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.
Listen, to have any street cred at all, a hobby has to generate that frisson of excitement that only comes with the knowledge that you may end up either dead or seriously maimed. (Though, if you are a bumbling idiot like I am, pretty much any banal activity can end up, if not mortal, at the very least resulting in a trip to the emergency room. See, for example, soap making.) Luckily one of the most popular pastimes in the Umbrian countryside, despite its innocuous sound, involves enough flirting with danger to justify that certain John Wayne swagger.
Take a walk on the wild side. Wild asparagus, that is.
Around mid-march, when the winter rains have pretty much petered out and the first warm spring sun shows promise, you begin to see cars parked along the country roads as the Umbrians turn out en masse to hunt wild asparagus. “Hunt” may seem a little melodramatic to describe what amounts to tromping through the woods picking shoots, but once you’ve been you realize that these wily little woodland cousins to domestic asparagus are not that easy to spot.
See one here?
How ‘bout here, smartypants?
I told you. Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at rousting them out and after an hour in the woods am able to return home with my head held high and a trophy bundle. If you have the time and patience (and stake out your territory early in the day…during peak asparagus season the woods get pretty picked over by the end of the morning and you often see folks climbing back into their cars at lunchtime loading ten or more bundles of the prized wild vegetable in their trunks) you can end up picking enough in one day to put up for the rest of the year.
Note the gloves. Keep reading.
These thin stalks pack a lot of punch with their sharp flavour, so are better used as a condiment than a side dish. Try them with egg pasta like tagliatelle, in a frittata, or as a risotto. They can also be quickly blanched and frozen so you can enjoy them even when they’re no longer in season (which finishes around the end of May).
Asparagus hunter defying death and scraped knees.
But what about the mortal danger part? you may be wondering. As you’re foraging along in the woods through bushes and high grass, and stooping down to stick your hands under fallen leaves and the prickly aspargus plants to snap off your prize, you may run into this guy:
Yikes. Gives me the heebies even in .jpeg
Vipers, or adders, whose venom can be fatal (or, if it’s your lucky day, can just lead to kidney damage), are native to the area around Assisi, and when the sun starts to warm the hillsides they begin to come out of hibernation. Generally, it’s a good idea to wear boots and gloves when you are out hunting your asparagus, and you can also use walking sticks to flush out any unwanted reptile friends before sticking your hands in scrub. I haven’t yet had a brush with anything more startling than a lizard (There are hilarious Park Service signs on Mount Subasio with tips to help you identify a viper, including a description of the shape of its pupils. Like I’m going to hang out long enough to get a good gander at any snake’s pupils, viper or not.) and I hope I never do, as I would probably hang up my asparagus hunting hat forever.
Sure, I want to have some street cred, but I’d like to live long enough to eat it, too.
Just to makes things clear at the outset, this is not a blog about food. Or wine. Or cooking in general. It is, however, a blog about this wild toboggan ride commonly known as Life, and a big part of mine has to do with food, wine, and cooking in general. So, there you have it. And now back to our regularly scheduled program.
Certain experiences are so overwhelmingly paradigm shifting that when you have them you feel like your very molecular structure has been altered somehow and you know instinctively and viscerally that you will never be the same again. When you move overseas, for example. When you become a parent. When someone you love dies unexpectedly. When you are bit by a radioactive spider and suddenly look buff in a skin-tight unitard. When, for the first time, you make jam. Jam?!? Yep.
Pick your berries
Saturday morning found me itching
To get on over to my grandma’s kitchen
The sweetest little berries was cooking up right
And then we’d put them in a canning jar and seal them up tight
I have learned lots of things since moving to a farm:
1. There’s a reason that there are no farmers amongst the annual Forbes 500.
2. Roosters do not crow at dawn, but all effing day (and night, if the mood should hit them. The day I decide–after 20 years of vegetarianism–to eat meat once again, I will personally throttle a rooster with my bare hands and devour it with much vindictive satisfaction.)
3. “A woman’s work is never done.” is one of the truest aphorisms ever uttered.
4. If you want beef that isn’t chock full of antibiotics, hormones, and other stuff you wouldn’t want your dog to eat, you’re going to have to pay more than two bucks a pound.
