Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Anus to all!

Dear Readers,

When I first moved to Italy and was in the throes of learning the language, I made quite a few rookie mistakes (actually, I still make rookie mistakes, though--I like to think--with a certain amount of flair). One of which was in wishing those around me a 'Happy New Year.' Buon anno, as you can see, has an all-important double 'n' in the second word of the phrase. Italian is a lovely language, but one of slavish pronunciation--if you don't get it exactly right, you risk morphing the entire meaning.

To wit: you must absolutely and emphatically enunciate that double 'n' sound, or you are--in reality--saying "Happy Anus" (single 'n' = ano = you-know-what). So that first capo d'anno in the Bel Paese I went around wishing pretty much everyone's nether orifice well.

But, you know, after ten years here, my early malapropism seems strangely prescient. With the recent austerity measures ('austerity' being a euphemism for 'screw you'), many Italians feel they're being forced to, ahem, take it up the derrière. Nowadays, wishing someone a happy anus doesn't seem like such a bad idea after all.

Well, let's not dwell on the negative--best to face these things with a champagne flute filled with good cheer, no? So let's raise our virtual glasses and have a toast:

My very best wishes for a Happy New Year (she said)
Though it's likely we'll be buggered in the months ahead

Counting my blessings,


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 4

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the fourth installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

The usual mayhem continues. Last week, while walking home from school with my children, a large panel truck--when faced with tight oncoming traffic--decided to jump the curb right alongside us without consulting his side-view mirror, nearly flattening us into American pancakes. My hearty curses rang out along via Faentina, the crossing-guard vigili down the street a-ways glanced in my direction--and did nothing.

Recently, this sign appeared on our little 33-inch sidewalk:

It says "sidewalk in disorder." Indeed. And no wonder--heavy trucks and buses routinely avail themselves of it, making it perilously pockmarked and uneven. One of these days some old Signora on her way to the pharmacy is going to stumble and wind up under the wheels of the 1A. I don't know why this sign should suddenly appear--the sidewalk has been in ruins for the ten years I've been living here. Could it have something to do with my recent letters of complaint to the City? (Ha! That's a good one). Are they covering their precious Florentine asses in case someone does, indeed, get maimed or killed? Of course, some nincompoop didn't notice that the sign itself takes up half of the already miserly sidewalk, rendering it even more pericoloso.

No one cares about how you experience your neighborhood or your city, so why should you?

The great civic apathy of this place has been one of the most difficult things for me to adjust to as an American. And it creates a vicious circle: the city doesn't give a ripe, flying fig about the daily livability concerns of its citizens, so the citizens in turn treat their city like a lawless dump--graffiti, garbage, litter, dog droppings, and vandalism are rampant. Traffic and parking laws are wilfully, routinely--even gleefully--ignored because it's quite clear it's every man, woman and child for themselves out there in the Renaissance jungle. Citizens who do voice their concerns are ignored or even denigrated. I've seen other parents expressing their anger and frustration to the vigili over traffic problems in via Faentina and the flouting of the no-vehicle ordinance for the alleyway during school drop-off and pick-up times. The vigili either nod vacantly or argue defensively. Years ago, residents of via Faentina fought to get pedestrian crossing stripes painted on the street in front of the little church of Santa Maria del Fiore a Lapo so that old ladies wouldn't be run down on their way to Mass. They created a petition calling for greater safety measures on the street and sent it to city hall--to little avail. They were granted the pedestrian crossing (which is all but ignored by speeding traffic anyway), but nothing else. 

Here are a few snaps I took this morning, on my way back from walking the kids to school. The images are far more eloquent than I could ever be in describing a neighborhood street that was never meant to bear such heavy, ferocious, two-way modern-day traffic.

The vigili were nowhere to be seen.



For more Lessons of via Faentina, click on the label below.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Priorities, Italian-style

Dear Readers,

As many of you are aware, the whole country is going to hell: we've been royally buggered by Berlusconi and we're teetering on the brink of an economic abyss; a raft of unpopular austerity measures were passed which seem designed to decimate us plebeians while the Vultures of Rome continue to gorge on our carcasses; in protest, the union bloodsuckers have launched a blitzkrieg of strikes which further cripples the peons and, of course, does nothing to ruffle the feathers of the old buzzards in charge--who, naturally, remain untouched by any discomforts caused thereby. Our parliamentarians are dancing on our (early) graves with their bloated and sacrosanct salaries (which they resolutely refuse to reduce in these belt-tightening times), expense accounts, retirement packages, etc. that rank them as the highest paid parliamentarians in Europe (but who, interestingly enough, log in the least hours of actual labor). And consider this: if these onerous onorevoli don't show up for work at all--that is, for meetings and votes and such--they're only penalized up to a paltry 30% of their government salary, meaning they still take home at least 70% of their €144,084.36 ($187, 669.36), or €100,859.06 ($131,368.56). I'd like to know of anyone else on planet Earth who gets paid a shitload for not turning up for work, while the toiling masses are being asked to suck it up for the greater good.

But meanwhile, despite all this, my inbox has been filled with emails from PTA moms regarding the never-ending merenda debate (should kids be allowed to bring mid-morning snacks? But it ruins their appetite for lunch!), and the commissione mensa. I'm talkin' long, l-o-n-g emails, emails with articles and codicils, emails drafted in the arcane language of the Constitution (aside: nearly all school district-related emails are inexplicably like this). What, exactly, is the commissione mensa, you ask? It's a volunteer squad of parents who show up at school every day to report on the quality of food served in the cafeteria. Taste-testers, in a word.

I was sent a form emblazoned with the official seal of the school district (I didn't even know our school district had an official seal) which I was to fill out and sign--with an appropriate flourish--should I wish to become a Taste-Tester. I was also sent a three-page Code of the Taste-Testers document which outlined the grave responsibilities and solemn duties of those who choose to heed the call and become one of the few, the proud, etc. And then, finally, I was sent a four-page form which the Taste-Testers must fill out upon every inspection. Ahem--four pages.

On this form, a Taste-Tester must rate the following:

--Punctuality of arrival, as the food is cooked off-site and brought in. (Because Italians, of course, care so very much about punctuality)

--Organizational aspects. (And they care equally much about being organized at all times in all things)

--Whether or not the day's menu was pleasing, and whether or not the quantity was sufficient (I'm reminded of the Woody Allen line: "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." "Yeah, I know, and such small portions")

--Does the menu served match the written menu which was sent home to parents? If not, how did it vary? (Altering the Gospel According to Paul might carry fewer repercussions)

--The flavor and quality of each course/item (that is, primo of pasta, secondo of protein, bread, side of veg and fruit) and whether or not it was rejected/wasted by the students. (Budding food critics, all)

--The cleanliness and orderliness of the table-settings, the service staff and their uniforms, and the kitchen area. (Italians are obsessed with cleanliness, except when they're being pigs)

--The staff's behavior toward the children. (They'd better be treated like the half-pint deities they are, or it's off with your head)

An ample area is provided on the form for the comments and suggestions of the Taste-Tester (one assumes an essay and critique along the lines of Ruth Reichl tackling Tavern on the Green is called for. If only political analysis in this country was as probing and cogent).

Greenjeans the Hungry Wino:
the school cafeteria rabbit and mascot

I confess to finding all this utterly hilarious. In a country suffering the economic equivalent of the Black Death (and where tax evasion and corruption are as rife as the disease-spreading, bubo-inducing flea), where the quality of political representation resembles something out of Titus Andronicus--people are deeply, profoundly concerned as to whether or not their child's penne al pesto is palatable.

But maybe these Italians have it nailed--maybe other things are more important and more relevant to the realities of everyday life. Maybe I should just quit harping, look on the bright side, eat my fill of the glorious Tuscan bounty which surrounds me, and go bury my head in the sand, too.

Sounds like a plan.



