Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Fishmas Carol, or How the Ghosts of the 7 Fishes Haunt Me...

I have to admit, I have become a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Italian food. I know that must sound crazy to a lot of folks. But there are some foods, despite all assumptions to the contrary, Italians just don't do all that well, at least not for my tastes. Cheese? I'll take a nice French brie or English cheddar over 168 varieties of bland Pecorino any day. Wine? Unless it's from so far north in Italy that they're practically speaking Swiss or German, I'll stick to France or Napa. Desserts? My white cake with butter-cream frosting, chocolate chip cookies, cheesecake and apple pie run rings around tiramisu and zuppa Inglese

#1. A plate of anchovies, to be eaten with bread.
No. Just no.
And so it is that fish and seafood in Italy gets a big "Bah humbug" from me. I grew up in Florida, where—prior to the devastating British Petroleum oil spill, at least—our Gulf of Mexico seafood was fresh, abundant and healthy. I adore boiled peel-and-eat shrimp, shrimp cocktail, even fried shrimp and hush-puppies. A blackened grouper sandwich? Bring it. Sautéed snapper? Nom-nom. Lobster bisque? Swooning now.  

In Italy, it’s not so much a question of freshness—though I’ve tasted some awfully fishy fish here—but of methods of preparation. Specifically, almost every fish and seafood (frutti di mare, to the Itals) arrives staring back at you on the plate, or looking like it’s ready to swim or crawl away. Eyes, claws, paws, tentacles, whiskers—you name it—nothing is cleaned prior to serving. Even something like fried shrimp, which one just assumes would be cleaned prior to frying, arrives intact. It’s usually part of a fritto misto, or mixed fried plate, which the Italians go nuts for. But since all the crustaceans are fried shells-on, you have to clean off the shells and the fried coating, prior to eating. In the end, you’re left with a piece of shrimp the size of the tip of your index finger, and a plate full of deep fried shrimp shells, tails and tentacles. I mean really, what’s the point? It’s the same reason I never liked to go eat steamed Blue Crabs when I lived in Maryland. I’d pick and pick and pick at the crab shells to get at the meat, and wind up still hungry, with bloodied hands, eating saltines and cocktail sauce.

#2. Mussels with tomato sauce, to be eaten with bread.
I can handle maybe 2 or 3 of these. 
So it’s because of Italian seafood that Christmas Eve has become my own personal incubo, or nightmare. It’s tradition in Italy to eat the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” on the evening of the December 24, which the Italians refer to as the vigilia di natale, or the vigil to await the birth of the Baby Jesus at midnight. There is no meat allowed on the 24th, so all meals must consist of seafood. (It’s bad news for land animals the next day, when pork, lamb, chicken and beef are served for Christmas lunch.)

But don’t let the idea of a “vigil” to await the Christ Child conjure up images of simple, austere dinners. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an orgy of shells, tentacles, claws and eyeballs. It is my worst nightmare of a meal, served up plate after plate. And it’s not like anyone stops at seven courses. Paolo’s cousin Diana and her mother Graziella usually host the feast at their home. I’ve grown to refer to it as the Feast of the 18 Fishes, because the platters and bowls just keep coming and coming: An appetizer of baby shrimp with what looks like Thousand Island dressing on top—the Italians call it “cocktail sauce.” A cold salad of tiny little baby octopus in oil and vinegar. Plates full of shiny silver sardines and salty anchovies. Bowls of mussels in tomato sauce. Soup with more eyeballs and pinchers than I could ever hope to count. Pasta with clams, shrimp and indistinguishable bits of crustacean. Pasta with salmon-vodka-cream sauce (actually, that one’s pretty good). Bacala. The inevitable fritto misto. The only dish that’s not fish-based is dessert, which is always tiramisu (yawn…).

#3. White beans with (peeled! cleaned!) shrimp. Not bad.
The first year I ate the 18 Fishes with Paolo’s family, I earned roars of laughter when I whispered to him—obviously a little too loudly—that I didn’t want the “soup with all the little animals in it.” I’ve since learned to eat a little of this and a little of that, and politely turn down the plates that threaten to hold staring contests with me.

I know it’s very American of me to expect the animals I eat to arrive on my plate no longer resembling animals. I know a statement like that just drives vegetarians around the bend, which I completely understand. But for as much as I’ve ventured forth from my burgers and fries, roast beef and potatoes culinary upbringing, I still like my seafood a bit more sanitized.  

#4. Fish soup, to be eaten with bread.
I know I'm supposed to like it. 
So this year, I was secretly thrilled when Diana announced that she and her mother would not be preparing the 18 Fishes. But, that still left us without a family dinner for Christmas Eve, and no one seemed particularly pleased about that, myself included. So I pitched what I thought was a brilliant idea of a Christmas Eve rinfresca in Franca’s garage kitchen. Everyone could bring an appetizer, drop in when they wished, stay as little or as long as they liked, snack, drink and be merry. I marketed my idea as a simple, low-key, low-pressure plan where no one was stuck cooking all day and there was no table to set for 25 people. I would bring artichoke dip and what Franca refers to as my “torta di prosciutto,” which is just prosciutto and cream cheese cooked in puff pastry—a dish she loves. Others could bring bread, cheese, cold-cuts. Simple, simple, simple, right?

