I never used to cry. I mean, first I never used to cry in that slightly unhealthy maybe-you-need-a-little-therapy-and-some-getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings way. Then I never used to cry in that hipster I’m-your-sassy-best-girlfriend way. Then I never used to cry in that pragmatic it’s-just-how-I-am way.
Now I cry at the drop of a hat. I have the frustration tolerance of an overtired two-year old who had Cocoa Pebbles for both breakfast and lunch and Wants. Them. For. Dinner. I cry about my dry cleaning getting lost, my telephone bill being exorbitant, and my dentist running 40 minutes late. I tear up at PTA meetings, at the car mechanic, and the police station.
Last week I was on the phone with a vendor negotiating some details of a contract and we disagreed about the conditions in one of the clauses. The conversation was getting heated, though remained—I thought—cordial, until out of the blue the vendor announced he felt under attack, wasn’t used to clients treating him this way, and that I should take my business elsewhere. At which point I very professionally began to sob. With him on the phone. Mortifying, wracking, nose-blowing sobbing.
And I remembered a scene that once when down when my son was a toddler and we were driving home late from a birthday party. He piped up from the backseat, “Mamma, what’s a thaw?” And I said, “A what, sweetie?” “A thaw.” “A thaw?” “No, a THAW!” And I kept asking him to repeat himself and telling him I couldn’t understand his question, and he kept repeating the same word and getting increasingly agitated until I finally said, “Hey, mister, no yelling at Mamma, please. I don’t like getting yelled at.” At which point he began to sob. Desperate, pathetic, heart-breaking sobbing. So awful that I had to pull over, climb into the backseat with him, and figure out what the question was to calm him down. (“Is it a toy? Is it something we eat? Is it an animal?” “No, Mamma! It’s the little light that does twinkle, twinkle in the sky!”).
I recently got an email from a fellow expat here in Italy who stumbled upon my blog. She wrote, to summarize, “You seem so upbeat about expat life. I am having a really hard time. What’s the matter with me?” And I felt terribly guilty, because I recall those months after having my first child when I was reading all the books and magazines about how wonderful motherhood was while I spent my days alternately crying and raging and felt like somehow I was doing something wrong was being denied boarding on the Happy Mom Express. So, I’m going to step away from the sunny schtick for just a second and talk honestly about the dark side of expat life.
And to PL: There’s nothing the matter with you. It’s tough sometimes. Keep the faith, kiddo.
Remember that adage about Ginger doing everything Fred did, but backwards and in heels? Well, that’s what my days are like. All the craziness that being a working mother who is active in the community and full of social commitments entails–but in a second language. And I’m not bilingual, so expressing myself in Italian still requires concentration, lucidity, and energy. It’s exhausting, frankly. There are times when I get to end of the day mentally devastated, which means that any tiny glitch seems like A Big Effing Deal.
Sometimes I just simply don’t have the linguistic and cultural finesse to express myself how I’d like. I accidentally step on toes, I offend, I come off as too aggressive or too indifferent, or I can’t get my message across. Or, on the flip side, I sense that I am losing in translation a subtle shading that I just can’t manage to put into focus, like a flickering shadow right outside my field of vision. And the harder I try, the more elusive it seems until I am so discouraged and overwhelmed I go into nuclear meltdown.
There is much existential solitude in being an expat, even when I spend my day surrounded by people. I certainly have dear friends who are Italian, there will always be some cultural gaps that no amount of affection or familiarity can bridge. I also have dear friends who are fellow foreigners, but the expat diaspora is varied and saying that the mere fact of being two Americans living in Italy is enough foundation to build a friendship is like saying that the mere fact of possessing double X chromosomes means that women world-over are united in loving sisterhood (whereas there are, honestly, many bitches out there I would love to slap. Coulter, watch your back.) or the mere fact of holding a passport from the same nation should have kept the Serbs and Croats from going at each other’s throats. When you feel like you are von Trier in a nation of Spielbergs, the tears can sometimes come easily.
I’m Treated Like a Two Year Old
I speak Italian like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader. So, inevitably, I tend to get treated like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader. Which is galling, because I consider myself pretty sharp (in an obtuse sort of way), rather articulate (in a bad speller sort of way), and relatively capable (in a screw-up sort of way). It puts my teeth on edge to have people—with kind intentions, make no mistake—explain the obvious to me slowly and using simple words. Because it’s humiliating. And humiliated people are often not the most even-keeled. See: long world history of social uprisings.
