Tuesday, February 20, 2018
This has to be one of the most overarching cultural questions. When we look at or hold something, a thing, a substance, we ask, how much of this thing is equal to this other thing?
This varies widely from culture to culture, and yet it is transparent to the cultural participants. Of course this much of this one thing is equal to this other thing! Only when we shift positions do our perspectives change.
Our apartment, as I have mentioned, is freddino. It is chilly. Our palazzo is beautiful, and central, and its relative advantages far outweigh its climate control. We are very happy here.
But it is so cold. The cold affects me especially in the morning, when I wake up and stumble into the kitchen (still wearing the scarf, sweatshirt, socks, woolen booties I slept in) to turn on the heat, turn on the electric heater, fill the kettle and light the gas hob for tea, check the situation for Jason's coffee.
When I return from our school drop-off, things have cooled down again in the kitchen. This is where I always make my same mistake: I think I will just straighten things up a little bit. Just a bit. But my hands are freezing, my fingers barely work, the hot water takes an age to reach the tap from the boiler. It feels like the winter of 1890 up here. Just a small plate, I think to myself, I can scrub this, I can quickly wipe off this other thing. But with my cold hands, in the cold kitchen, the fingers, they do not have a solid grasp, the water is cold, where is the hot water, why is the hot water not running yet ...
The plate slips. The ceramic breaks. Every time. Dozens of times.
Mundane plates don't bother me to break - a plain white plate, a plain saucer. They can be easily replaced at the sample ceramics vendor at Mercato Sant'Ambrogio, who sells only white ceramics, some embossed, modern and vintage-seeming, but all plain white. It reminds me of arty friends who brought out purposely mismatched and monogrammed hotel silver to entertain at home. Such elegant friends.
Last week, though, I dropped and broke our spoon rest, which came with the apartment in the giant china hutch (madia) of assembled essentials. The spoon rest gets a lot of use, and this spoon rest always tickles my fancy, because it is in the shape of a blue Volkswagen Beetle, which makes me think of, in this order, my mom, Mexico, and Brazil. Mom drove a powder-blue Bug for years in the Midwest, usually stuffed with three small children, a mutt, groceries, and a sheet cake. No air conditioning, vinyl seats, Oklahoma City in sweltering summers. Beetlebugs are all over Mexico and Brazil, destinations I have spent happy travelling time in, so any invocation of simple transportation with three gears, any ocean coast, and windows rolled down is welcome.
But this small Beetlebug was now in two pieces at the bottom of the marble sink.
I heaved a sigh as I picked them up. I dried them off, and verified that they still fit together, more or less. I added them to the small white sugar bowl, whose tiny knob atop the lid had cleaved in half under identical circumstances, and been carefully stored in the bowl until such time as I determined how best to repair it. I am a fixer. I do not like to throw things away, especially if they are sentimental, or I like them particularly. I know it is not always ideal to have a glued seam showing, but I am careful, and dexterous, and can fix things. It's a personal challenge. I can work with imperfection. I struggle with total loss.
When this happened in the US, I had a very handy glue pen for terra cotta that worked wonders. That glue was awesome. I could fix almost anything with it. A bright bowl from Caltagirone. An ironic ceramic bowl used for cat food. The decapitated head of a concrete Saint Francis after a scuffle with a toddler Victor, reaffixed, that lasted through many cold seasons reglued. But I did not have this glue in Italy.
I knew just where I could find some, though: the mesticheria (home goods shop) on Pietrapiena, just around the corner from our palazzo: Casalinghi Mazzanti. Every quartiere (neighborhood) has one, but I like to think that ours on Sant'Ambrogio is special.
I broke the rules a bit, and began browsing for glue to fix my spoon rest and sugar bowl. The narrow aisles were a challenge to navigate, especially at this busy hour right before lunch, when all the contractors had advanced as far as they could in their morning work without that tube of silicon or box of screws. I quickly found an entire section of glue, and silicon. It became immediately clear why I might need to first take a number to ask a jumpsuit which glue to buy. I had no idea. The selection was overwhelming, and a workout for both my Italian and whatever I remembered of semiotics from grad school. A vast array of sealants and glues were neatly hung on about eight feet of aisle shelving at all levels, and I started to look for the closest approximation to my terra cotta glue-all that I knew so well in the US.
After a few minutes I gave up, and went to look at the activity in front of the counter again. At least ten people were waiting. I noted the location of the number dispenser. I went back to the glue aisle and, finally, found a tube of what I needed where I had not seen it before. The yellow tube was indicated for marble, glass, and any item where visible dried glue is undesirable. At five euros, and with helpful pictures on the front of it of a broken Ming vase, a muffler, a wooden stair, and a dining room table, it was exactly what was needed.
I pulled a number out of the red dispenser. 53. I settled in calmly to wait my turn and to watch the organized mayhem. The jumpsuits were very efficient, and dealt kindly with both contractors' demands and the hot water bottle needs of chilly widows. An American woman dressed in GMU-logo pushed up to the counter with two glass cruets. She spoke no Italian.
"Number please," the jumpsuit said in Italian.
"I want to buy these," she said, in English. Pushing the cruets forward on the counter. She smiled at him. I groaned inwardly.
The jumpsuit gave her a look and disappeared from behind the counter. Her cruets had no price tags. I wondered what the word was for cruet in Italian. I felt sympathetic for a moment as I inwardly agreed that there was no way I would ever walk into an Italian shop like this and start talking to a jumpsuit about my need for a glass cruet with a cork.
Everyone behind GMU began to grumble. She had jumped at least ten numbers in the line. Everyone else was holding their number and looking at it.
She turned around and saw the scene. She looked sideways at me.
"Am I doing this wrong?" she asked me.
"They're traditional here. Gotta take a number to pay," I said, relieved I was far from the most clueless person in the shop.
The unsinkable Molly Brown seemed to have assumed that other customers were simply too undetermined to pay, or perhaps fraught by indecision.
The jumpsuit finally came back and told her the price for the two cruets. She paid, and hastily made her way from the store.