Except that a few days into this plan coming together, Franca raised the ugly specter of Catholic tradition. It was vigilia. We couldn’t eat meat. Fine, I said, I’ll switch out smoked salmon for prosciutto. No problem.
#5. Pasta with salmon-vodka cream sauce. This is pretty
good, but by the time it arrived, I couldn't look
at any more food. 
And then things started to get complicated. Since it was vigilia, Antonella would bring fish soup. (Eyes! Tentacles! Claws! All swimming in broth!)  Graziella offered to make mussels and the salmon-vodka-cream pasta. Franca would tackle stuffed seppia, or cuttlefish.

I’m sure you know where this is going. Just like Mr. Scrooge couldn’t escape the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future on Christmas Eve, I can’t escape the inevitability of the Feast of the Seven, or 12, or 18 Fishes. The table was set for 25, and the eyeballs and tentacles and tails and claws and shells kept coming and coming. Humbug!

#6. Stuffed cuttlefish. Looks good, but see item #5.
This year, I made a few things I knew I’d like—crabcakes, the smoked salmon and cream cheese dish, and artichoke dip, which is always a crowd-pleaser despite its absence of eyes and legs. I filled up on appetizers and played with the baby, cleared plates and otherwise kept myself occupied while my Italian family downed their 18 Fishes. After all, I didn’t come here to try to change a culture and little by little, my Itals are learning that they can’t change me. But I sure do wish they’d clean their damn shrimp before they fry them. 

#7. Or rather, the remains of #7. I feel like someone is staring at me....

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Fruits of Our Labor: Olive Harvest Time in Umbria

Raw olives taste horrible, but they sure are pretty.
People like to say that the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa holidays are the most wonderful time of the year, but in Umbria, we beg to differ. Or at least I do. My most wonderful time of the year is the olive harvest. It’s more work than the vendemmia, and the weather is often less agreeable. It’s not followed by a huge, satisfying meal, because our family cook, Franca, is out picking with us. But being that I am a fan of instant gratification and all, picking our olives, taking them to the mill a few days later and then dining that night on bruschetta drowned in our new oil—our oil—is a singular pleasure that Paolo and I both relish in every year.

So for those curious as to where that olive oil comes from, here’s our version of the olive harvest, which, I’m pretty sure doesn’t differ too much from non-commercial olive harvests taking place anywhere in Italy.

Paolo and Nonno Gino start checking out the olives around the first of November, and assess when they might be ready to pick. It’s a risk-reward gambit. The longer you wait, the riper the olives and the more mellow and abundant the oil. But a Wrath of God wind and rainstorm could come along and blow all your olives off the trees. Plus, you can’t pick the olives when they’re wet, because they’ll get moldy in just the couple of days they sit in wooden boxes or canvas bags, waiting to go to the mill. Like so much in Umbria, it’s all about the weather.

So usually a week in advance, Paolo announces, “This weekend we pick olives.” That’s our cue to don rubber boots, old jeans and jackets—which we usually shed by about 10 a.m., dig out the nets from last year, and get busy.

That's Paolo up in the tree, and our friend Matteo
wielding the olive picker.
The first step is to spread out huge nets under the trees. If two or more trees are close enough together and a net is big enough, it can be placed to catch the olives under that whole group of trees. Most of our tress are on a hill—would that they were not!—so we have to prop up the edges of the nets with wooden stakes, circus-tent style, so that the olives don’t all roll away.

Though traditionalists shun such modern implements, Paolo, and the majority of others with more than a few olive trees, uses an electric picker. It looks like a big, multi-tined fork with a long, extendable arm, and it plugs into a car battery, or in Paolo’s case, his truck battery. When turned on, it makes a noise somewhat similar to an electric hand mixer. The tines waves back and forth in the high branches of the trees, and knock the olives loose, along with a lot of leaves and small twigs.

The olives fall into nets spread beneath the trees...
While Paolo works in the nether regions of the tree, we work on the lower part, raking our hands down the pliable branches and pulling the olives off in the process. It’s hard on your hands, and I suppose we could wear gloves—I guess some people do. But there’s something about the tactile sensation of hands raking the branches, touching every olive as they pop off, that would be lost with gloves.

All of the olives fall onto the net below. When one tree is picked clean and it’s time to move to the next, we gather the ends of the nets and start rolling all the olives to the middle. Once they’re in a heap, we lift them into plastic bins, usually a little at a time because they olives weigh so much. Then we carry and drag the nets to the next tree, and the process repeats. Usually, while Paolo is working on the upper branches, Franca and I dig our hands through the bins of picked olives and toss out as many of the leaves and branches as we can. (Because the mill weighs the olives when we bring them in, we don’t want twigs and branches, which will get sorted out by machine, adding to the total weight.) Then we’re off to pick more olives off the lower branches.

Paolo's mother, Franca, cleaning out twigs & leaves

So it’s spread the nets, pick the olives, gather the nets, dump the olives, repeat. This process goes on for several days, until we've picked everything and we're ready to go to the mill—tired and achy, but ready for our oil!