I’m Second-Guessing Myself
Sometimes I look at my life and wonder what it is exactly I’ve been doing over the past 17 years while all of my friends back in the States seem to have been busy building fabulous careers in amazing places using the latest electronic gadgets. My only solace is the knowledge that they look at me and wonder what they’ve been doing over the past 17 years while I’ve been busy building a fabulous career in an amazing place while not slave to the latest electronic gadgets. Seriously, Italy can be a tough place to have a rewarding career even if you are Italian, fluent, well-connected, and big time lucky (even Pier Luigi Celli (the former director of the RAI) advised his son to leave Italy in an open letter citing nepotism and lack of prospects for young professionals. If Celli Jr. can’t land a decent job here, the rest of us truly are chopped liver.). It’s hard to feel like you are spending your time spinning your wheels and perhaps Italy isn’t all you dreamed it would be, even if the food is fabulous.
So why am I still here? The truth is that my experience has been, despite all the whining and crabbing above, ultimately rewarding. It’s a challenge, but so are most gratifying things in life–from building a lasting relationship to being a good parent to making a difference as a volunteer to having a successful professional or creative life. There are days when the fatigue and frustration and loneliness wash over me in pounding waves and I find myself coughing and sputtering for air, but those days are rarer. Most days my glass is half full and I’m able to look back at everything I’ve learned and everything I’ve accomplished since I moved here in 1993 and think, “Damn, girl.”
There is how the Big Boys do it, and there is how we do it. Wine, that is.
The Big Boys carefully plan their vineyard and select grape varieties appropriate for the soil, sun exposure, and altitude. They take great care in cultivating the delicate vines: pruning the shoots, selecting the stronger plants, replanting old or weak vines. They consult with botanists, agronomists, viticulturists, and agricultural historians. They monitor and treat for mold and insect damage.
Our grapes, of the select "uh, who knows?" variety.
We just go with whatever my husband’s grandfather planted together with his brother 40 years ago on a piece of land near the house that they chose because they eyeballed it figured it looked sunny enough, given that we are on the north side of Mount Subasio. We occasionally fill in the gaps left where vines have died, but only when it gets to be a couple in a row. If you ask my father-in-law what grape varieties he has, he will respond: Red and White. When pressed, he will concede with a nonchalant shrug that there are probably Sangiovese, Merlot, and Sagrantino vines planted, and white Malvasia grapes and “Boh, something else but I can’t remember” grapes. Mold and insect damage get noticed and commented on at the dinner table.
Filled bins, waiting in a line like soldiers about to be shipped to the Western Front.
The Big Boys organize their grape harvest using white lab-jacketed professionals who begin to pick after monitoring the level of sugar, acid, and pH of the grapes. Clusters of grapes are selected according to their stage of ripeness over a period of days, and overripe or damaged fruit is attentively weeded out. The grapes get carefully placed in small crates which are sorted by variety and loaded on flatbed trailers to be transported to the winery with minimum damage and bruising.
Zio Gino, our oldest picker.
Nicolò, our youngest picker.
Our grape harvest includes Zio Gino, Zia Viola, our neighbors, my inlaws, my nine and six year old sons, and occasionally sporting guests at Brigolante and is begun after tasting a couple of grapes to see if they are sweet and monitoring the weather report on Rai Uno. The vineyard is stripped of every cluster of grape over an afternoon regardless of ripeness, lest it begin to rain or run into dinner time. The grapes are chucked indiscriminately into big 50 gallon plastic garbage pails (which we use only for this purpose), and then loaded onto the back of the tractor where they make the bouncing and bumping trip back to the garage.
My father-in-law Ugo's hi-tech harvesting tools.
The Big Boys then proceed to destem, crush, ferment, and press the grapes, sorted by variety, in gleaming modern cantine with stainless steel mechanical equipment and small chemistry laboratories used to monitor and adjust sugar, yeast, and alcohol. The rooms are temperature controlled to calibrate the speed of fermentation, and after the must is pressed the wine is stored in massive stainless steel vessels or new oak barrels for the remainer of the secondary fermentation and aging…under careful watch by the vitner’s enologist who runs periodic tests checking the status of the wine: pH, titratable acidity, residual sugar, free or available sulfur, total sulfur, volatile acidity and percent alcohol.
Our grapes ready to give their life for a bigger cause. Notice the odd white cluster. Eh, just toss it in!
