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.



“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

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 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


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

Critters, chapter three: Buster.

Sometimes things happen in different places, for different reasons, and move  inexorably along an invisible line toward an unexpected conclusion.   We had this experience, with a horse, and a dog, and two open gates, far distant from each other.

Buster was our first Maremma sheepdog, a large, sweet-smelling snowball of an animal,  who was  maturing,  healthily,  towards his retirement.  He was an excellent guard dog, most of the time, but if there were female pheromones in the air he could climb an eight foot fence as if he were Spiderman.   Always attentive to any changes in his surroundings, we counted on him to alert us to arrivals, especially those people, animals,  or automobiles that were not included in his repertoire of acceptable objects.   We were his flock.

My son attended an elementary school far from here, on the opposite side of town.  It was the same building to which my husband had trudged every day as a child.   There is a distinct possibility that  some of the desks  were the same ones he  sat behind on those  days when the classroom windows mocked the children with  their tempting views of grass and sunshine.   At the back of this school building, there was a fenced area on the edge of the valley below.  Even now, the fenced area is used to keep livestock; sheep, goats, the occasional cow.   On this day, a horse.

A moment of distraction, a latch not properly closed, and this horse found it was suddenly free.  But freedom in town has a different countenance than  freedom in the country, and the streets are in constant movement.  Cars, people, bicycles, motorbikes, and above all asphalt and noise conspired to alarm the horse to the point of panic, and it began to run through the streets.  It galloped away from the school, around the road which rings the town, and on towards imaginary pastures, despite the best efforts of some to slow it down.

Two kilometers, four, six, and the horse continued its gallop until it came to the long gravel road leading eventually to our house.   Our yard is fenced, and we have a large gate which normally keeps the dogs in and intruders out.  This day,  because we had been  doing yardwork, it was standing slightly open.  I heard frantic barking, and inside the house I felt a pounding rhythmical vibration.  At the window there was  an incredible sight, a large horse furiously throwing up divots of earth as it raced around and around the house in circles.    Buster was close on its heels and the animal was becoming more agitated, spooked  by his attempts to nip its lower legs as it ran.   It continued to circle madly, ignorant of the open gate by which it entered, and which  would allow it to tear off down the road, away from the dog.

I used to be a horse owner, so I know a little bit about how to behave around them.  But a panicked horse is anything but rational, and it is dangerous.    Not having the means to calm it, I opted for guiding it out the gate by creating a diversion.  I ran to grab a hoe, a towel, anything to wave in the air and cause the horse to change trajectory.  Suddenly I heard a crack, the unmistakable sound of  a bat hitting a baseball hard enough to send it hurtling out of the park.   But this was not going to be a home run for the team.  I turned, dodging as the horse ran straight toward me and the open gate, to see Buster sitting, dazed, pawing energetically at his muzzle.  Blood poured from his mouth.   It was one of those moments when disbelief gives way to knowledge that things have changed, and for the worse.

As the horse pounded out of the gate and back up the road,  I prepared myself for what I would see.  The horse had kicked Buster with such force directly in the teeth that his entire boney upper jaw,  teeth included, had been detached from the front of his mouth. It was still attached by the muscles and some of the gum, but it was no longer a viable part of him.  The vet was called, antibiotics and pain relievers were administered, the injured area was removed, and we waited.  At the time our small town vet, who was occupied primarily with livestock,  made housecalls only.  He did not have any walk-in facilities, so we had to do without major operations on our animals.  Buster had been neutered in our own garage on a picnic table, with the aid of some kitchen utensils and a massive dose of horse tranquilizer.

After a time, poor Buster healed.  He required softer food, and his fighting days were over, but he got along comfortably enough.  I keep one of his enormous canine teeth as a memento of that day.  He has long since passed away and moved on to that other place where good dogs dwell.   We never had any contact from the owner of the horse, assuming that an unhappy accident is no grounds for exacting any payment or apology.   Another horse has never arrived here unexpectedly, thundering down our road with evil intent.  But I often think of Buster when casual circumstances  seem to align, improbably, and give rise to a  momentous event.