By this time I was an expert in number-taking. One of the contractors, with plaster dust still in his dark gelled hair, asked me where I got my number from.
"Di la," I said, pointing.
Finally, 53! I hopped up to the front, gave the jumpsuit my number, and paid with an acceptably small banknote. He smiled at me and shooed me out of the store, already thinking ahead to 54.
Realizing the master class I had just received in language and culture thanks to the long wait and general powers of observation, I resolved to contrive a reason to come more frequently to Casalinghi Mazzanti.
Saturday morning I got out my broken porcelain pieces and the glue package. I set the pieces of the sugar bowl and the spoon rest on the marble counter.
I read the instructions on the back over and over to make sure I knew what I was doing. Clean and dry surface. Do not get in eyes. Use within two to three minutes, hold pieces to be glued together for forty seconds. Forty minutes to cure. One phrase made me laugh. You may tint the glue with pigment as you wish, obviously before adding the hardener, which was in a smaller tube next to the big tube.
Yeah, obviously. Maybe the contractors knew that. Certainly the jumpsuits knew that. Well, it wasn't a conversation I was going to have, with any Italian, in any case.
But one detail remained opaque to me. I had puzzled over it many times, and finally called over our house expert in Italian and Florentine culture, language, and measurements, Dr. Jason Houston.
"Read this," I said. "The sentence about the chicco di caffe and the noce." It was a description of proper proportions for glueing success.
He held the package close. "Yep," he said. "It is referencing a coffee bean and a nut."
The package outlined the proportions for mixing the glue (coffee bean-sized amount) with the hardener (walnut-sized amount), from each tube, to successfully employ the product. The text said that the hardener should be about 2% of the total mix, which I should then mix velocemente. The recommended percentage preceded the coffee bean and nut reference, which were meant to clarify the proportions in an easily understood metaphor. Except it was not easy to understand.
"Is a noce like a walnut?" I asked Jason. "Or a pecan?"
"Pretty much," he nodded in assent.
"Okay," I said. "And a chicco di caffe is a coffee bean?"
"Yes," he agreed.
"Okay," I said. "Do fifty coffee beans equal a walnut? It doesn't seem like it to me. Or is there another Italian nut they are referencing that is huge?"
He looked at me like I had begun drinking before noon.
"Seriously," I pressed. "Fifty coffee beans do not fit into a walnut. Think about it."
"Maybe they mean a grain of coffee. Perhaps it is referencing coffee that is ground."
"No, it specifically says chicco here." This is a catch-all Italian word for a grain of something - a coffee bean, or a grain of wheat. Certainly fifty grains of wheat would fit into a walnut. But the package specifically referenced a coffee bean. "Fifty grains of coffee might equal one coffee bean, and a coffee bean does not equal a walnut."
How much of one thing equals another thing?
I decided to go with a dab of hardener into my unpigmented glue. The mixture reeked. I mixed it in the plastic lid from a can of Pringles and a used drinking straw. Opening a window to let the smell out, and set about holding together my broken pottery pieces. The glue seemed to work just fine, notwithstanding my confusion over the recommended agricultural proportions.
The sugar bowl and the spoon rest are now convincingly restored to their original states. I think the jumpsuits would agree that I did a fine job.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
I have written here on mundane cross-cultural topics - scarves, laundry. A dentist visit. Things that locals wouldn't think twice about, because these things are transparent to them in an of course way.
I read Beppe Severgnini's Ciao, America! circa 2001, in Seattle. A passage in his memoir covered curtains in America, amusing and insightful for its philosophical bent. The symbolic value of curtains in America. How I laughed when I read it: the familiar through the eyes of an outsider, the mundane made new. I'd experienced with blackout shutters in Spain as a student many years prior, those magnificent, interior eclipse-inducing persianas that could make 4 pm in June seem like midnight in January, affording a long lie-in from a previous night out, or a gentle landing into a new time zone. The name itself of these external shutters, so well-known in the Mediterranean basin, invokes Persia/Iran, purdah, Pakistan, sunbaked bricks, protection from an unrelenting sun. I appreciated Beppe's treatise on the symbolic value of curtains in America: ineffective, thin, light permitting, offering no privacy, seem like decoration only, and what this indicated to him about our culture.
On a related symbolic note, I give you: our Italian vacuum cleaner.
We live in a generously-sized apartment whose every floor surface is terracotta tile that has benefited from decades of waxing. The tiles gleam like no flowerpot I've ever seen. They are glorious in the high heat of a Florentine summer: a natural wine cellar feel permeates the space, even on our fourth floor. But tiles are chilly in winter. Perhaps better suited to protecting fine vintages, or curing terrine in small pots sealed with pork fat.
To address this issue, we purchased a few large area rugs shortly after arriving, both to insulate our living spaces and to provide a softer, warmer surface for our kids to play on, their endless hours of haggling and tussling and watching YouTube videos. And eating. Don't tell the Italians, but we struggle to get our kids to eat at a table at home. They are usually eating on the faux oriental rug in our dining room, generously spreading crumbs and spilling all drinks. Magnetic play sand gathers in pink blobs, marring the pattern. Play-dough (TM) dries on the fringe. Bits of toys and dried pasta abound.
In an ideal world, we would live in the country and take the rugs out to be beaten once a week, and aired in the fresh sunshine on a dry, breezy day. I am pretty sure this is what happens in the Italian countryside. I like to think this is what happens.
In our old life in America, I would have run our industrial strength vacuum over the surface once or twice a week to achieve a calming sense of cleanliness and order. I credit my deeply Finno-Anglo-Teutonic heritage for this. Plus, perhaps, a bit of the cell memory of my Finnish forebears, who must have observed the basic rule of thumb: have little, scrub much.
In our world, however, we initially tried to sweep the rugs with a broom, then with the smaller hand broom that I know from days keeping a hard floor clean in France, the nimble balayette.
|The balayette always reminds me of a certain English Jane, |
who swept while smoking, a ciggie hanging out of the corner of her mouth.