After much swearing and searching for an adapter for the German plug, we fire up our little mechanical crusher/destemmer in the garage and set it on two wooden planks above a big plastic vat the size of a Jacuzzi. (We don’t have a Jacuzzi, of course, but I’ve seen them.) First the white grapes all get tossed in, and the must immediately passed to our old wooden basket press, which is cranked by hand either by my father-in-law or my older son, depending upon if it’s a school day. The white wine is immediately trasferred to the fiberglass vat to ferment and age, because none of us like white that much so if it doesn’t come out that great no one cares. Then the red grapes all get tossed in to be destemmed and crushed, and stay there fermenting in the vat with an old wool plaid blanket thrown over the top to try and keep the temperature warm enough in the cold garage. Every day or two my father-in-law tosses a saccharometer (which looks kind of like a floating candy thermometer and measures the sugar content) in there to see how things are going, but since his eyes aren’t that good and both my husband and I have grave doubts as to whether he actually knows how to read the calibration even if he could see the tiny markings, it’s pretty much a crap shoot. When we notice all the neighbors pressing, we figure we may as well. Then the wine gets stored in big old wooden barrels next to the washing machine and the tool bench for a couple of months.
Tossing the grapes into the crusher/destemmer.
The Big Boys polish their wines with blending and fining, and stabilize them with preservatives and filtration. Often, the results are—unsurprisingly–fabulous. Their wines are bottled in new glass wine bottles, labeled beautifully and informatively, and shipped all over the world.
This is much more fun than going to school.
We open up the taps at the bottom of our barrels and vat in the spring, and drink whatever comes out. Sometimes it’s suitable for nothing more than dressing a salad, together with olive oil and salt. Sometimes the results are—surprisingly–fabulous. We fill pitchers with our rough farmer’s red that we set on the table for mealtimes directly from the vats, or bottle some in bottles we’ve washed and put aside from store bought wines, which we then manually cork and stick a label on that I print off a Word document on my computer. Our wine is incredibly instable; just the altitude difference between our house and the valley under Assisi is enough to make it turn. Which means we drink it all here, just friends, family, guests, and the odd passer-by.
And I’d rather have that than be a Big Boy any day.
When summer begins to bleed into fall and the days alternate between earth-soaking downpours and warm, sunny skies you know it’s just a matter of hours before they appear. Brightly colored or camouflaged in browns and greys, in groups or by themselves, tall and thin or squat and round, behind every tree trunk, under every shrub, they cover the forest floor and leave no doubt as to what season is about to begin.
Yes, foraging for wild mushrooms is such a popular pastime in Umbria that at times it seems like the hunters outnumber the hunted. From late summer through fall until the first frosts draw the season to a close, the woods and meadows all across Umbria are invaded by basket-toting funghi devotees with their eyes fixed on the ground and their ears pricked for encroachers. It’s a competitive sport, and like all sports has its rules—written and unwritten.
A sure sign that fall is here
A Place of One’s Own
Every mushroomer in Umbria has their special spot, and much cloak-ing and dagger-ing goes on to guard the exact coordinates as closely as if they were an Eye’s Only state secret. Lifelong mushroomers remain more faithful to their mushrooming location than to their spouse. My own father-in-law will leave the house with his basket in the crook of his elbow and, with a furtive look and rather transparent subterfuge, head off on foot in one direction only to double back once out of sight and disappear into a completely different wood. (I only know this because my husband, aka my father-in-law’s sole offspring and heir, watches him from the house through binoculars, hoping for clues as to where his father’s secret mushrooming spot is. Because he’s never been told.)
Not only are you faithful to your spot because you know it to be a particularly fertile one, but also because the toxicity of many mushrooms can be very terroir specific. Meaning, to you novices out there, that a mushroom which is perfectly good to eat in one part of Umbria may be slightly toxic in another based on soil chemistry. So, not only is it good to know your ‘shroom, but it’s also good to know your dirt.
You gotta have a basket. Because it looks more folksy than a plastic shopping bag from the Eurospin Discount and because the Man says you have to have a basket so spores can fall out and re-seed the forest floor. You gotta have a little pocket knife. Because any excuse is a good one to have a cool little pocket knife and because the Man says you have to have a little knife so you can leave a small piece of mushroom on the ground when you pick it to keep the forest floor producing. You gotta have one of those vests with about 17 pockets commonly worn by fishermen and the homeless. Because that seems to be the uniform. I don’t think the Man has anything to do with it, but everyone seems to have gotten the memo. You gotta have a permit (if you’re not a resident). Because the Man needs his tax money. This I only found out because once my husband and I were surprised by a Forest Service jeep on one of the rare times we’ve strayed from our own special spot ( I acquired rights by marriage), and my husband hissed, “Hit the deck!” Which I did, and commenced to combat crawl to the nearest ditch, where I hissed, “Why are we hiding?” “Because we don’t have a permit for Valtopina!” “How expensive could the fine possibly be?” “Who cares about the fine?!? They’ll confiscate our mushrooms!”
