Friday, March 23, 2012

A new baby in the Old World

Even before I was pregnant with Naomi, Paolo would regale me with stories of how the nonnas and zias (grandmothers and aunts) in his family all pull together to help care for new babies. I was a bit skeptical at first. Why would Zia Marilena want to take care of her niece’s baby? Wasn’t Nonna Zita too old and tired to care for Cecilia when she was a baby? Besides, why were these women so anxious to help raise their great-nieces and nephews, grandchildren and second cousins once-removed? Surely they resented, just a little, having to care for someone else’s newborn?
When the time was neigh for Naomi to make her debut, I still wasn’t too convinced of the availability of all this free day care. And I definitely wasn’t prepared to ask for help. When one of the women of the family would show up at the house, I was happy to hand off the baby for a few minutes, but asking them to babysit seemed like asking too much.

This is what my workday looks like without babysitters.

Yet within months of Naomi’s arrival, I was working again, and working a lot. I write, edit and teach a distance-learning university course, all of which I can do from anywhere in the world, as long as I have a working computer and reliable internet service. And with financially fortuitous timing, a LOT of work dropped into my lap after the first of the year, and I soon figured out that caring for a newborn and writing original blog and website content were not activities I could do simultaneously.
Circumstances dictated that I call on the Babysitting Brigade.
“Franca,” I asked tentatively of my mother-in-law, “would it be okay if we ate lunch with you, and I left Naomi for a few hours?”
“Si, per piacere!” (my pleasure!) she responded, then, and each time I’ve asked since. And I have asked, a LOT.
The arrangement is as close to ideal as I could hope. I bring Naomi and her diaper bag to Franca’s a little before 1 pm, and Paolo meets me there. We lunch together with Franca and Nonno Gino, then we both leave to go to work—he at whatever job he’s at and me back to our house, to work for a few uninterrupted hours. I go pick her up around 5:30 or 6, after I’ve gotten some work done and Paolo is home to help with Naomi while I finish up and prepare dinner.

He's either calling her Little Pisser or Boss of the House.

Our arrival, or, I should say, Naomi’s arrival (no one really cares about us anymore) at Franca’s is met with a chorus of coos and baby talk, and garbled greetings reserved only for Naomi. I believe they go something like this: Here is the boss of the house! Here is the little sparrow of Nonna! Here is the big baby doll! Here is the little pisser! Here is the chubby-cheeked baby of Nonna!
We barely rate a greeting when we enter. I often think I could walk into Franca’s house, bleeding from several open wounds, and as long as I was bearing Naomi, she would snatch the baby from my hands and step over me after I fell to the floor, my life’s blood slowly trickling away, to fix Naomi’s bottle or change her diaper.
With Cousin Serena, who cannot let a sleeping baby lie.
Paolo’s sister Anarita is even worse. She no longer acknowledges our existence. When she arrives from work at lunch time and sees my car in the driveway, she makes a beeline for Franca’s house, walks in, says “Dove la figlia?” and swipes the baby from whoever happens to be holding her. There are no formalities, no “Can I hold her now?”, nothing. Anarita takes her, cradles her under her neck, and spends as much time as she has available holding Naomi, who usually falls asleep this way. She practically snarls at me when I ask to hold my own baby.
Here, he's either calling her Big Stinky or Big Ugly.
For the rest of the afternoon, Franca, Anarita, and later, when she arrives from school, Paolo’s niece Serena, argue over who gets to hold Naomi next, who’s held her for more than her fair share, what the baby wants, needs or likes, whether she’s too cold or too hot, who’s holding her head right or wrong, who's better at giving her a bottle or changing a diaper. Often, Paolo’s Zia Graziella, Zia Marilena, cousins Antonella and Diana or even a neighbor will join in what nearly becomes a tug of war (or tug of baby) over who gets to hold her next. When she is in one person’s arms, another person is in her face, stroking her cheek, kissing her head or trying to get her to smile. They are incapable of letting a sleeping baby lie. They call her a chorus of silly little terms of endearment, like pulcina (little flea), bruttina (little ugly), guanciatina (little chubby cheeks), puzzona (little stinky), and my least favorite, poverina. It means “poor little one,” and I have to say, Naomi is the least pitiful baby on earth. This kid’s got it made, and she knows it.
With my mother-in-law, Franca. It's all her fault.
In fact, as much as these babysitters have saved my neck, they have ruined my child in the process. Before I started working so much, Naomi was quite content to spend a few hours at a time in her bouncy seat, chattering, dozing or just quietly watching me work on the laptop, wash dishes or fix lunch. Now, she is so accustomed to being held by her legion of babysitters that she has complete and utter disdain for the bouncy seat, or any other spot that’s not in someone’s arms. She conveys this disdain by screaming her little lungs out any time I try to put her down, even after she’s fallen asleep.
No time to pee! There's a baby needs held!
And while I am willing to be Mean Mommy and let her sit in her seat and cry, at least for a few minutes, while I complete some task for which I need both hands, Paolo is not so hard-hearted. The other evening, I took Daisy (the real poverina of the house; she no longer gets nearly the attention she was used to pre-baby) for a longish walk. When we arrived back home, Paolo was holding Naomi and practically hopping from one foot to the other. “Hurry,” he implored,” I have to pee!” I took the baby and reminded him that he could, in fact, put her in her bouncy seat or crib long enough to use the bathroom. “But she’ll cry,” he said. “Oy vey,” I thought.
But my laments are more tongue-in-cheek than anything. The Babysitting Brigade is spoiling my daughter, but better that she suffers from too much attention than too little. That I have built-in, free daycare in the homes of people I love and trust, and more importantly, in the arms of people who love Naomi, is a gift indeed, and just one more reason why I’m glad I’m raising my new baby in the Old World. Now if they would just stop playing tug-of-war with her…