“At Pasture”, oil on wooden block,  4 x 6 x 2 inches, 2011

(above)  “Rusty Gate. oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2010

Fostering a tradition

My children, who will shortly have both feet planted firmly in adulthood, always had to make do with my accounts of celebrating various festivities in the United States.  They never had the chance, until recently, to experience an American Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or a Fourth of July  in the United States.   It isn’t easy carrying on a tradition in isolation, but I did my best,  and I am confident that our bittersweet memories of my attempts to instill American memories in absentia will be fondly remembered.

As Halloween neared every year, I would begin seeking out a pumpkin to carve.  Most pumpkins in Italy are the type which are flattish and have loads of thick flesh, and are therefore  difficult to carve.  But at my special request,  the greengrocer would eventually procure me a round one, maybe two, on which  the boys and I could practice our creativity.  Messes were made.  Candy was furtively purchased.

With approaching dusk, we would prepare, letting the boys dress up as they saw fit; a cowboy, or a ninja, or some hybrid version of a soldier.  I used  a small bungalow which served as my studio, about forty yards from the house,  and I would position myself there with a bowl of candy while my husband stayed at the main house with his bowl.  Lights were turned off, and the jack-o-lanterns glowed as the boys rushed breathlessly back and forth in the dark, gradually filling their bags with candy and treats.  The doorbell must be rung each time!  What a surprise to find mom or dad again every time  the door opened, and my boys were nothing if not sporting about the absurdity of this little farce.  After all, there was candy!   Of course this artificial creation of Halloween filled me with a kind of desperate nostalgia, because during these years I simply did not know if they would ever have the genuine experiences which, for me, had been such a memorable and integral part of my childhood.  And they were growing up fast.

There was general consternation among our friends because back in those years, most were not  familiar with Halloween.   In the  early nineties, when the idea was beginning to catch on, the few kids who dared to ring buzzers and ask at condominiums and apartments around town were often met with scowls and outright hostility.  Children would have to be careful that their requests of “dolcetto o scherzetto” weren’t met with a shower of profanity, a swinging broom,  or even pebbles thrown from a balcony!  Kids were often chased away by angry old-timers, scandalized by the encroachment, yet again,  of America on their sound Italian traditions.

This is changing rapidly today, as Halloween is celebrated with great gusto.  The population of the town is divided unevenly between the many who love an excuse to party for any reason, and the few who resent “commercial holidays which exist only to make money” being foisted upon them by stores.  The tremendous rise in Chinese imports may also have played a role in the speed at which Halloween was introduced.  And of course there is America, ever present,  always ready to offer another “americanismo” for no good reason.   St. Valentine’s day has been borrowed, repackaged by American culture, and re proposed complete with cards, heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and petulant girlfriends expecting to score something shiny.   If I could express my point of view simply, I would say that their  resentment is equaled by my own at having  had “my”  traditional holiday  hijacked for these very same, highly commercial,  reasons.  I cannot easily accept the idea that the festivity was somehow forced upon an innocent culture.    Now, the festivities of  Halloween play a bigger role every year in Italy, with themed parties, invitation-only balls,  and children ringing doorbells.   It has been adopted in record time, and yes, sales are good.    Fewer die-hard traditionalists object every year to its observance.  Jack-o-lanterns shine from windows and the balconies of apartment blocks.

It is a strange feeling, as an isolated American, seeing the adoption and growth  of a traditional holiday,  as it morphs into something similar yet different, tailored and modified to fit another culture.  I suppose Thanksgiving is safe from being franchised, as I don’t think the Italians could justify celebrating the survival of Protestants in the New World, although the Cristoforo Colombo connection is always a possibility.   Hundreds of thousands of immigrants to  the United States must have a special feeling in their hearts about it I am sure.    Every year I have prepared my best version of turkey and dressing, pumpkin pie and whipped cream.    It is amusing to me that there are friends in Bernalda  who insist I make them up a plate of this Thanksgiving food every year because they love the unusual flavors.  At Halloween, I have been consulted about pumpkin carving and the best methodology for covering the most territory during the evening.  My sons instructed their friends about how gaining entrance to one large condominium could make or break the night’s haul.

I think my boys have absorbed these traditions seamlessly, and they happily participate now as if they had been living as Americans  all along.     I suppose I can say that having done my best to instill these family traditions in my kids, it will be up to them now to carry on, wherever they may decide to live.   I foresee them bringing the Befana to Christmas, celebrating their saints’ name days, and  observing  April 25, the liberation of Italy from the fascists,  as an important date for both their cultures.  Along with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter’s various manifestations, all are important to a solid understanding of our cultural traditions.  Hopefully strong roots make  for a sturdier tree.