Friday, December 09, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 3

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the third installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

If you've travelled much in Europe, you know that those charming old cities--with their twisting, Medieval streets and historic centers--have had to come to terms with modern life in the form of population density, traffic congestion, and pollution. Many of these European cities (think Munich) have used ingenious methods to provide cutting-edge solutions to these problems, and have demonstrated a commitment to making their cities more livable places. Their priorities are clear: rather than privilege the automobile, they instead give precedence to public transportation, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

This past January, Legambiente (an environmental/cultural watchdog group) named Florence the most polluted city in Italy among those in its survey. The picture is grim, and thus far, not much is being done to alleviate the situation. The Mayor has closed off many streets to traffic in the historic downtown, but this has only served to funnel that erstwhile congestion in other directions--creating some really dangerous traffic "corridors" out of previously peaceful cobblestone byways--and making the viali which circumnavigate the city practically boil with the overflow. The Mayor has introduced bike-sharing--but this is like putting the cart before the horse: there aren't enough bike lanes in the city to make this yet a viable option. Those bike lanes that do exist are disjointed and sporadic, often poorly marked, and typically hampered by illegally parked cars, delivery trucks and other obstacles. And because of the very real traffic problems and the speeds with which it is allowed to travel, most people view biking around Florence as a fool's undertaking.

True, there is the new Tramvia which heads out to Scandicci from the city center, and there are plans for a second line--but this is too little, too late. Florence needs more. Now.

This video, presented by La Nazione, discusses Florence's rating as the most polluted city in the country. It's in Italian, but the images are worth watching if you don't understand the language. In it, city residents talk of poor air quality, the unreliability of public transportation, and the difficulty in getting around after the Mayor's recent traffic hocus pocus. It highlights the futility of things like bike-sharing when other problems have not yet been addressed. As one man puts it, "Everyone wants to get around by car and so to me it seems absurd to then talk of pollution--it's like a dog chasing its tail, no? Let's make a decision." *

I've lived here long enough to see that via Faentina's problems are Florence's problems. Traffic issues are endemic and citywide, affecting all residents, all the time

Let's make a decision, indeed.

Yours as always,


* Anecdote: an Italian mum in the neighborhood told me that--rather than walk six minutes to the elementary school--she prefers to always drive because "there's so much pollution on via Faentina," and she doesn't want her son breathing the foul air. On behalf of the rest of us, who do walk, I was tempted to thank her.

For more Lessons of via Faentina, click on the label below.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 2

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the second installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

Having just survived another morning walk to school with my children, I thought I'd share some more images and thoughts from our daily life on the Autobahn via Faentina.

Since traffic is typically bloodthirsty, it's helpful--to say the least--when the vigili show up to help children and their parents cross the street to get to the elementary school without becoming road kill. I don't have to tell most of you that, when left to their own devices, 99.8% of Italians do not respect pedestrian crosswalks. Or any other traffic rule, for that matter. (One wonders what indeed goes on in those scuole guida).

From via Faentina, there's a small alley which leads to the school, and which is also the road leading to a busy private sports center, a scattering of residences, and eventually the via Bolognese.

Problem is, during school drop-off and pick-up, the alley is supposed to remain clear of vehicles to ensure the safety of the children. Many times we've rounded the corner here only to have a car or moped brake suddenly, missing us by mere inches, and thus adding a few more gray hairs to my head. But if the vigili are there, they sometimes keep the road free (it would be asking too much to have them consistently and vigorously uphold an ordinance)--which also helps.

There is, of course, a sign saying use of the road is forbidden during school entry and exit times, but--surprise!--it goes completely unheeded....

....unless there are vigili there willing to enforce it. What is perplexing to me--but not really, given Italian menefreghismo (roughly: I could give a shit-ism)--is that many of the cars and mopeds careering up and down this alley belong to parents dropping their kids off or picking them up from the school. On some days it's a real slalom: I struggle to keep my kids close and maneuver the alley while an outsize moped bears down on us from the front and another is revving its motor at our backs, jockeying to pass us on either side. Apparently only the safety of their own children matters to these blockheads--the rest of us can just kiss their tailpipes. And so we come to the crux of the matter: attentive vigili are desperately needed in order to ensure the safety of the schoolchildren in this neighborhood.

But most of the time, they don't show up, and we're left to fend for ourselves. For a long time, in the mornings, they'd show up after the last bell had rung (at 8:30)--after the majority of kids were already safe in their classrooms--to assist the departing adults in crossing the street, I presume. Having observed this odd phenomenon for years, I recently spoke up and said something about it (rather politely, I thought) to these uselessly tardy vigili--and was treated to the most disgraceful and wrathful abuse I've ever encountered. To hear them shout out their excuses like defensive and petulant children, you'd never guess that they were public servants--or grown-ups, for that matter. Thus in a fit of pique, I forgot for a moment what country I was in and wrote a letter of complaint to the city, and one to the director of Municipal Police--outlining my concerns over traffic problems in the neighborhood as well. Naturally, I never received a response from either.

While Italians generally adore children, as pedestrians, they, too, count for little in a city where seemingly it's every man, woman and child for themselves

In a country where babies are cooed over--even by grown men--and children and teenagers are coddled and made much of, I am always surprised at how little is done for them on the civic level--whether to ensure their public safety, provide them with free or low-cost wholesome activities (especially during the interminable summer months), or develop more school enrichment programs. But civic-mindedness is not one of Italy's strong suits.

If it were, perhaps a street scene like this would be a rarity instead of the norm.*



*Now throw in some off-leash dogs and sidewalks littered with their droppings, and the picture of civic bliss is complete.

For more Lessons of via Faentina, click on the label below.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The best revenge

Dear Readers,

I have written before about my father-in-law's penchant for peeing in the garden, here. Regrettably, this bizarre habit continues apace, and I'm seriously considering filling my kitchen window in with cement so I don't have to keep seeing that old fart unzip his trousers and spray the area like some feral hound. It seems like every time I pause to rinse my teacup at the sink and gaze thoughtfully out into the little olive grove, I get an unwanted glimpse into octogenarian hillbilly depravity.

Lately my mother-in-law--a champion of decathlon nagging, a harpy of Herculean proportions--has been persecuting the FIL even more than usual. I can hear her from my place. Honestly, in the 17 years I've known this ill-starred couple, I have never heard her say a kind word to him or speak to him in a tone of voice that was nothing less than lacerating. But the past few weeks have seen the normal floodtide of criticism swell into a tsunami, to the point where I almost feel sorry for poor, hapless FIL.

So I guess, in a way, I can understand the thing that happened.

One mid-morning not very long ago, I was at the sink and heard my father-in-law's truck pull into the courtyard. I looked up and saw him get out. The door to the in-law's lair was closed, which meant the MIL had gone on her daily pilgrimige to the Coop for her little cloth bag full of groceries. FIL plodded over to the side of the house to where my mother-in-law keeps her potted flowers and plants--which she lovingly tends (unlike her marriage)--in a long, neat row. He unzipped his pants and very carefully--and quite lavishly--urinated all over her roses.

Then he went inside the house.

"That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"--Shakespeare
Well, at least it shouldn't smell like your husband's pee


Campobello (I swear I'm not making this stuff up)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 1

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the first installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

Indulge me while I imagine its idyllic past—when, perhaps, ox-carts bearing great sloshing demijohns traveled its lazy contours, meandering bucolically from Florence to Faenza, returning in the soft dusk laden with the glazed earthenware pottery for which that city is renown. Alas, the via Faentina today bears no resemblance to this figment of yours, truly. It is, instead--at least within Florence city limits--a grim corridor of relentless traffic which bolts cars, buses and trucks toward Florence's center in the morning, and projectile vomits them back out during the evening rush hour.