5. There is immense satisfaction to be had in growing good food, preserving good food, and serving good food.
Chop your berries
We have Smucker’s, Welches, Knotts Berry Farm
But a little homemade jam never did a body no harm
A little local motion is all we need
To close down these corporate jam factories
And that last little nugget of wisdom is all bound up in a jar of homemade jam, which has to be one of the easiest thing to make in the history of cooking by fire. With just a little fruit, sugar, and—that most precious of ingredients—time, through some sort of mysterious culinary alchemy you end up with row upon row of jewel-toned glass jars shimmering on your pantry shelves. Eating a slice of fresh hot bread slathered with sweet butter and homemade strawberry jam brings on such a feeling of life satisfaction that if, in that exact moment, an asteroid were to drop out of the sky and pick you off, you would feel no regret.
Cook your berries
Yeah, we have a little revolution sweeping the land
Now once more everybody’s making homemade jam
So won’t you call your friends up on the telephone
You invite ’em on over, you make some jam of your own
I find the act of making jam meditative…all the time I pick and wash fruit, peel, chop, and otherwise prepare it, sterilize the glass jars, and slowly stir the simmering mixture as it lets out its pectin and begins to thicken into jam, I reflect. I reflect on the abundance of what the earth offers. (When she damn well pleases. The moody wench also likes to send late freezes, hail storms, and record rains. See item number 1 above.) I reflect on how often the most soul-satisfying food is the simplest. I reflect on how many generations of women before me have “put up” food to feed their families, and how in this modern world of the information super highway and molecular gastronomy and Vibram Five Fingers this art remains largely unchanged.
Eat your berries
We’ll be making jam
Strawberry jam, mmmm-mm
If you want the best jam
You gotta make your own
And mostly I reflect on who will be eating this jam, this sparkling jar of distilled love. My boys, whose favorite part of jam making is climbing the fig and apricot trees or going on blackberry picking expeditions along the tracks in the woods. My friends, who know that due to a Aspberger-like social akwardness I often substitute gifts for hugs, but the sentiment is the same. My guests, who have given me so much over the years in exchange for my modest offering of fruit, sugar, and time. And myself, who sometimes needs just a quiet moment with some simple strawberry sweetness to survive this wild toboggan ride of a life.
Eat your berries again, this time with feeling
Aw, one more time
Oh, makin’ that jam
Yeah, Strawberry jam
If you want the best jam
You gotta make your own
It’s a sad day, my friends, when your eight year old son fixes you with a look of impending doom and says, “Mamma, I have to tell you something. But you’re not going to like it.” And your eyes sweep over the china cabinet, which shows no signs of a soccer ball having been kicked through it, your nose sniffs the air, which does not reveal the acrid odor of legos being baked to see if they will stay stuck together, your hand touches the throat of his younger brother, in which a vital pulse is still beating. So how bad can it be?
“Mamma, I don’t, um, really, you know, like peanut butter.”
And in that instant the universe shifts just a smidgen, the light seems to dim, your heartbeat slows in dismay, and what you have suspected for the past eight years is suddenly proven without a doubt.
Your children are not, and never will be, American.
I mean, I have had other clues of this over the years. My sons were scandalized by their American cousins wearing un-ironed t-shirts on a recent trip to the States, they are convinced that eating cherries and drinking water in the same sitting will somehow land them in the hospital, and they have vowed they will never move out of my home (they are in for a big surprise come age 18). They prefer prosciutto and bread to pancakes for breakfast, say that they are annoyed when bored or nervous when stressed out, and are constantly urging me to pass on the right. However, until their rejection of the national childhood dish of the USA, I had harbored a hope that I could still, somehow, claim them as mine.
The one who doesn’t like peanut butter.
There is a famous adage which says that parenting is essentially a process of slowly letting go of your child from the minute he is born, and this process is even more poignant when part of that letting go is not only of your child but of your childhood. Let’s face it, one of the best parts of parenting is reliving your own youth…the one you really had (I got my kids into Star Wars, early and hard) and the one you wish you had (I took them to Disneyland, where I always dreamed of going as a kid.). But when they are growing up in a country and culture different from yours, it’s hard to engage them in your passions, your aspirations, your expectations. You want them to fit in (and, coincidentally, not be ashamed of you—their foreign parent. Their foreign parent who is still concerned with her cool quotient 39 years into the game.) but not go native.
The one who doesn’t like wearing unironed tshirts.
The irony here (because ain’t life ironical?) is that I lived the flip side of this same situation growing up in an immigrant Greek family in the 1970s. I think now about how dismayed Yaya must have been to watch as subsequent generations gradually gave up the Orthodox faith, shunned the language, married non-Greeks, (“Honey,” she would say to me, “You find nice Greek boy to marry. You make your Yaya happy, koukla.”) and finally ended up considering the gyros and yelling “Opa!” as the saganaki was set alight by a Mexican waiter the pinnacle of Greek culture.
