an Italian seem like a subversive act.  Italy has already seen more than its fair share of the onslaught of American culture in the form of supermarkets, shopping malls, megaplexes, bad 80's television shows, and the ubiquitousness of poppa-khorn at childrens' parties.  Must I, too, attempt to colonize the Bel Paese--offending its culinary heritage with my seditious after-school snacks?  Am I some kind of peanut-butter-wielding, arrogant, Mommy-Raj?

No, surely the sacred and the profane can exist side by side.  Surely peanut-butter-and-jelly can cohabitate peacefully with the very Florentine schiacciata.  Surely, by making room for my innocent little American sandwich, the grand edifice of Italian cuisine will not topple and fall into ruin like some lost, decadent civilization. 

Or will it?



Monday, September 20, 2010

The strange, sad tale of Mr. Rabbit

Dear Readers,

My neighborhood is full of characters.  Really, at times I feel as if I'd landed in a Fellini film.

For instance, there's the woman whom everyone refers to as "La Pazzarella" ("crazy woman")--a wildly-gray-haired Hermes who rides up and down the street on her bicycle in the same ratty brown parka year-round, small suitcase akimbo in her basket, ranting and doomsaying at the top of her voice.  Apparently, some years ago her lesbian lover died and she's been off her hinges ever since.  There's Maria "La Sarda" ("the Sardinian," forever known by this moniker even though she's been in Florence 60-odd years)--a tiny, plump, witch-voiced widow with raven-dyed hair whose husband used to beat her, and who is partial to the skinned rabbits' heads my father-in-law supplies her for use in her Sardinian brews.  Tullia, another old widow (we're rife with them)--so big-boned she looks like she could tear a man to pieces with her bare hands--often shows up at a strategic hour at my in-laws' house and stands beside the table, in tears, bewailing her widows' lot throughout their dinner, or at least until she's invited to sit down and eat. 

I've only heard tell of a certain Valkiria (that's Valkyrie--can you imagine having such a name?!); I've never met nor seen her around.  Legend has it she's morbidly obese and can't leave the house--one sees only her husband, Vittorio, scurrying about the neighborhood procuring victuals to take home to her.  Maria Grazia, another heavy-weight, with a voice like a hen being slowly eviscerated--is to be avoided at all costs.  If she manages to corner you, she will blather on and on until you begin to drool and your eyes roll back in their sockets.  Margherita ("Daisy"), is an ancient, toothless, snow-haired crone who always sits on a tiny stool in front of her building, croaking "ciao bello!" to all the bambini and cadging groceries and handouts from any passersby with plastic shoppers in hand. 

Then there's Don Germano, the sweet-yet-curmudgeonly chain-smoking club-footed priest, who is so infirm he can barely stand and deliver the homily (well, at least they're always brief).  Our neighborhood convent boasts a small coterie of cloistered Benedictine nuns--all of them decrepit yet eternally girlish, in the way of women who have been cut off from men, the world, and dvd's of Sex and the City.  There's Balestri, the local handy-man--a glossy-domed, ham-faced geezer who totters purposefully up and down the street in his weighty tool-belt, lugging power-saws, two-by-fours and ladders. 

Our postino, Giovanni, is perma-tanned and handsome as sin, always jovial, and possessing the utterly relaxed air--endemic in many government employees--of one who never, ever works too hard or takes things too seriously.  Lisetta (or "little Lisa"), a putty-lump of an old biddy with a voice like a sandpiper, is so averse to the (admittedly) voracious Tuscan-variety of mosquito that she goes around all summer wearing long-sleeves and trousers whose ends are secured with rubber bands, and a large hat covered with a gauzy veil--like some strange geriatric Florentine beekeeper.

I could go on, of course.  But I wanted to relate the story I heard recently from Signor Coniglio (I prefer to think of him as Mr. Rabbit; it sounds rather fairy-tale-like in English).  He's an old gentleman, egg-shaped, kind-faced, with a small, elegant mustache, who works as a part-time gardener at the rather grand villa up the hill behind our house.  He is also a volunteer driver for our neighborhood Misericordia--the ages-old charitable medical/ambulance corps.  I have a soft spot for Mr. Rabbit because of a kindness he showed me a few years ago.  My daughter Gemma, then three, had seen fit to stick a small bead up her nose, and I needed to get her to the hospital so it could be removed safely.  I walked her over to the Misericordia and Mr. Rabbit drove us to the emergency room.  He stayed with us and even helped me, the doctor, and two nurses hold the banshee-like Gemma down while the bead was extracted--then drove us home, chatting softly and amiably all the way.

