Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reflections on artichokes

Dear Readers,

One of the things I love about Spring's first tentative footfalls is the advent of the artichoke. The tema, the morelli--lovely, petite, and as tender as young maidens--I'd much rather be presented with a prickly bouquet of these amiable thistles than any vainglorious flower.

A recent lunch with the effervescent and erudite Patricia of Tillie's Tuscan Table began with one of my favorite dishes: a deliciously astringent salad of thinly-sliced raw artichokes, delicate shavings of parmigiano, and scattered tendrils of arugula. Among many things, we talked of what we, as expats, like about living in Italy. Patricia--in her inimitable way--proclaimed, "Italy's the only place that will support my wine habit." There followed an impassioned discussion of the mind-boggling array of cheap, excellent-quality wines that are ours for the taking. Then I looked down at my plate and said, "Artichokes. Like this. That's what I love about Italy."

And, I must say, I love a lunch like that: the artichokes followed by a thick t-bone of wood-charred veal--so juicy I could cry just thinking about it--accompanied by perfect roasted potatoes and a dish of teasingly bitter, velvety spinach. A carafe of honest house red. Simple things, in season--this is the kind of alchemy at which Italy still excels.

To my companion, I added, "I like living in Italy because my kids get to grow up eating like this. That and the fact that they're unlikely to get shot while in their classroom." The cultural hegemony of the Happy Meal and the Glock 9 has yet to encroach upon this sunny peninsula, thank God.

But, I'm torn. Expat life is complicated--at least for me. On the one hand I seem to be ruled by my gluttonous tendencies and my penchant for old buildings, on the other I often experience a longing so intense that it is at times overwhelming. For home soil? All the soothing right angles of America? The deep comfort of English? The allure of other, as yet unexplored, continents? Yes. For sure. But there's something else.

Tim Parks talks of a sort of "structural conflict" inherent in the expats' life. One of its more obvious aspects is living in a foreign language. He says that he arrived in Verona not speaking a word of Italian, and now he lectures in Italian, and lectures on translating from English into Italian (a most difficult kind of translating). "And every moment, every word I speak, I'm on guard against mistakes, I'm listening to correct my accent. It will never be quite right." Even after some thirty-odd years! But I completely understand him--this constant schism in the brain is fatiguing.

Yet he--as do I--loves Italian. "It has become my destiny," he says, "My whole life is tied up with Italy. And I hate it. I hate it for having become my destiny. For taking up so much space."

For taking up so much space. Sometimes I just want to take the world I inhabit for granted. I don't want to have to think about it. I want all that space which Italy occupies in my life to be freed up, to make room for something--anything--else.

But I'd wager I'm kind of spoiled now, even ruined, so to speak. I'm used to the daily challenges, the fish-out-of-water feeling, the fact that I'm always being forced to learn new things and reflect on the culture in which I find myself. I realize that I may very well be addicted to the expat life--if that space were empty, I'd likely grieve the loss. "Would I get better," Parks wonders, "if I went back to the UK and lived a monochrome English life? Or would I just have the same problem the other way round? Yearning for Italy. Most likely the damage, like the benefits, is irreversible now."*

I often think of moving on; I have a restless nature. Who knows what landscapes the future holds, or what my latitude and longitude will be? It's exciting to contemplate. For now, though, the artichokes beckon and I come to the table--hungry and willing to be satisfied.



*Tim Parks, Teach Us to Sit Still

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Sociable medicine

Dear Readers,

Sundry winter ills have recently propelled me into the labyrinthine Italian healthcare system, or Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, which, I might add [insert oozing sarcasm] is always a pleasure. To me, partaking of this [insert oozing sarcasm again] service is often like being inside Waiting for Godot for all eternity.

But I'm not going to write about all the waiting, the telephoning, the accruing and distributing of certificates and papers, the take-a-number machines, the dingy offices, the vacant-faced medical personnel, etc. What I want to tell you about is the realization--or revelation?--I had that all the elaborate machinations of the system exist in order to give Italy's inordinately large population of old farts--or geriatric mafia--a social life. You see, the more you are forced to hang out in doctors' offices and clinics, the more chances you get to trade grisly anatomical chit-chat with your fellow snowy-domed sufferers.