The ones who claim they will never move away from home.
My children are not growing up Cub fans, don’t recognize the Good Humor ice cream truck, have never read the Sunday funny pages. They will not have memories of fireworks on the 4th, of a day with cheese blintzes for breakfast/burritos for lunch/spanakopita for dinner, of trick-or-treating. My children are living a life infinitely different from the one I did and in some ways this makes them less mine. My children are putting down roots and flourishing in a different land and I am, bit by bit, letting go of their future.
I think there is a moment in life when you realize you have finally, after many close shaves, hit bottom. When you have to have the courage to take a good, long look at yourself and admit that you have a problem. That your habit is ruining your health, jeopardizing your family life, alienating your friends, and compromising your career. That point when you suddenly realize that you, like Liz or Betty or that really emaciated model whose name escapes me right now, are an addict and it’s time to reclaim your life and self respect.
I am about to take the first step. Hello, my name is Rebecca. I ate all my children’s Easter candy. Again.
L’uova di Pasqua
It’s not really about candy. It’s about chocolate, since Easter candy here is almost exclusively huge chocolate Easter eggs, which are hollow and hide a surprise (usually a little toy or keychain) inside. My sons got 22 of them this year (we have many, many relatives). Each of them weighs about half a kilo. That’s a lot of chocolate, and a pretty big temptation for an avowed chocoholic like yours truly. It’s like holding a gamblers anon convention in Vegas.
The diabolic chocolate eggs
Every year I say to myself, “Okay, this is the year you are going to show some self control. This year you are going to break up all those chocolate eggs into little pieces and freeze them for future baking. And donate some of the chocolate to starving children in the Third World. And throw a big dinner party and make a huge pot of chocolate fondue for dessert.”
Instead what happens is that those damn things sit there, in their shiny mylar wrapping, calling to me. It wakes me up at night. It interrupts my work. It becomes an obsession. So I say to myself, “Okay, one. You can eat one egg.” I make a tiny incision in the back side of one of the egg wrappings with a really sharp knife, and, with surgical precision, cut away a little piece. It’s Venchi. Milk chocolate. It’s really good. So I grab the egg, rip the paper to shreds, and proceed to stuff the rest of the egg by handfuls into my mouth, all the time keeping one eye on the door should my husband or children walk in on this spectacle.
Note the mesmerizing mylar decorative paper
Luckily, my kids are still kind of fuzzy about numbers above ten, so they don’t really notice that their eggs are slowly culled as the days pass. Plus, I give them the toys, which is all they really care about anyway.
Unfortunately, my husband is not that fuzzy about numbers above ten, and is horrified to discover that his wife has managed to put away about 10 kilos of chocolate in less than a week. I really think it is one of the few times in the almost 20 years I have known him that I have felt real shame. That and the three times I crashed the car.
Why, why can’t they eat the disgustingly unappetizing Easter candy we have in the States here? I mean, if my choices were yellow sugar covered marshmallow chicks and black jelly beans, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. I have a vague recollection of liking those things when I was, oh, five, but the very thought of eating them now makes my stomach turn. It’s funny how we grow out of food. I also used to love that peanut butter and jelly together in one jar stuff and Oreos. Thank God my taste buds have matured, though my self control has remained what it was in kindergarten.
Even more of a temptation when not encased in mylar
We also have a momentous amount of chocolate in the house around Easter because we throw an annual Easter egg hunt. We began when my oldest son was born (I think he was barely walking the first year we held the hunt), and every year the party gets bigger and better. I love the Easter party, though we rarely have decent weather. Usually, about 100 people huddle under our porch watching a driving, freezing rain come down and wait for a ten minute window in which the kids can book into the garden and collect the sodden eggs.
After years of trial and error, and running over months old rotten eggs with the lawn mower, we have, for the past couple of years, only hidden plastic eggs (which still get run over with the mower in August, but just make a terrifying noise without the sickening stench). We hide a couple hundred of them, and inside each one is a little chocolate egg that the finder gets to keep and take home. I buy those little chocolate eggs in bulk, and strangely seem to overbuy every year. It’s uncanny. Call it fate.
My boys with their Easter baskets ready to take to Mass for the traditional blessing; their chocolate eggs are in the center
Of course, that’s far too much sugar for my babes, so the sacrifice I make for them is to consume them all myself. Sometimes, as a parent, you have to take the bullet for your kids.