“Out of the Cage”  mixed media on paper, 2000


I tend to praise the behavior of American drivers while I am in Italy, and yet I am amazed at how badly some people drive when I am in the United States.  Greener grass I suppose.

“Mixed Signals”  mixed media on paper, 2000

Driving in Italy is interesting.  I mourn the way it used to be before the European Union began tightening its iron fist of bureaucratic restrictions in all areas, but especially regarding the roads.  Back in the good old days it was every man for himself,  which,  if you were young and agile with excellent reflexes,  was a magical world for drivers.   Old people in small three-wheeled vehicles that require no license were above the rules, and the rest of us were well-aware that the hares needed to avoid the erratic and oblivious turtles.  Lights flashed,  horns blared and fingers were displayed,  two-lane roads magically morphed into six-laners.   If you needed to be somewhere in a hurry, you could press the accelerator to the floor and hurtle along at breathtaking speeds.  At 110 miles an hour  you could be there in half the time!   It was fabulous.

Now, things have changed.  Speeds have been reduced as technology has been developed to monitor behavior.  Since the introduction of scale-able points on  drivers’ licenses,  all the fun is over.   The highways are no longer raceways, and everyone inches along at or below the designated speed of 130 kilometers an hour, about 80 MPH, wary of the “Tutor” system of monitoring all drivers’ speeds between two random points.  You never know where this monitoring starts or where it ends, and amusingly folks who don’t understand how it works will hit the brakes as they pass under the highway-wide  signs announcing that their passage in fact is being spied upon and recorded.  Small towns have discovered the Midas-like potential of speed cameras for producing revenue.  You will never know until months later, when a crisp picture of your car and you shows up in the mail with a hefty fine.  The speed limits on secondary roads are often ludicrously slow:  warning signs will suggest slowing to speeds which will get you killed if you observe them, and drivers learn quickly that they travel at these speeds at their own peril.   Of course the overall effect is that occasionally there is a warning sign which should actually be heeded, and accidents will inevitably occur.  Curves are rarely banked, which is incredibly dangerous, and is in fact my number-one pet peeve.  Just look for the flowers at the side of the road telling you that the curve is deadly.  Other curves,  such as highway access ramps,  often will be  inconsistently-shaped and morph from a large and comfortable cloverleaf  to a hairpin suddenly and without warning.   Most roads are totally flat, so if it rains,  you can count on them being covered with inches of water in no time at all.

The best place to practice your driving in Italy is the supermarket.   Get yourself a cart on a busy day before lunchtime and learn to maneuver the aisles.  People will not make way for you.  They will stop and block everyone else for no reason.  They will leave their cart parked in the center of the aisle and wander off to chat.  They will veer off suddenly at drastic angles  and back up without looking.  They will play a subtle game of chicken,  poker-faced, as carts pass and nick each other’s wheels.   And yet…the ballet of  people and objects is wonderful to behold.   No one gets angry, the flow is constant and everyone ends up in a formation similar to a line at checkout.   This is how we drive here.

I have to thank my long-time friend Ann for her metaphor about driving in Italy; that it is amoeba-like, a constantly changing formation which adapts to itself and flows over the road.  Each driver takes into account all other drivers, everyone is constantly vigilant and prepared for unexpected movement.  Lanes are only suggestions.  I think of American roads, with everyone gripping the wheel and blithely staying within the lines of their lane, confident that if they adhere to the rules all will be well.  Wouldn’t it be better, on the highway for example, that  if someone needed to move out of the first lane into the second, that you should anticipate and move into the third?  I am convinced that an accident, even if caused by “the other guy,”  is everyone’s fault.  If the final goal is to avoid contact with another vehicle, then why wouldn’t this be the case?