For us here in Fiesole's haughty shadow, the via Faentina is our jugular vein--the only thoroughfare leading south to Piazza delle Cure and downtown, and it is along this narrow, busy artery that we residents must mince along cautiously, watching our step lest we fall prey to the insatiable beast of traffic. I have lived on via Faentina for the past ten years, and almost without realizing it, have become a reluctant, recalcitrant student of the lessons it insists on teaching me.

Lesson number one: cars rule the road like despots

Typical morning rush hour

Traffic cops arriving too late to be much help--
occasionally they show up to assist school children in crossing the street

Rush hour in via Faentina is nightmarish: a great snake of bumper-to-bumper vehicles slithers its way to or from the city center, their occupants often oblivious to things such as crosswalks or red lights. A car or bus can take 15 to 20 minutes to reach Piazza delle Cure from the neighborhood--a trip that would take a mere 10-15 minutes on foot. The air is so thick with exhaust it feels like wading through some kind of toxic pappa col pomodoro. As a committed pedestrian and cyclist who fights this malevolent serpent on almost a daily basis, I can't help but view my relationship with the city as adversarial.

Whatever else our cherub-cheeked, milk-fed Mayor Renzi would have you believe, Florence is not very pedestrian-friendly, unless you confine your perambulations to the city's historic center, and even then you must dodge marauding taxis or risk becoming a human frittata. Public transportation is notoriously unreliable--if I had a euro for every time I waited for a bus that never came, I could solve Italy's debt crisis single-handedly. With the lack of viable options and the ferocious traffic, getting around town remains about as enjoyable as getting one's gallstones removed--though unfortunately not as quick.

Lesson number two: pedestrians count for little

My kids and I walk the via Faentina every day to get to and from their elementary school. In one stretch the sidewalk measures 33 inches (84 cm) wide--which leaves only a few inches between us and monstrous semi-trucks or city buses. (I've been swiped by side-view mirrors too many times to count). Every day I pray to my various gods that we make it safely, that we don't stumble on the uneven, broken pavement and fall under the wheels of a passing car.

33 inches of sidewalk + heavy, fast-moving traffic = death trap

While other parts of the city have seen speed tables installed (flatter and gentler than rounded speed bumps), for most of via Faentina--notwithstanding the narrow sidewalks and the densely residential character of the area--vehicles are allowed to race along with impunity, as if it were a Formula One speedway. Often cars are parked up on the sidewalks or block the crosswalks entirely. Perhaps most disturbing, however, is how the lines between sidewalk and street are consistently--and dangerously--blurred.

A truck graciously descends from the near-nonexistent sidewalk
so that we may continue on our way

For pedestrians the options are: backtrack, hug the wall, say a fervent Hail Mary,
or resolve to meet your Maker

Walking sucks

Lesson number three: there are two Florences

One of the things I've come to terms with over the past decade is that the Florence of art and beauty and charm--the one that makes all the tourists go gaga (and is largely confined to the historic center)--has an evil, ugly twin: the Florence that is choked by traffic, bureaucracy and a rampantly provincial mentality; the Florence that was this year named the most polluted city in Italy; the Florence that makes walking your children to school as pleasurable as having oral surgery without anesthetic, and as foolhardy as playing a game of "catch me if you can!" with the Grim Reaper.



Sunday, November 27, 2011

When the frosting hits the fan: an article for The Florentine

Who knew that serving cupcakes was an act of cultural sedition?

Click here to go to article

(I wrote a post on a similar theme, but the results were--ahem--somewhat different)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Let me give thanks

Dear Readers,

Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in my sometimes hapless homeland, and since it seems to be as de rigueur as the ginormous fowl itself, I've been thinking of the things I'm grateful for.

I adore my two puckish children, regardless of the fact that for nigh on ten years they still feel the need to burst into the bathroom and watch me pee.

I love my husband--if for no other reason than he's the only man with whom I could ever envision adventuring into the great golden maw of the American Frontier in a covered wagon. I'm serious.

I have many dear and wonderful friends--and an awesome brother--who, despite knowing me, choose to admit it.

I have all my teeth. And most of my senses.

But perhaps the thing I am most thankful for is that I am not, nor will I ever be--so help me God--this woman:

No, it's not a narrow-minded, gossip-mongering garden gnome
or a steerage passenger on the Lusitania--
it's the MIL

Nor will I, thankfully, ever don footwear like this (even on my deathbed in the midst of a nuclear holocaust when the only thing that'd save me would be clonking the heels of my immigrant-issue men's clodhoppers together while croaking, "There's no place like home"):

Jimmy Choo, hardly

So to all you Turkey Day revelers out there and others with plenty to be thankful for, I wish you a wonderful holiday. Now get thee to a monstrous mound of mashed potatoes, pronto!



Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The land of literary Muggles

Dear Readers,

According to ISTAT (the Italian National Institute for Statistics), in 2010 only 46.8% of Italians said they read at least one book during the year. Of these, 44.4% read up to three books a year (because it takes the average Italian in this group four months to read a novel). Only 15.1% of the population read twelve books or more, and 9.6% (that's 2,338,000 families) say they don't even own one book.

Once, when I was at my doctor's office and had settled down for the interminable wait with Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, an old spotted toad in a grubby parka, reeking of cigarettes, sidled up to me and shouted, "My God! It would take me more than a year to finish a big book like that!" I saw no reason to doubt him.

Yesterday, I was at my neighborhood bookstore picking out a birthday gift for one of my son's classmates. I thought of buying L'Evoluzione di Capurnia (The Evolution of Capurnia Tate), but was horrified by this:

Sticker shock

Gulp. €16,80 for a children's paperback???!!! I soon left in disgust (and with an inexplicably much cheaper Roald Dahl book instead).

€16,80--that's $23.10 for a children's paperback. In America, that very same paperback (well, in English, of course) costs $7.99. In England, £7.99. On Amazon Italy they're offering a slight discount: €14,28 ($19.63). Perhaps I didn't examine the book closely enough and the pages were made out of camel skin or ancient Egyptian papyrus or something. But a quick look round the shop had me steeped in similar dismay: Harry Potter paperbacks were €16 a pop, Tolkien's Lo Hobbit cost €15 in paperback. Small paperback early readers were €6-9 each.

Here are some other disturbing statistics: only about 10% of Italians go on to higher education (the absolute lowest of the countries surveyed); reading literacy among 15 year-olds is ranked 20th out of 27; mathematical literacy ranks 23rd out of 27. Student attitudes in the form of dislike for school, however, have Italy ranking at the top--coming in at 2nd out of 17; those that find school boring come in 9th out of the 17 countries surveyed; and as for classroom disorder, Italy is Numero Uno.

Oh, and even Greece pays its teachers more than Italy does.

To this I'd add that the ever-deepening economic sinkhole Italy finds itself in has affected public schools--which were always pretty strapped and bare-bones, let's face it--in a way that is profoundly disturbing. There is no money for supplies--that is, things like paints and paper. There is no money for soap and toilet paper for the bathrooms. There is no money for class outings, for art and music instruction or for hiring English teachers (this last is no great loss--most of them stink anyway). Schools have had to ask the parents (many of whom have already tightened their belts to the point of asphyxiation) to supply these things or the money with which to buy them. My daughter's teachers buy toilet paper for the little second-graders out of their own pockets and on their puny salaries.

And publishers dare to charge €16,80 for a children's paperback.

Suddenly all the above statistics and experiences, taken as a whole, begin to make sense to me. Here in Italy, a premium is placed on Berlusconi-esque (let's call it "Berlesque") television, a bloated bureaucracy, and the excesses of a political elite abhorrently out of touch with the reality of most citizens--while reading and education are relegated to a status just below garbage collection. I begin to understand the depth of the ignorance of the masses that kept re-electing such a pancake-faced buffoon--they're the same ones who stare vacantly at his inane and tasteless variety shows rather than stick their noses in a good book.

An Italian tragedy is more like it.



