My country tis of thee

I heard a song on the radio tonight, a woman singing about “America,”  lamenting its propensity to become ever more unsatisfactory.   I cannot disagree with her criticism, yet maybe she is just too close to be able to appreciate its positive nuances.  Or maybe there is another song which sings the praises, I don’t know.   It made me think about what it means to love a country, an abstract ideal of a place contained within corporeal geographical boundaries.

You might think that I, having abandoned my country, would be less than patriotic.  It seemed almost effortless to go elsewhere.  Actually I was born in Canada but was thoroughly absorbed into the United States by the age of about eight, whether by indoctrination or simple distraction I don’t know.   I do know that when I was born my mother was gnashing her teeth at the snow and darkness, waiting for the day when she could return to a place as close to Oklahoma as her husband’s professional life would allow.    I know this necessity was  critical   because we lived in a motel in Austin for a couple of months until my father could maneuver his way into a job at the University.  He arrived confident that he would be indispensable  here, and his wife’s urgent need for her “America”, as soon as possible, lit a fire under him.

I think it killed my mother’s soul that I decamped as I did, allowing myself to be absorbed in the form of  duffel bags and boxes into the Italian miasma.  Surely at first she couldn’t foresee the months stretching into years and decades.   She and I had never liked Italy, briefly visited twice in my childhood.  There was nothing of value I could see here;  just shabby truckloads of tiresome paintings and architecture,  broken statuary and annoying men who stared for too long.   She was forever a rural Oklahoma girl, who, in her own time, could not wait to get as far away from home as possible.   She was always much too  diplomatic  to tell me how my choices had hurt her.   I wonder how her mother, in her time, had thought of her daughter’s own wanderlust and rejection of life on the farm.  I am betting that she  understood.

 

143

“Home Sweet Home,”  mixed media on paper

It is a terrible thing to try and express  provincial metaphors which no one shares.  Or crack a lame joke which is met with blank stares.  Or endeavor to recount a wonderful experience which becomes tedious in the telling, as every nuance must be explained in plodding precision,  patiently tolerated by the listeners as long as  it does not go on too long.   A shared culture is a wonderful thing, do not underestimate its charms!

Imagine telling a story without being allowed to use certain ideographical  expressions,  or word forms such as pronouns or adjectives.  Who was this Jackie Gleason fellow?  What do you mean, the  five second rule?  Why would a person be a potato  on a sofa?  Why do you insist on using those bucket-sized drinking glasses?    A friend once provoked me by saying that I could never really understand a certain Italian singer/songwriter because I lacked the baggage, the cultural knowledge,  the historical background.  So right he was.   Intellectually I can understand the meaning, certainly the musical sounds, but what I hear is unavoidably different, somehow skewed and hollower than the artist intended.

I think that living in a different place, a culture where much cannot be taken for granted until it is internalized, creates a unique appreciation of  provenance.   Imagine a woman who finds the presence of children irritating  up until the day she finds herself unable to contemplate life without her own.  Suddenly she understands that her offspring have given her a stable and sustaining anchor, and she is able to love all those other children as well.  She knows what they are, is able to empathise with them. Being away from my home has allowed me, as I came to absorb the Italian culture, to appreciate my American-ness.   My country has become so much more important to me in its absence because I have been able to distill my ideas of it through a foreign filter.   It is almost intoxicating.

So this is how  I have come to be a fiercely patriotic person, and while I am forever attached to Italy with many roots, it is the United States of America that I love.  Can one really love a country?  No, probably not, but I carry around inside me a solid and comforting load of  shapes, smells, stories, and conventions that are uniquely my own and are dearer to me than most things.  My hope is that my children will also absorb this love and weave a truly wonderful tapestry out of  their double load of culture.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if they married members of yet other cultures?  I am prepared to travel.

252 The Choice

“The Choice”  pencil on paper,  28 x 40 inches

“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”

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”

Bits of useless information

Cultural differences, aside from creating consternation, can be amusing,  Thank goodness.

A wedding!   People on wedding days seem to be filled with excitement and pleasure, jockeying in their cars, honking loudly up and down the main street, dressed to the nines, smiling and laughing…  Of course!    But did you know that these people prepared themselves mentally for this day thinking, “Oh god, another expensive gift to buy,  another day lost in an excruciating marathon of  eating,  seven hours or more at a huge table with people who are mostly strangers,  milling around aimlessly in the parking lot…How many minutes until we can leave?”   It is the dark side of Italian weddings.  The day the invitation arrives is when the dread begins.

There is a chain of supermarkets which are called “Conad.”

Italians eat healthy, slow  food!  But there are entire stores dedicated to huge bins of  frozen things, where you can buy bargain amounts of  things like frozen pasta and breaded anonymous fish products, industrial crepes, frozen chopped onion, eggrolls, and  kebab filling.

A guarantee for a new hot water heater, loudly proclaimed on a huge orange sticker,  offers service during the warranty period.  It is called the “Pass Gas.”

