Sunday, May 13, 2012

Festa della Mamma, Bürgermeister-style

Dear Readers,

Italy has Mother's Day, too. "Well, of course--duh!" you may very well say. This is, after all, the land where mamma-hood was practically invented, the land of the cult of the virgin Madonna (the mother of all mothers), and the land where mammoni lurk and smirk in every coffee bar.

To be honest, I don't know how most Italians traditionally celebrate this day--but my guess is that they don't take their colorfully-corsaged moms, grandmas and wives to crowded, busy restaurants for bloody marys and mimosas and a nice break from kitchen drudgery, like us folks Stateside do. But I hope they make a better show of it than my brother-in-law, the Bürgermeister, does.

Here's how it goes down in the C______ Compound:

The Bürgermeister calls the MIL a few days before to inform her that he's bringing Frau Wiener and their two daughters over to celebrate Mother's Day. The MIL asks what they'd like to eat and the Bürgermeister discusses the menu with her. The MIL--who's pushing eighty--busies herself with preparations. The Bürgermeister and Frau Wiener arrive in separate cars--the Environment be damned--and descend upon the cramped salotto with blasé pusses and ravenous appetites. They are served, as usual, by the MIL, who's swathed in one of her chintz smocks and shuffles hurriedly back and forth from steamy kitchen to laden table, while everybody else sits on their cans and stares at the TV. When it comes time for dessert, the Bürgermeister unwraps with a grand flourish the torta he's purchased (being sure to intone solemnly that it's from one of the very best pasticcerie in Florence) and places it in the center of the table. He may even cut a piece and hand it to the MIL. The MIL scarfs down a slice before jumping up to serve everyone coffee, and then begins clearing the table and the long ugly job of cleaning up.

"Festa della mamma un cazzo!"

By way of contrast, my husband--a fine man by any measure--made this American mamma a meal of tender sauteed mussels and flavor-packed salmone in cartoccio, plied me with a crisp Umbrian white, and capped off our little party with a delicious blackberry tart and a hearty shot of grappa. Not bad. Not bad at all.

And he did all the clean-up.

Which, of course, begs the question of whether or not he was left on the in-laws' doorstep as an infant by self-sufficient and ridiculously thoughtful aliens.



Friday, May 11, 2012

Junkyard Sally

Dear Readers,

I apologize for the lack of posts, but ol' Campobello has been feelin' tired. Listless. Limp. I've been enshrouded in a tabarro of ennui.

But something has roused me from my stupor--a sight so ridiculous, so farcical, so indicative of how my life here in Italy is so NOT Under the Tuscan Sun. Or even Eat, Pray, Love (well, except for the eating part).

One recent morning as I lingered at my kitchen window, which overlooks the shared courtyard and the in-laws' lair, I saw my MIL's pious, narrow rump thrust meekly heavenward as she bent over a large, thick paper baker's sack the size of a petulant child, which was on the ground in front of her door, and was rummaging around in it like a raccoon at the dumpster of a Dunkin Donuts in Bakersfield. (I know, I really should avoid gazing out the kitchen window, or at least paper it over with Hello Kitty decals--I see far too many unappetizing things there, like this and this, for instance).

My MIL gathers all the day-old bread from the nearby alimentari--which is regularly set aside for her or even dumped at her doorstep. This stale bread is ostensibly for the chickens and rabbits the FIL keeps, but hey, if it's good enough for beast and fowl then it's good enough for my in-laws. Dozens of sacks of the stuff lie around the house and yard (yes, she even crams them into her kitchen), the once-bread petrifying into the stuff bowling balls are made of. They eat this bread, of course--God forbid they should live a little and, in the land of heavenly cheap baked goods, buy it fresh every day. The MIL was always trying to foist this travesty of flour and water off on us, too--even squirreling it away in our house (before I finally took my keys back) while we were at work--until I put my foot down and said "LOOK, I DIDN'T MOVE ALL THE WAY TO ITALY TO EAT STALE, MOLDY BREAD!"

But, my friends, this is merely the tip of the stale iceberg.

The larger issue is that my in-laws are known in the neighborhood as the folks who will eat anything, gladly and greedily accept anyone-and-everyone's rejects, and never, ever throw anything away. The MIL, in particular, is known in these here parts as the Queen of Salvage, the Countess of Cast-offs, the Duchess of Drek. As I write, rats are doing the tarantella on a pile of ancient wool mattresses tossed into the old, open-air fienile--I believe the MIL's great great grandparents slept on them and they still may come in handy one day. The property is littered with ramshackle shacks full of--er--litter. Detritus. Junk. What have you. It's like Sanford and Son.

Their dual reputation for hoarding is legendary. Once I answered the phone at the MIL's and an old biddy from the 'hood said, "Tell your suocera I have some yogurt that's expired and I wondered if she wants it." She did.

I am not making this up.

Contractors and construction guys, upon gutting nearby houses, regularly pull into the courtyard with their trucks and dump all the debris into great, dusty piles while the FIL looks on with glee. Then he spends hours with his table saw reducing the rubble to manageable bits, and carts off the bigger, un-sawable behemoths in an ancient wheelbarrow to his hidden cache at the back of the property, underneath the old acqueduct.

Their intercom is always buzzing:

"Hello, I have some old toys [mildewed stuffed animals with missing ears, scary naked dolls with scissored hair and the eyes permanently rolled back in their sockets] and wondered if you want them for your grandkids?"

"Hi, I've got a wicker chair [the seat has been eaten away by weevils, but if you have cholera it could be useful]--you want it? It's still in good shape!"

"Buongiorno, my mother finally died [in bed, and it wasn't pretty] and I don't know what else to do with her bedsheets. Will you take them?"

"Hey, I've got this set of cookware [a chipped set of crockery from the 1970's, festooned with flowers the color of which is not to be found in Nature, lids missing] and I hate to throw it away. Do you want it?"

All to which my MIL answers eagerly--a kind of perverse, dross-gathering Molly Bloom--"Yes, yes, yes and YES!"

A piece of freakish flotsam washed up on the MIL's effluvia-strewn shore
(It's been sitting there, creepily, for eight months now.
It smells like cat pee and my children are forbidden to touch it). 

Lucky me. I've landed in the one place in beautiful, heart-searingly scenic Italy where you can--upon seeing it and marveling that it hasn't been condemned as a squatters' den/gypsy camp/health code violation--quote Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest with absolute conviction:

Yeah, literally.

Yours from the scrap heap,