I will admit that I am always ready to criticize the fast cars which pass me with two wheels in my lane, and yet I understand not to take this personally.  Almost everyone here will drive on the center white line if there are no other cars near, and often even if there are.  And I do hate it when I come around a curve and find one lane blocked by a clot of stopped cars, a group of daytrippers munching on sandwiches, conferring with each other  and smoking.  And my favorite annoyance, someone out for a drive on a narrow road, scrawny elbow out the window—the glass rolled halfway up to avoid drafts—crawling along at fifteen miles an hour.  It might appear that they have never noticed their rear-view mirror, but I can assure you that they not only know that there is someone behind them, but they are enjoying this small moment of megalomania.  I have known people to hang a white cloth out the window of their car, a universal sign that someone is on their way to the emergency room, in order to bypass slow traffic.

So my theory about driving is as follows:  If everyone is constantly vigilant, there will be fewer problems on the roads, wherever you find yourself driving.  If you know that there may be unexpected occurrences ahead,  you will be better- prepared when they happen.  Yes, that is a goat up ahead.  No, I don’t believe that group of people standing in the road are planning on moving out of the way.   Isn’t that guy in the three-wheeler going the wrong way?  If everyone followed the rules and stayed within their designated lines,  oblivious of the organic nature of traffic flow,  wouldn’t their smug complacency eventually lead to more  rather than fewer accidents?

“Navigate”  oil on canvas, 2008

All dogs, all the time









When we chose to live in the country, close to town but not in it, we dreamed of peace and quiet. In actuality, there has been less of both than we expected.

Tractors can be heard growling and squeaking most days, and even at night. We had a neighbor who apparently dealt with his insomnia by getting his plowing done in the depth of night, and many times we were awakened at two or three in the morning by his activities. Our piece of land was included in a wildlife sanctuary when we bought it. but shortly thereafter it was “opened” to hunters who could partake of the increase in animals in our area. Hunters get up early, and in Italy, there is no such thing as a “Posted No Hunting” area. They are supposed to keep a certain distance from habitations, but we are showered with shot regularly and are often reminded of what it might sound like to live in a war zone. Because of the excellent acoustics, people are always yelling at each other across the gulch. It is a highly overrated attribute. Once we were trying to talk with our neighbor on the cell phone and kept getting an echo, until we realized that we were hearing his actual voice, and more clearly without the help of the phone. I always know when any chicken within a mile radius has laid an egg. And then there are the dogs.

We have dogs, three of them now, two great hairy white maremma sheepdogs and one tiny, hysterical yapper dog, a volpino Italiano. We love them all, and they do their job of keeping us informed of irregularities as they occur. The small dog alerts the big dogs to any intruder, visiting bird, or bushes which are misbehaving. She is the brain behind the terrifying barking of the big dogs, and she will “drive” the big dogs from a position of invulnerability under their bellies by nipping at their tender parts. We have always had dogs here, and they have always barked. However a few years back, our neighbor across the fosso sold his place to some interesting people and things changed. Little did we imagine that we were in for a crash course in canine total immersion.

Two middle-aged sisters and their ancient mother made a trade with the owner, his land and house for their in-town palazzo where their twenty dogs were living up on the terrazza. This trade enabled those who had been living near them to finally get a good night’s sleep, and the sisters to begin accumulating dogs in a serious way. And that is what they did. Along with increasing numbers of dogs came the haphazard construction of facilities for them, a kind of canine favela. Mornings, one of the sisters could be seen trudging to town to gather bits and pieces of meat left over at the markets, and trudging back with her plastic sacks full. On days when there was too much to carry, she could be seen hauling her bags of food in their elegant but very old Mercedes. Apparently the job of seeing after the ever-growing “cowardice of curs” also lead to neglect of personal hygiene matters, and word spread that they could be detected at a distance by their distinctive, and unpleasant, odor.

We learned that rather than trying to fight against our heartbreaking loss of tranquility, it would be better to adapt. It is amazing that when the mind is directed to ignore something, a sound for instance, it can learn as long as the motivation to do so is positive. We learned to ignore the canine choir at feeding time, up to 250 dogs all vocalizing their desperate need to eat and survive another day. Luckily outside of feeding time they rarely all barked at once, but when they did, it was breathtaking. The sisters themselves contributed a continuous stream of x-rated invective, at each other and the dogs, so I was often thankful that my boys were old enough to have heard most of the terminology before. It would have been an incredibly effective method for learning Italian obscenities.