Jason researched and located a new vacuum on Amazon Italy. The most powerful one we could find, we believed. We have Amazon Prime here, which we hardly ever use, so the new vacuum was delivered in a blink. He brought it home and we assembled it. This was when Victor was heavy in his Lego phase, so he helped us put it together. This new vacuum cleaner resembles Noo Noo from Teletubbies more than it does any useful rug sweeper. It has a potbelly, an accordion hose, and an aluminium arm attached to a rotating mouth lined with bristles.
This is the best vacuum we could find?
Our babysitters used the vacuum and came back with glowing reviews, which I received with suspicion. Were we using, in fact, the same vacuum cleaner?
I told Jason I did not think the new vacuum was a huge improvement over the emphysemic DirtDevil from the cantina. He shrugged; he accepts variant Italian outcomes with an admirable aplomb.
"Their rugs here are delicate," he posited. "They cannot be ruined with overabundant suction."
I looked at him. I thought of my lower back pain.
"The rugs are old?" he continued, fishing. "They cannot be replaced. They must vacuum them very gently, very carefully; the fibers are delicate."
I read the reviews on Amazon.it and saw that the Italians thought that this was, in fact, a pretty superlative vacuum.
I was nonplussed.
I put the new vacuum back in our closet and left it there.
I had to hand it to him: of course I understood that wall-to-wall synthetic carpeting, such as we both grew up with in our split-level ranch homes in the US of the seventies and eighties... well, that's just silly. A truly American goal, to carpet and upholster and heat and insulate your home to the point that you could walk around in your underwear in the winter, and feel like you were in Cabo. Americans want to edit their external environment for comfort. Italians edit their attire.
A different friend used the vacuum once in our house and made an amusing onomatopoeic imitation of what it sounded like when dried bits rattled up the tube and into the vacuum's potbelly.
I thought of the horsepower of our old vacuum cleaner in the US, its motorized wheels propelling it across our rugs. Our house in the US was all wood and tile floor, with a few large area rugs, strategically placed. I knew that vacuum sucked up everything. It practically tore the yarn from the mesh. I bought a rug from Overstock.com when we first moved in that seemed to contain the better part of a sand dune from the Katpana desert, and its dirt receptacle filled with the sand that resembled extra-fine granulated sugar, shaken from a sack into a vacuum.
Now, that was a vacuum you could rely on. Even if it were to destroy the tapestries of the Medici.
Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Italy maintains many received ideas that we do not know in America. Perhaps we knew them at one time, and lost them; perhaps we never knew them. If we are children of Ellis Island immigrants, I am positive that our recent forebears knew and observed basic received ideas handed down through culture, maintaining the health and well-being of the family.
Along these lines, some months back I covered the topic of the scarf versus the medical scarf in Italy, and how everyone is responsible for following basic ground rules of good health so that, should they fall into the misfortune of poor health, they cannot be immediately blamed for refusing to obey a handful of simple rules. I have been gathering a few more of these basic guidelines, and present them here for your enjoyment and edification.
Exposed skin. The purpose of attire, besides helping you look your best, is to ensure that one never shivers nor sweats. One must maintain one's body in a state of environmental equilibrium, as much as it is possible. This means never being too thinly or too warmly attired, depending on the season and the weather. Do not bring shame upon your mother, father, grandmother, and aunts by failing to monitor and maintain such simple variables that can quickly and easily be visually verified. Check yourself. Look down, or look in a mirror, or ask any small Italian standing nearby. Are your wrists exposed? fingers? ankles? heaven forbid, NOT YOUR NECK. If any of these danger zones appear overly exposed, take steps at once to put on socks, gloves, a shirt with longer sleeves, or a scarf/better scarf/second scarf. It is always appropriate to keep wearing Fashionable Scarf underneath Medical Scarf. Under no circumstances are you expected to forego one for the other. Do not give up good health for fashion, nor fashion for good health. You can, and should, protect both your health and la bella figura. There is no zero-sum game on this.
La maglia della salute. Literally the "knit shirt of health," this traditional wardrobe piece is cotton on the outside, ideally brushed soft wool on the inside, and is worn throughout the cold months for the purpose of its name: to ensure your good health. La maglia della salute will guarantee that no colpa d'aria (strike of air) wends its way to your torso, where even cavemen knew all your vital organs are housed. You gotta keep that torso covered and safe with warmth and security. Your health will thank you, along with all your organs, which will all reap the benefits of soft merino insulation.
Jason found me a version of a maglia della salute at Decathlon, an Italian version of REI, for about six euros. This was when he bought all the apparel for skiing in December for the kids. I am pretty sure it is just a base layer for skiing and various snow sport, and it is not natural fiber, but it is brushed inside and feels warm. Victor has one too, and we wear them for days on end.
Apparently the maglia vera della salute can be purchased at the Cascine open market behind the Fortezza. I would love to have one; the cotton + brushed merino sounds like the kind of mouse nest I need. I've got a Canadian named Margi from church on it for me; she's from Vancouver, and knows that keeping warm is no laughing matter. I told her I'd pay her a handsome markup if she can bring me one that is traditional and Italian and not a skier's base layer. And I might wear it all winter long until I stink like it's the quattrocento. And I will be so warm.
Freddino/freddina. Are you a person who could be characterized as freddino/freddina (chilly, easily chilled)? Apparently I am, which makes sense to me, since we live in the bottom of the Arno river valley in a city made of stone with no insulation and terrible heating. Even when I am wearing two sweaters, two scarves, socks, and wool slippers, it is fair to say that I am still very much freddina. This is a term applied to me especially by Italians of a certain age, who may have been raised with a wood-burning hearth as a heat source, and who never took off their maglia della salute from Ognissanti to Pasquetta.
Let's say it is 39F and raining outside, and I come up from locking up my bike after a quick commute across old flagstones filled with puddles, soaked and freezing.
I will be told, upon entering my office, wet and shivering, "Pero Monica, tu sei freddina!"