One day recently, on his way up to the villa, Mr. Rabbit stopped in our garden and, for reasons I could not fathom at the time, told his story.

"You know that I come from Sicily--my wife and I came up here in the 1950's.  Well, I was born and raised in Palermo.  My given name is Castrense, Castrense Coniglio, though I've always gone by Enzo.  [Castrense, which is a decidedly odd name for a child, was an obscure medieval Southern Italian saint whose shrine is in Monreale--though now he does have his own Facebook fan page]

We were poor and my mother had to go outside the home and work.  From just shortly after the time I was born, she would leave me in the care of my older brother.  He would brutalize me.  I have a memory from when I was six months old.  How can I remember something from when I was only six months old, you might ask?  Doctors have since told me it is impossible to have memories from only six months old, but I tell you I have this very, very distinct memory from that time.

I was alone with my brother and I was crying, as babies do.  He became enraged, and took the safety pin from my diaper and jammed the sharp end into my backside.  He pushed it in deeper and deeper, as deep as he could.  He twisted it.  I felt it hit my tailbone, then go in.  I was screaming in pain, but he didn't stop, he just kept twisting it into the bone until the pin broke off.

As I got older--old enough to talk, I suppose--my brother would threaten me never to tell that story to our mother or to anyone.  He said if our father found out he would kill him.  So I protected my brother.  To make sure I wouldn't tell, he used to grab my jaw and squeeze so hard I thought it would break, until I swore to him again I wouldn't tell a soul.  My jaw and lower face became deformed with these repeated assaults.

I have always suffered from intense spasms of pain in my left leg, as a result of my brother's brutality.  Finally, in the '70's, with the availablity of MRI's, the doctors were able to see the source of my pain--the pin that remained stuck in my tailbone.  They operated on me to remove it.

Well, they managed to remove part of it--it had rusted, you know--but the rest of the pin remained embedded, too close to a major vein to be safely removed.  Over time, layers of bone had grown over it and around it--which the doctor explained was the bone's way of trying to heal itself and minimize the foreign object.  It's as if the pin became part of the bone itself.  So, you see, I will never be completely free of the pain."

As he spoke, Mr. Rabbit's usually soft, round, mellow voice was edged--just slightly--with a certain rawness, and with what I think was a kind of longing.

For his faith, San Castrense was made a prisoner.  His persecutors intended to load him onto a battered boat and send him off into the sea, leaving him at the mercy of the waves, sure that he would sink and drown.  But an angel appeared to him and, telling him what trials lay in store, assured him not to despair.  The angel said that, whatever fate awaited him, a wonderful place had been prepared for him, a place of peace in which he would be liberated from every horror.  And so it happened.  According to the legend, San Castrense's boat, quite miraculously, reached the shores of Campania safely.  He went on to live his life, in service to others.



Saturday, September 04, 2010

Not for beginners: an Italian wedding feast

Dear Readers,

I write this with a chilled martini glass of bubbly Citrosodina (think Italian Alka-Seltzer) by my side.  Here's why: I just got back from an Italian wedding.

If there's one area where Italians excel, one innate skill they possess that places them leaps-and-bounds beyond all others--it's feasting.  Indeed, if marathon eating were an Olympic sport, the Italians would be undefeated world champions.  No one can touch them.

Let me describe the proceedings.  After a hot, midday ceremony in the Red Room of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, our group--some 100 of us--made its way to a lovely agriturismo in the nearby Chianti hills.  We arrived at about 1pm, and awaiting us was a fabulous outdoor buffet of traditional antipasti layed out on a mile-long groaning-board and flanked by a battalion of waiters who began serving us with crisp, military precision.  People fell upon the food with rapacious enthusiasm, like bliss-filled wolves.  All the Tuscan crowd-pleasers were present: a spinel-colored haunch of prosciutto being carved by a sepoy-like, grave-faced old codger; trays of fried zucchini and their blossoms, eggplant, and squares of polenta; little quivering balls of fresh mozzarella swimming in their own milk in a large silver urn; slices of pecorino drizzled with local honey; bruschetta with fresh tomato and basil; chicken-liver crostini; a huge terracotta terrine brimming with thick pappa col pomodoro, and a bowl of cold farro salad.  There was prosecco in abundance--always the kick-off libation in Italy--and white wine, vodka-infused punch, and fruit juice for the kiddies.