*Statistics provided herein were sourced at ISTAT, and via UNESCO and OECD at

Sunday, October 30, 2011

From the pet peeve department

Dear Readers,

For eons, tourists have come to Italy and have giddily snapped photos: of Florence's Duomo and Rome's Pantheon, of the Amalfi Coast and the Umbrian countryside, of fountains and piazzas, of Fiat 500's and Vespas, of monuments and mouth-watering Carabinieri--and I get it. I get it.

But what I've never understood is why laundry hanging out to dry should warrant a place in the family photo album, or worse, in travel articles advocating the glories of a particular Italian location (I'm thinking specifically of a recent New York Times article on Naples, with its clichéd and apparently obligatory photo of Neapolitan-style biancheria*). I mean, it's laundry for Chrissake. Granted, Italian laundry--but those aren't exactly Missoni dishtowels or Valentino skivvies hanging up there. Hardly. Why is the sight of some old lady's pantyhose or a few faded bedsheets considered charming and so very Italian, merely because there are cobblestones below and a fiendish bureaucrat (doubtless) nearby? I have a theory--unproven--that familiar objects take on uncharacteristic appeal when they are superimposed on a foreign locale.

How adorable! Laundry all'italiano!
The fact is, Italians don't have clothes dryers--if they did, you probably wouldn't see so much laundry hanging around. So taking pictures of Italian laundry is like taking pictures of, say, my mother-in-law's dentures (if she had teeth, you wouldn't be taking pictures of her dentures)--it's just dumb.

As an experiment, I recently pretended I was an Italian tourist in Portland, Oregon and snapped a photo of the clothes-drying rack in my friends' apartment (of course, all Americans have dryers--though some may elect to let certain items air dry--which makes capturing an image of native laundry all the more difficult):

That rare and most elusive of commodities: American laundry

Now you tell me, dear Readers--what's the big effin' deal about laundry?!

My best regards,


* I don't know about you, but the sight of indigenous underwear doesn't make me want to immediately jump on a plane in order to revel in Italian cultura.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The quirky shall inherit the earth

Dear Readers,

Shortly after returning to Florence in September, my neck seized up painfully, I began to shed hair like a Siberian Husky in spring, I fell victim to fever, flu, and a pernicious sinus infection, and the nervous eye-twitch that had left me after I quit my loathsome job last April began feathering about my brow again. While two months in the States did me a world of good, it had some unforeseen consequences. I felt happy and deeply relaxed in a way that I didn't realize I'd been missing here in Italy--until I got back and my body launched its rebellion. I feel like I'd been lounging around in soft, sheepskin slippers and then had to cram my feet back into stiletto heels; it's difficult to make that adjustment without some pain and suffering, I suppose.

Thinking along these lines led me to a conclusion: living in Italy is like wearing impossibly high heels--it's lovely at times, even sexy, but completely impractical. And I don't mean it's impossible to live here--just impractical. It takes the mettle of a Joan of Arc to slash your way into the fabric of life in the Bel Paese.


What Italy offers--lavishly, deliciously--is culture, of course. Art litters the landscape like weeds. History oozes from every brick. The cult of the table has been well-noted by the gobbling hordes, and though mediocrity is fast becoming the norm in tourist meccas like Florence, in most of the country you can still get a stupendous meal wherever you happen to flop. And meals have a lovely way of unfolding here that feels very civilized, indeed. 

But for me, one of the hallmarks of a civilized society is the dignity allowed humans in the performing of life's most basic functions (i.e. paying bills, peeing, grocery shopping, strolling about town--granted, an eclectic litmus, but nevertheless indicative)--and here, my friends, is where Italy fails miserably. Ever try to find--your bladder bursting from that last macchiato or half-liter of water guzzled in the punishing heat of July--a public restroom in Florence???? Well, look what Portland, Oregon offers its denizens in need:

Spotlessly clean, complete with TP and hand sanitizer--bless you, Portland.


I'll further illustrate my point with the example of a recent trip to the supermarket:

My approach to storming an Italian supermarket may be likened to that of General Patton mounting a military campaign. First, I prepare my list with an eye toward a systematic and ruthless advance through the trenches, with a firm resolve to take no prisoners. When the moment of battle arrives, I hurl myself into the breach--that is, into the Produce section--a roiling mass of grasping humanity, carts akimbo like land mines to be dodged, and fight my way through in furious hand-to-hand combat, rushing to bag and weigh my veggies while sustaining the least amount of bodily injury. Once through the melee, I must then run the gauntlet of the Cheese/Cold Cuts section, where carts line up in a near-solid bank of defense--like an arrogant line of cavalry--their owners immovable dragoons to be thrust aside in brief skirmishes so that I may plunder the mortadella and mozzarella.

I soldier on--through Dairy, Meat, Baking Supplies, Pasta, Coffee, Cookies, Wine, Bread--piloting my cart like a kamikaze, fending off attackers in the form of old ladies smelling of moth balls, powdered rose and decay, taking hits (bayonet-like jabs to the ribs, cart wheels ramming ankles, stomped-upon tootsies--with nary a "pardon me," of course--after all, this is war) but refusing to be brought down, all the while pushing forward--the vision of my empty fridge at home spurring me on towards victory. Only in Frozen Foods do I get a brief respite (Italians aren't big on the stuff), where I can regroup before the final assault on the check-out lanes.

But, unlike Patton in any war he ever waged, awaiting me there is the most evil and fearsome enemy known to fighting men and women the world over--the Italian cashier. With cold, calculating precision, I loaded my groceries onto the belt, heavy things first, knowing I'll have to bag them up at the end. I tried to conserve the little energy I had left, quenching myself--for the moment--on pure adrenalin. My shopping totes were cocked and ready, and once my time came, I leapt to the end of the belt with a cry of "Geronimo!" and started bagging as fast as I could. The enemy was hurtling fragile foodstuffs at me with the vicious accuracy of a sniper raining bullets or lobbing hand grenades--wine bottles, eggs, cartons of yogurt. The sound of clanking bottles and squelching plastic was sickening. Then the she-devil reached the point where no more stuff could be fired down the belt at me unless I cleared some space--even though I was fighting with frantic desperation--and said, with withering scorn, "Madam, you need to get these bottles and things out of the way!" Patton, of course, would have shot her--but I, facing sure defeat, just pressed my lips together, wished I could morph into a spitting cobra, and labored on. She continued to regard me with boredom and contempt, alternately examining her cuticles with interest and chomping her gum, while I heaved the last of my groceries into my cart. Thus reduced to a stressed-out, sweaty mess, there was nothing for me to do but surrender--and shell out €160 for the pleasure--and slink off with my tail between my legs. No smile or thank you was forthcoming from this unscrupulous opponent, naturally--unless you counted the slight, satisfied curl of the lip that indicated another human being had been successfully humiliated at her hands, and that she had managed to perform her duties once again without the slightest bit of enthusiasm or warmth.


I realize that when one is on vacation, one tends to see things through rose-colored Ray Bans. But it was hard for me not to view Portland as a kind of Pacific Northwest Shangri-La--a land where outrageous courtesy reigns, a realm of quirky locals content to amble about on bicycles, drive (if they absolutely must) as if they have all the time in the world to arrive at their destination, and drop everything in order to meet over an ale or two. It's like Tolkien's Shire--a bit removed from the rest of the world, gloriously green, and with many a rowdy tavern--and the Portlanders are peaceful, friendly Hobbits (the fact that many are to be seen gamboling about the city barefoot, wearing rustic garments, further enhances the allusion). It seemed the exact opposite of Florence.