This is cold to you!? they ask me. Are you seriously cold?
Hey, Italy, no offense, but I doubt you've spent time at a pole, or in the Arctic.
Clearly my freezing has nothing at all to do with the weather.
"Well, do you like summer?" they asked me this week.
"I actually hate summer," I said. "It is my number four favorite season."
They looked at me like I had just grown an extra nose.
"You do not like weather," they said.
"I hate freezing," I said. "And sweating."
They ought to understand this, right? A basic Italian principle. See #1 above.
They are all in collective denial about how cold the winter is in Tuscany. Or perhaps they have simply been trained since childhood to not admit to feeling chilly, because heat costs money, and that caldaia may as well be a nuclear reactor for how reluctant people are to turn it on, as well as its associated exorbitant cost. In fact, I have learned this year that "conservare la caldaia" is an idiom. Gotta conserve that caldaia, people, no joke. Our utilities for the month of December ran to over 700 euros. And we were still freddini that whole month, as a state of being as well as a status.
Dolce e caffe. Just a note here about the proper order for the end of a meal. If you opt into dolce (dessert) after your secondo (entree), no one is going to bring you a coffee until you have eaten the entire dolce. I am talking crumbs on a saucer and a tiny fork licked clean. This is different from the US, where we like to sip, nibble, sip, nibble, alternating the coffee with the dessert. I think we lifted this bad habit from our German and Scandinavian forebears. But this is problematic, because how will your stomach receive the necessary punctuation of espresso, signalling the end of a meal, if you are sipping it with your dessert? This is just poor mealtime editing.
Get it together! Eat the dessert. Patience. Await the coffee. Drink the coffee. Good. Now everyone, including your stomach, knows that the meal is complete.
This rule also applies to a snack at a coffee bar. Eat the sweet thing. Then drink the coffee. Do not intermingle the sweet thing and the coffee when consuming. You'll screw up your digestion, or worse, and won't have anyone but yourself to blame when you get put on a white rice diet for the next two days to correct your system.
|Eat the sweets on the right. Then, and only then, drink the espresso on the left.|
Coffee and water. Not everywhere, but at my local bar, Caffe Paszkowski, they always give me a small glass of sparkling water with my espresso. Why? To drink first, to cleanse the palate, prior to enjoying your espresso, which is a gift. Hydrate a bit; front load some moisture. Then enjoy your espresso. Then drink the last bit of your water so you don't have old lady coffee mouth. I used to save all my water for after the coffee, until I got a scowl one day from Don Ciro, and a reprimand to "drink the water first." Read on for how I came to know his name.
|The actual piega on the day |
the musical broke out in Caffe Paszkowski.
Seemed pretty normal to me, this hair.
But to the baristi, it confirmed something.
So I never said, oh, by the way, ragazzi, I'm Monica. They didn't need to know that; they were nice to me and addressing me with vanity honorifics, such as professoressa, dottoressa, direttrice, which had nothing at all to do with any of my actual qualifications, but are just titles they use when they want to make people blush, as far as I can tell.
One day in December I walked in to Paszkowski after a successful piega (blowout) at a salon close by.
The baristi sprang to life like it was a Broadway musical.
"Buongiorno bella! Io sono Don Ciro ... questo e Michele ... quello e Lorenzo... Lui e Rolando. E Lei, signora, come si chiama ...?"
I was shocked. Who expected this?
I am sure I was five shades of pink.
"Monica," I said, looking around.
They all nodded, "Monica, bene. Monica."
The Italians always like my name. Thanks again, Mom and Dad, for such a nice Italian name.
I heard their commiseration behind the counter.
Then they started quizzing me.
"What's his name?" Pointing to the guy in charge.
"And his?" His first mate.
And so on, until I had proven that I too remembered all their names.
Bene, bene, bene.
Now I am greeted by name, even on days that I look like a Parisian commoner from Les Miz (not a fresh piega day.)
I am still called cara, or bella, but the younger baristi seem to me to blush ever so slightly when I greet them with a "Ciao, Lorenzo" or "Ciao, Rolando."
I hope you've enjoyed my brief tour of compiled and observed Italian rules. I will be honest when I say, I am stressed when I am not in the know about local culture beyond the most superficial of information, and I find it exhilarating and entertaining when I am learning, so I am happy to pass along my experiential knowledge.
Thursday, February 1, 2018
I had seen the pubblicità for the concert on Via della Dogana, a small side street next to Jason's office where the tourist buses stop to disgorge their day-trippers. The high stucco wall that forms the back of San Marco is often papered over with posters for all kinds of events. I usually check them, either on my bike, or on foot, or the bus, because they change frequently. (Old school technology ftw.) There is always so much going on in Florence that it would be impossible to aggregate a calendar. So, my eyes and ears are always open for any event that might be even remotely possible for me to patronize, given family schedules, life, and a craving for music and high art.
In any case, here is the pubblicità, in an image I snapped to send immediately to Sophie, now that I have a music-minded friend whose schedule, when she is not traveling to perform, seems significantly less complicated or compromised than mine, what with our small children and germs flying about.
A free concert in Ognissanti, on a Sunday, with a visiting choir from Japan, singing pieces I actually knew. No way was I going to miss this, if I could help it. We had just recently sung "In Paradisum" for mass, and I love it. Seriously, if you feel a little stressed out right now, just take a listen. It will transport you. And the lyrics will make you teary.
Sophie wanted to meet first for an espresso. I put together the Florentine layout as I walked, since I am never on this route. Oh, so this is Vigna Nuova - oh, and so it connects here to Goldoni - oh, so now I am just one block from Ognissanti.
Everyone loves Ognissanti. It is renowned for the Westin Excelsior and its rooftop bar (still have not been there), the French Consulate, with the Alliance Française and Librarie Française, a spacious piazza protected from traffic, a large sculpture in the middle, benches scattered about, and to crown the whole, Ognissanti herself holding regal court from the lower end of the piazza, looking out over the Arno to her friend for centuries, Santa Maria de Carmine. The late afternoon sun of winter bathed the stone in a warm glow.