An official basket. Note the mushroom to leaf/dirt ratio. A seasoned mushroomer doesn't waste time cleaning off the prey while foraging.
The Pecking Order
There are mushrooms and then there are mushrooms. Based on their flavor, use, and how common they are, different mushrooms carry different street cred to a real connoisseur. One of the thrills of foraging is meeting back up at home with everyone else who has gone out hunting for the afternoon and dumping the contents of your basket with the air of a poker player showing his hand. As each basket is dumped, the contents are examined and there is inevitably an air of The Gambler as winners and losers are made around the table.
Use your imagination...it could seem like little hands reaching out of the ground.
The pecking order also loosely follows the altitude at which they are found. Pinaroli, which grow in clumps under certain conifers, can be found even on the valley floor and are considered a last resort mushroom, to be picked solely in case of emergency—i.e. the shame of returning home with a completely empty basket. Working your way up the mountain, Manine (they carry this nickname because with a little squinting and a lot of creative imagination these vaguely coral-shaped mushrooms might resemble little hands) come next…relatively mild flavored and best used in pasta sauce. When you start coming home with a basket full of Lardelli, Carpinelli, Biscetti, Peperoni, and Biette, you can hold your head high. These are flavorful mushrooms which can be roasted over the coals or conserved in oil for antipasti during the winter. Gallinelli (chanterelles) and Porcini are, of course, the reigning kings of mushrooms and two nicely sized Porcini and a handful of Gallinelli will trump an entire basketful of mushrooms from a lower suit. These are wonderful in risotto or simply sauteéd with olive oil and garlic. But just one Turino, rare and found only at the highest points of the pre-Appenine hills, will shame all the rest. This tender, snowy-white mushroom is so flavorful (and digestible) that you can eat it raw, sliced paper-thin and dressed with nothing more than a few drops of olive oil.
These Porcini trump almost anything else
Don’t Be a Hero
The stakes are high when foraging, and I’m not talking about pride. Every mushroomer I know has a story that runs somewhere along the spectrum from death, to near death, to permanent liver damage, to seriously ill, to minor-ahem-plumbing problems. Only life-long foragers who are very familiar with the local terrain should be trusted to separate the edible from the lethal; even after all these years of mushrooming I have the contents of my basket carefully checked before eating them. I have had an entire basket of good mushrooms tossed because I had inadvertantly picked a mushroom so toxic that simply the contact of carrying it in the same basket put the others at risk of contamination. And the risk is never worth it. Believe me. When they’re good, they’re very, very good. But when they’re bad, their deadly.
A few weeks ago, our little hamlet held what comes closest in rural Umbria to a block party, if by block party one includes events that begin with Mass, end with a costumed drum corp, and have tables laden for food for the 150 guests (though only 11 actually live on the block). We had guests staying at Brigolante on the Sunday of the party, and—as we do every year—we invited them to come join in for food and fun. As one of the party’s organizers, I spent the evening serving food, filling glasses, herding children, hunting down extra chairs, bantering and gesticulating, joining in when the accordian started busting out with Ecco maggio, è venuto! and pretty much leaving our American and English guests to fend for themselves, which they did with aplomb.
Our block party begins with Mass
And ends with a drum corp!
The next morning one said to me, “Wow, you sure have assimilated after all this time living here!” which stopped me short. Have I?
1. to be or become absorbed.
I am coming up on my 40th birthday (Though they say that 40 is the new 30, which is fine by me. While we’re at it, can we throw in grey is the new honey-colored highlights and muffin-top is the new six pack?), and predictably I’ve been reflecting about where I am in my life…a large part of which is the experience of being an expat. In fact, in just a few short years I will have lived more years outside my home country than inside. I would love to say that I have assimilated, that I have become so seamlessly absorbed into the culture and language here in rural Umbria as to be virtually interchangeable with someone who was born and bred here. But I know that’s not the case.