The mill has a vehicle scale, and customers first park their loaded down truck, car or tractor there, where the total vehicle weight, olives and all, is recorded. Then the bins, crates and bags of olives are off-loaded, and the vehicle is weighed again. This is how the mill decides how much oil we get—the difference in the before and after weight is the total weight of our olives, from which they calculate the yield of oil.
Ready for the mill!

When it’s our turn, we dump our olives into a big, dumpster-like container in the ground. From there, they are brought up a conveyor belt into a machine that separates the olives from remaining stems and leaves. The olives then go into their first mashing process, which in turn spits out olive pits into a bin and olive paste onto another conveyor belt and into a waiting press. The hot water press begins to churn out the first oil, which goes through another filtering stage until it’s ready to dispense into the 50 liter stainless steel containers that we've brought with us. It’s a long process from start to finish; I don’t think we've ever gotten in and out of the mill in fewer than three hours.
Our olives, after being separated from leaves & stems

The mill doesn't take money for the process. Instead, they take a small percentage of oil, which they sell retail and wholesale. And the truth is, we don’t have to wait three hours while our oil is milled. We could just show up at the mill, get our olives weighed, and pick up the equivalent amount of pressed oil. Since everyone has the same trees and cultivates their olives in the same manner, there’s really no difference between our oil and that of the guy down the hill from us.

But neither Paolo nor I would ever consider such a blasphemous shortcut. With achy backs, bruised  knees, sore arms and chapped, raw hands from days of picking and hauling, there’s no way we’d ever take home anything but our oil, the fruit of our labors. It doesn't matter if the neighbor’s oil tastes exactly the same; it’s just not the same.
Hot off the presses, indeed! Photo is hazy because the
mill is filled with olive-tinged steam.

When we get home from the mill, always well after dark and usually paste dinnertime, we feast on a one course meal of bruschetta—not fancy bruschetta with tomatoes or cheese or any accouterments, but plain old bruschetta simplice, made with bread, garlic, salt, and our spicy, peppery oil, which never has so much flavor as it does on that first night.

For those of you who've not heard me wax orgasmic about bruschetta simplice, click here and scroll down for the recipe.  
Bruschetta! It's what's for dinner. 

Paolo and I don’t do much goodnight kissing the evening we bring home the oil, but we sure do go to bed satisfied. (And really, with orgasmic bruschetta, how could we not?) We have our own extra virgin olive oil to last us the year, and we earned ever drop of it—truly the fruit of our labors.  

Gratuitous cute baby photo
More of the gratuitously cute baby

Gratuitous cute husband photo

Nonno Gino, laying down on the job - AGAIN

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Vendemmias

A few Saturdays ago, Paolo and several of his friends did our vendemmia, or grape harvest. Everyone in our region of Italy harvests their grapes within a few weeks of one another, usually in the last half of September. You know it’s vendemmia time when you can’t drive anywhere without getting stuck behind a tractor pulling a loaded grape wagon. My sister, who visited recently, even built up the nerve while driving to pass one tractor while playing chicken with another. She won.

My first vendemmia. It must have been in love.
Before I met Paolo and participated in my first vendemmia in 2008, I had heard about the vendemmia from the mouths of expats and tourists in Italy, and maybe I’d read about it on some travel websites. The vendemmia is heralded as one of those bucket-list events, like seeing the Northern Lights or the Green Flash during a Florida sunset (which, by the way, in nearly 40 years of living in Florida I NEVER saw, not once). If you love Italy, you simply must—must—participate in a vendemmia. To fail to do so would be akin to living in Manhattan and not taking the subway. You’re just not a real New Yorker, or a real Italophile, as the case may be.
Ah, the vendemmia of lore. Connect with Mother Nature. Break a sweat and strain some little-used muscles all in the name of that ancient, noble pursuit of winemaking, knowing that the fruits of your labor will quite literally be transformed into a magnificent vintage. Your midmorning break, after the dew has evaporated from the vines and the sun has started to warm the ground, is a bountiful breakfast of salami, prosciutto, pecorino cheese (bought from a local cheesemaker, of course), fresh-baked bread and wine, of course (who cares if it’s only 10 a.m.—you’ve earned it!), all spread before you on a red and white checkered tablecloth. Maybe one of the colorful locals will sing a song or two, or regale you with tales of his childhood in the campagna.

After breakfast, it’s back to work. But who really minds? You know you’ve got a similarly delightful and even more bountiful lunch waiting. Tables, now set up between the rows of vines, are spread with those same checkered tablecloths, more wine appears (naturally), and the casalinge (housewives) start to bring platter after platter, bowl after bowl of just-cooked Italian country recipes to the table.
The meal easily lasts for two hours.  Maybe there’s a little more picking to do after lunch. Maybe the farmer just waves you on, saying you’ve done enough work and more than earned your feast. You drive home or back to your hotel, stuffed with food and priceless memories of your little taste of authentic Italian life.

At least, that’s how I thought it would be.
Except that my first vendemmia didn’t quite live up to the fantasy. We were a ragtag bunch of family, half of us sick with colds and the other half getting sick. We used Paolo’s brother-in-law’s tractor to haul plastic garbage cans full of grapes. He had to keep the tractor running even while it idled or otherwise the battery would die, so tractor exhaust wafted through the vines. Our breakfast consisted of a bottle or water and a bottle of orange soda, both of which I insisted Paolo go to the store and buy. I should have had him bring back Sudafed and cough syrup.