I walked up and down the street a few times unsuccessfully searching for the caffe where Sophie had said to meet. It was closed this Sunday, as it happened, and shuttered into anonymity. We finally caught up with one another, and ducked into an empty restaurant where a lone barista shrugged and said he'd be happy to pull us two shots - for a premium price, as we learned when we finished. We chatted about an upcoming opera production she is helping to produce, and her regret at planning to leave the Ognissanti concert early to catch a headliner conductor at the Palazzo Pitti.
Back at Ognissanti, at four o'clock, the church had filled in a matter of moments. Where had all these people come from? I was reminded of a particular train in Croatia in 1995 at dawn (a story for a different time). Many Japanese attendees, the likely relatives of the dozens of choristers, patiently waited.
Sophie and I walked up and down the aisle trying to find to spots together, on any pew. We finally scooted into a pew where someone had strewn their personal belongings, in an attempt to save seats for the free concert.
"Are these your things?" we asked the nonna.
"No, who knows whose things those are? They're not ours." She squinted at the jacket and the bag.
We left the things in the middle of the pew, between us and the nonna.
More and more people trying to find seats stopped to ask us about the belongings on the pew.
"Are those your things?" they asked us.
Nope, that purple Members Only windbreaker was still not mine.
"Who does that?" the nonni asked us. "Who?"
We shrugged. Who knew who does that? I didn't know, I was just here to see the concert.
Soon a bald man with fashionable glasses came and sat down between us, moving the purple jacket to the floor.
No one came for the jacket or the bag.
Another couple came and sat on the pew.
The original nonna, closest to the aisle, now began to feel crowded, and tapped the shoulder of the woman in front of her.
"You know, these pews are meant to hold five people each, and your pew has just four people on it."
Nonna #2 looked at nonna #1 and held her gaze for a moment, then nodded in agreement and moved over to let nonna #1 move up a pew.
Sophie and I suppressed snickers.
This was such a portrait in miniature of Italian culture, and Come Si Fa in Italia, and the public discussion of what is expected and acceptable. I actually like that, in Italy, one can publicly ask these questions about abandoned personal items, or the correct number of people who can fit in a pew, and the civil discussion continues. No one blows a gasket, or even thinks about pulling out a gun (these last five years or so in Oklahoma really scarred me with respect to firearms.) Simply civil discourse, completed. I am so overdue for a civil retraining.
The concert was late to start, which was surprising, since the Japanese choir was, well, Japanese. But then, they were in Italy. Finally the 130 choristers filed in, the organist took his bench, his page turner next to him. The soloists came in last.
Sophie received a text that the other concert she had planned to attend in Palazzo Pitti was sold out, and that her friend and our fellow chorister Tabitha would be joining us at Ognissanti. By now attendees were sitting under the altars in the chapels lining the sides of the sanctuary, and leaving against their marble plinths.
I checked the history of Ognissanti on my phone, today a Franciscan church, but originally built by the Brothers of Humility (not sure what they are called in English). You can visit the tombs of the Vespucci there, as well as Sandro Botticello, Signore Nascita di Venere himself, who receives homage to this day from visitors in the forms of notes and flowers in thanks for the enduring legacy of art he left.
The concert concluded and we returned to the fresh evening. The purple windbreaker remained on the floor.
I feel so fortunate to be bringing music back into my life, as a singer, as a musician, as a performer, as a patron, and one who truly appreciates music. I miss my days in school choirs, and voice lessons and recitals, and subscribing to the Seattle Opera, but I love this chapter where I am singing in a choir in Florence, and understanding more deeply how and why music plays a role in our lives. It is such a true point of entry into Italian culture, and Florentine culture in particular. Gifts will surface when we need them.
Monday, January 29, 2018
It all started last Thursday, when Eleanor decided she would, on that particular day, as never happens otherwise, accompany Victor to I Scolopi for his earlier dropoff. His day begins at 8:30, while Eleanor has until 9:30 to mosey in to the preschool on the top floor. We should have tried harder to dissuade her, but instead we all trooped out to the corner of Piazza d'Azeglio and Via Carducci, where our bikes are always locked up, rain or shine.
Eleanor now weighs 12 kilos, and Victor 20 kilos. It's no longer possible for Jason to put them both on his bike to bring them in, as was the case until this past fall. So Victor went with me on my bike, and buckled in. As we rode away I was not aware of any meltdown behind us, but Victor said Jason and Eleanor were still at the curb. It was 8:25 and he was not going to be late this morning if he was on my bike, so I pedaled at superhero speed and brought him in.
Riding my bike home, I noted on the bike path next to the viale (ring road) that my tire was flat - like really flat. I rode on the rim for about a hundred more meters, and then hopped off to walk it home, the loose rubber flapping on the pavement. Jason texted me to tell me that Eleanor was face down in the parking lot screaming. These days I call her Attica, with love. A riot lurks just under the surface, ready to flare at any time. She throws things, and far, and at me, when she does not want them, or she refuses them, or she is finished with them, or finds them disdainful - clothing, shoes, cups of juice, plastic plates of pasta, toys.
I walked my bike back in, about 30 minutes, on the narrow sidewalk between our piazza and the bike shop. Flap flap flap. Plus some dirty looks from Italians who may have believed I was walking my bike on the sidewalk for fun, rather than trying to avoid being scacciata (flattened) by the constant line of speeding buses that whizz through that arterial. At the bike shop, I showed the tire to our mechanics. Six pm, he said.
Jason and Victor spent the weekend in Trentino in ski lessons, enjoying mountain air and fresh powder. I stayed at home with Attica, preferring to manage the riot in our own home, rather than in a hotel room. Her skiiing stamina is about 45 minutes, far less than her protest stamina. Our friend Flavia came to stay and help, which meant I got to do things like enjoy a Friday evening prosecco in good company, have adult conversations, practice my Italian with a sympathetic multilingual speaker, observe and learn from Flavia's child-whispering skills, sing in choir, and attend a concert. (I will cover the concert in a later post.) On Saturday I mailed myself off to Napland in Victor's top bunk in the nap envelope, while Flavia watched "The Little Mermaid" in Italian with Attica, who does not riot with Flavia. (Nap envelope: a zippered fleece sleeping bag that, when properly fastened, makes me forget I live in Tuscany in winter, and permits me to relax as warmly as a sojourning mouse in an old down coat.)