Culturally (let’s not even get into the language issue) I will always be set apart. I may live here another decade or another half century, but there are some fundamental differences in world view that are so part of who I was before I arrived here that no number of years could change. I see this in how I raise my children, who I gently but constantly edge toward the side of the nest to test their wings while Umbrian parents tend to gather their own children as tightly as possible under their own wings. I see this in how I divide the gender related work in our nuclear family, and even in how I identify a nuclear family separately from one which includes second or third generations. I see this in how I instinctively—and surely naively–trust institutions of government and administration instead of viewing every figure of authority with automatic suspicion. I see this in my cravings and comfort foods, which are completely different than the craving and comfort foods of most Umbrians I know. I have yet to meet an Umbrian who has craved a bagel and I will never–never, I say–crave Maccheroni Dolci.
I have not assimilated, and never will. Over time I have come to peace with this…in the big soup pot that is Umbria, I will always be the odd bit of turnip. But I am part of the soup, so perhaps I have integrated.
1. to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole.
I can’t deny that I participate in public life here. I have never been a shrinking violet, and that didn’t change once I moved. I actively and vocally volunteer in my sons’ schools, I have worked with charitable organizations organizing drives, I have taken salsa dance classes and scrapbooking classes and photography classes and kickboxing classes. I have participated in the comunity theater and the parish. And during all of those activities, I have made many, many acquaintances and also some dear friends. But does that mean I have integrated?
My idea of integration presumes a contribution of ideas or beliefs or customs or recipes or secret handshakes or anything of the like—something of yours that has been adopted and incorporated into the bigger picture. Sure, I have done my civic duty, taken my classes, kicked the piss out of the punching bag, but always within the parameters of what was acceptable and expected in each context. No revolutions happened, no innovation, no newly minted traditions.
I have been a worker bee—an important member of the hive, but one known less for lofty improvements and more for humble adaptation.
1. to adjust oneself to different conditions, environment, etc.
If I have honed any skill over the past 17-odd years, it has been that of being a chameleon. I can be the bantering and gesticulating waitress at the block party. I can be the mom fretting about her sweating son getting a fever at the soccer game. I can be the pizza dough recipe swapping housewife in the schoolyard. I can be the graciously nodding and assenting professional’s wife at the business dinner. I can be the sunny and welcoming hostess at work. I can be the polite tongue-biting foreigner at the police station. I can be, and often am, all of these things in the space of a few hours.
A life far from your home culture is one of constant adjustment, like the fine tuning of the dials on a radio to get just the right music to fit every situation. It’s a talent, but it’s also hard work. The bottom line is that I am a guest here in Umbria, and good guests don’t pick fights at the dinner table, aren’t rude to the hosts, and leave the bathroom clean–even if what they really want to do is debate politics, spit out the awful roast, and forget to flush—to avoid being ostracized and even more isolated than what they already are as the odd man out. Or, even worse, projecting that fate on their half-foreign children.
Are any of these chameleon colors I wear really who I am, or are they all who I am? Where, in the life of constant accomodation and adaptation do you bend so out of your original shape that you find you can no longer get back to it? Or is what seems like shape-changing really just growth? With the accumulated wisdom of 40 years, I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea.
So, I’m a turnip. No, I’m a worker bee. No, I’m a chameleon.
They have been telling me all this time that their traditional bread is an acquired taste. That, my friends, in a gross falsehood. I have been here close to 20 years, and it is still one of the biggest disappointments of my overseas move to Italy, second perhaps only to the discovery that one does not transform into a sultry mediterranean seductress simply through a process of cellular osmosis by living in a country inhabited by sultry mediterranean seductresses. Apparently, you are either born Sophia Loren or you are not.
Traditionally, Umbrian bread (also known as pane comune) is made with three ingredients: flour, yeast, and water. And, not surprisingly, once baked it tasted like flour, mixed with a little yeast and water. To someone who has grown up with the neighborhood Italian bakery hawking freshly baked “Italian bread”– that wonderfully aromatic thick baguette-type loaf with a moist, chewy, flavorful crumb and a crisp, flaky, glazed crust—this saltless low loaf with its dense, dry crumb and hard, tough crust is blasphemy.
Artisan baker wood fired oven baked bread has a moister crumb and a slightly sourdough flavor: edible.
