Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Nonno Gino: The man and the legend

I only knew one of my grandfathers. My father’s father died before I was born, and my mother’s father died when I was 11 years old. Likewise, my maternal grandmother died before I came along, and my father’s mother died when I was 13. I’ve always regretted not knowing two of them, and losing the other two when I was still young.  So finding a new grandfather was just one of the many unexpected benefits of marrying Paolo, and by far, the best one.

How do I begin to tell you about Nonno Gino? At nearly 99 years old, he is a living piece of contadini history, a man who was born in the countryside, grew up in the fields, and farmed or hunted nearly every piece of food he put on his family’s table. A man who knows how to make wine, press olives, graft trees, plant crops, butcher a hog, and build a fence. Who would rather craft an axe handle from a tree branch than go to the hardware store and buy a new one, who’ll wire together a broken flower pot rather than throw it away, and who still swings a hoe in his vegetable garden, even though his legs will barely hold him up anymore.

Did I mention he’s nearly 99 years old?  

Gino and Paolo
But it’s not just his mad contadini skills that make Gino so special. In fact, it’s not that at all. It is that he is spry, toothless, smiling, possessed of the joy of life, and full of song. That when the weather is good, he sits on the terrace and sings as loudly as he can, so folks living up in the village can hear him. That he cries when the weather stays bad for too long and he can’t go outside and walk, leaning on his cane, and gaze out over the hills and woods he once commanded. That when he goes to the bar, he tells his daughter (Franca, my mother-in-law) that he drinks an orange soda, when we all know he has a prosecco or an amaro. That he taught my husband how to hunt for cinghiale and wild mushrooms, how to make wine, and how to be a man.

Nearly 99 years old, and still chopping firewood
Gino was born in 1913 in a podere, or farmhouse at Clormino, about 10 kilometers from Allerona. The kitchen was the only room with a fireplace, so on cold nights, that’s where everyone gathered before bedtime. They warmed their beds with a prete, an iron coal box they’d tuck under the covers before climbing in. Their water came from a well, and their bathroom was the outhouse. They kept rabbits, chickens, pigeons, ducks and doves, none of them as pets. They plowed
their fields with the same cow who pulled the wagon and provided milk for the family. 
Gino and the 100 or so contadini who lived nearby, at a cluster of farmhouses called Spiagge (where Gino would find his bride, Zita) would walk to Bargeano, another hamlet a few kilometers away, for church, for dances and for festivals. They took their produce and livestock to sell at Allerona, a 45 minute walk. On market day in Orvieto, they woke at 4 am to make the 20 kilometer walk, driving a wagon full of produce and herding sheep or pigs with them. They’d return after dark, hopefully empty handed.


Gino and the plums
The Campo di Fiero, Orvieto’s large open livestock and produce market, is a parking garage now. Gino and his brothers’ farmhouse at Clormino lies in rubble, blown up in a gas explosion years after they sold it. The church at Bargeano has fallen down, too, though the bell tower is still standing, minus the bell. Most of Gino’s old fields are fallow, with the woods and Umbrian macchia¸or bush, overtaking them. Others are neatly planted with rows of young olive trees, the work of wealthy Roman entrepreneurs who bought up hundreds of hectares near his old home.
But here and there among those overgrown fields or rows of olives stands a gnarled peach, or cherry or walnut tree, split and knocked askew by lightning or time, but still bearing fruit. “I planted those,” he'll tell me as we drive on the strada bianca, or white road, out past Clormino and Spiagge. The plum trees he planted behind the podere are still there, and Paolo and I go every summer to pick the sweet purple fruit. The climb behind and over the rubble of the podere is too treacherous for Gino to make anymore, but we still show him the harvest. I can picture him on his knees, digging in the dirt with his hands and tenderly planting the plum seedlings in the ground. I know what it means to him, 50 or 60 or even 80 years later, to take a plum in his hands, marvel (quite literally) at the fruit of his long-ago labors, and bite down with his remaining teeth.