The Easter egg hunt is a very popular party with our set because of the novelty. They don’t do egg hunts in Italy; it’s very much an Anglo-American tradition, as far as I can tell. Since my elder son was born, I have been really working hard to bring a little bit of American Childhood to Italy. We have the Halloween party, Thanksgiving Dinner, the Christmas Cookie Decorating get together, the Easter Egg hunt. We haven’t had a Fourth of July shindig yet, but I think it’s just a matter of time.
Only Italians would use a bottle of wine for scale
I find it strange, and a bit out of character, that I put so much weight on these American holidays. There are lots of different expat profiles here in Italy, which run a vast gamut of different living abroad experiences. There are those who live in a kind of Anglo-American bubble: they don’t speak Italian, may not even send their kids to Italian schools, don’t socialize with Italians, and are very shaky on Italian law, politics, and pop culture. I suspect they live here primarily for the food. Some in this group, mostly those who have found themselves residents here through marriage or career, also live in a state of suspended animation, passing most of their time and funnelling most of their resources, to those periods that they go “back home”. Home being that place they left, oh, twenty years ago.
Then there are those on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, who have glommed onto Italy with all the passion of the newly converted. They refuse to speak their mother tongue, even when introduced to fellow English speakers, have nothing good to say about their home country, which they visit once every ten years during which visit they annoy all their friends and relatives touting non-stop the joys of living in Italy, have nothing bad to say about Italy, even when the utility bill comes, and wouldn’t eat at McDonald’s even if you held a loaded pistol to their temple.
After a brief stint as a passionate newly converted (until my first utility bill came, which set me in a pining-for-home rut for awhile), I have settled at a place pretty much right smack in the middle. I love the country I live in now, but also have some nostalgia for the one I left years ago. When I am in the States I tend to make pasta and change into clean clothes to run to the grocery store. When I am in Italy, I prepare pancakes for breakfast and drop my kids off at school in sweatpants. I have one foot here, and one there. And both my hands in the chocolate eggs.
Venchi milk chocolate Easter eggs. Say that, and you've said it all.
I have a little confession to make. Each year, right around Easter, I am reminded of this deep love I harbor which surfaces in a cyclical fashion with the coming of spring. I mean, not your normal “Oh, I love that sweater on her” or “I just love to curl up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire” kind of love, but that obsessive, slightly creepy “I want to start a life with you and buy you presents” kind of love.
Which is weird, since the object of my ardor is a foodstuff.
Though, to be honest, I’ve noticed that my passion for food is growing more acute as I have become a middle-aged mother of two and things like heavy drinking, recreational drug use, and sleeping around no longer seem appropriate. Let’s just say that eating is one of the few joys of life left to me.
Torta di Pasqua
And Easter in Umbria offers humanity a dish which represents, in my opinion, the apex of culinary accomplishment. Its ne plus ultra. Its climax. (Ok, now I am getting creepy.) My friends, I present to you Torta di Pasqua (also known as Pizza di Pasqua or simply Torta al Formaggio).
Literally seconds from the oven....
This savory cheese bread is a traditional Easter dish around these parts and the recipe varies from family to family and is a closely guarded secret handed down through the generations. However, from what I can glean from years of attentive observation, there are a few key ingredients used in all its variants:
a farmwife, between the ages of 62 and 87
an amazing amount of lard
an outdoor wood-burning brick oven
an astounding amount of lard
eggs, and a lot of ’em
an astonishing amount of lard
parmeggiano, pecorino, and swiss cheese
an insane amount of lard
some other stuff, mainly flour and salt
The preparation of this dish begins weeks before baking day, as the farmwives start to hoard their eggs (News flash: farm fresh eggs keep forever, and they don’t have to go in the fridge. Things you discover when you move to the country.) as they will be using literally dozens to turn out the numerous mushroom-shaped loaves. I suppose you could even say the preparation begins months before, when they butcher their annual hog at Christmas and put aside the lard (Did I mention the awesome amount of lard? For an explanation as to my non-dogmatic interpretation of vegetarianism which allows for the occasional lard intake, see here.) they will later need for the dough.
Kneading the dough
Preparing the pans for the oven
Surveying the oven-ready loaves (note the dollops of lard dotting each one...did I mention the lard?)
The big day
Early on the morning of baking day, the women light the fires in their woodstoves and knead together all the ingredients to make the rich, cheesy bread dough. This is then divided into at least a dozen different tins (many of them refitted industrial sized sardine cans) and left to rest and rise near the warmth of the oven.