We weren’t shortchanged on lunch, however, as Paolo’s mother, Franca, who has more casalinga in her pinky finger than most casalinge have in their entire bodies, prepared a wonderful spread of food.

I loved that first vendemmia, despite the tractor exhaust and Spartan provisions and absence of checkered tablecloth. And I’ve loved everyone I’ve done since (though, admittedly, I sat out last year because I was prego).

This year, I was…ahem… not asked to participate in the vendemmia. As with last year, Paolo recruited a bunch of guy friends to help. (My dear husband has a very boyish streak, especially when he’s around other boys. Had he grown up in 1950s America, he’d have had a tree house with a sign posted, “No girlz allowed.”) So, I asked if I could at least go to the store to get them breakfast provisions, as I’d done last year. “Massimo has it all taken care of,” I was told. Humph.

Never one to miss out on the fun, I did drive down to check on da boyz around mid-morning, and I arrived just in time for breakfast. Their version of breakfast was as follows: Two large focaccia (“from the best bakery in Florence!” Paolo later boasted), two salami logs, and five bottles of wine for the nine of them. These items were eaten not from plastic plates on a checkered tablecloth but from the flatbed of Paolo’s pick-up truck. They finished well before noon, and brought the grapes down to our cantina to start processing them, a job that, with this year’s meager harvest, required far fewer than nine people. When Paolo called for me to  throw down some plastic cups, I knew there was a lot more drinking of last year’s wine than there was processing of this year’s.

Yeah, that's just how we roll. 
Da Boyz and their bread, with Naomi stomping grapes
Franca came through again, of course, and put out a spread—in her garage, not amidst the vines—of pappardelli con cinghiale (long, thick homemade pasta with wild boar sauce), roast chicken, roast pork, sausages, ventresca (thick bacon), roast peppers, eggplant, salad, and for dessert, mimosa, which is a cream- and chocolate-filled cake. And wine.
 Franca's feast - with nary a checkered tablecoth in sight
The festa ended with one of the guys throwing up in the bushes, then having a semi-articulate conversation in English with my visiting parents, and promising to write to them. “I love Obama!” he implored repeatedly. Paolo told me he “had to go take care of something” with Massimo and Peppe and would be home in a half hour.
Ninety minutes passed, and Paolo finally arrived at home, his left thumb bloody and bandaged. The thing he “had to go take care of” was a little drunken archery practice. Massimo had brought a crossbow with him (Why? Why?), and when Paolo tried it out, he failed to move his thumb far enough out of the arrow’s path. The injury was bad enough, but it could have been much worse. “Jesus Christ!” I said. “Did you wash it, or sterilize it?” No worries he said. Massimo cleaned it—with wine—and dressed it with plumber’s tape.
Sigh…boys will be boys…and it’s a good thing vendemmia comes but once a year…
This is about the time they decided it would be a good idea to go shoot a crossbow

Just so no one’s illusions of the vendemmia of legend are completely shattered, I am somewhat dismayed to report that on the same day as our salami-on-the-back-of-the-truck vendemmia, my fellow Alleronesi Nick and Simona hosted their vendemmia. And, as her website so smugly confirms, it was the Italian Dream Vendemmia, complete with gourmet menu and seated, outside lunch (still no checkered tablecloths—ha!) in the splendor of the Umbrian countryside.

Frankly, I’m a little threatened by the two of them, as Allerona doesn’t really have room for two cool international couples. Simona is a beautiful Italian chef. Nick is a handsome British photojournalist. (He’s got that damned English accent. How can I compete with that? Hmm, I do have a cute baby to shove at people, and all they have is a goat and a few chickens.)
I'll see your goat and raise you a cute baby in the vineyard

They had 30 people helping them and when there were no more grapes to pick, the crew stacked all their firewood. What’s worse is that when I saw Nick’s photos of the day, all my American expat friends were there, picking grapes, stacking firewood and feasting on Simona’s lunch! Oh the disloyalty! The betrayal! One of them even had the audacity to blog about it!
My so-called friend Susanna, AKA Benedict Arnold,
picking grapes and looking cute at the other vendemmia. 
Photo by Nick Cornish

Still, I know Paolo and the guys would not have traded their salami sliced with a pocketknife for Simona’s savory cake with radicchio, gorgonzola and walnuts,” not even for a minute. (I might have; them, never.) And in the end, I think it’s a good thing that there is always a tale of two vendemmias. Like two sides of the same coin, both are a slice of authentic Italy, albeit one perhaps a bit more “rustic” than the other.

Damned weekend warriors. Photo by Nick Cornish

But I have to admit, when I read that Nick and Simona got all their firewood stacked, well, that hurt a little.
Our secret weapon that makes our vendemmia kick all other
vendemmias' asses:
Nonno Gino singing

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A sad goodbye to a woman I never met

Yesterday, Paolo and I attended the funeral of a 32-year-old woman who died after a long struggle with ovarian cancer.

I didn’t know the woman, but Paolo is friends with her husband; he works where Paolo buys a lot of his construction supplies. We knew his wife had been sick for some time, and when Paolo’s friend was no longer at work – he was staying in Rome to be near his wife, who was installed at a cancer clinic there – we suspected the worst. Still, when news of her death came, it was a sad semi-shock.