Why do Umbrians still remain faithful to their traditional bread, especially now that fabulous Tuscan bread (closer to what the world associates with “Italian bread”) and Neapolitan bread (with a slightly chewier crumb and dark crust) is easily found? One explanation is historical: in the mid-1500s, Pope Paul III imposed a hefty tax on salt to increase revenue from his Papal States (which included present-day Umbria). Rather than pay up, the inhabitants simply began making their bread without salt, and the tradition still continues. That said, Umbrians routinely used leeches to bleed their ailing brethren, but over the centuries came to the conclusion that perhaps that wasn’t the best idea. So history and tradition can’t be the sole reason.
Bread baked by a bakery in a conventional oven: given a choice between this and death, edible.
What it really comes down to is this: bland Umbrian bread is the perfect foil for traditional Umbrian cooking. In fact, when eaten how nature—and centuries of culinary tradition– intended, this otherwise sad excuse for a loaf becomes, well, delicious. Before I tell you the secret of its transformation, let me be clear that there is Umbrian bread and then there is Umbrian bread. Traditional Umbrian bread made by an artisan baker in a wood fired oven is, given certain preconditions, edible. Traditional Umbrian bread made by a bakery in a regular oven is, given the choice between that and death, edible. Traditional Umbrian bread of the variety made by big commercial bakeries and sold at the supermarket shrinkwrapped in plastic is inedible. Period.
La scarpetta is, simply put, when you use a piece of bread to wipe the remaining sauce off your plate and pop it in your mouth. It is one of those behaviors that is both considered impolite yet universally tolerated, as everyone recognizes it as one of the pure joys of human existence. Sort of like putting your feet up on the coffee table after Thanksgiving dinner. Umbrian bread is perfect for la scarpetta. As it has virtually no flavor of its own, the bread lets the strong flavors of traditional Umbrian sauces, many made with game, shine through. Rather than a foodstuff, consider it a mode of sauce transportion. An edible fork, if you will.
Umbrian cured meats—primarily prosciutto, but also salame, capocollo, salsiccie secche, guanciale, and coppa—are intensely flavorful and aromatic, and also tend to be heavily salted. The traditional recipe of 1-1-1 (one finger width bread slice to one finger width coldcuts to one finger width bread slice) would be overwhelming if a more savory type of bread were used. Again, with a good quality wood-oven baked loaf, a simple bread and Norcia prosciutto sandwich with a swig of farmer’s red to wash it down is one of life’s gastronomic epiphanies.
Okay, it’s broo-SKET-ta, folks. I don’t want to hear any of that broo-SCHE -ta going on. If I needed only one single reason to defend the continued existence of Umbrian bread, this would be it. With its dense crumb, Umbrian bread takes well to being sliced and toasted over wood coals (the best way to make bruschetta) without breaking apart and soaks up just the right amount of olive oil to strike the delicate balance between dry and dripping-down-your-forearm. The bread’s lack of flavor means you don’t miss one hint of fruity or grassy or spicy or fresh or mellowed extra-virgin olive oil, and you can pick things up with more or less salt sprinkled on top and, though the purist jury is out, a clove of garlic rubbed over the top. The role that traditional Umbrian bread plays in constructing the perfect slice of bruschetta is enough to redeem it, in my book.
It grows on you.
Hmm…now that I think about it, I have acquired a bit of a taste for this region’s bread. Okay, okay. I guess the Umbrians haven’t lied after all.
The same sorry scene repeats itself 364 days a year at my house. My children do not want to bathe. They beg, they plead, they cry, they bargain. They act as if they are being denied a basic human right to choose filth. (For any scientists out there still searching for the missing link between the animal kingdom and homo erectus, I’m here to tell you that it is little boys. Roughly between the ages of 3 and 30.) But one day a year, that magical 365th day, they literally can’t wait to hop in the tub– the feast day of John the Baptist. For this reason alone I would have voted for his canonization.
The feast day of John the Baptist—La Festa di San Giovanni Battista—falls on June 24th, and on the eve of this holy day we spend an hour walking the fields and meadows around our house along with our Umbrian neighbors gathering petals of wildflowers, snippets of herbs, and scented leaves (tradition holds that there should be one hundred varieties gathered, but we start to fudge our numbers about an hour into the project) which we then soak in water in a small tub overnight to prepare the traditional acqua di San Giovanni. Our assortment includes flowers in season (broom, rose, lavender, chamomile), herbs from our garden (rosemary, mint, thyme, sage), and aromatic plants along the country roads (bay, walnut, wild fennel).
Our flower and herb mix soaking in water
The important ingredient–and the one which often seems to be the most wily, almost always involving wading through thorny brambles in shorts to get at it–is, of course, l’erba di San Giovanni or St. John’s Wort.