An instant cappuccino-type coffee drink which used to be available  in most markets in the U.S. was called “Cappio.”   This is the Italian word for a  hangman’s noose.  No wonder it failed!

When you stop for a fill-up, you might find yourself in the cryptic  “Self Area.”  Sometimes you may even end up in the the “Hyper Self Area,”  a mysterious zone which conjures images of  egotistical types milling about, frenetically  gesticulating  while mumbling  their existential motives for using gasoline…

Shopping in a department store  in the U.S. with my husband, at the escalator we discuss where to go next.  People look askance at us hearing the words “die” and “jew” over and over.  “Dai, andiamo giu’!”  (C’mon, let’s go down!”)

Why do people have little dangling red pepper clusters on their rear view mirrors, I wonder…  Do peppers bring good luck?  No, these are supposed to be horns of the bull, red I suppose is a masculine color… and they represent protection from generic evil forces, not membership in a mysterious vegetable sect.

My sister, who doesn’t speak Italian, often laughs at our conversations.   She hears the words “fart”  and “fat” over and over, and wonders what on earth we are talking about!  (“Farti,” to make you something, or make you do something, and “fatto” which is the past tense of the same verb “to make or do.”)

Once a year here in Metaponto,  the folks who consider themselves religious follow a strange ceremony.  They send a saint out to sea and back.   But a standing saint could never balance on a choppy sea, which is the reason, I assume, that they send out half a saint, the upper half, and wave him off, gently bobbing toward the horizon.  After a short time  he returns safely  to shore after a bargain cruise of half an hour.  The seashore is once again a safe and blessed place.

It took years for my relatives to relax around my family here.  They were convinced that we were fighting almost constantly, and would huddle in corners waiting for the storm to subside.  They have since realized that no,  loud vocals and gesticulation are simply what constitutes  normal conversation.

A new addition to the traffic flow:  roundabouts!  Unfortunately, however, the rule is that one always gives way to the car coming from the right, so folks here cannot grasp that in the roundabout they must yield to the car coming on the left.  Beware a roundabout in Italy!

There are dumpsters all over for garbage, as there is no residential garbage collection.  So why, if you have placed your precious garbage in a nice tidy sack, tied and compact,  do people carry it in their car for a few blocks and throw it out the window?  Did it suddenly become an unbearable burden, a concept so overwhelmingly unacceptable, that a few more yards became impossible  to bear?

A famous maker of automatic gates and doors is called “Faak.”  Given that the soft “A” has a phonetic sound similar to the sound in the word “luck,”   this commercial where the gate squeaks the product’s name over and over has given me many solid moments of hilarity.  Say it!

If you live outside of town, your electricity and phone service arrives via lines on wooden poles.  Your service will be  regularly interrupted however, due to two causes:  1)Roving groups of Romanian opportunists have taken all the copper wire again during the night or 2) some farmer has burned his wheat stubble, and also the bottom halves of the poles.  It is a common sight, a line sagging to the ground with a foot or two of wooden pole hanging at intervals from it, like a necklace of blackened toothpicks.

“Wheat Field on Fire”  oil on canvas

Keep an eye on teenage parties.  There is always beer, and there often are plenty of hard alcoholic products.  That is simply how it is done here.  You can fight but you can’t win.

Everybody loves gelato!  It is good.  My husband makes gelato in his beach establishment.   And it is excellent.  But I know that the “fresh” ingredients of the stuff come in big white bags and industrial steel canisters.  The milk does arrive fresh daily, however.

Why do women, so exceptionally stylish and  composed, the height of world-famous fashion sense in the winter, dress like hinterland  prostitutes in the summer?

It is not a good place to be a snake, any kind of snake.  Snake equals bad.  Hide!

You will have to study hard and pass the exams to get yourself a gun.  It will have to be kept in a locked, dedicated safe in your home.  Once bought it can be kept with no problems, as long as you don’t use it.  But if you buy any bullets, each one will have to be accounted for, and the authorities will come down hard on you if they discover that one of them is missing.

“Bernalda,” an unfortunate name.  Every time we have business dealings with other parts of Italy we have to explain:  “No, not BernaRda, BernaLda, with an “L.”   You can almost hear the smirk over the phone line.  You see, “Bernarda” is the slang name for the female genitalia.

“Benevolent Dysfunction,”   mixed media on paper

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

Maria’s story

Maria   (as I will call her here )   is one of my oldest acquaintances and one of my dearest friends.  She has been coming to help me clean my floors, keep things dust-free and tidy, and save me hours of housework  for as long as I have  been here.  She saw my children born and watched them grow up as we all matured together.  She struck me from the start  with her easy and genuine smile, her positive outlook and caring demeanor.   This is a rare commodity in these hill towns where diffidence,  legitimately-earned  owing to centuries  of foreign invasions, is the rule.  She is scrupulously honest with her friends, and can be diabolical with her enemies.   If there is anything you want to know, any information about anyone that isn’t official, she will know about it.  Her version may turn out to be larger than the truth, but I can count on getting any gossipy tidbits from her, before they  go to press.  She often says that she would love to be alone, free from constant scrutiny, and yet she could never live without her small town.  She is an integral part of it.  I am very fond of her.

