Pasta e ceci

Pasta e ceci, or past-uh-cheech-u-ruh as it is known here, is probably our favorite pasta dish.   But it is not everyone’s, and there might be a bit of a taste  ”learning curve”  for many.  Cooked  chick peas have a complicated flavor, and while they absorb some of this from their cooking liquid, they maintain that leguminous “soil”  taste which you either love or hate.  We love it.

I always appreciate a good hummus , and falafel is also really good,  but as they say here in the south, “La morte sua”*  is in the form of  this recipe which we all love.

—–Ingredients for four:

1/2  cup of minced celery, carrot, and onion

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

two cans cooked chickpeas

one medium ripe tomato

two garlic cloves

about 3/4 pound (not quite a whole package) of dry tagliatelle, or any flat and thin pasta

salt and pepper, Q.B.**

If you are a dedicated cook, someone who plans ahead (bless you!) you can start a day or two early with dry chickpeas and get them soaking.  Change the water often.  It may take from 24 to 36 hours of soaking to get them softened enough for cooking, depending on their age.   But I am a  short-attention-span type, so I buy the canned ones that are already cooked and soft in their own liquid.  Make sure there is no added flavoring.  I think it is detestable that tomato sauces and other canned veggies are often degraded with added flavorings  in the U.S…What, is it too difficult to add roasted garlic or salt yourself?

Start with a soffritto of finely minced celery*** onion and carrot, about a half of a cup, maybe a little more.  Saute these in a third cup of olive oil until softened.  I know that seems like a lot of oil, but remember, the olive oil in Italian cooking is an integral part of the flavor and mouth-feel of the dish, not just a lubricant to keep it from sticking to the pan!   Cook the soffritto gently, until translucent.   Don’t let it burn!

At this point, add one large  chopped and peeled tomato to the pot.  If you want to be a stickler and pick the seeds out then be my guest, but I have never been quite so dedicated to perfection.  Tomatoes are often used in small quantities in Italian cooking, to add acidity as much as flavor.  They are not necessarily the star ingredient of the dish.   A couple of minced garlic cloves, generous pepper, a bay leaf, and the two cans of chickpeas with their water then are added.  Add  two more cans of water.   Get it simmering and taste for saltiness.  It needs to be well-salted because the pasta that will be added will need to absorb plenty of salt.

This is a mixture that will burn, so don’t toddle off to another room and start working on your taxes!    Few things are nastier in a dish than burned legumes.  This “soup” will begin to break down into a nice velvety mix in about half an hour.  At this point I give it a little nudge by whacking it with my “Mini Pimer”  (stick blender)  just enough to break up about half of the chickpeas.

Taste again for salt, and take your flat pasta (tagliatelle or nested noodles made with hard wheat, no egg please, although…****) and break it up with your hands before dumping it directly into the pot.  Now you will have to stand over it and stir, there is no escape, otherwise it will stick and burn.  After about five minutes you can turn off the heat and cover the pot.  Check the liquid level frequently, because the pasta will drink up an incredible amount in no time.   When the pasta has soaked up most of the liquid and when it is “al dente” it is ready to serve.  The consistency should be about the same as gooey mac and cheese.

As always, I admit to  nonconformist behavior at the Italian table:  I love to add grated Grano Padano to this dish.  My husband sneers as he adds (I kid you not) about a cup of freshly-ground pepper to his, so we each have our personal preferences, as any married couple should!   I also like to add a generous dribbling of homemade jalapeno chap-your-ass hot sauce to mine!

Enjoy!!

“Strada sul fiume” pastel, 5×5 inches

*(“Its ideal death,” meaning roughly, ” The best way for it to go.”)

**”Quanto Basta” which means “as much as it takes.”

***I am frustrated that the part of the celery that I need for my recipes is often amputated before it even gets to the market.  As much of this mixture should be made of the leaves of the celery stalk as is humanly possible.

****However we have found that pasta all’ uovo doesn’t ruin the recipe, and actually it is quite good made with egg pasta.  Try it!

“Ma Dov’e’ Questa Crisi?”

http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/2012/09/monti-warns-italian-unions-over-200000.html

I have never thought to post a link to an article before, but this one was so essentially synchronized with my current thinking that I could not resist.  I hope that if you take the time to read it, you will then come back and let me put in my two cents’ worth.

Things are bad.  They have been bad for so long that the frog boiling in the pot has been comatose for some time.  Luckily for Italians, he has a shadow double which lives on happily  in the underground economy.  It is a world where following the rules imposed by  a  conga line of megalomanaical governments was never an option.  What we might see as “corruption” is simply survival to almost everyone buying, selling, or producing anything.   Now, however, over ten years of imposed absurdity defined as EU “guidelines”   combined with the current economic collapse has brought things to crisis level.  Will there be a reaction?  Who knows.

I have been observing things, as we all have here, and so I have a few anecdotal stories which may help people from elsewhere understand what Italians are up against.

My husband once had a store.  It was taxed in many ways, and he eventually got out of the business because the fiscal pressure was too great.  Business income taxes are around 45 percent to start.   He had to pay tax on every article he sold, as if he had sold it, before he sold it.  Think about this:  You buy 100 articles, you pay up front for them, and immediately you turn over the hypothetical  4 to 20 percent value added tax to the government, as if you had already sold all 100 articles.    If things go really well, you might sell 50 of these articles.   The remaining fifty cannot be written off, and you are allowed only two “On Sale” periods of ten days in a fiscal year.  These must be communicated to the appropriate offices in triplicate ahead of time. (And yes, there is also a tax on each page of official documentation, which one must purchase in the form of stamps.  These range from a couple of Euros to 40, depending on the document.)   These are established by region and by date.   Stiff fines are levied on any store displaying a “SALDI“**  sign outside of this permissible window of time.