You try keeping this guy away
from a microphone!
Gino has slowed down just in the three years I’ve known him. But he’s still robust (for 99!) and on a good day, he can still work in the garden, sweep the courtyard around our house or whittle us a new rake handle. When he finishes, he’s proud of his work, and buoyed that he can still contribute something. “Today,” he’ll tell Franca, “I feel like a lion!” Other days, when his years catch up to him or his body betrays him, he’ll cry and tell Franca that “nothing goes anymore.” He’ll speak about his future home, “giu” (down) and gesture in the direction of the cemetery.

But on the best days, Gino sings. Gino sings loudly and joyfully and out of tune, crooning the old songs of love and broken hearts and flower vendors and life in the campagna. He sings to us while we work on the house, he sings after family dinners and now, he sings to our baby daughter. Once in a while, during these precious and priceless concerts, Paolo and I catch one another’s glance, and each knows what the other is thinking: how much we already miss him, and he’s not even gone yet.
Gino with his great-granddaughter, Naomi.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

For Valentine’s Day, a tale of lust at first sight

Blogs are self-indulgent little vehicles and today, I apologize for being even more self-indulgent and long-winded than usual. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I am sharing the story of my first date with Paolo.

Dreamy Orvieto after a summer rain
On July 4, 2008, I was a little more than mid-way through my two-month sojourn in Orvieto. The purpose of my trip was to see if I’d be happy living in Italy, and if so, how I could financially and logistically pull off such a move.
But I set aside those life-changing questions when my friend Barbara came from New York City to visit, and we decided to host a July 4th party. If anyone remembers “The Mary Tyler Show,” from the 70s, you might remember how Mary would always throw lavish parties, and Sue Ann and Lou were the only ones to show up. Having thrown a Mary Tyler Moore Party or ten in my day, I put the word out to all within earshot that they should come. When my landlady’s daughter, Stefania, sent me a text asking if she could bring some friends, I replied with an enthusiastic “Si!”

The party got on well enough, and in typical Italian fashion, the young people showed up late, around 9:30 or 10. Stefania came with three friends, amongst them a tall bearded fellow with Bono glasses and a ready smile. He came toting bottles of his homemade wine, and that was enough to make me swoon. “Well, that one’s too young and cute and cocky for me,” I thought in the space of about 10 seconds. “But still, he makes his own wine…”

And besides, I had a little problem. His name was Giovanni. He was my neighbor and for the past 10 days or so, I’d been involved in a very PG rated dalliance with him, which mostly involved making out on my couch. On paper, he was perfect for me. 48. A journalist in Rome. Liberal. Educated. Tortured and brooding, just the way I like ‘em. In reality, I was bored with the brooding and intensity, and I had gotten myself into something that I didn’t know how to get out of gracefully. I realized this even more when he asked me to meet his father, from whom he was semi-estranged. What was a harmless summer fling for me was much more serious for him, and he had become very attached to me, like a too-tight sweater that you try on in the dressing room, and then struggle and panic and sweat when it gets stuck on your head as you try to take it off. It should fit perfectly, but instead it suffocates you. With apologies, that was Giovanni.

So Giovanni, unhappy soul that he was, scowled as Paolo and his friends laughed it up and flirted with Barb and me. Or maybe he was scowling because I flirted back. At any rate, when Stefania asked the next weekend if I wanted to join her crew for dinner at a friend’s, I didn’t invite Giovanni.

The dinner was outside at a farmhouse in the hills above Orvieto. I hung close to Paolo and his pal Alessandro, who spoke English well and was a patient translator. When Stefania had a moment alone with me, she asked me what my intentions were with Giovanni. “I like Paolo,” I said, “but it’s not serious for me.” “You like Paolo?” she responded at the same moment I realized my Freudian slip. “I mean, I like Giovanni!” I tried to cover my tracks, but the cat was out of the bag. “You like Paolo!” she exclaimed.

That’s when things started to get weird. “But he is enamored of you, and very disappointed that you haven’t been speaking to him tonight!” she revealed. (Odd that he would tell her that, as I’d been practically glued to his side all night, much like that too tight sweater I complained about earlier.)

