What did you say?

I always think it is incredible when someone asks me if I speak Italian, forgetting that they might not know that I have been here for  thirty years.   Of course I speak Italian; I had to learn it to get along when I first stayed behind in 1982 after the excavations group flew back to the States without me.  And then I remember that there are people living here, people who claim to adore the local culture and society, who after almost as many years still do not speak the language.

How can you live in a place and not learn the language?   I know the answer.  You form your own small comfortable ghetto comprised of people just like you and continue to live in the bubble.  The culture “outside” is a cinematic illusion, to be sampled on outings, a kind of  resident tourism.  You are able to conserve your romantic views of the culture without getting your hands dirty, and without truly understanding what the hell is going on around you.  Good luck with that.

“Castello di Oriolo, Isolato” pencil and metallic pigment on paper

Down where we live, they proudly speak a dialect.  ”V’rnallese” is its name, or “Bernaldese” in Italian.  It is one of hundreds, each uniquely-evolved on top of  crowded hilltops  in tiny anthill-like communities over three thousand years or more.  And yet these dialects are sprung from common roots:  Greek of course, as this area was Magna Graecia after all,  and Arabic.  Neopolitan, the “real”  Italian language, not that flat and colorless version spoken in Florence, which, thanks to television and the Republic, is today considered the standard version.  And smatterings of other languages as well.  Near us there are towns which conserve their Albanian language, including their street signs.  There are also towns which still have strong Aramaic roots in their dialect.  French, Spanish, even recent English contributions: In Bari they say “celery” for the Italian sedano, I am sure because of the second world war and the number of American servicemen there.   In Bernalda there are many oldsters who are known as “Shoomak” which reflects their experience as emigrants to the USA where they worked at making and repairing shoes to survive.   All these cultural contributions are smudged together in each small town to create a particular version unique to that town.

My learning curve was a little steep, because all my friends here typically spoke this dialect among themselves, although they could be prevailed upon to translate for me into Italian. If I had known Italian at that point I would have had it made!   However I spent many an evening laughing along with the group in utter ignorance of what was going on.  But I can be perceptive, and this saved me on many occasions in following the gist of things by observing body language and context in order to muddle through.   In the 1980′s, being young and blonde, it wasn’t hard to get along on nods and  smiles.

Notice I said “they” speak a dialect.  This is to say, while I understand almost everything (although I still encounter an obscure term every few days or so, and have to learn it) I do NOT speak it.  I think it.  So my cerebral routing procedure is as follows:  English to dialect, dialect to Italian.  The reason I don’t speak dialect I suppose comes from a sense of pride in my almost-perfect Italian pronunciation (people may or may not know that I am “not from around here”)…and it is also because I don’t relish the smirks and ironic comments which so often greeted my attempts at formulating thoughts in dialect.  OK, I learn.  In my mind, I speak it acceptably, but I still trust my Italian interlocutor to express my ideas.  And that Italian, in my case, is heavily-inflected with the southern accent of these parts, of which I am proud.  I ignore smirks from northerners as well.

I have spoken American English to my kids ever since they were in the womb.  They had to deal with the two most important people in their lives speaking entirely different languages to them at all times.  The conversations between myself and my husband are invariably in Italian, unless we are in the USA and he is required to use English, in which case he may surprise us all with his ability.   My kids and I speak English to each other, and they speak Italian with my husband.  It can get interesting at times, as we lapse into a strange patois  without realizing it!  ”Ma!   Puozz’mangnia’ some of those biscuott’ you bought stamattina dal forno over by the ufficio postale?” *    The upshot is that my kids are truly native speakers, and by that I mean indistinguishable from natives, in both languages.  Of course we hope that this brain re-wiring will do us all good in some way.  We are flexible, and sometimes we are also confused!

I have my favorite examples, of course, of the incredible disparity between classic Italian and our jealously-preserved dialect.  My spellings are the best I can do to approach a phonetic  definition.  I enjoy following the town discussions on Facebook, where people’s attempts to write in dialect can be quite amusing.  Traditionally it has not been a written language, although scholarly types have published a couple of books on it recently.

Directly from the Greek is the orange, or arancia, which is the portaialla in Pisticci, the next town over, and l’ammaranch’ in Bernalda.   Need some wine, or vino?  Ask for “na zicca d’mieeruh.”  A napkin, or tovagliolo,  is “ooh shtiavruccula.”    Snails, or lumache?        ”Cozzaiuffula.” 