The roving representatives who offered their wares to store owners were also regulated by rules regarding competition, so in any small town there wasn’t really a choice as to whom to buy from.  Most representatives will not sell to a store owner unless he/she buys a certain amount of merchandise.  In a tiny town, how many of X article, especially things like specialty clothing, do you think you can sell once someone has already bought one?   Always, the  answer is “not nearly as many as you had to buy.”

The store space is taxed on its size, taxed on its location, taxed on whether or not it has air-conditioning, whether it has a phone, a bathroom, internet, how much window space it has,  how many lights it uses and the size of its monthly electric bill.  God forbid you should be so lucky as to need an employee (most small stores are owned and run by one person or a family).   Business owners are expected to not only pay a pre-established wage and follow all rules regarding hours, but they must pick up the tab for extensive medical and retirement fund coverage, and guarantee that there will be no firing before a certain period of months has passed.  No matter how  inept or dishonest the employee.  Hiring an employee is similar to adopting a child: you are forever responsible for that person.  It is a rare small business where the employee does not take home, every month, more money than his/her employer.  No wonder jobs are scarce.

But the most egregious example of the absurdity and extent of taxation on small business that I remember was the tax on signage.  It started by requiring a special tax if you had a sign, as most businesses do.  Sunsequently the sign was also taxed by its size.  Then the tax was increased if the sign used electricity to illuminate it.  But the final indignity came when, around the middle of the 1980′s, the government decided that store owners should be taxed according to how large a shadow the sign cast on the sidewalk at  a given hour, which I assume was not at noon.  I don’t think this tax is still in effect, but you can be sure the EU will have come up with something similarly preposterous.

The government establishes how many pharmacies there can be, one of them for each 12 thousand inhabitants.  It establishes which items the pharmacy may sell.  The licensed pharmacist is inevitably the wealthiest person in town, along with the “notaio.”  This is the notary,  whose signature is required on all transactions of property.  He must be paid a percentage of each land, car, house, business sale.  This percentage is very high.   As you might imagine, the declared value of such transactions is a fraction of the actual price.  Buy a farm for 100 thousand Euros?  Declare its cost at 20 thousand.  Nevertheless, the notaio is not only very wealthy, but also one of the most despised people in town.   The position of both notaio and farmacista is jealously guarded, and the license is passed down, always,  within the family for generations.  Find the nicest palazzo in town?  It belongs to either the pharmacist or the notaio.

It is said that as much as 50 percent of the Italian economy is underground.  I certainly hope so.  Recently a law was passed (ostensibly to regulate  money-laundering)  which mandates that any transaction larger than 1000 Euros (about 1,300 dollars) MUST take place electronically.  Cash is not allowed.   Only a certain amount of cash can be withdrawn from one’s personal bank account in a 24 hour period.   Add the transaction charge to an already tenuous bottom line in stores, and compound this by the fact that only about 25 percent of Italians will use plastic to make purchases,  factor in  the inflation which is sure to come,  and you can see the perfect storm on the horizon.

So if it is true that  rules create behavior, much of the “corruption” prevalent in Italy is a direct result of the population trying to hang onto what little they earn.  The entire structure is built on successive levels, the “underground” levels being where the bulk of transacting takes place.   I can testify, as someone who has been restructuring a house, that things can get quite interesting!   Work a job if you can, but make sure you have enough chickens in your coop to exchange with your neighbor who grows wheat!     And treat the winemaker well, too, you are going to need him!

“Seniority” mixed media on paper

*     “But Where is this Crisis?”   A famous song from the 30′s which is always pertinent.  They even made a Carnevale  float in theme, with an updated version of the song, which you might find amusing!!  If I have the time I will translate it.

Recognize anyone?   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjP9J33ztYE&feature=related

**”SALE”

A hot summer day in southern Italy

The summer has a rich audio track; locusts, lawnmowers, sprinklers, combine harvesters, and birds, always birds. The most profound silences coincide with the heat of midday, and the vibrating 100 degree heat commands a siesta, indoors. I salute the invention of electric fans: with or without air conditioning, there can be few things more sensual than air moving over slightly damp skin. The hottest hours of the day are dedicated to reading, mulling over possibilities, or restful sleep.

Outside, the sun is punishing, and the air has a darkness to it that speaks of lack of humidity and cloudlessness. But it is cool in the shade, and if there is a breeze even cooler. A strategically-placed hammock, hanging under tall leafy trees, beckons. The biting flies will not attack you if you are in the shade, which is good to know.

How many locusts are there? It is almost like being home in Texas, and the noise is a constant electronic high-pitched buzz. It is so loud that I can hardly hear it anymore.

The tomatoes this year were started too early, and they suffered the effects of a new irrigation system which dripped instead of showering the plants. Tomatoes in sandy soil do not appreciate the lack of water on hot days such as these. They are having a second life now, and they are never free of their muddy soil, getting as much moisture as they can take. Their new fleshy green leaves tell me all I need to know.

There is a frog in the swimming pool again. Swimming with frogs is fun; if you move slowly, they think of you as a large fleshy island and will swim up and climb on. They are handled and transferred to the fishpond, and punctually can be found again the next morning in the pool.