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In Italy, we are closer to our food. Too close, sometimes…

Prior to moving to Italy, I spent two of my summers here, working on archaeological digs in Ravenna and Sardinia. My university colleagues asked me about my experience on Italy’s second largest island, and I summed it up by saying, “Well, in Sardinia, you’re a lot closer to your food.” Italy is tough for an animal lover; here, the bunnies and doves and songbirds and in some regions (like Sardinia), even the horses that we so love and anthropomorphize in the US are first and foremost food. I can hardly admire a pretty bird without Paolo saying, “Oh, those are good.” He doesn’t mean good to look at, and he mostly says it to get my goat (though I don’t think they eat goats here).
In the US, mostly because of my love of animals, I was very nearly a vegetarian, though I occasionally ate fish and chicken. (I understand that for real vegetarians, occasionally eating fish and chicken doesn’t count as being a vegetarian. They are absolutely right and I acknowledge my hypocrisy. Now let’s move on.) When I would visit Italy on my own and later to see Paolo, I avoided meat without too much difficulty, though my dinner choices were often limited. This is and was especially true at restaurants, where chicken is not really considered an entree one would seek out for a nice dinner. There are no veggie burgers or vegetable fajitas on Italian menus, though you may see the rare omelet. Mostly, if you want to eat vegetarian, it’s pasta, pasta and more pasta.

But when I moved here and started cooking for Paolo, that meant cooking meat. All sorts of meat. While I might be able to sneak in one or two meatless meals per week (and that usually means fried eggs or an omelet), for him, a meal is not complete without meat. That meant I had to buy meat, touch meat, prepare meat and serve meat. And if I were going to do all of those things, then it sort of just made sense that I would eat meat, too. I still don’t eat rabbit, lamb and most game birds, but fish, chicken, beef and pork are all on my menu now. I would be perfectly happy not eating it at all, or eating it just every so often, but while I got my husband to give up hunting, I’d never get him to give up meat, nor would I try to do so.

This is a lucky chicken; her only job is to lay eggs.

I’ve managed to rationalize my omnivorous habits by reasoning that food animals in Italy have it a lot better than food animals in the US. Particularly if one stays out of large grocery stores, much of the meat one buys here is raised nearby, and most likely the animal lives out in the open air until it is slaughtered. People who raise animals for food keep them in pretty good conditions, even if that’s more out of concern for cleanliness and sanitation than for animal welfare. As my friend Alan likes to say, “In Italy, when you eat a chicken, you know it had a pretty good life for a chicken.” Still, there’s no getting around the slaughtering part, and in rural Italy, that can be a bit too “in your face” for we Americans, who like to maintain our blissful ignorance about how an animal winds up on our plate. 
I much prefer live pheasants to dead ones.
Photo courtesy of