Then, after a while, we were ushered into the airy restaurant, where we essentially spent the next three hours at table.

We began with a succession of three primi: risotto with porcini mushrooms, straccetti with zucchini flowers, and crespelle alla fiorentina (delicious spinach-filled crepes in a tomato-béchamel sauce).  Then an enormous veal roast that had been set aflame was paraded around the dining-room before being carved and served with rosemary-flecked roasted potatoes.  After that, we were given thick slices of rare, wood-grilled bistecca alla fiorentina, grilled porcini caps, along with a refreshing salad of mixed greens.  There was plenty of Chianti to wash it all down with, and baskets of excellent saltless bread at hand.  We lacked for nothing (except perhaps a vomitorium to repair to now and again).  Finally, of course, came the wedding cake: a giant, colorful pastry-cream tart topped with fresh, dewy berries.

The children (mine included) began gamboling about--having miraculously, but entirely in the way of Italian children, managed to stay more or less at table all this time and eat their fill.  A small baby cried and mewed testily until tasty tidbits of Tuscan fare found their way to her mouth.  A spunky chocolate labrador named Rigoletto careened around wildly, at intervals performing a sort of canine tarantella.  At about 5 pm, I stumbled away from the table and out into the surrounding garden, utterly spent.

As you can see, dear Readers, meals of this sort aren't for neophytes, or the faint-hearted, or people who are afraid of carbs.  This is epic eating, Ironman eating--the gastronomic equivalent of scaling K2.  To make it to the top one must be fearless, determined, and a little mad.  Or at the very least, Italian.

Mind you, I thoroughly enjoy a good meal and a good wine--why, excess is my middle name. (I often think that in a past life I could easily have been a sybaritic nineteenth-century burgermeister who'd polish off a twelve-course meal at Maxim's in solemn and reverent joy, then top it off with a fat Cuban cigar and a Moulin Rouge showgirl). But even after some 10 years in the Bel Paese, I still have trouble keeping pace with the locals.

It's not over till the fat lady sings, as they say.  A table had been set up in the garden, arrayed with digestivi and various liqueurs, trays of cream-filled bigné, fingers of the very Florentine schiacciata all'uva, and an immense bowl of sliced fresh peaches on ice.  Attendants brought tray after tray of espresso out to waiting hands and gasps of pleasure all around.  I had a shot of Montenegro and collapsed in a chair.

Incredibly, as I slumped in defeat, the Italian revelers carried on, smoking cigars, nibbling pastries, and drinking Sambuca.  The thing is, this wasn't even their second-wind--they'd never lost the first one.  It was awe-inspiring.

Around 6pm, as Ride of the the Valkyries blared from the stereo system, some of the hunkier young men stripped to their underwear and jumped into the pool.  Then the bride jumped in.  The groom joined her, and general youthful mayhem ensued.  I was surprised they didn't sink like stones after all that food and drink.  If there was such a place as a Tuscan Valhalla, these would be the resident Gods.

Finally, at nearly 7pm, the gastric stupor overtaking my body like gangrene, the fat lady sang.  And--my dear Readers--she was me.



Thursday, August 05, 2010

Pidocchi Blues

Dear Readers,

I love speaking a foreign language, and Italian is a sheer linguistic delight, full of lovely cadences, sensuous vowels and toothsome consonants. But there are some words in Italian that I'd rather not know. That is, be on intimate terms with. Meaning, possessing undue familiarity therewith.

Unfortunately, the word for lice recently crawled its way into my vocabulary.

The scourge of pre-school--we'd nearly made it through two children and six years' worth unscathed, when at the very end of my daughter's school year, this past June, she came home with an itchy scalp. Being somewhat of a nit-wit (sorry, couldn't resist the pun) in these matters, I let it go thinking it was nothing after a cursory check of her sassy little bob.

Well, a week later, she was even more uncomfortable and her sweet scalp full of insidious bite-marks. This time I had a good look and found those cursed nits all through her hair. By now, however, my scalp began to fester and I knew I was done for. Three hot, humid weeks later, after mountains of laundry and hours of nit-picking and combing and blasting our heads with DDT-like treatments, we seemed to be out of our verminous hell.

With a kick-off like this, I knew it was going to be a long, long summer.