My feet are filthy, as usual. In the mud, out of the mud, summer is a time in which I can’t afford to be foot-proud. It will take most of the Fall to get rid of the calluses. If you shake my hand you will know I can handle a hoe. Well, my work ethic makes a woman proud of her calluses and blackened feet. Life is too short.

At least six sprinklers are going all the time, and I am dedicated to placing them so that no corner is missed. Hat, shirt, sunscreen, out the door. Back inside, sweaty, hat and shirt off, next job! Repeat every two hours each and every day. Our yard and garden are an oasis of green and dampness, and it is heavenly. Water is cheap—the agricultural irrigation water, that is—so it flows freely.

I step outside and smell smoke, which is a scary thing indeed. The breeze brings a rain of small blackened fragments of grasses and husks; there is a fire somewhere near. If our fosso should catch fire, after these many months of no rain, it will turn to ash in a hurry. The sheepherders, when they have heavy undergrowth to deal with, will not hesitate to set a fire to burn it down. I dread the local Festa of the patron saint, which means fireworks and half the outskirts of town burnt black. How did this happen, they ask, incredulous? Each year it is the same. The Winter months are for healing these scars, and forgetting for the year to come.

The dogs are dedicated to hunting lizards. They never give up until the tail has been removed from its owner, and then they immediately lose interest. About half of our million-or-so lizards are in various phases of regrowth. Where do they get the strength, and how many times can they miraculously conjure up another tail?

Outside the kitchen window, at eye level, there is a huge pigeon in her nest. When she leaves we see her two chicks, the ugliest of ugly ducklings, waiting for her to return with food. Each year we have more of these “colombacci,” and I hope they make it through the hunting season to return next year.

The big dogs have sequestered themselves either in the cool garage, or in muddy self-dug holes in the gardens. As the summer progresses these “dog nests” become deeper, and in the autumn we will need to add a couple of wheelbarrows of soil.

 

                                                                “Starshine” pencil and gold pigment on paper

It is finally dark, at 9 PM, a blessed relief, and dinner can be considered as 11 PM approaches. The work day is long! There is cacophony from the fishpond. Big frogs, small frogs, all singing to each other in the hopes of coming in first in the genetic sweepstakes. There will be gelatinous masses of eggs everywhere in a few weeks. A snake, the natrix-natrix ubiquitous in this area, swims slowly around the water’s edge. She and her progeny will keep the number of frogs under control.

Stepping outside, there is a pitter-patter of frantic feet up and down the walls. The geckos are everywhere, keeping us mosquito-free. The insulating panels on the walls make the noise of their running quite loud. I don’t mind the coccodrilli, as they are working for the common good.

The pool is besieged by numbers of small bats, dipping into the surface and dive-bombing our heads. They, too, are consuming mosquitoes, which is their singular gift to us sweet and fleshy types.

Walking around the yard at night, a flashlight is mandatory. Frogs are out and about, snakes too. I know where to go to find a nice fat hedgehog during the day, but at night it is on the prowl and could be anywhere. We try to avoid each other after dark.

We have a cuckoo! A t dusk, it sounds at five-second intervals, continuing through the falling dusk. There are nightingales down in the woods of the fosso, and they are furious in their dedication to song until the early hours of the morning. Whoever said that defending one’s territory has to be unpleasant?

There are more noises at night than there are during the day. Mysterious calls from the woods, crashing in the underbrush, and the dogs barking as a consequence. Motorcycles and cars speeding down the road far away, and occasionally the thrumming beat from an outdoor discotheque. Kids drag home at four AM, and most of them are not drunk or drug-addled…but some are. The town is an anthill until 2 AM, with even small children prowling the streets on bicycles until this hour. In the summer, one has to live the nighttime hours to compensate for the lazy afternoons.

Tonight Italy has just won the semi-finals of the European Cup. There is a cacophony of truck and car horns, firecrackers and screaming coming from town that is nothing short of incredible! My sons are in the fray; I can only imagine that they are thoroughly enjoying themselves!

Look up! The sky is dark, but you can clearly see the Milky Way, a glowing band cutting the night sky into two equal parts. I have never spent even five minutes looking into it without seeing something moving. Satellites early, shooting stars late, was that a UFO? We all look forward to mid-August when the meteor showers get going in earnest. I spent the last sleepless night before my younger son was born in a chair outside, watching the sky, enjoying the peace before the ordeal to come. I will always remember that night, and the falling stars which seemed to portend good things. We might have named him Lorenzo.*

“Da Mietere” oil on canvas

*”La Notte di San Lorenzo”, the Night of San Lorenzo, a meteor shower around the 10 to 12 of August, yearly.

A Favorite Pepper Recipe

This is a recipe that is very easy to make, and everyone likes it hot or cold.  If you have lots of peppers from your garden it will serve you well.  You might want to double the recipe if you have more than three or four to feed.

Four large red, or red and yellow, bell peppers.  Red is best, and never green!

One can of oil-packed tuna, such as  Genova brand.  It is the closest to Italian tuna, flavorful and packed in olive oil. ( Never NEVER use water-packed tuna for this!  I can’t say enough derogotory things about water-packed tuna.  Yuck.)

Anchovy paste,  fresh bread crumbs,  garlic cloves,  salt-cured capers, grana padano, and black pepper.

Wash and slice the peppers into two-inch strips lengthwise.  Heat some olive oil in a large pan and saute the strips over medium heat until softened and a little browned in places, as this adds flavor.  Salt them generously.  Move the strips as they are ready  to a flat oven dish and arrange to cover the bottom of the pan, and include the oil from the pan.