For example, the doctor's waiting-room I was recently prisoner to was full of black-clad decrepits in shapeless parkas and sturdy shoes, all hacking ostentatiously as if they had tuberculosis, sighing heavily, and bemoaning their fate to those around them:

"Maria Santa, I haven't slept in days!"
"I have The Fever!" (La febbre is always intoned ominously as if one were invoking Satan)
"I can't have a bowel movement!"
"My liver hurts!"
"I've had the runs for a week!"
"My hemorrhoids are acting up!"
"O Dio, I'm unable to swallow!"

These proclamations always elicit sympathetic responses, followed by a curious one-upmanship:

"Well, I haven't had regular bowel movements for thirty years!"
"Well, my pee is purple!"
"Well, the ringing in my ears sounds like the intro to Porta a porta!"

This is a by-product of living in a Catholic country, of course. Suffering is expected, enjoyed even. Since you claim your Celestial Sweepstakes prize in the next, eternal life, you may as well wallow in your own misery in this more temporal existence. And be sure to tell everybody about it (no Anglo-American reticence here, thank you very much!)--indeed, why not compete with your neighbors to see who suffers most? I get the feeling these old folks believe that the size of their eternal reward shall be directly proportionate to the amount of physical suffering they have endured here on earth. Thus, according to geriatric logic, varicose veins equals a meagerly-appointed, single room in Heaven's hostel, while inflamed boils combined with gout and perhaps the insertion of a pacemaker garners a deluxe suite in God's five-star spa & resort, complete with cherubic-cheeked cabana boys serving drinks with paper umbrellas in them, poolside.

There's no shame whatsoever in the body's afflictions, in fact it's all part of polite conversation. When I see a neighbor on the street and volley a perfunctory "hello, how are you?" in passing, I am often stopped and served up a hair-raising tale of invasive surgical procedures, squamous skin conditions with frightening Latin names, harrowing infections of biblical perniciousness, and other torments of the damned. Once, when I went to a neighbor's apartment to return something I'd borrowed, I was met at the door by her harried elderly mother (she lives with her parents, of course) who said, "Oh! Please, wait only a moment--I was just giving my husband an enema. I'll be right back." I then spent an agonizing ten minutes on the threshold, trying not to imagine the goings-on down the corridor, desiring with every fiber of my being to creep back down the stairs, but forced by some perverse sense of etiquette to listen to an enema being administered to--from the sound of things--a most recalcitrant old man. Presently the barrel-shaped Signora returned, huffing and snapping her rubber gloves off crisply, and said, "Now, what is it you wanted?" I tossed her the parcel and fled.

If you listen closely, dear Readers, you will hear it. Like the constant drone of motorini, the never-ending raga of the ailments of the nation's elderly can be heard in every doctor's office, clinic, alimentari, beauty salon, bank, city street or piazza. Blood-pressure and white blood-cell counts, toe fungus, swollen ankles, inert thyroids, osteoporosis--the moribund music is pervasive. What's fit only for the ears of trained medical personnel in other parts of the world is, I repeat, fodder for everyday conversation in the Bel Paese.

I suppose one could view all this senile social interaction as part of the charm of Italy, indicative of a slower pace of life that allows lonely, chatty septuagenarians and their ilk the chance to feel connected to those around them, evidence of a fast-fading way of life that is bound to go the route of the brontosaurus. I suppose one could smile beneficently when a harpy-voiced old crone chirps out the state of her much-belabored intestinal tract in a dull, five-by-six-foot unheated room packed with germ-ridden supplicants. It's enchanting really.

To give yet another example--while standing in line at the pharmacy last week to fill a prescription, I had to wait fifteen minutes while the potato-faced geezer in front of me regaled the pharmacist with the excruciating details of his cataract surgery. And she didn't care one whit that I was waiting (perhaps even in dire need of life-saving medicines), but seemed to be really enthusiastically listening. I shuffled my feet, shifted my weight from one leg to the other, looked at my watch--to no avail. Cataract Man would have his say.
The chosen people

But who am I to criticize, to cast aspersions (and acerbic aspersions, at that)? I know that someday I, too, will be old. And then I, too, may gain great pleasure in recounting at length to the pharmacist (or anyone who will listen) the story of my recent hip-replacement surgery or my losing battle with incontinence--while a host of impatient souls in line behind me riddle my back with imaginary daggers as they wait fruitlessly to fill their prescriptions.

I do believe I shall relish it.