So when I say that Sardinians are closer to their food, the same can be said for all of Italy, at least once you get outside of the big cities. I learned this early on after moving in with Paolo. The chickens I heard happily clucking in the garden below our apartment were not pets, nor were the ducks or geese or rabbits. I’ve walked into Paolo’s mother’s rustica (our future garage apartment while we renovated) to find drops of blood splattered on the floor and a pile of chicken heads and feet on the table. On another occasion, I squawked upon entering Franca’s kitchen, where I saw a beautiful pheasant, dead on the kitchen table, and the back legs of a baby cinghiale (wild boar) sticking out of the kitchen sink. Paolo’s friend Gaetano had gone hunting, and shared the spoils with Franca. OK, so I hate hunting, but these guys eat everything they kill, and nothing goes to waste.
It was with this rationalized attitude that I accepted that we should buy a large quantity of organic beef from a local organic farm. Organic meat is almost impossible to find in grocery stores here, and besides, I’d looked at this farm’s website. The cows and sheep and pigs live outside. They cows eat grass and get plenty of sunshine. They have a good life up until the end, which is quick, if not altogether painless. The 20 kilos or so of beef we ordered arrived already packaged and ready to put in the freezer. The experience was as sanitized and far removed from the slaughter as if we’d bought the meat in the grocery store, except with less guilt and growth hormones.
So when Paolo’s friend Sauro, who works at the farm, called to tell him they had some small pigs ready to slaughter, I thought this too, would be OK. Paolo as well assumed that we’d get our 40 kilo pig just as we had the beef, already butchered and packaged for us.
Except we had snow that week. The truck from the farm was able to take the animals to Orvieto, where by regulation all local animals are slaughtered, but the truck carrying the dead animals could not make its way out the snow-covered strada bianca, or gravel road, to the hilltop farm to deliver the pig. Sauro called to say they truck would instead drop the pig off at our house.
By the time the truck driver knocked on our door, Paolo hadn’t put two and two together, and I know I certainly hadn’t. The driver hauled, first in one half and then the other, an entire pig, split neatly down the middle from toe to tail, and slammed it with a splat across our dining room table. At this point, we were living in the rustica, so the dining room was also our kitchen, living room, bedroom and my office. There was no shutting the door to avoid the glassy stare of the dead pig. On top of everything else, the pig weighed 70 kilo, not the 40 we’d been promised. The table legs teetered under its weight. Then, the driver said he had a dead lamb to deliver to another local client, but he was running late, and could he just leave it with us?
A dead, bisected pig across my kitchen table was already more than I could handle, but a lamb too? No way. I grabbed Daisy’s leash and, averting my eyes the whole time, headed outside with her in the freezing cold, yelling to Paolo something about how he had to get that damn pig and lamb off our dining room table. I vowed not to reenter the rustica until the Damien Hirst sculpture and the lamb were gone.

Art collectors pay big bucks for Damien Hirst's work, like
this bisected pig. I could have made them a deal on ours...
But where do you stash a whole pig?

Just then, our friend Simona, a far more formidable woman than I, passed by in her van, and Paolo flagged her down. They decided to put the pig on the front seat of Paolo’s truck, since it was below 0°C outside, and he didn’t need the truck for work that day. So Daisy and I turned our backs, shivering, as the poor pig got roughly shoved inside the truck and thrown across the bucket seats, followed by the lamb.
I spent the rest of the afternoon inside, thinking about the dead pig and lamb parked outside our front door. It was after dark when our neighbor came to retrieve the lamb from the truck. Paolo moved the pig, with help from his Uncle Aldo, down to our cousin Peppe’s cantina, where they set about butchering it. I went back and forth, hauling freezer bags of pork back to our place. We ate pork for months, at what seemed like every meal, and even Paolo agreed: no more pigs.
As is the case with many people who love animals yet eat animals, I still have an uneasy relationship with meat. I’ve since found a local butcher who raises his own animals in free-range, organic conditions. When you buy meat from him, it’s in a store, neatly packaged in coolers, far, far removed from its source. Am I hypocritical? Guilty as charged. But until I can convince Paolo that we really don’t need to eat meat to stay healthy and satisfied, I just have to stay a little farther away from my food.

In Italy, even fish sticks stay true to the source!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Wedding in Umbria: The pre-wedding serenade

Casale Montemoro
I smoked my last cigarette two days before my wedding. The occasion was a party we held at Casale Montemoro, the lovely Allerona guesthouse where most of our US wedding guests stayed.