Make about two cups of bread crumbs from stale bread.  Please don’t use store-bought crumbs, they are way too dry and don’t really work here.  A food processor can make crumbs from even fresh bread, and if you want to add other bready things like crackers or crostini to the mix, then feel free.  To my mind, tweaking is the soul of good cooking!

Add a cup of grated grana padano to the crumbs.  Mix in two minced garlic cloves and a couple of teaspoons of anchovy paste.   I often mix this with the tuna first to assure that it is evenly distributed.

Add the can of tuna. ( Undrained, I know, but this is how it is done. This is a high-flavor recipe so one can compensate by consuming less volume!)

Here is a problem:  You need to find salt-cured capers.  I am guessing that in these times of boutique shopping it won’t be impossible, especially if you have an Italian market nearby.  I found some on Amazon.   I have never made this recipe with pickled capers, and I would advise that if you can’t find salt-cured ones just leave them out entirely.  The taste of pickled capers is just wrong.  Compensate by adding more anchovy paste!

Rinse about a tablespoonful of capers and chop them finely, adding them to the mix.

Add a very generous grating of fresh pepper.    Mix these ingredients together well and spread  over the peppers in the pan.   Remember these are not “stuffed” peppers, and the layer of breadcrumbs should not be very thick.  It is a condiment  for the peppers.

Bake in medium oven, uncovered, for as long as it takes to slightly brown the top and heat them through, about twenty minutes.

At room temperature, served with crusty bread and fruit, this is the perfect summer dish.  Enjoy!

“Temporale a Pisticci”  oil on canvas

Tutti Frutti

It might be a common wish to have a fruit tree orchard, a grove of earthly pleasures on warm afternoons, a taster’s paradise of juices and perfume…the dream is attractive. A few years ago I had the pleasure to translate for a few hours for Francis Ford Coppola, (and he didn’t need me, he did quite well with his remembered dialect) walking around the grounds of his future hotel here in Bernalda. As he strolled the gardens, he expressed his desire to graze on fruit as he walked about, plucking from the collection of fruit trees he hoped to cultivate there. I hated to tell him that the high walls and shady pine trees already there would effectively prohibit that plan from realization. Fruit trees need sun, and wind, and bees, and a life which is not confined by high urban walls.

” Casale alle 7:30″, pastel on paper

One of my favorite imaginary places is a cloister, home to an indolent harem, fountains amid fruit trees, dappled shady areas and not a single thing that has to be done immediately. The reality of trying to have fruit trees is different, however. I planted a lot of fruit trees over the years, and some are still with us while others have become fireplace fodder, providing heat much more successfully than they provided fruit.

When I was growing up in Texas my mother, being a good farm girl who survived the Great Depression, told us about the importance of fruit in her early life.  She grew up in an era when having an orange for Christmas was anticipated for months. She tells us about how, off to college and working to pay her tuition,  her greatest treat was to have a gift box of apples under her bed. She would try to limit herself to one a day, but rarely was able to keep her  resolve. As a parsimonious adult, she often bought the bargain fruit, the littler ones, the ones in a big bag for a fixed price. I can remember wondering why anyone in their right mind would ever choose to eat an orange, with its sour taste and leathery sections and seeds, an exercise in how to spit out hard stringy pieces of fruit into a napkin. Grapes were tasteless, pears were often woody with a hint of mold, and apples had been rolling around in the bin long enough to have lost their turgidity,  their stems mummified. Bananas were just disappointing, purchased yellow and eaten brown. I may be exaggerating, but this is how I remember fruit as a child.

So the local Italian fruit, bought in season, or picked in person from trees and vines, was a revelation to me. It has been a lesson in time-appropriate consumption;   buying things as they become available, and counting on the fact that if they are available they are probably at their peak of quality. Our trees have been cantankerous about producing, luring us into euphoria the first year of production, showering us with buckets of flavorful fruit at the outset, only to hold back each successive year until only one or two lonely and bird-sampled and ant-infested pieces were offered. We gave up on peaches quickly; way too hard to get them to produce, and they often needed chemical treatments just to survive onslaughts of fungus, mold and insects. And birds. Better to buy them, and get only the good ones. My granny always said, “Use the best first, and that way you always have the best!” And sometimes, only sometimes, the best fruit is at the store.

Figs! Never have I been so impressed by the generosity of a tree, a tree which requires no fertilizer, hardly any water, and only a cursory trimming by any wannabe arborist every two years or so. You can cut off the growing end of a branch, stick it horizontally in the soil with only the tip bent up and out, and in a couple of years you will have a tree. If I had another lifetime to learn, I would concentrate on my grafting skills, maniacally creating multi-varieties onto the hardy root system of a single tree. Grafting is similar to pulling off a sting operation; the tree and the foreign twigs must be fooled into overlooking their differences and creating a single living creature from the parts. We think we have triumphed, but who can tell what the trees know?

Apricots grow well here, and they fit in well with our “no-treatments” ideology… (meaning “too much trouble”). You haven’t really tasted an apricot until you have nibbled it directly from the tree on a hot June day. It doesn’t get cold enough for cherries right here, although over the hill the trees produce prolifically. Plums grow and produce care-free, as do persimmons and loquats and all things citrus. The oranges which hang on our trees until May are the sweetest and most mouth-friendly I have ever encountered. Nothing else comes close. Many times I will stay on the tractor an extra hour because oranges are at face level as I work around the trees, and who could resist? The steering wheel is often sticky.