“Family  Landscape”   mixed media

Maria’s life has not been an easy one.  She lives in community housing with her mother and father, an although she would like to have a place of her own, she is aware that her parents depend on her for support, both economic and emotional.   Ours is a small town, and modest  unsavory deeds  shine brightly in  this overcast atmosphere of shared knowledge.  Families provide one’s identity, and if one member has committed a sin, all will be tainted by association.  Once committed to communal memory, an unfortunate incident is rarely, if ever,  forgotten.

Her parents are an interesting couple, her mother an intelligent  foul-mouthed  and  iron-fisted  busybody who still applies heavy make-up and peroxide at sixty-five.  She is one of those women who understands that her control of the situation depends upon her playing her cards close to her chest.  I like her!   Her father is mouse-like, a reserved and hesitant cultivator of a small plot of land, an ex-drinker.  Maria confided to me that as a child, after each episode of  drunkenness and predictably despicable behavior, her father would wake them all up to require that they  eat the compensatory ice cream he brought home to them.    She told me that recently she tried, yet again,  to eat some ice cream. She was not surprised to be overwhelmed by nausea, just like the times before.

She was one of five siblings, now four.  One beloved brother was lost to a drug overdose.   Working in Germany, trying to make some money to send home, he died  in isolation and was discovered  after many days.  They brought him back for his funeral service, where the presiding priest chose to lecture the congregation on the evils of drug use.  This  provided Maria with her final reason to cut herself loose from the overweening and proprietarial hypocrisy of the local church.  Judgments given  so easily require the addition of a smidgen of empathy before they are applied to a family, one already reeling under the weight of  tragedy.

Her oldest  brother is known as one of those people who cannot be trusted, and many a finger has been wagged in his direction when something of value disappears.  He is an opportunist, someone who is up and about in the wee hours.  He is  a gatherer of available merchandise, some of it already the property of others.  He supplies firewood, and therefore he  is a wood-chopper, a cross-cultural category which implies unsavory traits.  Opportunities  present themselves in special ways for him.   He sued a friend of mine who ran a small gas station, because his teenage daughter (walking along looking at her phone) stepped into the open manhole where my friend was refilling his tanks.   She was only slightly injured, but thanks to her father’s adept legal  maneuvers, her sore ankle supplied the family with extra funds for a year. My friend, who had four small children, was given only the opportunity to worry.

Maria’s sister has many children, a hard-working husband with serious heart trouble, and a house which  she imagines is running hard in an  imaginary “Joneses”  derby.    Her character  does not shine for its altruism.   If given a gift, it will be immediately rated  according to brand and selling  value.  Home-made gifts or donations of time and effort are rarely appreciated.  She often begs for  free babysitting from her sister when Maria has time off from her work.  She always has a favorite child, chosen serially on her good days,  and the others jockey for position as her “pet” in order to profit from the associated perks.

Another brother is a collector of metal scrap, and he possesses an honest heart, even if he may be persuaded to behave to  the contrary on occasion.  He has a garage  in the Centro Storico which is stacked to the ceiling with interesting antiques,  and a wife from Naples who has just given birth to their first son.  They live over their small store which stocks  a few paper flower arrangements, souvenir postcards,  lightbulbs and assorted sundries.  They do a brisk business at Christmas in artificial trees and figurines for  presepi.* 

 Maria is tainted by a reputation which is not of her own making.   It doesn’t matter really what she does, as she is part of a clan which is known for its less-than-exemplary behavior.  This, I imagine, has been her lifelong motivation to behave as she does;  she is scrupulously honest, excellent at her job,  and demonstrates a punctuality which is almost scandalous in this part of the world.   She has had to deal with people who would not pay her for her work, a recurring theme which , each time it occurs, causes me to cringe.  Humanity, empathy, recognition of   merit;  all seem to be lacking in regard to those who aren’t high in the pecking order.    Money, for many, occupies the highest rung on the motivational ladder,  just  above  familial love  and the Pope.

She is  assumed to be an “easy” woman, an ignorant woman, a person of little moral integrity.  All these things are not true, and yet  these things will define her as long as she remains in the same small town where her family is known.   I believe that Maria is an uncomfortable presence for many, a kind of moral thermometer which measures the extent of their  mediocrity.  Most people prefer to stand next to someone who doesn’t illuminate their flaws so clearly.  And yet she shines on brightly,  and it is clear for all to see.

I wish her a long and happy life;  she deserves it.

“Morning”  pencil on paper

*presepi:  traditional  Christmas creches

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