My conversation with Stefania was taking place in a pathetic mix of Italian and English, as each of us knew just a few words of the other’s language. So we called on a bilingual dinner guest, Cristina, to help us. Stefania had by this point run off to tell Paolo that I liked him, and I was transported back to the 4th grade. I was surprised she didn’t ask me to write a note wherein he had to check a “yes” or “no” box as to whether he liked me back.

Paolo the night before our date. Note the
"Let me take you to Tuscany for a pizza
and then we'll have sex" gaze.
She trotted back minutes later. “Tomorrow night he will take you to Tuscany for a pizza, and then you will have sex with him.” She said this in English, so I knew I’d heard her right. “Maybe this is the custom in Italy?” I thought to myself. Could I say “yes” to the pizza in Tuscany (after all, no one had ever taken me to Tuscany for a pizza before), but just “maybe” to the sex? I looked to Cristina, who explained to Stefania that whether or not to have sex with Paolo was not something I was comfortable deciding in advance. “Why not?” replied Stefania. “He is sexy Italian boy. You like him.” That part was hard to argue with.

I told Cristina to tell Stefania to tell Paolo (4th grade! 4th grade!) that I agreed to the pizza only. Stefania again scurried off and returned with an update. “You will go to Tuscany for a pizza and then you will have sex with him, and then you will spend your last two weeks at his house.” I looked helplessly at Cristina, and asked if it was normal for Italians to make these agreements up front. “I think you should do what is in your heart,” was her reply. Not very helpful, that Cristina.

At the end of the dinner, Paolo came up and draped an arm around my shoulder and said, “We’ll go to Tuscany for a pizza tomorrow evening,” he said in Italian. Fortunately there was no mention of obligatory sex afterwards.

Giovanni came over around 10 am the next morning, the day before we were supposed to go visit his father. I told him I was having dinner that night with another man. He brooded. He protested. Then he cried and said it was his fault. I breathed an audible sigh of relief when he finally left my apartment an hour later.

It was now nearly midday and I hadn’t heard from Paolo to confirm our date. In a pre-emptive strike, I texted him and told him it was OK if we didn’t go. He texted right back and said he would pick me up at 8. I texted him back (4th grade! 4th grade!) to tell him to meet me at a bar in the center of Orvieto. With Giovanni living close by, it seemed cruel for him to see that jolly fellow he so disliked come pick me up for dinner.

Likewise, I didn’t want Giovanni to see me all dolled up for my date, and I had put some extra effort into my appearance that evening. So instead of taking the short, flat route to the center of town, which would have taken me right past Giovanni’s terrace where he always sat, brooding and smoking a cigarillo, I headed downhill, then uphill, then uphill some more, in heels, on cobblestones. The absurdity of the detour seemed fitting for the absurdity of the moment—sneaking around one suitor to meet another who, as far as I knew, was planning to drive me to Tuscany (just how far away was Tuscany, anyway?), buy me a pizza and then have sex with me.

San Casciano dei Bagni, site of our first date. Yeah, I bet you'd
have had sex with him too.
Paolo arrived at the bar with that “Let me take you to Tuscany for a pizza and then let’s have sex” look on his face, and off we went  to San Casciano dei Bagni, a dazzlingly romantic, castled hill town, this one just past the Umbrian border in Tuscany. It should have occurred to me when we had to pass Paolo’s house in Allerona to get to the restaurant that the guy might have had a trick or two up his sleeve, but I was too busy looking up words in my Italian/English dictionary.

At dinner, we passed the dictionary back and forth, and I managed to explain that I thought it was a little strange that Stefania insisted that I have sex with him. To my relief, he seemed relieved too, and revealed that all he’d said to her was that he’d like to take me to Tuscany for a pizza, but she told him that I wanted to have sex with him and spend my last two weeks in Italy at his place.

I realized later that even with the language barrier, Paolo and I probably talked more that night than Giovanni and I had in two weeks.  We laughed and flirted and looked up words we could insult each other with. At one point, he pulled that quintessential Italian guy move, and stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers. Schwing!