Maybe when you think of Italy, prickly pear cactus might not come to mind. But there are entire hillsides covered with mounds of them, a “fluffy” version with meaty paddles which are full of juice, hardly a sticker to be found. In the autumn the plants are covered with huge red fruits which, having grown up in the Texas hill country, astound me by their friendliness. They are nothing akin to the hard little tongue-grenades that cows eat in Texas. But I will make an admission: We buy Sicilian prickly pear fruit by the case at the supermarket, and rarely go out to gather them ourselves. The fruits (ficchi d’india) which come from Sicily are superior even to our own. They are about the size of bartlett pears, day-glo magenta to blackest purple. There is a word in dialect which has always intrigued me, nun-dru-zzu-le’-she, which describes the effect of eating many of these together with lots of grapes. Apparently the seeds of both fruits fit together in such a way that all intestinal motility will grind to a halt. I would say that if the language has created a specific word for the condition, then the warnings ought to be respected!

Grapes are in a category all their own. You need considerable expertise to have vines, and so far multiple distractions haven’t allowed me to delve into wine-making. But I remember back when our group from the University of Texas was doing survey work, walking the territory five abreast, eyes to the ground looking for sites, filling our bags with fragments of the past. A terracotta shard, collections of stones, darkened earth all testify to the rich history of this area. It was a daily Easter egg hunt with bonuses:  fruit!  We couldn’t wait to walk the areas covered by grape vines, trudging along under them in the dappled shade and stuffing ourselves with grapes picked from huge hanging agglomerations of the most astoundingly ambrosial grapes any of us had ever tasted. Again, I cannot begin to describe the flavor and how it eclipses any kind of grape, anywhere. “Uva Italia,” long may you reign. I apologize to the farmers who unknowingly contributed, even if it was only .00001 percent of the total harvest. They should know they made an indirect contribution in the name of science!

“Another Summer Salad”  oil on board

An architectural interlude

My sister has been  trying to find one of those fly-blocker door screens made of long plastic ropes, so far with no results.  It has brought my mind around to some of the subtle and strange differences  regarding doors and windows in our houses.

When we built our house, my joy at having small balconies on every upstairs room from which to admire the countryside was vexed by the fact that a glass door, or porta-finestra, cannot be had with any type of closure from the outside.  In other words, if you step out on the balcony you cannot close the door behind you!  If it should be closed by someone on the inside, you will remain there indefinitely, lacking a rope,   because there are no door handles on the outside.  After many years I managed to procure one  balcony door which actually locks with a key on both the inside and outside, but still with only an interior handle.   God forbid I should ever forget to have that key in hand when outside.  It is not my plan to be closed out on a balcony  in the  country,  with no hope of escape other than a very loud yell.

This represents to me an interesting insight into the differences in psychology between the cultures.   Maybe Italians don’t enjoy spending time on the balcony?   Yet clearly they do.  Hanging and gathering the laundry is carried out daily, and rooms are expensive to heat.   On a day with a chilly wind,  leaving the door wide open must seem counter intuitive.  Maybe Italians do not care about flying insects coming inside?   The plastic rope fly screens would belie that theory.  Or maybe the concept of having another door handle with a necessary locking device would just complicate things in the dolce vita…  What I can say is that I have devised all manner of ways to keep the darn door almost, but not fully, closed when I am out on the balcony.  Bricks, rope cords, elastic bungee cords and wooden wedges; trying to keep the door shut never fails to frustrate me.

Windows, constructed in similar fashion with interior-only handles, can never be  blocked in such a way that they don’t slam shut in the wind.  I use American rubber doorstops (another item that simply does not exist in Italy) to keep them open.  The panes  invariably open into the room and create a hazard to the heads of shorter people and children.  Oh to have some sliding windows which don’t have to be propped open!  Screens are a new addition to windows, and thank goodness.  Ours are mounted on rollers, and at the end of the summer are the dwelling place of wasps and tiny adorable bats.  We have to be careful when pulling them down not to squish them in the roller mechanism.

On the positive side, I can’t say enough about the wonderful rolling shades which serve to black out any room, any time, all or partially.  These are on the outside of the glass windows in any house.   There can be nothing more relaxing than to take a siesta, drifting off on a warm afternoon with the shades closed only enough to leave small spaces between the interlocking strips, small checkerboard snippets of light and a nice breeze blowing through the room.  When I am in the US I find that having only a curtain between my rooms and the street never lets me completely relax at night.  I feel exposed.   In Italy my rooms become  essentially windowless with the shades down, a silent and private space.  They are also marvelous when jet lag sets in, and a totally black night-during-the-day room is required.

As children we  all marveled at bank vaults, their cylinders aligning to form a solid unbreakable wall of steel between ourselves and the shiny stuff.  In Italy, every house has a front door which is a porta blindata, which means it locks with a series of steel cylinders just like the bank vault.   A large key can be rolled over and over in the lock to insert the cylinders ever more deeply into the receiving end of the iron door frame.  The doors themselves are also made of reinforced steel, with a thin veneer of wood.  But as any workman will tell you, it is fine to have one of these doors, but anyone with a hammer can knock a hole in the masonry walls of any house faster than you can remember that maybe a big dog would have been a better idea.   I have known people who will leave a little dish of money on the kitchen table to discourage burglars from doing gratuitous damage to the house, after they have taken everything else of value.