[Many thanks to Lelia B., aka la streghetta, for bringing me a postcard of Pieter De Hooch's painting depicted above, A Mother's Duty. From the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Of Hot Sex and Cool Mozzarella

Dear Readers,

Summer is l-o-n-g in Florence. A vast expanse of intense heat and humidity that stretches as far as the mind's eye can see, dissolving into shimmering waves of mirage on the distant horizon that is September and the blessed start of school. My two adorable urchins are wearing my heat-stroked patience thin. Blogging--correction, everything--seems more like climbing Everest these dog days. I'm as limp as overcooked linguine.

But something has made me crawl to my computer, gasping, through air as thick as pappa col pomodoro. An American woman came into the bookshop peddling her freshly-minted, self-published oeuvre. When my boss asked her what the book was about, she said, "It's about re-inventing yourself in mid-life, in Tuscany."

STOP THE PRESSES!!! Another memoir about leaving behind a dead-end life (and a dead-beat husband) in America and discovering sweet amore and bitter chocolate in Italy has hit the shelves! Thank god, I was beginning to worry that this insidious trend was dying out, and that women were--gasp!--beginning to "re-invent" themselves in dull places like Omaha and Walla Walla and Indianapolis instead.

There is an annoying, cloying self-regard in these memoirs--a naive narcissism that presumes other desperate women are interested in, and indeed enthralled by, a journey from one form of self-absorption to another. A middle-aged, high-powered career woman who is always in control happens to experience one of life's tragic disappointments and sees it as a personal affront. Financially secure, she goes to Italy--the land of perpetual adolescence--and achieves validation through unencumbered sex with the kind of younger Italian man that is always available to eager, needy American women. It is almost a kind of anonymous coupling--each using the other to fulfill a fantasy: she of a hot, ever-ready Latin lover who--unlike most straight American men--is in good physical shape and wears Prada shoes; he of the reflection of himself in her eyes as a hot, ever-ready Latin lover who--even though he still lives with his mother--is capable of attracting an exotic American bird when Italian women regard him as merely mediocre.

She cannot speak a word of the language, and sits in a café with a slice of pizza and a glass of wine and declares, triumphantly and giddily, "I'm living in Italy!" (This is a scene from the above-mentioned book, by the way.) Tooling around all day on the back of a Vespa, over-tanned arms wrapped around the slim torso of her lover, and carefree love-making in every room of a country villa seems like bona fide la dolce vita to the kind of woman who easily mistakes an extended lay-cation for a spiritual awakening. The kind of woman who easily believes that the "Italy of wine labels" (as Anthony Bourdain puts it in Medium Raw) is the real Italy.

Now, add fabulous Italian food and wine to the sex-like-it-was-in-college mix, and you have a heady intoxicant indeed! American divorceés and widows seem especially unable to resist this combination. In their interminable memoirs, they call it "embracing life", "living in the moment," and "enjoying the small pleasures," etc. What is sad and rather perplexing--at least to me--is that they need the "exotic" backdrop of Italy in order to stage their personal transformations, rather like a diva needs a well-designed movie-set. But as with any such pasteboard reality, it seems pathetically one-dimensional.

Don't get me wrong, dear Readers--I'm all for embracing life. Heck, I'm all for embracing hot, young Italian men, if it comes down to it. And who wouldn't want to exchange a boring, paunchy, CEO ex-husband for a horny, fit, thirty-something Italian wine-maker? But sex and Sangiovese do not define a life in the Bel Paese, any more than a stock portfolio and a hamburger defines life in America.

Italians do have an innate skill for living life more fully, and doubtless we over-wrought American women can learn from them. But this talent for living has more to do with extracting the nuggets of joy from (and selectively ignoring) a whole-hog, maddening, messy, corrupt, artful and refined reality whose layers run dark, lovely and deep--and which merits far more than a well-manicured finger-scratch on its handsome surface.

Just saying.

In closing (lest I have appeared too curmudgeonly): to women everywhere who seek to find what's missing in their lives, I would say by all means, come to Italy. Eat! Love! But pray don't tell us about it.

Yours truly,


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Portrait of a Lady

Dear Readers,

Nonna Assunta, now dead, was my husband's grandmother on his father's side.