The party came together in that effortless way that Italian feste seem to organize themselves. The food kept coming, from the kitchen and the pizza ovens and the grill. Five-liter jugs of wine were drained and refilled at every table. Italians and Americans struggled, with good humor and some success, to understand one another. The Italian men flirted with the American women. Everyone danced. Nonno Gino sang. And my friends were as amazed as I at how everyone in Allerona pulled together to help us ring in our nuptials.
I drank too much wine and smoked too many cigarettes, and I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only one. The next morning, Paolo and I awoke early with a long to-do list ahead of us. The first stop was the reception site, Corno Rosso restaurant near Orvieto. I had to have Paolo make a pit stop so I could buy crackers and a Coke—yeah, that’s how much wine I drank. I sat in the restaurant, head pounding, trimming table cards, finalizing seating arrangements and thanking my lucky stars that I had this hangover the day before my wedding, and not the day of.
That evening, Paolo’s friend Domenico had arranged for an aperitivo at our little bar in town, so once again we had another party to attend. Only this time, I took it easy, and had just a little hair of the dog to quell my headache. My long-lost cousins from St. Louis, two brothers, showed up at the bar and bonded almost immediately with some of the Italian fellows, who happily introduced them to the joys of grappa and limoncello.
Our priest, in a move that I still gripe about today, scheduled our wedding rehearsal for 9:45 pm the night before our wedding. So we walked up to the church and went through the motions, though I think I might have nodded off a few times.
When the rehearsal finished nearly two hours later (!), we returned to the bar, expecting to find it empty. Instead, there were my cousins, arm in arm with their new Italian best friends, still downing shots of limoncello and roaring with laughter. I left Paolo at the bar with a few of his friends and my drunken cousins, and I headed with my team to Montemoro, where I would spend the night and get ready the next morning. I wasn’t particularly nervous, and sad as it may be, I was too tired to be atwitter for the next day; I just wanted to get a good night’s sleep.
A few minutes after I arrived, Paolo called. “Leave the gate open,” he said. “Domenico needs to drop something off.”
Seriously? I was already in my pajamas. What the hell would Domenico need to drop off?
A half an hour later, the gate was still open, there was no sign of Domenico, and I was ready for bed. Maybe he just wasn’t coming. I called Paolo to ask if I could close the gate. “He’ll be there soon,” he assured me. I could tell from the sound of his voice that something was up.
A few minutes later, and well after midnight, I heard the horns. A lot of them, and getting closer. “They’re here…” I called to my friends, who were mostly busy flossing and exfoliating before bedtime.

Through the gates of Montemoro came car after car filled with our Italian friends, all honking horns and shouting. Finally came Maurizio’s tractor, adorned with straw brooms, ribbons, balloons and deer antlers, and pulling a grape wagon. From the wagon spilled Paolo (inexplicably donned in an oversize farmer’s hat) and dozens of our friends. The wagon was like a circus clown car, as more and more partiers poured out. At the bottom of the heap, splayed across the floor of the wagon and laughing hysterically, were my drunk cousins. They got up, fell down, got up again and then fell out of the wagon. Mind you, these are not young men.
Yup, that's my cousin.

Paolo serenading me

With back-up singers Danielle & Barb
Not sure what's sillier, the pajamas or the hat
They were all there to help Paolo serenade me the night (now the morning!) before our wedding. With a boom box and tiny, barely functioning speakers in hand, Paolo sang an Italian love song, his friends joining in an out of tune chorus.

Next, it was my turn to serenade him. I was handed the words to “You’re Just too Good to be True,” as it had somehow become the theme song to our wedding. My friends and I did our best a capella version of The Four Seasons classic before the crowd descended into chaos. Our friend Diego nearly knocked me over with a bear hug and said, “Liz, ti voglio tanto, tanto bene” (the equivalent of a friend saying a platonic “I love you”), tackled another friend to the ground, and then promptly puked in the bushes. My older cousin Dan fell up the stairs and took out a geranium in the process, then tried to reassemble its pieces like it was a broken vase. Randy, the younger of the pair, embraced Paolo and me and told us we had touched his heart with our love. “Heart-o, heart-o,” he implored, pointing to his chest. I didn’t have the heart-o to tell him that putting an “o” on the end of a word doesn’t make it Italian.
The next morning, I was surprised to see my cousins up bright and early, photographing and videotaping the entire ceremony. Someone handed my cousin Randy his passport, which he had lost the night before. About midway through lunch, I spied Dan with his necktie tied around his head, and figured he had recovered from the previous night. I thought once again of my last hurrah two nights earlier, and was once again grateful that I drank too much the night before the night before my wedding. And I was really glad I hadn't smoked the night before.

At the luncheon, Paolo and I mostly just sipped at our wine glasses and left it to our guests to over-imbibe, which several of them did (more puking in the bushes!). We were exhausted, relieved and somewhat in disbelief that the whole thing was finally done, that the wedding went off without a hitch and that we were finally past the finish line.

And when I think back on the entire week of festivities leading up to our big day, I believe my fondest memory is of my husband, in a silly oversize farmer’s hat, unabashedly crooning to me as I sat on a windowsill in my pajamas (unabashedly), and listened. It was the very first time he sang to me and fortunately, it hasn’t been the last. Heart-o, indeed. 
Whew! We made it.