Discretion dictates that I stop my tale here, but suffice to say, Stefania’s voyeuristic plan for Paolo and me more or less played out just as she’d called it. We spent the last two weeks of my trip together, mostly at his house in Allerona. He drove me to the Rome airport at the crack of dawn. I tearfully kissed him goodbye at the security checkpoint, and when I turned back to look, he was still looking at me. I turned a second time to see him exit the airport with a heavy sigh, shoulders slumped. I didn’t know if I’d ever see the guy again, but at least he seemed disappointed to see me go.
In Allerona, near the end of my visit

Then an email was answered, and then another, and then we both bought webcams and got Skype, and then he offered to pay for my plane ticket to come back and visit just two months after I’d left. And that pizza in Tuscany is still the best I’ve ever had.


Monday, February 6, 2012

A snowstorm, an incontinent dog, and an intrepid husband

It didn't seem so bad. At first...
The first day of the Great European Snowstorm of 2012 was kind of fun. We awoke Wednesday to find the vineyards and olive groves outside our window covered with a thick white blanket. Paolo is working on an outside job now, so the snow meant no work for him. So tucked inside all warm and cozy, we watched the snow fall and accumulate as we played house. We built a fire in the fireplace for the first time, and cooked a steak for dinner. On Thursday, we painted my office and got my computer set up. My new hobby is baking bread, so on this day we took turns kneading the dough. On Friday, I gave Naomi a bath, and even ventured out to buy groceries. I had to take Paolo’s work truck, as our Citroen was lodged immovable in a foot of snow. The truck spews black smoke, its windows don’t work, construction dust blows out of the defrost vents, and the side view mirrors are precariously held on with silicone caulk. But still, it got me where I needed to go in the snow and ice, and driving it makes me feel courageous. So all in all, the snowstorm wasn’t shaping up to be such a bad experience. Even the occasional power outages all seemed part of the fun.
This is what happens when Mom gets cabin fever.
Then, on Saturday, the snow hit the fan.
Friday night and the wee hours of Saturday morning, neither of us slept. The howling wind (which I refer to as either the Wrath of God Wind or the Fucking Wind) was whipping up our hillside and carrying with it the sound of banging shed doors, barking dogs and the agonizing cries of a million cursed souls on their way to a fiery inferno. Each of our windows has a screen that can be pulled up or down by a cord. On the end of each cord is a plastic knob-thingy. All 17 of those plastic knob-thingies on all 17 of our windows were being pelted against the glass, making for a house filled with 17 infuriating clicking noises. The baby kept crying. The dog kept pacing back and forth. We thought it was the wind that had her jumpy, but now we know better.
Daisy is not a fan of snow.