When I suggested that we should fence our plot of land, my husband dismissed the idea by explaining that we might antagonize our neighbors by creating a physical, and therefore psychological, barrier between us.   In going with the flow I did not insist.  However each small yard in the suburbs is clearly delineated by a  fence, and each driveway boasts a large and imposing automatic gate, which opens with a remote control device.  Even the humblest houses have these gates, and it would seem everyone has a need, even if they won’t admit it, to keep “me” from “you.”  So now, out in the country, everyone is in the process of fencing their property, if they can afford to.  If it is true that good fences make good neighbors, we can hope that this trend will make for fewer skirmishes among property owners.  But I worry about the goats, who depend on their  free-roaming grazing each day in order to supply that good milk for our cacciocavallo and  ricotta.

Of course it is true that architectural peculiarities can determine the feel of a neighborhood.  I think of air-conditioning and how it has caused the total demise of porch-sitting and interacting with neighbors in Texas.  Air-conditioning in Bernalda is beginning to cause the disappearance of those folks who, in order to keep cool, sit outside their doors in the afternoon and chat with passersby.  I don’t know if I would choose sociability over superior comfort, myself.  However I can recommend a plastic fly screen, those lines of hanging spirals which hang in the doorways of houses and bars during the summer. They do work, and are the best hands-free method for creating a barrier I have seen.   People are welcome, flies not so much.

“Openings”  oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches

Spend wisely

If you are going out to shop, you will have to make a decision;  stay in town where the shops are smallish and local, or head out to the big city where some supermarkets are so large that their workers get around them on roller skates.  You  may save money at the big box centers, but you will have to calculate the gas and the aggravation.  Keep in mind that I am talking about my small area of Italy, and of course Rome, Milan, and even Bari are probably a different matter.

I have never figured out why many items cost what they do.  Plastics, everyday items such as washing basins, all manner of molded colorful utensils are incredibly cheap when compared to typical American prices.  I have heard about Italian Plastic, maybe this is what was meant.  Some of the most beautiful laundry baskets, lawn furniture, and kitchen utensils I have ever seen anywhere are here.  Why plastic should be so cheap and gasoline so expensive, well, it tells a story about how easily prices can be manipulated.

Bathroom rugs are incredibly expensive.  They are ratty and badly-made, ready to fall apart at the first washing, and yet they are costly.  Things like band aids, hair bands, brushes, demitasse cups, faucets, door knobs, office supplies, insect repellent, and lamps are all incredibly expensive.  Why is this?   There are two levels of commerce, the very nice  (places where I will not easily be found)   and the kind of crappy.  It is either custom-made-to-order bookshelves or shrink-wrapped and assembly-required.  There really is no middle ground of decent quality and modest price.  There is a third option, the market on designated weekdays, which is made up of traveling vans which set up and then leave in the course of the morning.  But if you don’t know how to haggle and bluff, or if you have a face like mine, blond and foreign, this might cost you dearly.

In the past few years one area which has benefited greatly from the influx of foreign-made merchandise is doors.   The doors which were so lovingly made for our house twenty years ago, no two exactly alike, cost about four hundred dollars each.  I can remember having to sit down when I heard what our modest (compared to other houses) component of  seven doors would cost.   Now you can get very nice doors and frames for about seventy five dollars if you look in the right place.  They are made in neighboring countries to the East, and they are now in every new house and building.  Walking into a charming old remodeled house and seeing these doors can be disconcerting.  It creates the same feeling of melancholy that peeking at  a kitchen in, say,  Japan produces.  You see your exact chairs and table, cutlery and clock,  and you understand that we have paid with our identity for our Ikea world, where everyone can choose the same items.  And they do,   because they are so irresistibly cheap.

However, there are some bargains!  Wine  flows and flavors most meals at  negligible expense.  When I first came here there was a Cantina Sociale where you could buy red, white, or rose–these were the categories–by the case.  Twelve full bottles for about seventy five cents each.  Many areas still boast their wine cooperatives, which is what these are, where all the farmers can pool their grapes with generic but decent results.   Unfortunately our cantina sociale is a thing of the past, a victim of in-fighting,  location,  and the boutique wine industry.  But lest you should be forced to stay sober, you can pick up all manner of hard liquors at your local supermarkets.  A bottle of Russian vodka will set you back about five dollars and a decent single malt whiskey, imported from Scotland, will cost no more than about nine dollars.

Do you want to buy a nice carpet?  It might be very expensive.  There are a few televised infomercial sellers who have been around for many years, and one can only assume they do sell their Iranian and Indian-made rugs to someone.  From what I have seen, they are four times as expensive as the equivalent in the US, and nowhere near as attractive.  Even in high-end shops offering antique hand-woven carpets, red and blue are the colors offered.  Unless of course you prefer blue and red.  Tradition is a powerful beast.

Strangely,  it would seem that television has cornered the market on art sales.  All those channels at the high end of the dial, presenting their line-ups of paintings by “quoted” artists, and will they constitute a bargain?  Not hardly. I have seen pieces offered, horrendous kitsch and pitifully awkward abstracts,  for upwards of fifty thousand dollars.   The median price will be high, and never are there pieces of original art offered for less than a month’s salary. Sadly, while purchases are being made in this fashion, galleries are gasping for sales with no hope in sight.   So I always wonder, who can be buying this art?   Are they satisfied when the pieces are delivered and displayed?   Who in their right mind would happen on a station, some afternoon with nothing better to do, and telephone to order a fifty-thousand dollar painting, plus shipping?