Over in Pisticci, they came up with a relatively new expression–in the last century– to designate the mirage which sometimes forms over  asphalt, and I absolutely love it.   “Ooh marawall” means, roughly translating into Italian and English, “uguale al mare” which is, poetically, “the same as the sea.”    And it is!

In Italian, to ask, “If you are ready to go, let’s go, and if you’re not, we’ll stay” you might say, “Se dobbiamo andare, andiamo.  Se no, non ce ne andiamo piu‘.    In Vrnallese:  ”Se ‘na ma shee, sha ma nneen.  Se nun a ma shee, nunn’ a shiamma shenn.”  It really does roll  musically off the tongue.

It is important to know which day you are speaking about, so “today,”  or “oggi”,  is “ iosh‘.”

Tomorrow, or “domani,” is “cra.”

The day after tomorrow, “dopo domani,”  is “p’scra,” and the day after that is “p’screedd.”     (The double consonant indicates a firmer pressure of the tongue against the palate.)

And the day after that?   “P’scruofula!”

What (She Says) He Said oil on canvas

*”Mom, can I eat some of the cookies you bought this morning from the bakery near the post office?”

An Easter Recipe

It has been a while since I wrote anything about cooking, so I thought I would honor my wonderful mother-in-law by relating one of her favorites.  Her repertoire was not huge, but the things she made were invariably excellent.  This dish is a crowd-pleaser, and it really makes a splash as it is presented because it is so eye-catching.

I will call it the Alianelli Meat and Frittata Roll.

Bernalda View, oil on canvas

Using very thinly sliced beef or pork, lay out the slices on a large piece of plastic wrap and pound them into one very large and flat slice.  A meat tenderizing mallet will work well for this.  Make sure that your flat shape, when rolled up, will fit in one of your large pans.    You can make two short ones instead of one  big one, and they will fit better.  Keep in mind that the slices should not have a diameter wider than two to three inches, or they will fall apart as you cut them.  Salt and pepper the meat, and dot it generously with butter.  Set aside.

Create a number of quickly-made thin frittate, which are beaten egg mixed with a generous addition of freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or Grana Padano.   “Generous” means about one part cheese to two parts egg.   Make enough to entirely cover the meat.  Be careful  because these are very thin, they are easily torn, but they will be rolled up in the meat so it really isn’t so important that they be perfect.

At this point you can add very thinly-sliced prosciutto cotto or crudo, depending on your taste, laying it on top of the frittata.  Again, cover the entire large “slice” of meat.

Now carefully roll the whole thing up very tightly, using the plastic wrap to help you, and hey, don’t roll the plastic up in the meat roll!   Fold in the ends.  Get out your cooking twine to bind it together so that during cooking it will behave.  Using twine is another chapter, but I trust you will be able to handle it!   Fry the roll in generous olive oil in which you have briefly added a couple of garlic cloves, removed before they brown.  When the roll is thoroughly browned, and you are fairly sure it will have cooked through inside, add a cup or so of white wine to the pan to create a tasty reduction to spoon over the slices.

Remove the roll, let it cool down, and carefully remove the twine.  With your sharpest knife begin slicing it into half-inch slices.  They are almost psychedelic in their swirling bright yellow and dark brown spirals!  Lay them out on a platter and spoon the sauce over.  These can be zapped in the microwave right before serving to reheat them, or held in a warm oven.

Buon appetito, and Buona Pasqua!

“Food Bandits” mixed media on paper

The grass is greener, at least in theory

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I love about living here.  And there are many things that everyone hates with a passion, and rightly so.  It isn’t so much that we are all reluctant to follow the rules, which, after all have been created with us in mind…it is that these rules are counter-productive, counter-intuitive, and run contrary to every logical desire  we might have to comply  if given half a chance.

This is Italy, and being a country famous for its beautiful landscape, its citizens must be encouraged to behave in such a way that the countryside remains attractive and healthful.  But times are hard, and revenue and personal incomes are in a tug-of-war with each other where everyone will lose.   So what better way to aid the floundering economy  then by creating more rules to follow, more reasons to evade them, and more impetus to misbehave out of sheer frustration?   And maybe create some revenue in the process?