In Portland, people politely ask if they may sit in the empty seat next to you on the bus. They volley a cheery "thank you!" to the driver when they get off. They stop their cars and let you cross the street whether or not you are in a crosswalk. Everyone I met--from grocery clerks to postal workers to shopkeepers--was astonishingly courteous, engaging in cheerful small talk like morning birds chirping away in trees, and helpful to a fault. (Really, it amazed me. I spent the entire time with my mouth agape and tearfully hugging random strangers for being nice to me). It seemed they did this out of genuine niceness, and as if being cheerful and kind to others made their day go by easier, more pleasantly--it sure did mine. Once, when the bus was delayed at a stop because of something beyond the driver's control, people started grumbling, and the driver then began joking--over the loudspeaker--engaging the passengers who then responded with sallies of their own. We continued this way--everybody laughing and having a good time--for the rest of my journey. On another occasion, I overheard a mother in the park asking all the other people nearby if they'd seen her stray cell phone around anywhere--she'd misplaced it. Another woman offered to call the number for her so she could track it down by its ringtone. Wow. This all may sound like small patate, but I was floored, over and over again, by such good will toward men.

I often get the feeling that, in Italy, the milk of human kindness has curdled.

Living here these past ten years, I have slowly grown accustomed to systematic abuse in the form of sour expressions, doors slammed in my face, pushing and shoving, cutting in line, universal curt treatment at public offices, in shops, and over the phone (there's a general customer service ethic in Italy that Gaddafi would have approved of), and other generally rude behavior. I consider myself lucky if I encounter mere indifference. But would it kill people to smile? To show a little courtesy? To treat me like the multi-celled organism I am? Perhaps it's because of the oppressive weight of all that history and tradition, but I think Italians take themselves far too seriously. They're unable to see how a little levity, pleasantness, or simple courtesy toward strangers adds a ripple to the pond of humanity.

Another clear sign of an advanced civilization--to me, at least--is taking pains to bring a smile to another's face, in order to ease the tensions of daily life. In Portland, this typically takes the form of eccentric behaviors and unusual objects found in surprising places: plastic toy horses tied to old hitching rings all over the city, outlandish getups, juggling unicyclists (wearing outlandish getups), a plump plastic chicken being photographed in all the neighborhood bars and cafés, an inflatable sex doll in the back seat of an old Mazda (with her seat belt prudently buckled), a go-cart race with contestants riding their mock-up hot dog dressed as ketchup and mustard (i.e. wearing red swirly hats and flowing gold lamé capes)--I could go on. Art is so often imprisoned in museums, isn't it--reserved for the elite--but the kind of quirkiness I experienced in Portland may be enjoyed by all, anywhere, anytime; it is truly democratic. And if you ask me, of the two, it is quirkiness that best imitates life. At least, the kind of life I want to live.

Quirkinius squalus portlandis, or Portland Tree Shark

If I'm being unfair or overly cranky in this post, please forgive me, dear Readers. My feet are killing me.



Friday, September 16, 2011

It's our anniversary

Dear Readers,

Today marks three years of blogging for me here at Letters from Florence. And while I'm definitely a bit older, I'm not sure I'm any the wiser--though writing about Italy helps me wrap my head around the place and indulge in some admittedly wicked fun at times. Blogging is a strange occupation in that there's no immediate pay-off other than perhaps the satisfaction of giving voice to one's thoughts and opinions--and then sending them off into the vast, virtual ocean like tiny messages in bottles, never really knowing if they will reach far-flung shores and tickle someone's fancy, whet their appetite, incite their rage or indignation, or whatever. Writing is by its very nature an exercise of the ego, and though it seems I expend an awful lot of energy in my personal life trying to eradicate--or at least subdue--my balky, mulish ego (the domineering diva to my seething id), my belabored psyche remains stubbornly vulnerable to the suspicion that I have absolutely nothing to say about life in Italy that is worthwhile.

While I was off for two months' vacation in the U.S., I admit I considered discontinuing my endeavors, buffeted back and forth by the self-critical urgings of the aforementioned Ego ("Why bother anymore, you fatuous, gnat-brained interloper--what can your insignificant musings possibly matter in the larger scheme of things? Shouldn't you be working out instead?"), and the giddy insistence of my Id ("But it is fun debunking the myths of la dolce vita and stringing strange necklaces of words, isn't it? You have loads more to say about living in Italy so keep at it--there's a good girl!").

In the end what decided things for me was you, my dear, intrepid Readers.

Over these three years, a number of you have contacted me or left comments on posts, and this has meant more to this peripatetic blogger than you probably imagine. To put it succintly--it's what has kept me going. Sure, I have friends that compliment and laugh at my sallies (they would, wouldn't they? god bless 'em), but it's you strangers, you who don't know me from Adam, whose input is of immeasurable value because you help me feel engaged, connected. I've also been fortunate enough to have met, via this blog, some wonderful lady bloggers and have struck up friendships that are very enriching--and for this I am pleased and grateful.

I can see by my handy spy tool that there are readers out there who prefer, for whatever reason, to remain silent and anonymous--and that's okay--I'm glad you're out there and knowing that is a kind of inspiration as well.


Perhaps this is also the occasion on which to make an announcement of sorts--bear in mind one made with not a little trepidation: I've decided to write a book about the ups and downs--or sturm und drang, better yet--of my experiences in Italy. It is with Pantagruelian difficulty that I confess this to anyone, for I possess such a warped sense of superstition and doom that to admit to stumbling forth upon such a path is to court the Wrath of the Fates--who will surely crush my efforts faster than you can say gli agenti delle Poste Italiane sono i bastardi scervellati di Satana. You see, I had hoped that blogging would miraculously bring the publishers to my doorstep and result in a free-for-all of six-figure advances and first-class plane tickets. This has most resoundingly not happened. So I've decided to take the buffalo by the horns and make my own mozzarella.

Reader's Choice

Since we have reached a milestone of sorts together and I intend to forge ahead in this curious landscape that is the blogosphere, I thought I'd ask you, dear Readers, what Italy-related topics you'd like me to tackle in the coming months (I'd be willing to hold forth on sundry other topics as well, but I warn you that my personal knowledge of the mating habits of the baboon or, say, the workings of fuel injectors or covalent bonding and molecular structure is limited)--and I'll try to expound on them to the best of my ability. Because here at Letters from Florence, we aim to please. Or something.

My heartfelt thanks, again, to all of you who read the virtual scribblings herein,


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Saturday night special

Dear Readers,

A hearty hello from yours, truly! Had a lovely, decidedly omnivorous time in the stunning Pacific Northwest. It struck me that the more time I spent away from Florence, the more the city and my odd little life here seemed to melt into the muggy, turgid horizon, leaving me blissfully unaware of--for example--the fact that my in-laws exist. Various other annoying Italian metaphysical mosquitos also left me unmolested in the face of so many majestic Douglas firs and giant Sequoias; and cool breezes smelling of pines and roses and stuffed enchiladas lulled me into a slumber of forgetfulness....

Well, it took only a couple of days after arriving from Shangri-La for Florence to slap me silly with her merciless insistence that I look at the oft-warped reality show that is my life in the Bel Paese. To wit, this green towel:

The sacred relic, left to dry
  Every Saturday evening around 6 p.m., this towel appears on the chair in front of my in-laws' lair--you could set a Swiss cuckoo clock by it. It's the sign that my flea-brained (and quite possibly flea-ridden) father-in-law has taken his weekly shower. No matter that it's summer and the temps tend to hover around 90-100 degrees--with humidity levels that would give Satan pause--and that my FIL spends all day in his vast garden doing things like vigorously chopping wood for winter, hitching himself to a plow and playing giddyup among his rows of beloved dirt, and building illegal shacks out of urban detritus. The man sweats and stinks so evilly he merits a Canto in Dante's Inferno.

Notwithstanding all this, he manages to go six days a week without bathing. And to aim a vicious arrow at the truth and shoot, I'd say he'd eschew bathing completely if it weren't for the fact that he's a God-fearing soul who goes to Mass every Sunday*--come hell or after-shave--and feels he must present a scrubbed body (if not a clean conscience) to the Lord.