Getting the wood stove up to temperature
Sardine can reincarnated as baking tin
Before the flames
Once nicely double or tripled in size and rounded on the top, they are placed into the oven one by one with a large wooden paddle, an olive branch blessed during Mass on Palm Sunday is tucked in with them, a quick prayer to Santa Rita is said (the gist: “Santa Rita, please let our loaves rise””), and the oven door is sealed with mud.
A surprising number of baking tins fit in that oven
After the flames
When they are done, they should have risen over the sides of their tins to take the shape of giant cupcakes and are shiny and golden on top. As you can see, sometimes Santa Rita is a cunning vixen and they don’t rise as much as the bakers would like…leading to the naming of the saint in much different–and probably unprintable–terms.
Despite olive branches and appeals to heaven, the loaves didn't rise as much as hoped
The elixir of the gods
To slice into one of these torte fresh from the oven is to experience bliss. The lard (did I mention the incredible amount of lard?) yields a short, crumbly crust on the outside and a moist, savory crumb inside dotted with melted cubes of swiss cheese. Some recipes use a bit of pepper in the dough, which I enjoy, though it’s tough to get just the right amount without overshadowing the cheese flavor. Our aunt, Zia Anna, gets just the right amount, for example. And I love her for it.
Crispy outside, moist inside
It’s otherwordly freshly baked, but can also be frozed and toasted for weeks afterwards…still delicious, though will not bring you to ecstatic tears, which a steaming hot slice certainly can do.
Cast and crew: from left Zia Anna, Nicolò, Nonna Emma, Zia Viola
This is my first blog post (yes, I showed up to the party a little late, I’m sorry, the traffic, you wouldn’t believe, couldn’t decide what to wear, does this make me look fat?, but I made some amazing dip, where can I get a glass of wine?), and, as seems inevitable with firsts,—the first of the year, the first day of a new job, the first time you wake up and realize the details of the party you attended the night before are a little sketchy and whose apartment is this, anyway?—it has led to a bit of spontaneous stock taking.
I recently got back from a trip to Hawai’i, where I spent the holidays with my brother, who just moved to Kaua’i (my brother has many laudable qualities, not least of which is his predilection to reside in beautiful places). When I returned to my “hometown” of Assisi, not a few friends, after hearing me recount my absolutely perfect vacation on the Garden Isle (for which I would like to publicly thank the aforementioned Brother, who is also one of my favorite people on earth and really knows how to show guests a good time), asked me in a conspiratorial murmur, “Weren’t you tempted to move there?”
And I have to say that I surprised even myself by answering honestly and decisively, “No”.
Now don’t get me wrong, Kaua’i is breathtakingly gorgeous…but of course, I already live in a place that is breathtakingly gorgeous, though Kaua’i is all about pristine palm-fringed beaches and verdant jungles where Umbria is all about rolling wooded land interspersed with vineyards or olive groves and tiny medieval stone hill towns. However, once you live in a gorgeous place you start to get a little insouciant about the whole marveling at other places’ natural beauty thing.
And the people of Kaua’i are certainly warm and welcoming, in a very forward “ALOHA!!” sort of way. But, of course, the people in Umbria are the same, though in a much more formal and reserved “Buongiorno, Signora” sort of way. In fact, it took me a couple of days to get reacclimated to the American peculiarity of readily starting up long and intimate conversations with perfect strangers, who just minutes later are crowned your New Best Friend. I am considered quite gregarious in Umbria, but a bit stand-offish in Hawai’i.
Rebecca and her sons in paradise
The rhythm of life in Kaua’i is certainly a sustainable one, as is that of Umbria. These are doubtless two populaces who have not tacked up “winning the rat race” amongst their top ten life goals. Both spend an admiral amount of time doing what we humans are programmed to do: enjoying life. One dedicates itself to surfing and pimping monster trucks, and the other to truffle hunting and pimping tagliatelle, but the end product of contentment with their lot is the same.
And speaking of tagliatelle, these are also two places where one can eat wonderful fresh local food. Kauai’i has a cuisine which reflects its social history of successive waves of immigrants from Polinesia and Japan, where Umbria’s is a testament to an immobile and insular regional history, with a cuisine which has remained largely unchanged for centuries (they still eat unsalted bread, after a spat with the Vatican over the salt tax in the mid-sixteenth century. They’re not into nouvelle cuisine, here.).