Saturday evening I met up with friends for dinner on the Arno, accompanied by a fair amount of cross-cultural amusement (I will cover the restaurant evening in a later post.) Wow! What was this magical Florence that could be seen and enjoyed in the evening, as the lights of the Uffizi gallery and the Ponte Vecchio reflected off the quietly flowing, yet glass-like Arno?
Eleanor took a long late nap with Flavia, and so was ready to party by the time I got home. I will confess I let her watch Peppa Pig videos on YouTube on the old laptop after I fell asleep. I woke up around midnight and saw that she had closed it and fallen asleep next to me.
Sunday morning I had choir rehearsal, and rode my repaired bike to St. James on the other side of town. Our choir is growing, thanks to the PR efforts of the assistant director, Sophie, and me, and our two new Venezuelan singers were joined by a Muscovite musician and an English au pair. We performed Vivaldi's "Gloria," followed by Rutter's "God Be in my Head." I was fortunate to sing next to our professional Japanese soprano, Ayako, whose voice would melt a mountain. I always take notes. Or get teary. In any case, as soon as I was done singing, I sped home to relieve Flavia and host friends for lunch.
The assistant choir director Sophie and I had made a date to see a choir perform at 4 pm at Ognissanti. But when I walked out of the building to go to my bike, I saw, to my horror, that the tire was completely flat again. I checked my watch and prepared to hoof it 4,000 steps to Ognissanti, an area I am never in, and was only vaguely aware of how to directly arrive to. Fortunately, the day was gorgeous, Attica was with Flavia, and this was all ok.
The concert was well worth the effort. The Japanese choir sang Vivaldi and Faure. A treble soloed from the pulpit and it felt like 1730. All the soloists were exceptional, even if the organist was a bit flustered and kept striking wrong keys and chords. But I love Ognisssanti, and the acoustics were superb.
After the concert finished, we were greeted upon exiting the church with a sunset straight out of a dream. The Italians around us exclaimed, "Guarda che tramontane!" and snapped pictures. We went up to the lungarno to get our shots right over the river.
I walked home, where Jason and Victor waited, beat from their sporty weekend up north. Another little boy, Enzo, the son of one of the visiting faculty from Gonzaga, was happily playing with our kids. I told Jason my bike tire was flat again so we could make plans for Monday morning. I advised Eleanor, "either the bus or the stroller tomorrow." I wondered if my rim was bent, or the wheel was broken. Jason and I agreed that Victor cannot ride on the kid seat on the back of my bike anymore. (Jason upgraded his bike to a better model the last time this happened, after Victor broke most of his spokes multiple times.)
So this morning, Eleanor woke up as soon as the door clicked confirming the earlier departure of Jason and Victor. After a mini riot and multiple outfit changes, I got her downstairs into a borrowed stroller that I found in the building's basement, which I still need to tell the owners I pinched, since Jason loaned Eleanor's stroller to a visiting faculty family. Eleanor was mad that the clip was broken, but we were off walking to school in no time, while she clutched her large stuffed dog, to the amusement of everyone we passed. This is probably the fourth time in two years that I have strolled Eleanor anywhere. She hates the stroller for both its lack of freedom, and for its intimation to the public of the infantile rider.
Walking home from school, I passed by the dentist... oh merda, I have a dentist appointment at 10:30, and it is 9:45, and I must walk home. Well, clearly, that does not leave enough time to walk in with my flat tire and make the dentist appointment. I packed my office into my backpack, and headed back to the dentist on foot.
They were ready for me. I want to say here that I like our family dentist, and I love the dentist in general, but wow. Tough on teeth. In no time I was supine in the chair, getting a dam assertively flossed into my teeth. The filling was going to be all business.
"Do you blah blah blah?" he asked me.
"Anesthesia. Do you want it?"
What a strange question! In the US, they just poke you immediately. There is no debate.
"Not now," I shrugged, thinking of my pain threshold and delivering two babies without anesthesia.
Maybe this Italian dentist knew some advanced tricks?
How much could a little drill...
What was that?
Ow ow ow.
Note, I have not been drilled in ages. Decades. Maybe since 2001 in Seattle.
I gestured in panic from behind the blue rubber dental dam.
"Do you want the anesthesia now?"
I nodded vigorously. Tears were running into my ears.
They took off the rubber dam, and an assistant came in with a huge hypo.
Surely they were going to numb my gum with a big Q-Tip of lido ...
WHOA that needle is all the way in and pumping liquid, oh my god.
I closed my eyes and thought of England. (joke)
More drilling, much drilling, much composite.
Finally it was done, and the dam came off.
But no, more drilling and polishing.
At this point I was semi-dissociative, but I am vain about my teeth, and this dentist is good. He was trained in the US. And he speaks English. And his whole staff speaks English too. And his daughter is in school with our kids.
Then the dentist announced he was really done, and off came all the accessories. I wiped all the spit from my chin and around my mouth. I could taste blood where the metal ring of the dam had been anchored onto a molar.
"We'll do the other one later," he reassured me.
I felt like I might pass out.
"And your night guard, we can fit you for that after we do the second filling, because it will alter your bite."
I was wondering if it was too early for an apero.
I went to Jason's office and told him the story, but he stopped me at the imitation of the drilling sound. I have meant to blog about my Italian dental experiences before, but today's session seemed particularly memorable.
The entire right side of my face was numb, and I could still feel the place where the hypo had gone in. Jason and I went to his local caffe to order a double espresso for me, to end the anesthesia before I chewed my own lip off.