My dog Daisy, who moved with me from Florida, is a Greyhound-Doberman mix, and she is now nine years old. Due to physiological problems that could in and of themselves make for a lengthy blog post, she suffers from incontinence, which has worsened in the last year. It embarrasses her and frustrates us, as we have to keep a mop and bucket handy to clean up her frequent accidents. Still, neither of us would consider getting rid of her (by any method), nor can we put this subtropical-bred and raised, very people-attached dog outside to live. She’d either die of hypothermia or a broken heart, or both. So, we keep her off the furniture and we keep the mop and bucket at the ready.
Except that Saturday, Daisy’s normal incontinence was coupled with explosive, liquid diarrhea. We awoke to piles of runny poop all over the living room and dining room (thank goodness for tile floors) and in each of the upstairs bedrooms. So we held our noses, grabbed rolls of paper towels and set out to clean up. Paolo flushed a load of the offensive matter down the toilet, and I followed quickly with another deposit. But this time, when I flushed, nothing happened. The toilet made a hollow clunking sound and then…nothing.  Heart filled with dread, I turned on the bathroom faucet. A trickle and then…nothing. Frozen pipes. Now we had a toilet filled with dog poop and paper towels, and no way to flush it. Not to mention that we couldn’t fill a mop bucket.
I called to Paolo, who was still picking up poop upstairs, that we had no water. So the rest of the dog poop got flung out a window to disappear into the snow, where it may not thaw out until spring.
I set to work on the remaining poop with paper towels and a bottle of all-purpose cleaner, which did not afford me the preferred distance of a mop. Paolo went to the garage to look for a blow torch, in order to melt snow in the places where he knew the water pipes ran closest to the surface of the ground.
Then I decided to melt snow on the stove, so that we’d have enough water to flush the toilet. Having spent most of my life in Florida, I still don’t have the cold-weather savvy that I need to live in a four-season climate. I am forever leaving the house in too lightweight of a coat, or without a hat, or without gloves. Or I overdress at the first sign of cold weather, and wind up having to peel off layers in a restaurant bathroom. So it’s no surprise that I thought I could scoop snow into a giant soup pot with my bare hands. If we had water, this might not have been such a dumb move, as I could have warmed my hands under a hot running faucet. But again, no water.
So after two or three snow runs without gloves (yes, it took me that long to learn my lesson), I finally got the hang of scooping with gloved hands and transferring the scooped snow to a pot on the stove. I managed to get the toilet flushed and have a pot of water at the ready for next time.
Paolo was not having as much luck. He thawed snow in several places but could not find where the pipes were frozen. If the freeze occurred in the main pipe leading to ours and several neighboring houses, we were looking at being without water for a week or more, until the snow melted and the ground thawed out.  Suddenly, the snowstorm wasn’t so fun anymore.
It takes a lot of melted snow to flush a toilet.
I kept boiling snow; I’m not sure why. It was like the old movies, when a woman went into labor and the person delivering the baby called for boiling water and sheets, even though it was never clear how either would help the situation. So it was with the snow. We couldn’t drink it or cook with it, and we only had to flush the toilet so many times.
But then Paolo remembered another stretch of water pipe that was exposed. He ran outside to look—by this time it was getting dark—and found about a meter of pipe, buried under snow and frozen solid. “Boil snow! Boil snow!” he cried, and I was already on it. I kept scooping and boiling (by the way, it takes a LOT of snow to make one pot of boiling water; keep this in mind if you ever have to deliver a baby during a snowstorm). Working in the dark, with a flashlight held in his teeth, he opened the water pipe at the meter located at the entrance of our long driveway. He started toting pots of water and pouring it into the open pipe. Several trips and a lot of coaxing, and things started to move. Just as I had poured a bottle of sparkling mineral water into Daisy’s water dish, I heard a great shoosh as water spurted through the tap we’d left open.
I called out to Paolo that his trick had worked. After reconnecting the pipe, he found a shovel and buried the pipe, this time under dirt instead of snow, and did all of this in the howling wind and dark. When he finally came inside, his teeth were practically chattering. I made him a cup of tea, and he got the first hot shower.
Daisy, trying to run back to Florida.
We’re still snowed in here, and the Fucking Wind is still shaking the house to its rafters. They’re predicting more snow this week, with no warmer weather in sight for at least ten days. We now leave the bathroom faucet running ever so slightly at night, so we don’t wake up to another waterless morning. Daisy’s stomach bug seems to have passed. I pulled all the knob-thingies on the windows inside, so they no longer click in the wind. I put my big soup pot away.

And if I didn’t know it before, I sure do now: there’s nothing sexier than a man who knows how to fix things.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Little green penises, and other foibles of the Italian language

It all started innocently enough. My friend Sarah, a fellow expat, and I decided to call on our mutual friends Maria Grazia and Sauro, to show Naomi off a bit. Maria Grazia went on and on about her chubby little cheeks, and how she wanted to take a bite out of them. (Not literally mind you, but this is a modo di dire, or figure of speech in Italian; she was basically saying the baby looked adorable.) Sarah countered that it was the baby’s toes she really wanted to munch on, like piccolo piselli. Sauro, Maria Grazia and I all burst out laughing, and Sarah looked confused. She didn’t realize that she’d just said that Naomi’s toes were like little penises, and that she wanted to eat them. “But piselli are peas! Her toes remind me of little peas in a pod!” she defended. And she’s right, piselli are peas, and Naomi’s cute little toes do resemble a neat row of little peas. But when it comes to anatomy, I explained, piselli are something entirely different.