In short, Kaua’i, according to all the usual parameters is, indeed, paradise on earth. I must be crazy not to want to move there, right?
The thing is, is that sometimes you move to a place for very tangible reasons…its beauty, its economy, its convenience. But sometimes you get off a plane, set your suitcase down, and in a flash, or a wave, or a slow, flowering moment you feel you have come home. It’s nothing you can really put your finger on, but instead a primordial recognition of having arrived where you are supposed to stay. I have experienced that with only one place in my life until now, and that place was not Kaua’i, or Paris, or Charleston, or Mykonos, or even Chicago, where I was born. That place is here, in Umbria.
Not to say that my life here is perfect. In the more than 15 years since I settled here, there have been beginnings and endings, births and deaths, gains and losses…in a word, there has been a life. But I have the conviction that it has been the life I was supposed to have had in the place I was supposed to be. And just that feeling of it being right is…paradise.
I kind of lucked out this month, as fellow roundtable member Jessica discovered that I had already tackled the theme of myths in…wait for it…2003! Yes, I was already writing posts more than a decade ago for the beloved Slow Travel site, and it came in handy a mere 13 years later when I was too busy to come up with a new post so served up this warmed over classic from the back corners of my fridge. Enjoy!
Now, I’m the last person to criticize guidebooks – any author deserves some credit for taking a stab at a task so momentous – but certainly they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some seem to be museum-opening-time-challenged, others couldn’t recognize a decent hotel if they stubbed their toe on its doorstep.
But I think the Achilles heel of the vast majority of guidebooks is to be found in that small chapter somewhere near the front entitled, “Insights into Italian Culture”. This section, usually stuck in between “How to Purchase Train Tickets” and “Where to Change Money”, dedicated to the admirable task of helping the English speaking traveler navigate the rocky stream of acceptable behavior in Italy, is usually peppered with grave pronouncements I imagine made in that booming, self-important male voice which narrated every social studies and biology film I viewed between the third and ninth grade. Sometimes these are quite accurate and helpful, but I have certainly read some over the years which have made me sputter my cappuccino all over myself and exclaim “WHAT?!?” to no one in particular.
The problem is that most of these authors have never lived in Italy and barely have a working grasp of the language. They dedicate most of their time here to inaccurately recording museum opening hours and overlooking decent hotels, and their cultural knowledge is incidental at best. I would like to share a couple of my favorite doozies, and, I hope, set the record straight for those Slow Travelers out there who may be about to make their first trip to the Bel Paese.
1. Small Town Italians are Very Friendly. They commonly greet Everyone They Pass, and it is considered Rude not to do so.
This is my favorite example of what happens when an outside observer interprets a situation completely out of context, with comic results. (Another example: Many comment on how endearing our two dogs are – how they so obviously care deeply for one another, always out walking together and napping side by side on the lawn and whatnot. Our two dogs hate each other with a jealous passion and live for the day the other is sucked into the combine harvester and gone forever. They are mortally fearful that the other will somehow manage to get more than his share of chow, and for that reason only stick to each other like white on rice.)
This is how I imagine the scene: Our fearless guidebook author sips his espresso at an outdoor café in a small town in Italy, all the while observing an Italian gentleman meandering down the Corso, greeting with regularity those he passes. “Aha!” says our author to himself (in a booming, self-important voice), taking feverish notes, “Why, Small Town Italians are Very Friendly. They greet Everyone They Pass. It must be Rude not to do so.” What is really happening is this: The Italian in question is not greeting Everyone he Passes, he is greeting Everyone he Knows, which, in most small towns in Italy, is about 99% of folks in town.
Now, I am not saying that Small Town Italians are not Very Friendly – they generally are. But you are certainly not expected to greet every single one of them as you pass them on the street, though you can if you feel up to the task. Their reaction will probably be:
1) in faux small town Italy (i.e. places like Assisi with a small population but huge tourist influx) a friendly, polite greeting in return. These folks have met thousands like you who have read that same guidebook chapter and taken it to heart;
2) in real small town Italy, a infinitesimal pause, during which the Italian quickly tries to place you, followed by a friendly, polite greeting in return. Small Town Italians are, after all, Very Friendly;
3) a shocked silence, followed by a loud, indignant “Who are you and why are you greeting me?!?” I can’t actually imagine this happening but feel I must make allowances for those few Small Town Italians who are, in fact, not Very Friendly.