So, yes, the towel (which, by the way, he's been using since 1978 and is obscenely transparent in parts--I suspect it's being held together by God's will) appeared yesterday evening as usual and I sighed heavily, knowing that vacation had unequivocally ended and I was home. Home sweat sweet home.

Oh, and while I was gone my mother-in-law saw fit to offload some of her ancient victuals on us, so I came home to a rambunctious group of larvaceous food moths having a proper rave in my pantry.

Yours as usual,


*I've written more on this delectable theme here, should you be interested in the horror genre.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Angel of Death wears a wet Speedo

Dear Readers,

It is with immense joy I announce that Summer 2011 for yours truly shall entail total avoidance of Italian beaches. (I've written about my particular aversion to the peculiarly Italian style of fun-in-the-sun here and here). In a way, eschewing the oven-baked, seething stretches of Tuscan sand--bordered by traffic-choked streets, ugly apartment blocks, video arcades and tawdry Luna Parks--has become something of a point of pride for me. I much prefer Italy's mountains--my beloved Dolomites--for a getaway that gives me everything I crave: the wonder of nature, luxurious amounts of sweet fresh air, space to breathe in, pleasantly arduous physical activity, great food and wine, and relief from the heat.

To further tickle the repulsion centers of your brains, I shall relate to you a vignette or two from beach vacations past....

The scene: Elba, June 2001. My brother- and sister-in law--otherwise known as the Bürgermeister and Frau Weiner--and their two young, catatonically-compliant daughters crashed our vacation. My husband and I had been living with his parents in Florence (this was a folly for which I'd gladly render my kneecaps in order to completely erase from memory), I was in the early months of my first pregnancy, and we had come to a shady hillside above Cavoli to relax, escape family and enjoy some much-needed Couple Time. My mother-in-law--curse her black, meddling, pantyhose-constricted soul--saw fit to reveal our secret location in a rented house to the Bürgermeister, who then showed up on our doorstep and summarily dumped his bags.

What was perhaps even more disturbing to me than this total disregard for our privacy was the revelation that the Bürgermeister and brood go to the beach and then spend most of the time there actually shunning the water.

Because water--like ice cubes or air conditioning--will kill you, of course. Therefore it is to be avoided--regardless if it's 105 degrees out, and the hot sand shears off an onion-thin layer of your feet each time you step on it. This is Italy, after all, where the feathery tendrils of tepid breezes on even the most scorching days bring on raging pneumonia, where drinking cold beverages freezes your digestion and proceeds to decimate your internal organs with pernicious stomach acids, and where getting wet--either from bathing, swimming, water-pistol fights, or rain--carries the risk of slow and torturous total bronchial annihilation.

They're a strange breed, these Italians. I mean, to them, shampooing your hair and letting it air-dry, or riding a public bus with the windows open (in summer) is considered a come-hither to the Grim Reaper--while running red lights with impunity, driving the wrong way down one-way streets, or passing on a curve at 100 miles-an-hour is regarded as completely innocuous, if not downright wholesome.

I digress. At the small local beach, Frau Weiner smothered a chaise with her rear end and remained there under the umbrella, as languorous as a corpulent Salome, the entire day--all the while shouting dire warnings at the girls who were forbidden to wade past ankle-deep in the mild surf. Me being American, young(er) and blunt, asked, "Why don't you go in the water?"

"Oh, I don't like the water! I never go in," she replied.

"Then why do you come to the beach?"

She volleyed me a look that said "you impossible fool, one goes to the beach because everybody goes to the beach," and busied herself arranging the elaborate, black, see-through, sequined cover-up over her plump thighs.

Meanwhile, the Bürgermeister refused to join us under the umbrella; he stood--stood, mind you--on his hind legs for hours under a tree back near the road, in a white tee-shirt and swim trunks, watching the girls at play with fixed and vigilant eyes, like some prissy, neurotic lifeguard. This was when I tried in vain to come up with the Italian translation of "Jeez, but that guy's got a big stick up his ass" for my husband.

Frau Weiner's aversion to water is inbred, I found out. Her parents have a beach house in Viareggio, mere steps from the boardwalk, and religiously rent a front-row spot in one of the more expensive bagni every summer--but they, too, never deign to enter the water. In fact, even though they pay through the nose for the privilege of having their chaises and umbrella available for the three-month duration, they've stopped going to the beach at all, abandoning their precious patch of sand to visiting grandchildren. "It's too hot," they complain.

That's why there's the water.

One summer, we accepted an invitation by the Bürgermeister clan to join them in Viareggio, and watched the Fear-of-Water-Hurly-Burly-Show play out daily. As usual, Frau Weiner was ensconced on her chaise like Jabba the Hutt on a plinth, each day sporting a different fashionable swimsuit with gauzy, coordinating cover-up and sparkly infraditi. This time the Bürgermeister managed to actually sit for periods--albeit bolt upright--in a canvas director's chair, craning his neck to watch every life-threatening splash the girls made. An oversized canvas beach bag sat next to Frau Weiner, and every time the girls would tire of their games and come out of the water--to play in the sand perhaps, or get a drink of water or a snack--she would pluck two fresh bathing-suits out of the bag and immediately change them, towelling them off frantically, lest they catch a chill. Every time. I was as riveted by this ritual as if she were Houdini performing the handkerchief trick out of a top hat--bathing suit after bathing suit kept coming out of the bag, in seemingly endless supply. Once again I couldn't resist:

"Why do you change them every time they come out of the water [you psychotic, Lycra-encased sausage]?"

"Because they'll get bronchite if they sit around in wet suits [you hopelessly stupid, foolhardy Yank]."

"Oh." I squinted up at the molten, orange orb in the sky and at the waves of heat shimmering along the shoreline, while sweat pooled in-between my toes. "Well, we wouldn't want that."

If the poor girls had even so much as one bite of focaccia, or a cracker, or a piece of fruit, the Bürgermeister would command from his director's chair, "NO GOING IN THE WATER NOW FOR AT LEAST TWO HOURS, OR YOU'LL GET A CRAMP AND DROWN!" Apparently that was his sole function and purpose for being on the beach at all--since nary a stiff, punctilious toe of his ever even dipped in the water.


So if I shan't be spending summer in this Hell--a Hell that could kill me quicker than if I were to be smeared in Spam and left for bear bait--where will I be spending the dog days, you may ask? Why, in Heaven, of course. I shall be enjoying nearly two glorious months in the majestic Pacific Northwest. What's more, I plan on wantonly indulging in all the things that would kill an ordinary Italian: basking in air-conditioned environments until I get goose-flesh, swilling iced tea that is chock full of ice cubes, eating spicy ethnic food, getting soaked at water parks and letting myself air dry--and did I mention eating spicy ethnic food?

Here's wishing a wonderful summer full of similar risks, dangers and pitfalls to all of you, my dear Readers. I may post while abroad, or I may not--we'll see. But rest assured that I'll be back in September--if the Sasquatch doesn't get me, of course. Or the water.

Yours, ever recklessly,


Monday, July 04, 2011

Guerrilla-style potato salad (this is NOT a recipe)

In honor of Independence Day, upon which we were liberated from our Oppressors--culinary and otherwise.

Dear Readers,

It's always something. When you live in a foreign country, even the most innocuous request can open up a can of wriggling, irritating, cultural worms.

Recently, because of my Yankee origins, I was asked to contribute un piatto americano to my six year-old daughters' year-end class picnic. I smothered a loud, curmudgeonly groan and the usual array of curses with an effusive, "Why, of course! I'd be delighted!" The organizer-mom had the cute idea to ask everyone to bring a dish from their native land--which is odd, considering that nearly all the parents are Florentine and thus we'd be having the usual slew of local fare. But, upon reflection, I suppose this class is about as diverse as it gets for my little corner of Florence: there are two American moms (including yours truly), as well as a Japanese, a German, a Danish, and a French mom--and one from Calabria (though from a bona fide region of Italy, she's considered as foreign as the rest of us).