At some point in the last couple of years, Paolo must have told his friend that we were trying to get pregnant. His friend confided that he and his wife could not have children; cancer had already taken care of that. So when I did finally become pregnant, I always felt like a bit of a heel whenever I’d walk into the warehouse where his friend worked – like I was somehow flaunting our good fortune and my growing belly in the face of their sad, terrible luck.

Paolo’s friend was always kind and enthusiastic about my pregnancy and afterwards, when we brought Naomi into the warehouse. He was no less kind when I saw him yesterday, as I gave him the customary kiss on both cheeks and muttered some words of condolence, all of my Italian suddenly escaping me. In fact, he seemed to be consoling me as my words fell flat and my eyes welled up.

The church was filled to capacity, so we waited outside with several hundred other people who’d come to pay their respects. Listening to the priest’s eulogy and then her brother’s tearful goodbye to his little sister, it was the first time I wished that I didn’t understand Italian as well as I do. I’ve attended other funerals here, but I’ve always been able to zone out as the words and repeated prayers drifted over my head, just unintelligible enough for me to not have to tune in.

But not this time. The priest delivered a touching tribute to this woman who was obviously well-loved in her community, and adored by her family and young husband. He spoke of her loved ones’ confusion and frustration that God did not answer their prayers, and save their daughter, sister, wife and friend. He spoke of how she would join her mother, who died when she was just a teenager. I don’t think he had a good answer for why God ignored their pleas – to this day, I’ve not heard a satisfactory explanation for why God allows so much pain and suffering in life.

When the mass was finished and the psalter had been passed around the coffin, the mourners began to file out, and make way for the casket and immediate family to exit. First came the elaborate flower arrangements, their cellophane wrappers all crackling in the wind – a sound I’ll forever associate with Italian funerals. Then came the casket, carried by four of her relatives. Right behind them was her husband, who seemed to have lost all the stoic calm he held together inside the church. He walked alone, red-eyed and weepy, and I wondered why he didn’t have a friend or family member at his side, to hold his arm or shoulder. But maybe he had to make that walk by himself.

We opted not to join the funeral procession as the mourners followed the slow-moving hearse on foot up the hill to the cemetery. I think seeing a young man give his wife’s coffin a final kiss goodbye before she was lowered into the ground would have been too much for both of us. Instead, we walked back to the car in silence.

Paolo and I have a lot of worries these days. Money is scarce, the Italian economy is tanking, my elderly parents are on the decline, and this brutally hot summer is further proof that global warming threatens to turn the green hills of Umbria into the sands of Morocco. Still, once we were headed back to Allerona, I said to Paolo, “Let’s not complain about anything anymore today.” He agreed.

We picked up Naomi from my mother-in-law’s, and her disposition was sunnier than ever. All yesterday evening, she played and clowned and laughed, and her giggle seemed sweeter than it ever had.

So today, I remain without any irreverent prose or funny stories about life in the Italian countryside. I’m tired, because I have a baby who still won’t sleep through at night. I’m sad every time I think about the poor young widower, walking behind the coffin carrying his wife, and along with her, all their hopes and dreams for a future together.

And mostly I’m grateful, and I don’t want to complain about anything today.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Everyone to the mare!

I really do try to make it a habit to refrain from criticizing, or even poking fun at, my adopted homeland and its denizens. It’s a question of respect: I choose to live here, so it doesn’t seem right to bitch about the place or its people. But there comes a time when, if only for the sake of elucidating for my non-Italian readers some of the quirks of my life abroad, that I have to say of the Italian way of doing things, “That’s whack.” 

And so it is with Italians and their vacations.

The Italian mode of vacationing is peculiar to those of us who think of a vacation as a time to “get away from it all.” Italians vacation in packs, and the vast majority of them do so at the same time each year – during the weeks surrounding “Feria Agosto,” the national holiday which falls on August 15.

So sometime before or after Feria Agosto, Italians pack up their cars with friends and relatives and head to the “mare,” or sea. No one says, “I’m going to the beach.” They’re all going to the mare. (And, admittedly, saying, “I’m going to the sea,” sounds much more romantic and exotic than saying, “I’m going to the beach.”

The more fortunate Italians head to the mare in Sardinia, Sicily, or one of Italy’s smaller, more exclusive islands, like Elba, Giglio (site of the Costa Concordia cruise line disaster earlier this year) or Pantelleria,  which, when not overrun with refugees fleeing armed conflict in North Africa, is an eye-poppingly beautiful  destination for the elite of the elite, including the likes of Giorgio Armani.

Still others go to the beaches of Tunisia, or Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, where they’ll stay in gated compounds and eat Italian food served by Italian waiters, drink Italian wine served by Italian bartenders, and dance to Italian music sung or spun by Italian performers or DJs. Cultural immersion is not the goal of trips to the mare, at least not immersion in any culture other than Italian.

The Italian idea of going to the mare;
this is a beach at Cefalu, Sicily.
Italians of more modest means will find their mare closer to home, and head either to the Tuscan Coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, or to the area surrounding Rimini, on the Adriatic Sea. There, they will camp in tents, rent small houses, or stay in tourist villages or hotels, where all meals and entertainment are provided for a package price.