In fact, as measured by greeting perfect strangers and superficial small talk, most English speakers I know are far more “friendly” than Italians who, as a whole, combine gregariousness and reserve with great skill. I have known Italians for years before finding out what they do for a living, what their university degree was in, how much they are paying in child support, and when they had their last surgery, which are all subjects generally covered within the first five minutes of sitting next to any average American on an overseas flight.
2. You are expected to order an antipasto, a primo, and a secondo at an Italian restaurant, and will be in ill favor with your server if you do not do so.
I suspect that some Italian restaurant consortium actually paid the author to put that in the guide, because I have never read such complete bunk in my entire life. I can honestly say that in 25 years of traveling to, and living in, Italy I have never ordered three courses in a restaurant (mostly because I’m vegetarian) and have never been treated any differently because of it. If you are, you should immediately get up and leave. Your server is either being inexcusably rude or is part of the consortium which paid the guidebook, and either way doesn’t deserve your business.
The truth is this: very few Italians eat a traditional three to four course meal anymore. Modern sedentary life just can’t justify the calories. I eat out quite often, usually with groups of friends, and it is a rare occasion when one of us orders more than a main dish and salad. The only time I have seen our waiter get hot under the collar is while trying to coordinate the order of the dishes to be served, as in a group of eight there are inevitably two who want an antipasto and primo, two who want an antipasto and secondo served with the others’ primi, one who wants a pizza served with the antipasti, one who wants a primo and contorno but the contorno as an antipasto, one who wants a secondo and contorno, but the contorno as a primo, and the poor guy at the end of the table who caught a bit of a chill on the back of his neck two evenings ago and hasn’t digested since and can he just have a bit of riso in bianco with perhaps a little lemon? It would drive a saint to drink.
I have given a lot of thought as to how this misconception of what you must order in an Italian restaurant came about, and I think I may have an explanation. Whereas in the States, your server comes to your table, introduces himself by name, pulls up a chair and launches into a 20 minute discourse on his family history, latest car purchase, and the fact that this is just a day job, what he really would like to do is direct, followed by a deep, heartfelt look into your eyes and a beseeching, “Now, is there any chance that I could possibly interest you in one of our appetizers today?”, the Italian server marches up to your table and with great economy of words barks, “Per Antipasto? Per Primo? Per Secondo? Vino?” Now, neither server really cares all that much about what you end up ordering (in fact, the stakes are probably higher for the American server, as it is not common in Italy to tip as a percentage of the total bill), but to those not used to the Italian way of taking an order, it may seem that you are expected to choose one thing in every offered category. Regardless, feel free to order exactly what you feel like eating without pressure. Doggie bags are, however, taboo.
3. Italians will bargain for anything.
This is, in fact, true. I have seen Italians offer up a conspiratorial grin and wink to the teenage girl at the Osco Drug check out counter in Northwest Suburban Chicago, plunk down a toothbrush, and say (in English which sounds like a mix between Ricky Ricardo and Tarzan), “You give me good prize for dis, no?” to which the girl flatly responded, without pausing either in paging through Vogue or snapping her gum, “Prices are as marked”, which might explain why her photo was conspicuously missing from the Employees of the Month plaque on the wall behind her.
My word of warning here is that this sort of unqualified statement skims over the subtleties of Italian bargaining. Italy is not a Moroccan bazaar; Italians generally do not haggle. Bargaining in Italy calls for finesse and good humor and, above all, time. It is, in short, an art.
I offer here an example of how not to go about it: A few years ago I was conversing with a friend of mine inside her upscale ceramic shop in Assisi. Suddenly, an English speaking man barged in and interrupted us by abruptly demanding of my friend, “How much for the clock in the window?”. My friend, taken aback, smiled politely and replied in her perfect English that the price was 150 euros, as marked. The man, apparently mistaking my friend for a patient of Oliver Sacks, repeated his question veerrryyy slllowwwlllyy, “N—o, h—-o—-w m—-u——-c—-h i—–s t—h—e c—l—o—c—-k i—-n t—-h—e w—-i—n—d—o—w???” My friend matched his speed, “I—-t’s 1—5—0 e——u—-r–o—-s, a—–s m—–a—r—k—e—d.” The man had had enough of his precious time wasted, and, raising his voice, barked, “No! I mean, how much do you really want for the clock in the window!?!” My friend looked at him, slowly and sweetly smiled, and answered, “200 euros.” The man huffed out to join a very harried and dogged looking wife, and they stomped away together (surely prepared to regale their bus-mates with stories of the rude shopkeepers in Assisi all the way back to Rome).