The elusive St. John's wort
The soaking flowers and herbs are left outside during the entire night preceding the feast day for two important reasons. First, tradition holds that during the night the Madonna and Saint John pass to leave their benediction on the profumed water, the power of which can stay curses, envy, and harmful charms—especially those directed towards children—and ward off demons and witches. And, second, it is imperitive that the infusion be moistened by the first dew the next morning. The guazza, or dew, which settles during the night of Saint John has long been thought to have mystical powers. Surely tied to ancient pagan beliefs surrounding the summer solstice and the increased potency of the four elements (earth, wind, fire and water) during that night, even today you hear the aforism: La guazza di Santo Gioanno fa guarì da ogni malanno or “St. John’s dew cures all ills”.
There are numerous traditions tied to the supposed powers of St. John’s dew, which represents the tears of Salome crying over the death of John the Baptist. In various parts of Italy cloths were once laid out overnight to soak up the dew, which was then wrung out and used for its curative powers. It is also said that there is no better night to make a wish than the night of St. John…you simply have to sleep outdoors with an object which symbolizes your heart’s desire. The object will be moistened by the dew come morning, and your wish is sure to come true.
Smiling faces ready for their bath. A miracle!
And so, the morning of the 24th, we all gather around our small basin of profumed acqua di San Giovanni. I go first, rinsing my face and hands (sure, I may not be a believer, but the powers of the water are supposed to be especially beneficial to the skin and anything that can stave off wrinkles is worth a go, in my book). Then the rest is poured into the tub and mixed with warm water from the tap and my sons hop in, happily splashing each other, tossing petals on the floor, and generally making a big mess.
Fun in the tub with l'acqua di San Giovanni
But they come out smelling of flowers and herbs, tradition and belief, blessings and health. And the fact that there was no kicking and screaming about washing is proof enough that l’acqua di San Giovanni works miracles!
There are a few fundamental truths which, once you become a parent, crystallize and form the primary touchstones of your existence. For example, sacks of oranges and cattle prods are all fine and dandy, but if you want real torture try walking barefoot across a cotto floor strewn with Legos. And, given a choice between twenty minutes of sex or twenty minutes of dead sleep, sleep wins hands down. Finally, you believe in God. Or, you don’t. Either way, it’s time to decide because preschoolers don’t deal well with ethical grey areas.
About six months ago, I drove past a huge basilica in the valley below Assisi, and my five year old piped up from the back seat, “Mamma, what’s that?” Now, it is probably not such a good thing that my son doesn’t recognize a church in Assisi, which is probably one of the places in which there is the greatest church per capita density on the planet. “It’s a church,” I told him.
“What do you do there?” he asked.
“Well, you pray.”
“Uh, well, that’s when you talk to God”
And there it was. The $64,000 question. One of the few questions to which I have no answer that I can’t simply respond, “I’m not sure, but I bet Babbo knows.” Because, quite frankly, my husband isn’t that sure either.
I grew up in a deeply religious family, though of the flower children, guitar plucking, socially liberal kind. Though I don’t consider myself psychologically scarred by all that, by the time I left home for college I was, let’s say, religion-ed out. So, after a brief stint over at the Unitarians to detox, I settled into a benign sort of agnosticism. Though I considered myself a practician of the basic judeo-christian ethic which forms the foundation of most western religions, I would only actually show up at Mass once or twice a year to please Grandma.
When I moved to Italy after college, I thought my ambivalence regarding actively practicing a religion would be a problem, but I quickly found that, instead, there are quite a few Italians who are casual Catholics here in Umbria. And that no one really cared about whether or not I went to Mass, uh, religiously.
Italy, and especially a rural area like Umbria, is undoubtably Catholic. Italian civic culture is steeped in Catholicism, and in many ways there is no way of seeing where the religious culture ends and the secular begins. Most holidays in Italy are Catholic feast days, the local parish is very much the fulcrum of social participation in the countryside, and the passage from childhood to adulthood is still generally measured in sacraments: Christening, first holy Communion, Confirmation, nuptial Mass, and funeral Mass. Almost all public spaces sport crosses on the walls, even in some businesses where it seems out of place at best, like the local bank.
It is refreshing, in comparison to how in your face religious practice has become in the States, to live in a place where it is not an issue at all. Part of that is, of course, because something like 98% of the population of Umbria is Catholic, so no one really feels the need to wear their religion on their sleeve. But even among my few friends here who are active church goers and fervent believers, I have never felt uncomfortable, or judged, or pressured by their belief. Italians, and, more specifically, Umbrians, tend to be quite pragmatic about their religiosity. They are often Catholic and communist, both divorce and abortion have been legalized through popular referendum, and they are reluctant proselytizers.