They will get up and go to the beach in the morning, and rent chaise lounges and umbrellas, which on larger beaches are stationary, and lined up in rows in areas the size of small baseball fields. Those who arrive early get ringside seats near the sea, latecomers are relegated to the spots somewhere within the dense pack of lounge chairs. They will stay all morning, alternatively swimming, sunning and sleeping in the shade. They will play paddle ball, toss a beach ball, or play cards under their umbrellas.

My idea of going to the mare;
Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida
At lunch, they’ll go back to their accommodation and either cook lunch or have it provided at their hotel. Because they believe that you can’t go swimming for three hours after eating, they’ll return to the beach after lunch, but won’t enter the water until the requisite time has passed. This must be agony for little kids, but the Italian belief is that if you get in the water too soon after eating, you’ll get a cramp and possibly die. And that would really put a damper on the vacation.

I admit that I’ve been to the mare in Italy only on a few occasions, and I also admit that the appeal of beach going Italian-style is lost on me. I believe this is due largely to the fact that I grew up in Florida, where almost all the beaches are wide, free and public, and the only restrictions are on pets, vehicles and open glass containers. (Concealed weapons? This is Florida! Bring ‘em on! Just don’t use your Glock to open a beer bottle, or you’ll get a ticket for having a glass container on the beach. Beer bottles are dangerous, you know.)

But I digress. My point is, that I’m used to beaches where there is plenty of room to spread out from one’s nearest neighbors, and the only sounds are of gently lapping waves and the occasional cawing of seagulls.

But Italy is a whole other story.

Once, I went with a group of fellow students to a beach near Ravenna. We rejected the beach loungers as they were too expensive, and instead opted to spread our towels out on the sand. We were soon run off from that spot, as we were camped in the middle of the beach access area for the paying guests on the beach loungers. I guess they couldn’t be inconvenienced at having to walk around our towels to take a swim (three hours after eating, of course). So we moved our towels closer to the other cheapskate beachgoers, all of us relegated to a narrow strip of sand close to the water.

Our Perfect Beach at Argentario,
but not so perfect for Naomi
Most often, Paolo and I go Lago di Bolsena, our wonderfully deep and clear volcanic lake near Orvieto. Even there, the Italian style of beach going is evident. One sunny morning, we arrived early and spread our blankets out under a large tree. The tree cast a large area of shade, and there were several free meters of shady space in every direction. Yet the next party of Italians to arrive parked their blankets right next to ours – right next to ours! – even though there was ample free space. (Strangely, Italians do the same thing on trains – a train car full of open seats, and they will sit in the empty seat next to yours, no matter how you try to avoid eye contact or look annoyed or diseased. Why is that?) Still, despite it’s less than stellar beaches, Bolsena is free from the fields of lounge chairs and rules about private versus public space on the beach.

Another time, Paolo and I drove and drove around the Argentario – the quasi-island in Tuscany for those who can’t afford an island vacation – until we found what I still recall as The Perfect Beach. It was set at the foot of a rocky hillside, and we had to reach it via a steep switchback trail. It was just a small beach, with one bar and grill that rented lounge chairs and umbrellas at a reasonable price. When the sun shifted, the attendant came and moved our umbrella so we were always in the shade.  The beach itself was pebbly and scattered with giant boulders, and huge rock outcroppings poked out of the water offshore. We swam, snorkeled, sunned and slept, all within a reasonable perimeter of privacy – I guess lots of people were put off by the steep climb down to reach the beach. We’ve vowed to go back to that beach, but we still haven’t made it.

This Feria Agosto, Paolo is taking a two week vacation. Neither of us want to add insult to injury by camping at the beach, nor do we like the idea of a self-contained tourist village. I don’t want to go on vacation for a week only to cook lunch and dinner every day, so we won’t be renting a self-catering apartment or house. We always talk of going to Sardinia for two weeks, but it’s always “another year.”

Instead, we’re just taking a weekend at the mare, somewhere close to home. I’ve asked friends for their recommendations for a pristine, sparsely-populated beach with limited services – all we need is a couple of lounge chairs and a nearby bar, and we’ll be set. I’m researching on the internet, looking for a less-trodden beach and a hotel we can afford (ha!) for a couple of nights. I have to admit that so far, I’m coming up empty on all fronts. We really aren’t keen to return to our perfect beach on Argentario, not so much because of the hike down, but because of the walk back up with Naomi and all her accessories in tow. There’s always Bolsena, but since we go regularly, it doesn’t feel too much like a vacation getaway.

So, we may just join the droves of other vacationers and head to a nearby beach, park ourselves shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of our fellow countrymen, women and children, and enjoy our sun and sand sans privacy, Italian-style. And maybe next year, we’ll finally get to Sardinia.
Yeah, this is more like it. The mare at Sardinia. Next year, definitely next year.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Hiking pneumonia on the Etruscan Vie Cave

I always boast about how I never get sick. Never, ever, ever. Or, if I do get sick, I’m down for a day, then I kick it and I’m back to normal within 24 hours. It’s not that I take incredibly good care of myself or pop vitamins and drink wheat grass juice every day; I just seem to be resistant to colds, flus and other bugs.