A sharecropper from nearby Vicchio di Mugello, she gave birth to six children--five girls and the youngest a son (my father-in-law Gaetano). Ill health and family fortunes drove her and her soft-spoken husband Giulio to come and live with Gaetano and Elena in Florence in the '60's. By all family accounts, Assunta was a formidable woman in a rather diminuitive frame whose first love was her brood of chickens. According to my mother-in-law, she was nearly impossible to live with--being as stubborn as a weed and as subtle as a mallet. Like Gaetano, Assunta was an ortoholic, addicted to working the land. She toiled resolutely and happily in the great vegetable patch, and religiously tended her chickens (each of which had names), achieving a kind of earthly salvation she believed to find there and nowhere else. While she showered tenderness on her fowl, she had only contempt for the quiet, contemplative (or catatonic, depending on your point of view) Giulio--often telling him the only thing he was good for was making manure. Later, after her incapacitating stroke, she was confined to a wheelchair. She would cry all day long, mourning her inability to care for her dear chickens. She railed at the Heavens like a child deprived--she became an inconsolable nightmare to live with. A chickenless shadow of her former self. She died in sorrow and bewilderment at her fate.

But while alive and mobile, Assunta was a woman of earthy tastes--relishing the bite and sting of raw onions, stale bread soaked in olive oil, and boiled, freshly unearthed potatoes. She would chew a raw clove of garlic every morning while taking her coffee, and when the grandkids wrinkled their noses in disgust when forced to kiss her before leaving for school, she'd say "meglio puzzare d'aglio che coglioni."

"Better to stink of garlic than balls."

Funny, no one in the family ever mentioned whether or not she ate chicken.



Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Available for hire

Dear Readers,

Yours truly is on the market. I'm looking for a job or freelance work--either in Florence or in the virtual sphere (or both). My family and I have developed the pesky habit of liking to eat--and the global economic crisis (I've been told) has resulted in the whittling down of my current hours/salary into little more than a mournful nub.

I have a lot of verve, and a Master's Degree in English Literature to boot. Over the years, I've worn many hats and can say with unabashed certainty that I can do almost anything you'd care to throw at me--as long as it doesn't involve ironing or taking my clothes off.

Please contact me if you know of anything, dear, sympathetic Readers. I'll be happy to discuss details, forward a resumé, etc.

Thanks for your support,


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sentio, sensi, sensus est--or--My bilingual family

Dear Readers,

The following is commonly heard in my house: "Hear this, Mommy," (holding out forkful of food for me to taste). "I don't want to hear that!" (me holding forkful of food for one of my kids to taste). "Can you feel it now, Mommy?" (adjusting the volume on the television). "Hear this flower, Mommy, isn't it a nice profumo?"

My two children were born in Florence and have been bilingual since the beginning. My husband, though Italian, speaks English like a second-generation immigrant--and our home has become an English-speaking island of sorts. Since the Italian language surrounds us here like oxygen, I always felt it was important that the kids get a solid exposure to English--and in any case, I could not speak to them, my own children, in anything that wasn't as visceral and vital to me as my mother-tongue. It's who I am, after all.

My son Giacomo was translating Italian into English and vice-versa since he could form simple phrases. He almost never mixes the two; rather, he's always moved easily and fluidly between languages like a fish who swims equally well in salt- and fresh-water. (An osmoregulator, for the curious). His accent in English is perfectly American with just enough of a Midwestern twang to betray the origins of his mother. My daughter Gemma (the youngest), on the other hand, is a great mixer of the two languages, and speaks English with the accent of a newly-disembarked Italian immigrant from Bensonhurst. I am aware that she has a fluent understanding of both English and Italian, so the mixing does not concern me--I know she'll sort it out eventually--and to tell the truth, I think it's terribly cute. "Mommy, can you help me to aprire?" "Mommy, sometimes Irene [her classmate] is a little birbona." "No, you have to do it veloce!"

The thing is, our house has, in reality, become an English-speaking island wherein Italian-speaking pirates have stormed the beaches. We all do a good bit of linguistic plundering. I find myself saying things like, "Honey, have a little more insalatina, I know you like it," or "I don't appreciate being controllata by your mother or anyone else," or (and this, often) "Mannaggia, [insert anything implying a situation gone awry]!"

I'm sure there are linguistic theories about why we do this, scientific reasons that have to do with synapses and the cerebral cortex, etc. But the truth is, living two languages makes me believe that mixing is more about expediency and musicality--the poetry of language in motion, if you will--than anything else. Italian words pop up in my English sentences because to me they express the thing better, in that moment, than their English counterpart. Or perhaps I simply like the sound better. To me--a linguistic urchin who thinks language is a plaything--I much prefer arruffato to "unkempt," or sguazzare to "wallow." And what better way to say "murmur" than bisbiglio? Of course, at other times, it's the English word that is just so good, just so right. Like eviscerate or shyster or guttersnipe, for instance.