Preparing ethnic/American dishes for Italians is a tricky business (one I have touched upon here), hence my annoyed reluctance to subject myself and my not-too-shabby-if-I-do-say-so-myself cooking to the typically close-minded scrutiny of such cuisine-phobic pantywaists. The iconic foodstuffs, the hamburgers and hot dogs and their ilk, seem to be what most Italians expect from us--rather like malaria from pesky mosquitos. I have found that efforts to enlighten them with our genuine, though perhaps harder-to-suss-out, homemade specialties are usually as lost on their sissified palates as flotsam in a roiling sea of culinary provincialism. For instance, every time I have served an honest-to-goodness, made-from-scratch-and-redolent-with-spice pumpkin pie to People of the Boot, they double over and fling themselves from their dining chairs as if they'd just cannibalized a dear-departed, and practically projectile vomit all over the walls. I have, since, ceased to inflict this particular--though dearly beloved to me--dessert of doom on my adopted countrymen.

For the most part, Italians simply have no idea what other people in the world eat—beyond the stereotypes, of course—and, when it comes down to it, they simply don't care.

Once, in the bookstore where I was working, a liver-spotted, toad-like Italian cretin with Baroque sunglasses and carefully-upturned, pressed polo collar asked me to show him a book on American cuisine. When I pulled out Thomas Keller's newly-arrived Ad Hoc at Home, he added--his voice dripping with sarcasm--“That is, if there IS such a thing as American cuisine!" Naturally, I immediately rendered him unconscious by hitting him over the head with the cash register.

I feel no need to be ashamed of American food that uses the best of our local ingredients. Our vast continent is teeming with a Pilgrim's bounty of wonderful indigenous produce; that fresh, green breast of the New World about which Fitzgerald wrote nourishes its wayward children on an embarassment of culinary riches. And of course the tired, poor, huddled masses whose foreign hands stirred the great, exotic, multi-ethnic minestrone created an ever-changing smorgasbord for generations to enjoy and riff upon. American cuisine is rather like American English—peppered with far-flung influences, constantly innovating and evolving, a veritable bucking bronco of free-spirited creativity—producing a rather astonishing and riotous polyglot range of expression which ennables us to get straight to the point with a grilled-cheese-on-rye, or elaborate more thoroughly with a Creole jambalaya or New England clam chowder. It's a language and a cuisine that both shoots from the hip and frolics with the sublime--and, yes, it does have its fair share of barbarisms.

Entirely at a loss, I put the question of what to make for the class picnic to friends. Among the quintessentially American (and, I suspect, slightly irreverent) suggestions were: pizza-lasagne-spaghetti, White Castle sliders, Tater Tot casserole, funnel cakes, coney dogs, Twinkies dipped in taco sauce (this from a respected educator. Hi Mr. S!), cocktail weenies, lime Jell-O salad, mac n' cheese, and my personal favorite—buffalo jerky, roast squirrel (or, in a pinch, muskrat) and acorn mush. Now that's what I call going native.

In the end I decided on an archetypical picnic food: the humble potato salad. After all, I reasoned, Italians eat potatoes, don't they? I knew I'd be playing fast and loose, though, what with the spicy mustard I add to the mayonnaise. And of course there was the clear and present danger of the bits of pickle and celery—that could trigger the inborn revulsion/expulsion reflex. But dammit-all, I'm proud to be American and by God I was gonna give those self-righteous noodle-eaters a taste of the Stars and Stripes! Hell, yeah!

So I stormed the picnic with a splendidly defiant potato salad, my eyes blazing, my head held high.

I discovered that only myself--representing the red, white, and blue--Japan, Denmark, and Calabria showed up. (Clearly the others were chicken). "Well, here goes--to hell with them!" I thought, as I slapped my Tupperware down decisively on the long table under the gazebo, daring the first Italian to taste my offering. (I suppose this attitude makes me the anti-Christ to Martha Stewart's Jesus).

Did they eat it? No. Sure, there were a few cautious nibbles, then the culinary equivalent of a dead silence. Me and Danish mom (who brought a bowl of crispy bacon, God bless her, of which I and my wolfish offspring ate two-thirds and dumped what remained into my purse) polished off half. Then--to add insult to injury, as they say--I was asked to judge an Italian mom's attempt at New York-style cheesecake. Still burning from my slighted potato salad, I looked down at the impossibly flat, sticky-purple-goo-slathered, burned-periphery concoction and tried not to let a Kurtz-like tremor of horror overtake my body. The thing had three inches of Kalahari-dry, brick-like cookie crust and two centimeters of a glum glop comprised of cream cheese, mascarpone, ricotta and--apparently--cotton balls. But did I gag and clutch my throat? Did I spew in disgust and wrath? No. I choked the abomination down, smiled, and pronounced it delicious.

And as it turns out, I was also too chicken to cackle or mock or show my stunned surprise at the enormous plastic trough of STEWED VEAL that some Italian miscreant brought. (Nothing like thick, hot stew at a picnic in 90-degree weather, I always say! How dare they spurn my cool, tangy, tastebud-tickling potato salad? Fools! Xenophobes! Depraved stew-lickers!).

Thankfully, James Beard, MFK Fisher, and Julia Child--up there among the celestial crockpots in their culinary Valhalla--showed mercy and did not smite chicken-livered me with an outraged lightning bolt from on high.

So as you see, dear Readers, I clearly failed in my mission. I do not possess the forbearance and valor needed to force the food of my star-spangled heritage down the gullets of infidels. It takes real guts to be a soldier in the culinary crusades here in Italy, I tell you. More guts that I have, that's for sure.



Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Rapture, Florentine-style

Dear Readers,

Okay, the world didn't end recently as predicted--but some of us aren't off the hook yet. Personally speaking, the end-times are breathing down my neck like an Italian mother-in-law after the birth of her first grandchild, because very soon my two chimp-limbed urchins shall be catapulted from the industrious froth of scholarly life into the placid, lotus pond torpor of le vacanze estive.

Picture, if you will:

The setting: a wide, dusty, unpaved street--the main thoroughfare in a former Wild West boom town, now all but abandoned by decent, god-fearing folk. Tumbleweeds drift aimlessly, the sun a hard-boiled egg yolk consuming the sky, heat shimmers thickly on the far horizon, and there's not a soul abroad in this hell's high noon.

(Foreground) A woman--quite pretty, actually--with a determined set to her jaw and a missionary's gleam in her eye, comes into view. She stands in the middle of the street, wide-legged, hands on hips, sweat glistening on her brow--ignoring the sun's glare and fixing her gaze on two figures who suddenly appear menacingly in the near distance. She's wearing a badge that reads "World's #1 Mom" and has dropped two colorful backpacks at her feet, each chock-full of books and educational activities. She takes a hearty swig of pinot grigio from her hip flask, wipes her brow with the back of her hand, pushes her specs back up onto the bridge of her nose, and steps forward as if to meet her Maker.

(Cut to background) Two reedy rapscallions--a sawed-off six year-old girl with an imp's mug, and a shaggy-maned nine year-old boy with grubby fingernails--stand easy and bold-faced at the far end of the yawning, deserted street (the townspeople--smelling imminent bloodshed--having shuttered themselves away), and lock their cold, calculating eyes with the woman, never flinching. They're cocky. Cool as cucumbers. Looking for a fight. Their stance is equally splay-legged and defiant, and they're brandishing video-game remotes with the confident dexterity of born gunslingers. When they see the fool woman advance up the mean street, they gamely amble forward with the cagey, shuffling gait of rogues who know how to fight dirty.

It's a showdown. Lives and honor are at stake. Or, at least, summer is.