Let us now juxtapose this scene with my fantasy version of how it could have gone: Man enters shop, compliments woman on beautiful wares. Woman thanks, asks if there is something he likes in particular. Man indicates clock. Both wax poetic about clock’s beauty for several minutes. Man asks price, woman answers. Man sadly shakes head, comments that he is now poverty stricken after wife’s shoe shopping spree yesterday (indicates relaxed, happy looking woman waiting outside). Woman makes slightly flirtatious comment regarding what trouble women can be. Man laughs and settles himself against counter. Half hour conversation ensues (He just spent two weeks in Tuscany and Venice. Yes, Venice is beautiful. He and wife hail from Philadelphia. What a coincidence, her grandfather’s second cousin emigrated to Philadelphia in 1903, have they met?). Talk returns to the clock. Some good natured figures are bounced back and forth, interspersed with observations about the weather and recommendations for where to dine. A deal is struck, she packs up the clock and throws in a small ashtray for good measure. His wife comes back the next day for the lamp she spied the afternoon before. All is done with a light touch and friendly tone. Finesse.
Yes, you say, but what if there is a language barrier? Never fear, some of the best bargaining I have ever witnessed has been done almost exclusively with hand gestures, pen, and pad of paper. Some good stock gestures in any bargaining repertoire may include on one side:
clutch object to heart = I cannot live another moment on this earth without possessing this pair of boots/antique vase/plastic gladiator cruet set;
pull out empty trouser pocket lining = I have been burned in the bear market, so have pity;
down on hand and knee = international sign of supplication.
On the other side one might see:
palm hitting forehead = disbelief at the mere thought of parting with such a valuable and rare object as this pair of boots/antique vase/plastic gladiator cruet set for such a paltry figure;
sympathetic head shaking = yes, I too put my money in Olivetti in the 80’s;
resigned shrug = international sign of giving in.
A final note: Many guide books point out that a number of stores post signs informing you that their prices are fixed. I have found that it never hurts to ask if there is a possibility of a small discount. The worst that can happen is that you are politely told no, and the best is that you find yourself with extra gelato money at the end of the day.
4. Italian men are predatory.
Consider this scene: you (you’re female in this scene, and not unattractive) are sitting in the main square of your hometown…Des Moines, let’s say….at about 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, enjoying the sunlight and the view of the world-famous Baroque fountain (go with it). A man saunters up and starts making conversation. It soon becomes apparent that you are being hit on. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am pretty pragmatic about these sorts of things, so my first reaction would be to ask myself, “Why doesn’t this loser have a job, or isn’t at very least busy working on his Ph.D. thesis or serving hot meals to the hungry or otherwise productively occupying his time at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday rather than trying to pick up women at the famed Des Moines Baroque fountain?” (The same could be said for you, of course, but we are talking about predatory men, not ne’er-do-well women here.)
The point I’m trying to make is that the vast majority of Italian men, like those all over the planet, are too busy working, studying, volunteering, parenting, and otherwise living full, happy, responsible lives to spend many weekday afternoons hanging around in piazzas, wolf-whistling. The small percentage who instead have nothing better to do than lurk at the Trevi Fountain trying to pick up foreign women are more noticeable, but certainly not indicative of the average Italian male. This is not to say, of course, that Italian men, like many of Mediterranean cultures, are not notably more appreciative of the well-turned-out female than the average stiff-upper-lipped, Puritan Anglo-Saxon (aside, of course, from those certain subgroups which seem to include predatory behavior as part of their professional qualification the world over, i.e. construction workers, truck drivers), and given the amount of time and effort many Italian women dedicate to their appearance, it seems only fair that it should be so. However, I have found that a token, subtle glance at a leg is one thing (quite buoying, in fact, on those days that I can’t quite get the zipper up on my skirt and my hair dried all funny and sticky-outy and I am surrounded by a nation of women just naturally more attractive than myself), asking you if you are traveling alone and shadowing you back to your hotel is quite another.
So, my word of caution is to steer clear of those same people you would be prone to steer clear of in Des Moines, and you should have no problem. You may, however, go back home convinced you have the best legs on earth, and, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that in my book.
So, as they say in Italy, “’Un pò fa,’ disse l’uomo mentre che faceva la pipi’ nel mare.” (Every little bit helps, said the man as he peed into the sea). I hope I have added my bit to the sea of knowledge and not to that of myth and misconception. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has spotted these hilarious off-mark cultural observations. Let’s hear others! Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!