Everyone here complains about the inexorable advance of the Chinese in all commercial areas.  But there is an almost total disconnect when it comes to consumer behavior, and if anything at all can be had at a cheaper price, then it will be had.  Every small town has its  storefronts with those red Chinese lanterns hanging out front, popping out like mushrooms after a rain.  They are a regular stop on everyone’s shopping trip, mainly to see if that item seen down the street can be bought at a cheaper price.  Usually a cheap imitation can be, and so another Italian shoe factory, fabric weaver, button-maker,  or small local shop  continues its  decline into bankruptcy.  Yet some hyper-protected areas of national pride are still safe, such as cheeses and olive oil, but you will be well-advised to read the label before you buy.  There are always alternatives to the real thing for the unwary.

Today, March 12, 2012, gasoline is going to cost you almost exactly ten dollars  a gallon.    As far as I see it gas prices are a lot like skin;  they both have the capacity to expand almost indefinitely.  Over-eaters and drivers  have to adjust their intake in order to cope.  My car, a relative gas-guzzler at 27 MPG, is used only when absolutely needed for hauling a trailer or lots of friends.   After all, there is another solution to high fuel consumption:  drive less.  In a small town in Italy, this is still possible.  I might note, however, that even at this price, the roads are still packed with cars.  Sometimes the very thing that we think can be manipulated with pricing will cause unexpected results.  Cars are still swarming over the roads, while local economies are suffering the slow death caused by shoppers going elsewhere.  In their cars.  There is a lesson there somewhere.

“Conspicuous Consumption”   mixed media on paper, 2005

A deep subject

The water lines which supply the town didn’t come out this far when we built our house.  The obvious solution was to have a well dug, and keep our water tanks filled with well water.   To do this, we needed an expert who had experience with our stratified terrain, which was comprised of hard sandstone “chiangare*,” sandy soil patches, and, of course, sand.  Not the best material to collect and hold water.

Word was spread around town, and a man appeared who seemed to meet the prerequisites.  He was from Pisticci, (because when an expert is needed it is always better not  to go local)  and we were assured that he had ample experience,  and was responsible for numerous productive wells in our area.

We imagined that his first day on the job would bring heavy equipment, rumbling diesel motors, long  pipes and tangled cables,  all indecipherable to us.  We were amazed when,  punctually at 7 AM on the first morning,  there appeared a  three-wheeled Ape* truck holding just a man with a pick ax, a bucket, and a mission.

The only thing he lacked, to my mind, was a forked stick.  He assured us, as had the town whisperers, that he had never failed to find water.  But finding it, assuming that veins were plentiful and ubiquitous, was not the main problem when digging a well.  It was much more difficult to capture and not break through the falde*, which were tiny and easily destroyed  with one blow too many to the fragile sedimentary strata.  This was the main reason why  it was practically impossible to drill a decent well mechanically.  The drill couldn’t recognize, of course, a vein when it found it.  But a man could.

He produced a string from his pocket, and after a few minutes of contemplation and slow meandering steps around the area we had in mind for our well, staked the center of his circle and drew it in the dirt.  He then commenced the arduous task of picking  and shoveling out his meter-wide pit.  We watched, transfixed, as we soon lost sight of his ankles, his knees, his hips and torso.

The second day, he arrived accompanied by his son, a strapping twenty-something who helped his father to descend faster by hauling up the buckets and porting them away.  At lunchtime, after they had consumed the contents of their  small stainless steel buckets of wonderful delicacies brought from home, they set up a winch and pulley system over the deepening hole.  We could no longer see the man, but the buckets of soil and sand and rock came out fast and furiously, pulled up by his son hand-cranking the winch.  Peering down inside, we saw a  perfect cilindrical chamber had been created, the negative image of the growing pile of sand and rock which grew steadily at the corner of the yard.   It descended about twenty feet by day three, and began to cause us great concern as to the stability of its unsupported walls.

But our guys had a plan, and they brought forth two half-circle aluminum forms which would be employed, along with cement, to create the walls of the well.   As he burrowed further down, he placed these forms inside the cilinder and his son sent down buckets of cement which he had mixed in a small two-stroke diesel tumbler.  As each three-foot length of wall was created, he set to work picking away the ground underneath.  When enough earth was removed the rings would slide seamlessly down to the next level, and another cement fill was created.

Every time he came up out of the well, he would drop a pebble at the center.  This method, in the days before lasers, would indicate immediately if his vertical cylinder was perfectly symmetrical.  The eye is, after all,  always the best judge of space, and an artist’s eye especially.

Down and down, impossibly far down he went.  I experienced cold sweat peering down at him,  claustrophobia making my palms clammy, imagining myself in the damp half-dark tunnel.  He began to tell us that he was finding signs of water at about 30 feet, but the veins were too weak.  As soon as they were discovered, they bled out.  The missions was to descend to a point where three or more small rivulets would supply enough water to allow a submersible pump to be installed.

Looking down from above, seeing a vague outline of our man’s head at 75 feet, was eerily disturbing.  When he finally reached the depth he considered adequate, the final ring, slightly larger in diameter than the others, was installed.  There is no bottom to the well, just the natural sandstone layer.   With a strong spotlight, we could see three finger-sized streams of water as they entered the flat reflective circle of water.   It would supply only small amounts, but continuously pumped out and stored in tanks, this would be our drinking water.

Our well water was  full of calcium and had a rusty taste, but some of our friends came with bottles to collect what they assured us was superior to any treated water available in town.  We have since switched to “town” water and we do not miss the problems caused by calcium, nor do we miss the possibility that some small animal could easily fall into the shaft and end up a soupy flavoring in our drinking water.  But while it is closed and locked now, and mostly a visual addition to the yard with its wisteria vine growing above, we know that if we should ever need that water it will be there.  And every time I open the heavy iron cover to look down into 80 feet of perfectly round shaft, I think of one man and his pick and how he  demonstrated to us yet another  manifestation of a true work of art.