So I walked home, again, got my busted bike, again, and walked it into the bike shop, again. The bike tech looked at the wheel and said I had punctured the tire again, that the wheel was not broken or bent. 6 pm, he said. Again.
Back out on the street, I downloaded the Mobike app, and after a number of tries, got it to work. I picked up a Mobike outside of Jason's office, and rode it into my office. Cost: 50 cents. Umm, seems a bit high, so I will only resort to Mobike in cases of emergency (theft, wreck, flat).
At this point today I have walked almost 10,000 steps already, my mouth still tastes like blood, and the espresso did not, in fact, terminate the effects of the anesthesia.
My life is an indie film.
Friday, January 19, 2018
If you Instagram, follow me at @occhiatafiorentina, where I am a frequent poster and microblogger of images taken with my phone, both around town and on travels.
I picked up a modest sidebar in October writing creative Italian lifestyle content in English, culturally accessible to an American audience; the firm is based in Verona, Santamargherita. You can find my pieces by clicking on the Blog link and searching for my byline.
I am off Facebook these days as it tends to mute my muse - and she does not appreciate that!]
Il giorno di Santa Lucia (December 13) and the winter solstice (December 21) have passed, Natale has come and gone. The twelve days of Christmas are still assiduously observed in Italy with time off and a general slowing of activity and some serious dining scenes, cruising gently into Epifania and la Befana on day twelve (January 6).
Jason and I got engaged on Epiphany in 2005, on a chilly sunset shore in Charleston - Folly Beach. We went to a Spanish tapas bar to celebrate over tempranillo and membrillo while I sat with perfect posture as the long roadtrip we were on had thrown out my back. Epiphany has always been one of my favorite feast days, and it's a personal anniversary too.
So the arrival to mid-January in Italy is a shifting of gears, up for work, down for rest. Florentine skies skew grey, and we've had days on end of clouds, rain, and cold. Cruelly, the bright skies tend to also be extremely crisp, giving you a double-punch to the gut of both piercing blue sky and paralyzing Arctic air.
The kids went back to school last week, on January 8, with some grumbling after enjoying the generous Italian holiday. Victor asked me, when is the next vacation?
I studied our 2018 calendar, hung on a nail on the outside of our laundry room door. No ink on a date outside of a weekend in January after Befana.
Febbraio, niente. (Seriously, Martedì Grasso on February 13 is not a holiday in Italy? This is shocking to me. It is the beginning of la Quaresma, or the forty days of Lent.)
Marzo, neanche niente! Nothing either!
Aprile! Madonna! ma tu scherz'! (You've got to be joking!)
No days off until April 2, the day after Easter this year, called Pasquetta (Little Easter) in Italy.
I think I was swearing under my breath to myself as I realized this breathtaking drought of time off, combined with the sludgy winter weather, and - thanks for this, Italy - Lent - it's just like they want to load up on the grind until the weather turns and spring rolls out the green carpet.
Speaking of normal time, and the passage of time, and the calendar, an amusing note here. Raise your hand if you ever think, in practical terms, of the Gregorian versus the Julian calendar. Hands up.
I was vaguely aware of the Julian calendar, which began its initial phaseout in 1582, with Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Poland giving up ten days. There were mathematical reasons for the switch, like sloppy leap year calculations featuring double leap years, February 30, and further calendrical nonsense.
«Santa Lucia è il giorno più corto che ci sia»
The feast day of Saint Lucia is the shortest day of the year.
Certainly prior to 1582, the feast day of Saint Lucia was the shortest day of the year in Italy, what John Donne was describing from his dark English table as the midnight of the year.
A Canadian friend in town told me, with some consternation but also a sideways smile, that her son learned this saying in class here in Firenze, with no further historical background, just some cursory contextual mumblings from the maestra.
December 13 is not the winter solstice; solstice is December 21, or thereabouts. But in Italy, sayings outlive political policies that were set in place almost half a millenium ago. The folk wisdom lives on in peoples' minds, and La Stampa prints current articles to explain to their readership why, in fact, December 13 is not the winter solstice. (But that couplet, that couplet is so nice, who could ever want to stop saying it?)
I might actually prefer Mayan solstice rituals, after all that administrative confusion here in Europe emanating from the Vatican. Kukulkán still slithers up and down the pyramids on time at Chichén Itzá and elsewhere, and that calendar didn't need an edit and reboot.
|Mayan math ftw.|
Sunday, December 31, 2017
The final day of 2017. We're in Austria for the festivities. But before I cover this new locale, I would like to reprise a few observations from Santa Fosca, high in the Dolomites, since I last left my readers at the night of our arrival amid the snowstorm.
We learned on Friday evening at dinner that the snowstorm had in fact trapped any number of drivers in their vehicles who spent the night wedged in various snowdrifts or stopped at unsafe angles alongside the road, awaiting daylight and the arrival of a snowplow with five-foot chained tires, so we felt triply thankful to have safely arrived.
Our hotel, Garni la Stua, was small and family-run, and clean as a whistle. It was 2,500 steps from the ski school and sled run. (Never got the kids into ski school here, but they are finishing up their first lesson ever down on the hill with Steffi as we speak.)
On the upper Veneto:
I am always struck by how hygienic all spaces are in northern Italy. Like, insanely so. After prolonged periods in Firenze, where the valley captures all the air pollution and exhaust from buses, trains, cars, motorini and motocicli, and the front doors open directly onto narrow and busy streets, thus depositing much grime and dust on every available surface, the sparkling surfaces of the upper Veneto impress.
These people know how to build and heat a house. The comforters are down. The pillows are down. The sheets are pristine. And the heat. The heat works, and the space is insulated. After our shivering winters in Arezzo and Firenze, I just cannot get over this.
The accent shift is significant. Or is it a dialect? Not quite sure, but I really had no idea what they were saying to me in the gastronomia on Wednesday night. To be fair, I am pretty sure she was covering the local specialities available on the menu. On the sled hill, overhearing a mamma bellunese on her phone, and the vowel slide to "Va bon" from "va bene." (Is this really a thing?)