That is, until pneumonia came along and kicked my ass.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. My 12-year-old nephew, Adam was set to arrive from the U.S. on June 27, a Wednesday. The Saturday before, I started to crash, big time, at an outdoor dinner. “Paolo, I don’t feel so good,” I said around 10 pm. “Paolo, I feel really bad,” I said around 11. “Paolo, we have to go, now,” at 11:30. By the time we got home I was running a fever, which peaked at 103 degrees – very high for an adult – Monday morning.

Our town doctor makes house calls (this is Italy, after all) and came to see me Monday afternoon. “My nephew gets here Wednesday,” I whimpered. “I have to get better.”   

“Forget that,” Doctor Marco said, “this will last for two or 10 days.” He handed me a stack of prescriptions, snapped his black doctor bag shut, and was off to the see the next bedbound wretch.

I cautioned Adam in my last conversation with him before he boarded the plane that his Auntie Liz was “a bit under the weather,” but that it was only temporary. Thankfully, my friend Susan drove me to Rome’s Fiumicino airport to pick him up; otherwise I’m really not sure how we would have gotten the kid. So he was greeted by his sweating (why is sweat so often a theme in my life?), coughing aunt, who had to pause every 20 meters or so, lean against a wall in the airport and hack and cough spasmodically. “I’m good, I’m good,” I assured him.  

We laid low the first several days Adam was here, and I saw the doctor twice more. On the last visit, he confirmed what I had begun to fear – that I had walking pneumonia. I needed intramuscular injections of antibiotics, which Paolo seemed all too pleased to administer in my butt. Still, I didn’t tell him about the pneumonia, since he was getting mad at me every time I left the house. “You need to rest! If you don’t get well, we’re ruined!” He was right, of course, but I had an antsy 12-year-old at home, who hadn’t come to Italy to play video games and check his Facebook page all day long. How could I rest knowing Adam was spending every hour ascending new levels of “Bubble Witch Saga” on Facebook?

Sorano, one of the "tufa towns" of the Maremma
So it was Susan to the rescue again. She volunteered to take us on a day trip to the “Tufa Towns” – Pitigliano, Sorano and Sovana, three absolutely picturesque towns in the Maremma, carved out of the same volcanic tufa, or soft rock, that forms the cliffs of Orvieto.

One of the most enigmatic and lovely features of these towns may be little known to the average tourists doing a drive-by. All the towns have Etruscan remains, and all of them are connected by the Etruscan Vie Cave, or cave roads.

What goes down, must come back up
The Vie Cave are narrow paths carved out of the solid tufa that makes up the countryside between these towns. The exact purpose of the Vie Cave is not clear. There are rock-cut tombs along most of them, so they were at least in part ceremonial. But because they connect the three towns and the surrounding countryside, archaeologists suspect that they were used as routes of communication or escape between towns when one or another was under siege. The roads are not easy to spot, and some carefully placed foliage could easily hide the entrance to any of them. If an invading force (cough cough, megalomaniacal Romans, cough) didn’t know of their existence – and presumably they did not – the sunken paths could have easily served as hideouts for a town’s population or its fighting force.

I'm about to cough on that 3,000 year old wall.
Today, the Vie Cave are sparsely visited, cool, dark and damp paths that can really transport modern visitors back to ancient times. Susan and I thought they’d be a hit with a 12-year-old, and we were right. Plus, in the relentless heat wave we’ve been sweltering under, they’re a welcome respite.

Except, they involve a little bit of hiking. Not a lot of hiking, mind you, but some elevation change, some scrambling across rocks and boulders, or hop-scotching over culverts carved in the paths to transport rainwater.

This hiking would not be a challenge to a reasonably fit and healthy person who did NOT have walking pneumonia. But for me, every descent into the cool, moss covered tunnels that make up the Vie Cave came at the expense of a climb out, back into the beating sun. My cough, by now “loose and productive” (translation: “tubercular and scary”) would stop me in my tracks every few meters, so I could lean against a 3,000 year old wall carved into solid rock – the chisel marks still visible after all this time – and hack, heave and catch my breath. “I’m good, I’m good,” I assured Adam and Susan, ignoring the repulsed looks of passersby.

It was along one of those steep, shady roads that we dubbed my malady “hiking pneumonia” instead of walking pneumonia.

At Saturnia, trying to pass my hiking pneumonia to Adam.
We went on to nearby Saturnia, another not-to-be-missed site in the region, and I coughed and heaved along the Roman road, propping myself up under the old stone arch that formed the gate to the city. Later, at the Cascate del Mulino, Adam and I took a dip in the warm sulfuric water. It’s supposed to have healing properties – no doubt it could help a case of hiking pneumonia, right?

I’m sure our adventure that day wasn’t what my doctor or my husband had in mind when they said, “You need to rest.” But I’m glad we got Adam out of the house and into the countryside, and to sights that one can only see in Italy. We did manage to evoke a couple of “cool” and “wow” exclamations from  him, though later, when he spoke to his parents on Skype, he said he had an “okay time.” Twelve-year-olds    what do they know? At least I get to brag that I stared down the high noon sun, the steep, slippery Vie Cave and the crashing waterfalls of Saturnia, all with a case of hiking pneumonia, and lived to tell about it.