A few years later, a blitz carried out by the authorities has carted the dogs away to typical Italian no-kill facilities, and one can only hope that they are better taken care of, although I doubt it. Most are lager-like at best. While it is not officially illegal to collect dogs, it is illegal to create a situation which endangers the public health. We were always neutral and kept our peace with the sisters, who have again begun to accumulate dogs as the days go by. While most of the community is disdainful of them, and is always ready to criticize and condemn, I can’t help but have a grudging admiration for them. It has to do with the backbone it takes for a woman in a small southern Italian town to live the life she chooses, regardless of the disapproval of society and its sometimes rigid strictures. It must not be easy for them.

As to the dogs, I hope that somewhere along the line more people here will learn that spaying and neutering is the best way to eliminate animal suffering, even if it isn’t the most direct route. Most veterinarians I have talked to over the years have expressed their reluctance to carry out the operation on my dogs, as they felt it was inhumane to deprive the animals of their normal life functions. And yet, I can’t say how many times I have found abandoned puppies, mistreated and tortured dogs, newborn litters deposited in dumpsters. Maybe we need people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and take action, something to alleviate the suffering, even if it means we have to tolerate the noise.

Bark bark!

Small world

Its a small world.     And sometimes it is even smaller than that.

Years ago, during our sometimes fiery courtship, my husband and I would indulge every so often in a door-slamming, spittle-spraying hulabaloo of a fight, for recreation and rarely for good reason.  The Lira was almost worthless back then—the good old days—, and I purchased a brand new BMW in 1985 for five thousand dollars and change.  These fights were an excuse for me to use my newly-acquired and quite wonderful automobile to disappear for a while,  causing much hand-wringing and satisfyingly ineffectual investigation as to my whereabouts.   I recall that someone used to refer to me as “Leadfoot Langston.”   This was before cell phones, as you must know.  So on one such occasion I grabbed a bottle of water and a couple of sandwiches and set off for the Amalfi coast.  It was a beautiful afternoon and from Bernalda it is only about  120 miles to Salerno, where the spectacular winding road along the Tirrhenian Sea begins.  Happy to leave my significant other to stew, and enjoying the prospect of an entertaining drive with loud music, I set off.  It took me about  seven hours, round trip, and I never stepped out of my car even once!    (We were all younger then, and our road-resistant bladders are just a memory now.)     To my consternation, upon my return to Bernalda,  I was met with smug satisfaction  and a notable lack of concern.  “Oh, were you gone?  I didn’t notice.”  Someone had spotted me and made a phone call.  A relative,  a friend, or a friend of a relative,  duly noting  my passage at some point along the main road in Salerno,  communicated my whereabouts  promptly back to home base!

“Small Town”  mixed media, 2007

One Christmas, as we snaked our way through the endless airport security line in Atlanta, we glimpsed some familiar faces.  I don’t suppose it seems outside the realm of possibility to meet someone from your neighborhood at an airport, but for folks from Bernalda to run upon each other in Atlanta borders on the incredible.  Here we were, two families from a tiny town where people rarely leave the province, much less the continent.  They were on their way to visit relatives in Florida, and we were on our way yet again to Austin.  We chatted, a conversation carried on in snippets each time our zig met their zag in the slow crawl of the line.  It was a surprisingly comforting  experience for all of us.

Ever wonder why names can become so popular that you might find two or three “Meagans” or “Ethans” in a classroom?  I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss story about the woman who named all of her many sons “Dave.”  I have particular acquaintance with the name  Donato Viggiano.  If that sounds strange, let me explain.     Young men in Bernalda can be seen strolling up and down the Corso, often following a regular schedule which has them out of the house for two reasons:   1) because they are banished during meal preparation and   2)  because they have made themselves scarce afterwards when the dishes have to be washed.  So any afternoon or evening there is a regular crawl of walkers and automobiles up and down the main street, and in a circle around town.    Sometimes the Carabinieri will be positioned on roads leading in or out of town, stopping cars to check insurance and licenses.  On one such afternoon, they stopped a car and asked for identification.  The conversation was as follows:

“I need to see your identification and papers.”

“Yes, officer, here is my license.  I am Donato Viggiano.”

“And you?”

“Hello officer, my name is Donato Viggiano.”

“…OK….And you in the back, what is your name?”

“My name is Donato Viggiano.”    (burst of uncontrolled snickering)

At this point, the officer bagan to show his consternation, and the young men in the car saw that when the forth shoe dropped, it might get them fined!

