Thursday, March 10, 2011
Reflections on artichokes
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