I have some American friends who have experienced real worry over their bilingual households, and, on the maddeningly contradictory advice of pediatricians and specialists, have attempted to superimpose all sorts of linguistic templates onto the organic organism of language in their homes. As far as I can tell, this fiddling with and agonizing over the natural expression and growth of language in a bilingual home causes more confusion and heartache than just letting language flow (barring any real developmental issues, of course). I think it's basically a matter of attitude, or worldview even, towards the second language itself: some people see it as a sort of interloper rife with potential problems, and others see it as de facto enrichment, in whatever form it chooses to take, or however bumpy the ride at times. The thing is, kids are amazing. Their brains are unfathomably elastic--they can bounce words around, volley verb conjugations, and juggle meanings like pro-ballers. I have seen this first-hand every day for the past eight years.

So I don't worry if my children get mixed-up occasionally--the little glitches will get straightened out eventually. In the meantime, I'm rather fascinated by it all. Language is a river whose flow follows the contours of history. The confusion my kids experience over English "hear," "taste," "smell" and "feel" stems from the problem of translating the Italian sentire. While we have different words for each of these sensory experiences, the Italian word encompasses them all: thus, senti un po' ("listen to this" or "taste this" or "smell this," depending on context), non sento niente ("I can't hear a thing"), senti com'è morbido ("feel how soft this is"), etc. The Italian my children speak is a direct descendant of venerable Latin--the centuries-old language of scholars and statesmen--and they are getting tripped up at the point where these Latin roots cross the path of English pragmatism. Sentire (sentio, sensi, sensus, sensuum etc.) is Latin meaning "to perceive with the senses, feel, hear, see, smell; to realize; to observe, to notice; to experience; to think, judge." As it was in Latin, so it is in Italian. (In my wicked moments, I like to jibe the Ancients for being so ridiculous as to have only one word for all the varied experiences of the five senses--perhaps they were too busy building their great civilization to give much thought to vocabulary-building. Rome, after all, wasn't built in a thousand-words-a-day).

My children have yet to realize--even though it's in their bones--that the English words they're learning to use form the gnarled and tangled branches of a glorious old tree whose roots lie muddled in the soil of Old and Middle English, Old High German, Old Frisian, Old French and myriad other linguistic ghosts. Growing up with these two wonderful and diverse languages, while sometimes at odds with each other, is an experience that--to my mind--can only be unutterably enriching.

Sic friatur crustum dulce,


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Una bella pisciata

Dear Readers,

Picture this, if you will: the morning light outside my kitchen window is made up of somber shades of gray, threatening rain. The silvery green of the olive trees seems to stand out in sharp relief. I pause at the sink to rinse my coffee cup, my thoughts scurrying forward into the day that lies ahead. My father-in-law Gaetano comes out of his house--wearing his dirty, patched and too-short work trousers, heavy brown immigrant-issue shoes, and ratty green sweater--and lumbers around the back-end of his truck and over to the low wall of stones in front of the olive grove.

Here we go again.

He bends slightly forward in that universal male posture, his hands fumbling somewhere below the belt (and thankfully out of sight behind the wall), and has himself a nice morning constipissonal. It takes him quite a while--in urination time-space continuum terms--so I have a chance to call over my husband, who happens to be going in to work later this morning. "Would you LOOK at that?!" Since the kids haven't left for school yet, they come running over, "What? What is it?!"

"Nonno is peeing in the garden. As usual."

"Lemme see, I wanna see!" So we lift up Gemma, then Giacomo. They laugh and squeal, "Nonno's peeing in the garden, Nonno's peeing in the garden!"

I have to admit that I did not have a good parental response or explanation at the ready that didn't involve withering--no, blistering--sarcasm. "Yes. Indeed. Nonno is peeing in the garden."

Meanwhile, having finished (and unaware of his rapt audience), Gaetano zips up with cautious decrepitude and lumbers back down into the courtyard, shuffling his feet in their mud-caked clodhoppers. He opens the front door and goes back in the house.

And yes, dear Readers, we do have indoor plumbing here in Italy.

Speechless, at a loss, and confounded,