“You guys are getting on my nerves.  I’ll give you a last chance.  What is YOUR name?”

The young man handed over his I.D card, which said…

Donato Viggiano!!

“Gossip”   oil on canvas, 2011

A story from Natalina

My husband’s mother,  Natalina  (her obligatory name,  as she came into this world on Christmas day,  Natale)   was an exemplary  migghieruh verrnallese*.    She worked most of her life as an expert seamstress,  as well as carrying out all the necessary activities needed to live a dignified life  in a rural economy.  Putting food by, keeping a constant display of clean clothing strung across the terrazza, visiting with living neighbors in town  and  deceased relatives at the cimitero;  hers was a simple but full existence.   I fondly remember her daily phone calls,  asking me timidly if I could use “two” of some prepared vegetable or entree,  offered in order to round out my meager American lunch offerings  for my husband:    her only son.   I was always happy to oblige.   She made the best wild chicory I ever ate—–the kind that has to be gathered by someone rising early enough to beat the goats to the fields—– and I miss it now that she is gone.    Her travels, which were very few, once took her as far away as Rome, where she went for her honeymoon trip by train shortly after the war.    It was the greatest  distance she ever traveled away from her home.   Our swallow-like  habit of flying back and forth over the Atlantic must have seemed wondrous to her.

Of course a lifetime of living in a small town allowed her to absorb a repertoire of stories.    These were always delivered in hushed tones,  at times when we were alone and otherwise unencumbered by those who might have interrupted the telling, or suggested  that facts be modified.   I have since had confirmation from others that the stories are true, although each person has his or her own particular version,  embellished by additions from the grapevine.

She told me about a woman who, many years ago, gave birth to twins.   Obviously in those days, no ultrasound alerted the mother that she would have two new babies instead of one, giving her time to adjust mentally to the situation.   The babies arrived suddenly and were a  surprise to the family, and not entirely a pleasant one in those times of meager living standards.   The new mother just could not bring herself to feel maternal love for one of the twin boys in any way,   or bring herself to care for him.    She nursed and coddled one  twin, bonding with it thoroughly while ignoring the cries of the other.  It was a total refusal to recognize the existence of the second unexpected baby.   While the family went out to their work in the fields, she would stash the poor thing away in a cupboard  so as not to be bothered with it. ( In Natalina’s version this cupboard became a niche, which to me added a semi-religious aspect to the story, and  my mental illustration was icon-like, with a baby huddled in a Gothic arch with a gold background.)   I always wonder what the rest of the family thought while this was happening, or whether they asked themselves why only one twin thrived.   I suspect that some remnant of an idea  from ancient times, the possibility  of exposing an unwanted  infant to the elements,  might still have lurked in her mind.   She would never  be guilty of anything as drastic as infanticide,   but the power of neglect would carry out her wishes indirectly.

One evening, when the whimpers of the infant again reminded the mother that it was still a problem for her, she opened the cupboard to see a horrific sight.  The baby had been discovered  in its dark  recess by the  other occupants, mice.  They had begun to gnaw away at the baby’s nose, and had consumed a significant part of it.   I imagine that this was the day that her family recognized the mother as being infanticidal,  and the baby was immediately removed from her and given to relatives to raise.   I know that both babies grew up and are still living.    Perhaps not surprisingly,  the nurtured twin has remained in Bernalda,  while the neglected one has lived most of his life up in the north of Italy.   I have a special hope that the second  man has been  successful and happy.

I cannot imagine  living with these kinds of profound psychological wounds, especially the kind that are accompanied by physical scars.   The  members of the family in which these events occurred  have all suffered,  more so in a small town where the story is well-known and often repeated.   Another account  from over a century ago tells of a mother who chose a more direct route to ridding herself of her offspring, beheading the baby on the chopping block with an ax.     It bears observing that the clinical definition  of postpartum depression may be relatively new,  but the concept is as old as the hills.

I am sorry that my mother-in-law is no longer around, and I sometimes wonder how many stories she might have given to me if she had had more time.  It is a powerful incentive to remember that a story left untold is a story lost.   Natalina lives on for me in hers.

“Castello di Oriolo”  mixed media on board, 2010

*  dialect:  “Bernaldan wife,”   (Italian:  moglie Bernaldese)