Of course, the end of life as this mommy knows it won't come until after Armageddon--in the form of a brutal onslaught of year-end marathon-length recitals and parties--the worst torture being the pot-luck buffet dinner at the children's school (if you've never witnessed Italians laying waste to a buffet, consider yourselves lucky--they're like obstreperous jackals). The natives of this sunny peninsula, as we know by now, like to exit stage left with a grand flourish, go out with a bellissimo bang, ceremonialize the trivial, elevate the inconsequential into the monumental--and transubstantiate the inanimate into the celestial. Which means, of course, that instead of just letting us all melt away into 95-degree oblivion for three months, Italian logic dictates that in order to commemorate the mere end of another term we must party like it's 1999.

And then, Judgement Day--ah, yes--when all the good Italian mommies who scour their homes in perpetuity, who iron their kids' underwear, who find time to have their sundry limbs waxed, and who squeeze into skinny jeans and totter about on stiletto heels, will go to Heaven (i.e. the beach for the duration), and all the bad foreign mommies who selfishly enjoy time to themselves so they can read and pursue hobbies--the ones who don't always serve three courses at mealtimes, the ones courting death by wandering the house barefoot, the ones who stockpile Hidden Valley Ranch packets, the ones in wrinkled garments who knock back a cocktail now and again--will be drop-kicked straight into Hell and the door slammed after them. Hell being--in this case--summer in Florence with two kids to keep occupied.


(Dear Readers, that's the sound of me girding my loins).

Yours as always,


Monday, May 09, 2011

The juggernaut

Dear Readers,

The season is upon us, like a pox--that time of year when the First Holy Communion Circus rolls into town, like a gargantuan, gaudy, Catholic Trojan horse, obliterating everything in its path, disgorging its cherub-cheeked assailants who then proceed to consume entire weekends in an orgy of inconsiderateness and suck up our hard-earned cash like a brothelful of insatiable hookers.

Here in Italy, la prima comunione has morphed into a metaphysical monstrosity, a sacramental side-show--packing more emotional and material punch than even weddings (the reason for this being that Italians become unhinged and lose all sense of appropriateness when it comes to celebrating their precious bambini). Elaborate ecclesiastical stage productions involving scores of kids are commonplace, with ceremonies lasting longer than the Oscars, and after-parties--with plenty of hifalutin loot--worthy of the Hilton sisters. Of course, this rite of passage didn't used to be such a babel-like behemoth. My husband remembers a solemn ceremony, brief enough, and a small rinfresco afterwards of plain cake and spumante with a few toothless, vellum-skinned, seldom-seen distant relatives--in addition to his immediate family--propped up in chairs lining the musty sala parocchiale. As gifts, he got an ordinary rosary, a small prayer book, and the Italian equivalent of a Mickey Mouse watch.

All the madness of the modern-day version of the event struck me--like a righteous fist--recently, as I walked past a party-supply store boasting a lurid, beribboned, Hindenburg-sized balloon (or mongolfiera) in the window, with "PRIMA COMUNIONE" stamped all over it in gold glitter. It had a cavernous gift basket attached to the bottom, the likes of which could carry a host of little holy rollers around the world in eighty days. Or more.

In reality, that basket is meant to hold a good half-ton of bomboniere, the sugar-coated almonds that traditionally are given as party favors to guests, these days in ever more elaborate and fanciful embroidered linen bundles. Inside each bundle is a little slip of paper with the name of the child and the date of her First Communion in calligraphy, lest you dare forget. Eager parents willingly spend a king's ransom on these bomboniere, and--as with much of the rest of Communion-mania--they have become increasingly secular in tone, and are often adorned with cartoon characters, action figures, or soccer balls and the like. Apparently we've reached that point in civilization when the Son of God needs a publicity boost from the likes of Hello Kitty.

But that's merely the start of the outpouring of cash--there's the fancy luncheon or dinner party to be thrown, the double-tiered gâteau or decadent millefoglie to be ordered from a good pasticceria, the expensive new duds for the ceremony, the trip to the salon for girls beforehand for hairstyling, manicures, and makeup. And then there are the gifts. I tell you, these little squirts make out like medieval sultans after a good plundering.

My baptism by fire, so to speak, was eight years ago when my eldest niece's first communion gala popped up on the calendar. I had absolutely no idea what I was in for--if I had, I would have immediately committed seppuku and been subsequently (and blissfully) absent from the whole affair. First, the gift fiasco: my husband and I had thought to give her a small gold cross necklace of the type that would be appropriate for a young girl to wear--something simple and sweet. Instead, we were requested by her parents (my depressingly bourgeois brother- and sister-in-law, otherwise known as the Bürgermeister and Frau Wiener) to chip in "as much as you can" (i.e. hundreds) for a diamond-encrusted, platinum cross pendant  from Bulgari or some such place. I was aghast. This was a bauble worthy of Elizabeth Taylor! (Me being fairly new to this country and to the family at the time, I bit my tongue and the bullet as well, nearly weeping over the loss of two-fifths of our monthly salary. Now, of course, I'd sooner eat a bicycle tire than let myself be coerced into gift-giving. I'd also relish the opportunity to explain to the hopelessly spoiled prospective communicant that you're not supposed to get what you want in this earthly life--that's what being Catholic is all about, goddammit).

In addition to this barbarism, I was forced to endure a hair-tearing three-hour ceremony in a packed-to-the-rafters mega-church, complete with musical numbers and tableaux vivants, and watch some sixty little sheep mince toward the altar where an official event photographer snapped each one posing with the resplendent, golden-robed priest and The Wafer (held aloft)--while Bette Midler's "You are the wind beneath my wings" blasted from the stereo system. My head was splitting, and I had to pee something fierce. Finally the infernal thing came to an end, erupting into a chaos of camera flashes and shouting, and in my delirium I wasn't sure if those kiddies had just been conjoined to the community of Christians or participated in an MTV awards ceremony.

After the elaborate five-course luncheon at a picturesque country restaurant, my imp-eyed niece began opening her gifts and passing them around the huge U-shaped table for us plebeians to see what riches our paychecks were capable of buying. I looked dazedly on while considering the pain-relieving effects of grappa: there was our necklace, smug in its black velvet case, as well as a lovely pair of sapphire earrings, a trendy rhinestone-studded watch, a silver and gold bracelet, and other gewgaws worthy of a maharani. Actually, she was more like the infant Christ turned Elton John and we were the adoring Magi come by way of Madison Avenue. In the years that followed, we enjoyed two more opportunities to dutifully--again at the behest of despotic parents--bestow fine jewelry (and a digital camera) upon my other nieces celebrating their first communion, and suffer through more protracted pageantry.

There may be some Quaker-like mean streak in me, but I can't help feeling that the true meaning of these ceremonies is lost in all the three-ring razzle-dazzle. When did holy get ditched for Hollywood? Don't get me wrong--I'm all for a bit of pomp if the circumstance calls for it, but I think we're drowning the baby in the bath water here.

Because Jesus Christ and Hello Kitty go so well together

Yet I fear we must reconcile ourselves to the onward march of the battalions of First Communion revelers, and resign ourselves to their Broadway-style sacramental blitzkrieg. It certainly seems to be an unstoppable force here in the Bel Paese--comprising as it does that bizarre and powerful mix of Catholicism and unbridled materialism upon which so many Italians seem to thrive. It suddenly occurs to me, though, that perhaps all this sturm und drang really has more to do with satisfying an urge which lies deep in the bowels of the Italian psyche--the boundless appetite for exhibition, the love of spectacle (along with a good party and plenty of good eats)--than anything else. I mean, think about it: why say, merely, "Violetta and Alfredo had a thing for each other," when you can perform La Traviata and bring down the house?

Indeed. Why merely have cake--or the body and blood of Christ, for that matter--when you can eat your cake and flaunt your diamonds, too?



* The above photo has been blatantly lifted from some Italian mum's blog, wherein she was just tickled pink and oozing self-satisfaction at having scored these babies.