Refugio becomes baita, all cheese is fried, as is the polenta, meat is everywhere on the menu, and butter seems to be the sauce base of choice. The thick white cheese is everywhere. The place names all sound like they came from a science fiction novel. The Italian, aside from melting into dialect, is slower and sounds more like German, thus being easier for me to follow.
The locals are completely without guile, compared to the Florentines. They are genuinely nice and not at all jaded. I initially attributed this to tourism, but then realized that such has been the case with Firenze for centuries.
Every bar maintains a collection of clear glass decanters which I quickly realized were grappa flavored with local flora like raspberries, blueberries, and hazelnuts. We asked for one at the hotel bar one evening, and were served generous tazze of the elixir, the faded blueberries and raspberries drifting on the bottom. We both slept well that night!
The valley was breathtaking as the heavy storm of Wednesday gave way to blue skies on Thursday, and glittering snow fields on Friday. We had he best room in the hotel - large and warm, snug under the topmost eaves, with a view down into the valley with its small parish church that caught my eye and of which I must have taken twenty pictures. Friday evening we met up with our friend Tommaso and his family in the small hamlet of Belvedere, at a bar and grill positioned precariously off the side of a Dolomite. Eleanor was delighted they brought their mild Jack Russell, Yuki, and Victor quickly joined the kids' table to eat pasta and play Uno. We shared plates of primi and secondi, then bade our farewells and drove back to our hotel one last time on the now well-plowed and sanded strada provinciale.
After we returned our rented sleds on Saturday morning, we packed the car and the kids, taking care to check off all items so as to not leave behind further valuables as we had done on Wednesday leaving Firenze. The day was sunny and bright. Our plan was to drive up and over the Giau Pass, down into Cortina d'Ampezzo, through Dobbiaco and to our Bad Kleinkirchheim. Our Italian friends on Friday evening all roundly approved of our choice, as this part of Austria is a popular destination for Italian holidaymakers. There are thermal baths, and outdoor sport year-round depending on the season.
At the turnoff for the south side of the Giau Pass, the sign indicated that 29 hairpins awaited us in just over eight kilometers. I feared the worst. But the kids were in great moods, and Victor joyfully called out the numbers that marked each switchback. We pulled over at least twice to make way for lumbering urban buses that seemed out of place in the plowed and sanded single lane on the face of the mountain. We passed two ski resorts full of people. At the top of the pass, a half dozen people were skiing with parasails, letting the wind pull them up the mountain after each run.
We crossed the pass, and began our descent through more switchbacks, and in shade, as we were now on the north side of the pass. The nausea demon began to clutch at my temples again and I started to turn my fifty shades of green. Victor and Eleanor began to bicker and ask for more help, so I crawled into the back seat, which proved my final and most fatal error in the battle against motion sickness. Wedged between two small children, in about eight lateral inches of seat space, in the back of a car speeding around switchbacks at high elevation ...
By the time we arrived in Cortina I could no longer speak. Jason suggested that I eat a banana. "It is way past that," I groaned. I climbed back into the front seat (relative travel advantage of being in the second percentile for adult woman size.) Cortina was stuffed full of tourists, pedestrians, skiers, and drivers. Their streets were unplowed and remained lumpy with dirty snow moguls. No wonder their mayor was so outraged during and after the Wednesday storm.
We stopped in Dobbiaco for lunch and got lucky in a lovely little pizzeria attached to an adjacent spa hotel. Vic and Eleanor oohed and aahed at the pizzaiuolo who threw his dough with extra flair for them. We continued on our way to Austria, stopping at a local gas station to buy the vignete. Last year we neglected to do this before we arrived in Austria and almost cancelled our entire holiday as a result, in the midst of the after-dark literal highway extortion that ensued by uniformed Slovenia officials.
The route to Bad Kleinkirchheim followed a narrow valley, with steep walls rising on each side, filled with grey clouds. A small village punctuated the landscape every few kilometers, with a white stucco parish church at each center.
The town was thronged with skiers, tourists, patrons of the thermal baths, and service workers. We arrived just as it was getting dark, so missed out on sledding yesterday. Our hotel is a kinderhotel, full of families and children, with a full pension, which means they provide three meals a day in the dining room. The ski school is on the hotel grounds, and is full of ski students. Sleds are free and provided by the hotel. Do you find yourself accidentally on the outside of the hotel? Don't worry, there is a bistrot right there at the bottom of the bunny hill.
The clientele here seem to be mostly Austrian, and I will confess that my heart skips a beat each time the employees cheerfully wish me "Gruess Gott!" Our German is getting a minor workout here. I have busted out many a hallo and stimmt so and hallo and Enschuldigung, but also begging people to speak English to me when their German took off on a tear, The hotel staff seem less up on Italian, as I saw last night when a flustered older Italian man left the dining room to alert the manager on staff that their waiter did not speak any Italian.
Victor and Eleanor had their first ski lesson today.
We rented them each a full kit, where we learned that the smallest ski boot available is size 24, which Eleanor can just fit. Helmets are mandatory for kids under 16.
We went out to the pista to find out instructor, Steffi.
She was a perfect fit for Victor, her principal student, as she reminded me much of Caitie, Victor's favorite babysitter from Norman. Sweet, calm, reassuring, in control. Victor quickly picked up the basic skills.
Eleanor pouted on the sidelines until we clipped her into her skis.
Soon she was riding up the bunny hill conveyor belt behind Victor and following him down the small hill.
They both liked it - Eleanor loved it. "I'm not afraid," she told everyone. "I'm not scared."
"I am," said Vic, "a little bit."
But even so he was soon stopping and turning like a boy who'd been on the slopes many times before.
Meanwhile Eleanor was skiing down the bunny hill under the firm grasp of either Jason or me.
They have both been enrolled in class for tomorrow.
It was a perfect finish to 2017, true to type for the entire family cast.
[The wifi in this hotel is not superb, so I am not going to be able to upload photos for this post at the moment, but will do as soon as I am able.]