We are in the process of restructuring a small, centuries-old house in the old part of town.  The view from the roof is marred by a large square cistern, made out of that wonderful material from the sixties and seventies, asbestos.  As it sits, it is not a threat to anyone, but it must be removed to make way for the renovations.  The mind of a conscientious citizen moves forward in an orderly fashion, and imagines that the object, not too heavy for a few men to lift, might be removed with the help of friends and carried to a corner of someone’s yard where it might be yet of use.

Ah, but there are new rules.  Enter the Azienda Sanitaria Locale, or ASL.*   They will have to be contacted about the removal.  An appointment will have to be made with a transport company in the area, and this will cost money.  It will require time, as they are not immediately available, of course.  There will be the need of a specialized truck with a crane to lift the cistern off of the terrazzo, and before this there will be another call to make, with a firm which is responsible for shrink-wrapping the offending item before handling it.  But before they can be called, we must locate an authorized area, call it a dump, where such items may be “disposed of.”  One hopes that these areas are safe and correctly-utilized, but we can’t know for sure.  At the end point of its removal, whenever that comes,  it is out of our hands.  Our ASL will protect us.

All of this for the bargain price of roughly 1800 Euros, or about 2300 dollars.

The end result of such regulations is understandable:  no one uses the official procedure for disposing of dangerous items, and the woods and gulleys of the surrounding areas slowly fill up with toxic and unsightly rubble.  Near our house there are two piles of broken asbestos roofing, and I try to avoid them on my walks.  What else can I do, call the ASL and pay for endless toxic removals?  It could get quite expensive.

Yes, and what to do with tires that are worn out?  The government requires stiff fees for disposing of used tires, and it is practically impossible for a customer who buys new ones to get the gommista* to dispose of the old ones, utilizing the proper channels.  It is much too expensive and time-consuming.  The result is that  every rest area is festooned with tires, every low spot along the road has its compliment of rubber, picnic spots are delineated by piles of black doughnuts.  It is almost as if it were a requirement for them to be there.   Ditto for car batteries.  When these piles are set on fire in order to “reduce” their mass, everyone enjoys the effects.  For years.

Do you need to repair the roof of a shed?  The old tar paper will need to come off, but what to do with it?  It would be incorrect and dangerous for the public health to dispose of it in a dumpster somewhere, so the government agency which deals with such things will have to be called.  The cost of getting rid of eighty pounds of old roofing material?  Only 500 Euros.  Needless to say, the  roofing material ends up in the dumpster anyway, deposited in small quantities around town.  True story.

Another true story:   An old friend ran a gas station with a partner, which  naturally  needed to dispose of its collected used motor oil.  There is a government agency for that!   The owner of a  station is responsible for compiling a scrupulous and almost indecipherable notebook accounting for every drop of oil, its date of arrival and source, and so forth.  A moment of distraction and their notebook contained an incorrect entry, discovered when the authorities from this specialized government agency arrived to enforce their rules.   The fine for the incorrect entry?   Sixty million lire for each partner, or a total fine for the business of about 200 thousand dollars.  Paid with no possibility of recourse.

And again, a friend’s experience only a couple of years ago:  While doing some  remodeling at home, he parked his almost-full wheelbarrow full of old bits of plaster and cement by the driveway while he went in for some water.  In that brief period of time the NAS officers (nucleo antisofisticazione, or a kind of  ”agency for the conservation of  purity”) drove past and spotted the wheelbarrow.  Not allowed!   This was not deemed to be a permissible method of storing or moving such materials, and a fine was applied.   Sixty-five thousand Euros.  Almost 100 thousand dollars, give or take a few thousand.  I believe the case is still making its way through the permanently-constipated court system after fifteen years.

So we will be careful as our remodel proceeds, not to leave any wheelbarrows parked awkwardly around the site.  And we will continue to live with the fruits of way too much government regulation, unfortunately, in the form of   poisonous fumes and toxic waste, strewn about in our beautiful landscape.   As people, in their desire to avoid stringent regulations and fees, dump anywhere but in the right place.

I believe our offending asbestos container will magically make its way to my garden after all.

*Local Health Authority

*tire repairer

Saint Mary’s Loch,  oil on canvas,  30 x 60 inches

(above) detail, “Damage Control”  mixed media on paper