In the years since I’ve moved, I have steadily and quietly shed any dogma which may have lingered in my moral paradigm but also feel like my life here has given me the opportunity to tap into a different spirituality…based on the tennets of secular humanism, no doubt, but still giving my life reference points which have led me to find my own sense of god, even if it’s not God. Contact with and respect for the natural world. A feeling of belonging to a comunity. The importance of family and friends, and prioritizing the time you spend cultivating those relationships. Recognizing the wonderous beauty in art and architecture. The joy of eating good food in the context of its history and culture. The value of slowing down and finding time for quietness.
The late David Foster Wallace said this:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” ….
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’ It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.”
And this is what I have found here in Umbria. Perhaps not the God of churches and rites, but instead moments of grace and awareness where all of a sudden I am yanked out of my automatic pilot working and parenting and surviving mode and become aware of an instant in time, a fleeting quotidian miracle, and am reminded “This is water.” And there I see god.
About 15 years ago, just a few months after moving from Chicago to a tiny hamlet in the Umbrian countryside outside of Assisi, I was lying in bed at about 2 am in that state of semi-consciousness between sleep and lucidity, when I heard what was unmistakeably the sound of footsteps, and lots of them, on our gravel drive. I immediately found myself wide awake and focused on the sound, growing louder and closer, as it was punctuated by the muffled crash of a flowerpot being stumbled over, a whispered oath, and some quiet laughter. I heard another stumble and a quick, low, discordant wail.
I elbowed my Italian husband. Hard. “Honey,” I hissed, “There are burglars outside!” He was instantly awake and jumped out of bed, throwing his pants on fireman-style. “How do you know?” he hissed back. “Because I can hear them walking on the drive. They keep tripping over flowerpots. And I think they’re carrying a dying cat with them.”
At which point he froze, with one pant-leg on and one off, in a hunched over flamingo position, and considered me. Because I have been known to make use of–ahem–comic embellishment in the past. And suddenly I could see his eyes clear with a dawning realization, as he slowly straightened up and said, “Oh, it’s the first of May tomorrow.”
“What, you get burglarized on a schedule?!?” I replied, incredulous.
Of course we weren’t about to be robbed, but instead serenaded by a group of locals who were carrying out the ancient tradition of Cantamaggio, or “singing in” the first of May, which symbolically marks the end of the long winter and beginning of spring with song and drink. And more drink. And then, a little drink.
The maggiaioli under a full moon
With origins which can be traced back to cultures predating the Roman empire in an area covering what is now the central Italian regions, during the final night of April groups of folk singers with accordians, guitars, wooden recorders, and various simple percussion instruments, including tambourines and triangles, wind their way through the streets of town and from one farmhouse to the next in the countryside singing traditional folk songs.
A maggiaiolo with his organetto
The simple yet cheerful rythmic songs are sung—generally alternating between a solo voice and a chorus–in Italian, though usually in a strong, at times almost impenetrable, dialect. The lyrics ostensibly touch on themes of nature and the seasons, primarily spring, but are laced with double entendres and baudy wordplay…in fact, after the serenade is finished the singers, with much raucous laughter, invite their wakened audience to return to bed and “seed May”.
Out of context, the Cantamaggio may appear as simply charming and theatrical, but this ancient folk tradition reflects one of the primary threads which weaves itself through rural culture and tradition in Umbria: the rewards reaped for generosity and altruism and, on the flip side, the misfortune brought on by avarice and selfishness.
The songs of the “maggaiaoli” were once—and to a certain degree, continue to be—believed to have quasi-magical powers, invoking fertility charms on the fields and livestock depending upon how generous the serendaded families were in offering the musicians food and drink. This reciprocity represents a theme which is one of the primary cornerstones of peasant life: giving in order to receive, from eating less wheat today in order to plant more seed tomorrow to helping out family members in the present in order to call on their aid in future times of need.
Keeping the beat with a "cempene" or tambourine
So before you return to your bed, it is good form to pass around wine to toast the musicians and the change of season. The “maggiaioli” are then sent off with fresh eggs and salame for their breakfast when the night’s festivities are completed and May has been, once again, “sung in”.
P.S. You can read about the Cantamaggio in Tuscany here.