Adam, having an "okay time" on the Vie Cave.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

If you can’t stand the caldo, stay out of Italy

Yesterday I went to lunch in Orvieto with my friend Susan Morgan, who writes a wonderful blog about her life in Italy. I told her in advance that I didn’t care about the quality of the food, so long as we found a place that had air-conditioning. 

We stopped at one restaurant that we thought was a sure bet, but the front doors were flung open – a sure sign of no a/c, or at least that the owners were too miserly to turn on the a/c. 

Today's weather map for Italy. Notice the great range
of weather, from hot to hotter to really, really hot.
Still, I went in to check it out. The dining room was not quite sweltering, but nowhere near the level of comfort I was looking for. “We have a garden terrace,” the host said. “Is it cool out there?” I questioned. “It’s a little cool,” he said, weakly, clearly squirming under the screws of my interrogation.

I checked it out. Ha! A sun baked terrace surrounded by four high walls, with a few tables and umbrellas and not enough breeze to flutter a leaf. “We’ll come back on a cool evening,” I told him as we exited.

Our next stop was Taverna del Etrusco, a reliable restaurant that seems to draw more tourists than locals, but does have pretty good food. Best of all, when we approached, the doors were closed – a great sign.

We went in, and while it was kind of cool, it wasn’t really, really cool. So when the waiter motioned us to a table, I asked if it was fresca (cool). “Yes,” he said, “and we can turn the air conditioner on if you’d like.”

I nearly wept with joy when I saw the a/c unit on the wall next to our table. It soon began humming along, and by the time our meal was done, I was nearly chilly in my sleeveless dress. Beautifully, blissfully chilly. It is a rare pleasure during summertime in Italy.

When I first moved to Italy, Paolo, at my urging, had air-conditioning installed in his small apartment. (Oh, I remember those days, back when he would do almost anything to please his new American bride-to-be…) We were definitely in the minority in Italy, as air-conditioning in homes, stores, and public buildings – and even in hospitals, is rare.

When I’d exit the apartment, our neighbor, who sits on his balcony every afternoon, binoculars in hand (he uses them to check out women’s asses as they walk down the street, but that’s a story for another blog) would always wave to me and offer a rhetorical, one word weather report. “Caldo” (hot), “piove” (rain), “freddo” (cold), as if this would somehow enlighten me.

We’ve since moved to a home just outside town, so I see that neighbor less often, and when I do, it’s usually to wave from the car as I pass. But if he were to offer his one-word weather report this week, it would be caldo. Really, really fucking caldo, like so caldo you can hardly talk about it caldo.

I moved to Italy from Southwest Florida, where summertime feels like sauna-time. I should be used to caldo, right? Except that in Florida, as I so often explain to my Italians, everything is air-conditioned. Cars, stores, houses, banks, doctor’s offices, malls. And as much as I know the evils of carbon footprints and freon admissions and all those decidedly un-green things, God do I miss it.

We don’t have air-conditioning in our new home. We moved in during the winter, so we put off having it installed. Then we put it off some more. Now, summer has arrived with a sweaty roar, and we don’t have the several thousand euro lying around that we need to install a/c. Next year, we say.

We do have air conditioning in the car, but with the price of diesel, I can hardly justify driving around the Umbrian countryside aimlessly, just so I can cool off. 

Besides, air conditioning is a battle in our marriage. Italians have an aversion to air conditioning, breezes, fans, and ice. They also fear sweating, but mostly because they’re afraid of sweating and then getting caught in a breeze, which will of course give them a sore throat, a cough, a cold, influenza or the Black Plague. So you will see Italians, male and female, old and young, wearing neck scarves as they work out in sweltering gyms, ride their bikes, or walk across sun-parched piazzas, all to keep from a breeze touching their necks. About the only place they won’t wear scarves is to the swimming pool, and I’m sure, if there were a waterproof scarf available, they’d wear it.

So if Paolo and I get into the hot car, I blast the air conditioning at full tilt, and let its sweet breeze blow back my hair. But as soon as I turn up the fan and turn the air to the full “blue” zone, he inevitably turns down the fan and moves the temperature dial to somewhere between hot and cold, and punches the precious “AC” button off so that we are cooling the car with outside air. He says that he immediately feels a sore throat coming on if too much cold air blasts on him.

Daisy and her new best friend.
I try to be polite and understanding, but it’s hard to yell “What the fuck do you think you're doing?!” while waving my armpits in front of car’s the a/c vents, and do it with a smile on my face. My argument that germs and viruses, and not a cool breeze, are the cause of colds and sore throats and flu and Black Plague falls on deaf ears.

After witnessing how much poor little Naomi is suffering in the heat, Paolo has finally relented a bit. We dug our electric fan out of storage, and positioned it so it was blowing steadily on all three of us – her crib is still in our bedroom – last night. We all slept better last night, and even Paolo allowed that it was due to the fan.

Next year, before the caldo arrives – it comes earlier each year and stays later – thanks, global warming – we’re investing in air conditioning in the house. And until then, Susan and I have decided to hang a framed photo of ourselves over that table at Taverna del Etrusco, so that we might seem like VIPs and always be guaranteed the same spot when we return, which we’ve vowed to do weekly. At least until the caldo breaks…