*chiangare:  flat sandstone formations formed by flowing water millions of years ago

*Ape:  Made by Piaggio, a three-wheeled motor scooter with a cab and hauling bed behind.  It is the vehicle of choice for those that have no drivers license, and they can be encountered crawling along the roadways stuffed to the gills with farmers, their wives,  produce and small livestock.

*falde:  small tributary channels of water flowing deep below the ground

Underneath

Traces of the past and clues to the present are hidden just below the top layer of the soil.  The surface yields clues to recent events as well, and because of this, I am always looking for more, eyes to the ground.  I might have been a tracker, and I know if someone, or something, has passed by recently.  Wet trails in the dewy grass,  small paw prints,  a pile of warm feathers left by a fox.  A darker patch of soil.  Trash and treasure are  both hidden,  but  near, waiting for discovery.

One spring, as I marked out rows in the garden, my heavy hoe kept bouncing back up at me instead of sinking in the soil.  Strange.   I spied a pinkish smoothness, and hooked my hoe under it to pull it out.  A root?  It was a scary thing to find underground, and my thoughts sidled spider-like toward all things Mafia.   It was about three feet long and rubbery, fresh.  The dogs were suddenly attentive as the cow’s trachea came into the light of day.  How did it get there?   A canine trophy, carefully buried, to be enjoyed later.

I found a five-cent coin, dated 1885,  in my vegetable  garden.  It was  badly corroded and hardly legible.   The Lira was originally divided into cents, with one hundred of these comprising one Lira.   At the twilight of the currency, fifty-thousand Lire might  fill  half your car’s gas tank.    I thought of the poor farmer who lost it;   it must have been disheartening, so long ago.

A tractor pulling a large  plow scraped up some terracotta tiles;  roof tiles, larger and flatter than the curved kind used in recent centuries.   I know from my experience with excavations that where there are roof tiles,  there are often tombs.    In fact, Greek tombs were commonly made from  these.     The countryside where we live was divided into neat plots of land in 500 B.C., and people often buried their dead close to home if they weren’t grand enough, or near enough, to be included in the organized necropoles closer to the ancient town center.  Up the hill from this  area there is a large area of  rich  dark soil, and an extensive  jumble of broken pot shards.  It represents the farmhouse that belonged to the occupants of this parcel of land, and so it would follow that family burials would not be far away.   Around  the broken tomb  I found a beautiful and simply-painted lebes gamikos, as well as pieces, broken long ago, of other ceramic objects.    The pot is not nearly as old as my lithics are,  some of which  date back as far as twenty thousand years,  but it had been lying in its forgotten grave for five hundred years by the time Christ was born.  It is a sad fact that  the advent of mechanical farming has led to a swift and relentless  fragmentation of all antiquities which lie  in the uppermost layers of soil.  A large plow can reach as deep as five feet and damage or obliterate all it comes in contact with.  And there are also bulldozers, and a thing which is called a ripper, which describes its effect poetically.

River stones lie beside the roads, this having been the site of swiftly-moving water  millions of years previously.  All of the stones are rounded and smooth, but once in a while I will find one which has the shape of a cork from a wine bottle, larger at one end and narrowing in a pinched arc toward the other.  I imagine how it was shaped, trapped in an eddy of the stream, turning dizzily, rubbing continuously against its brethren which surround it on all sides.   Ground to a distinctive shape over years, these stones are an illustration of persistence, and movement, and transformation over time.

One Spring day as I was hacking out crab grass, I moved my wedding ring onto my smallest  finger, the better to grasp the handle of my hoe.   As I was throwing the weeds away I accidentally tossed my ring away as well.  Hours of searching produced no results, and within the week my husband and I went and picked out another one for me to wear.  Years later, again pulling weeds, I found it again, shining in the newly-turned earth.  Now I have two, should I ever need a spare.

This is the dwelling place of giant toads, some as big as broiler chickens.  They are reserved and single-minded, as they search for insects in damp places, and often hide in corners of the yard where weeds have grown tall.  We are careful when mowing the grass not to tip the machine up and lower it onto these weedy islands, as two have come to a tragic end in this manner.  One day I found a dead toad, poor soul, and I buried it in  a secret corner of the compost pile.  A year later I  gathered its bones and bleached them white.  I keep them for use in my art, and fondly  remember their original owner.

Following the sheep paths which criss-cross the edge of our  fosso,  there are bits and pieces of ceramics and glass, rusted iron agglomerations and bones.  You must watch your step close to the edge because you can fall twenty feet to the stream bed below if you are careless.  Along this edge I spied a small crusted object, a glint of blue and yellow paint.  Pocketed, carried home and washed, I found  I had two joined pieces of a century-old puzzle,  pieces from a vase which had been broken a hundred years ago.  Mended carefully with strips of lead, these were threaded through small holes in both sides of the break,  metal laces in a ceramic shoe.   It must have been a favorite, and the loss of it must have seemed unacceptable to its owner, such a long time ago.

My shelves have space, openings available to display new finds.   I often wonder what random bits of our lives,  hundreds of years hence, will be carried home and treasured by our descendants in their wanderings.

“untitled,”    wood, paper, bone, shell, Mylar, beeswax, oil, brass   11 x 7 x 2 inches,  2009

(above)  ”Sotto San Costantino Albanese,”  oil on canvas,  14 x 14 inches, 2004