A more edible version of piselli
Thus was Sarah’s introduction to the minefield of homonyms that is Italian slang. A pisello is a single pea. It’s also a penis, as a pisella is its female counterpart. So for our sophomoric senses of humor, she was likening Naomi’s toes to delectable little penises, not little green peas.
And the list goes on. Bocce balls are used for the popular lawn game that’s like croquet without the mallets, but bocce are also breasts, as are pere, or pears. When I was pregnant with Naomi, Paolo’s Aunt Graziella was forever warning me not to wear jeans, as these would brucia la patata. Literally, she was saying I would “burn the potato.” But figuratively, she was warning me against…well, I’m still not sure what, but her concern seemed to be that jeans would be too tight on my nether regions, and therefor cut off air, or circulation, or smother the fetus, or something like that.
Don't burn these.

Then there are the words that just sound similar to other words, but have completely different meanings. A fico is a fig; many figs are fichi. Figo is a term that means cool, the way Fonzie was cool. However, fica is yet another term for female anatomy, and it’s more vulgar than patata, which, like pisello, is fairly innocent. All of these words sound very similar, since the Italian i is pronounced like a long ē in English. Feeko, feekee, feego, feeka. So when my friend Laura, a New Yorker who lives in Allerona part time, visited a plant nursery to ask for an albero di fica, she was essentially asking for a pussy tree. When I repeated this story to Sauro, who’d giggled with us about little penis-like toes, he marveled, “If only they grew on trees.” Laura is the same otherwise cultured and civilized person who asked for a sprinkling of caca (poop) on her cappuccino instead of cacao; or cocoa. In a less scatological but equally gross foible, I once ordered a glass of fish juice (succo di pesci) at a bar. Fortunately the barrista did not fill my original order, and asked me instead if I wanted succo di pesche, or peach juice.
Nor is this.
This is not a vagina



Not to be left out are the cocks and cabbages. Cazzo is a slang term for a male appendage, and it is an offensive word, used interchangeably as noun, verb and adjective, much the way “fuck” is used in English. The word peppers so many Italian sentences it’s hard to keep track of its many connotations. But in rough translation, the expressions are, to name a few: “I don’t give a cock.” “What the cock is happening?” “Mind your own cock.” “What the cock do I care?” “What’s this cock?” And the more simple, “What the cock?” Most recently, Gregorio Maria De Falco, the Italian Coast Guard Commander who has emerged as the hero of the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster, used the term when attempting to order the ship’s captain, who had abandoned the sinking vessel, to return onboard and oversee the evacuation: “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” Only De Falco knows whether the cazzo! at the end was an expletive directed at the situation in general, much like we would say, “Go back on board, dammit!” or whether he was indeed calling Captain Schettino a cock.
Since more polite Italians don’t run around calling everything and everyone a cock, they use the word cavolo instead. Cavolo is a head of cabbage. (Not to be confused with cavallo, which is a horse.) “Cavolo!” is used to express anger, frustration and even wonder. Its most common appearance in Italian vernacular is when one Italian reminds another to mind his or her own business: “Fatti i cavoli tuoi.” That literally means “make your own cabbage,” but it rarely refers to cooking a pot of goulash or sauerkraut. The “mind your own cabbage” attitude is prevalent in Italy, or at least in our village, to the point that residents often don’t step in to help, even when they should. So when Sarah or I find one another frustrated at what we perceive as a lack of civic pride, or at the slow progress on a disruptive construction project, or at anything with which we are concerned but not directly involved, one says to the other, “Cabbage!” as a reminder to accept the things we can’t change. The word “cabbage” has become our Serenity Prayer for life in Italy.   

Mind your own cabbage.
And in fairness, it’s not just Italian words that are confounding for foreigners. English can be just as tricky to Italians, especially since they have difficulty with h and th sounds. (Here, my name is usually pronounced Elisabet Eat, even by my husband.) Our friend Alessandro confuses hungry and angry. Too much of one can make you the other, I tell him. Our doctor frequently asks me to explain the difference, in spelling and meaning, between hate, ate and eight. For Paolo, it’s chicken and kitchen that sound too much alike.

So, for the foreseeable future, I guess we Americans will continue to ask for fish juice, a dusting of poop on our cappuccinos, and a side order of little penises. And the Italians will get a good laugh from our ineptitude, correct us and hopefully, present us with something much more appetizing. Like maybe a nice steaming plate of cabbage.