Monday, May 28, 2012

Market day in Allerona: Catch it while you still can

This is a sad post, not because anyone dies, but because a way of life is dying. Tourists to Italy may revel in the novelty and charm of weekly outdoor markets. But for small towns like Allerona, they are a fraying link to a quickly vanishing past.

It's a small market, for sure, and with a baby carriage that
looks strikingly similar to Naomi's.
Allerona’s weekly market is held every Wednesday morning, rain or shine (except for snow), unless there is a state holiday. Vendors arrive in small trucks and quickly begin to set up shop. For the fruit and vegetable vendors, one side of the truck opens up and serves as an awning. The vendor stands in the truck bed, surrounding by crates of fresh produce. The townspeople, mostly women, gather in a disorderly fashion in front of the truck, but each one keeps track of who was there first and who arrives after, and no one tries to butt in line.

Fresh, local produce from Roberto
The favored produce vendor, Roberto, has been selling at the Allerona market since he was a teenage boy accompanying his father, who plied the same trade. The other produce vendor, “the Napolitano,” is not as trusted as Roberto and in truth, he is a little sneaky – trying to hide a moldy orange or two at the bottom of the bag, or sneaking in five apples when you ask for three. He tricked me – the unwitting Americana – that way once, and I never bought from him again.

Roberto totals an order.
So the women gathered at Roberto’s truck engage in a lively banter with him and with each other, exchanging recipes, reporting on the state of this one’s health or the other one’s sick mother-in-law or newest grandchild. To Roberto, they’ll say, “give me 10 good oranges” (as if they would otherwise want bad ones), or “give me five pears that are good for cooking,” or “how’s the spinach today?” He weighs each group of items, calculates the price in his head, and adds it to the tally on the cash register. He almost always rounds down to the nearest whole euro. If you are a regular customer, Roberto throws in a carrot or two, a few stalks of celery, and some sprigs of fresh parsley for you to use to make broth or minestre (vegetable soup). I knew I’d finally staked by claim in this little burgh when I finally got up the nerve to ask for the same handful of vegetables he handed every other woman, without her asking. Now I no longer need to ask, either.

Michele in his truck
A truck or two down from Roberto in Michele, who sells items for the casalinghe (housewives). His truck opens at the side and the back, and he stands on the truck bed above his customers, and behind a glass display case filled with shampoo, face creams, deodorant, cheap perfume and makeup. On the shelves behind him are more toiletries, along with sanitary products, cleaning products and solvents. On tables and shelves under the truck’s awning are toilet paper, brooms, mops, garbage bags, laundry detergent, sponges, and just about anything else my mother in law might need to clean her house or mine.

Michele has a little bit of everything.
Roberto and Michele are regulars, as is Luca, the prosciutto and cheese salesman whom Paolo and I refer to as my “boyfriend.” Luca is easy on the eyes, and he always calls me “Cara” (Dear), and I confess that sometimes, I buy prosciutto from him just to catch a little of that glimmer in his eye. But alas, Luca comes to our market only every other week.

On intermittent weeks, there’s a woman selling bras, underwear, swimsuits and pajamas, for both sexes, out of her truck. She’s usually flanked by a humorless man selling pots, pans and kitchen gadgets. Across from them, there’s a fellow selling sheets, towels, bedspreads and comforters. A little bit farther from the center of the market is a guy selling flowers and vegetable plants from his van. Farther still, and very likely because he is “straniero” (foreign) is a Moroccan selling clothes. He knew I was pregnant before most people in town did last year, as he kept trying to talk me into a smaller size of a billowing print top, and I finally had to convince him that I would, indeed, be filling out the larger one. “Incinta,” I whispered with a finger at my lips, the other hand pointed at my then still flat-ish stomach. “Auguri,” he whispered back.

Every woman in town owns one of those plastic bowls
with the sunflowers on them. Most are melted from being set
too close to the stove. 
So this all sounds perfectly quaint and lovely, doesn’t it? Except that our half dozen or so vendors – when that many show up – are a fraction of what the market here used to look like. Even a year or so ago, a shoe vendor would show up regularly. Now, he doesn’t bother to come, nor do the guys selling winter coats, or curtains. Paolo remembers the market stretching all the way down our main road, from the piazza where it’s now held, down past the parking lot and past the carabinieri station. There were competing vendors, as well as more clothiers, farmers selling livestock and freshly made cheese, and a traveling shoe repairman. Now, we’re down to our diehard handful of vendors, and I fear the day will come that they, too, won’t bother to drive up the hill to our little town, because it just won’t be worth the time and gas.

Sheets, tablecloths, and blankets
There was a time that weekly markets were vital to life in towns like Allerona. Before every household had at least one car – or before the casalinghe had their daughters or daughters-in-law to drive them to supermarkets in Orvieto, the markets provided them with everything they needed. Or so they thought, maybe, until the supermarkets opened, with their 200 varieties of dried pasta, 10 types of prosciutto, 15 shapes, sizes and brands of maxi pads, plus baby-food and readymade pizza and entrees. Why settle for what the market vendors can offer, when they can pick and choose from brands, sizes, and flavors?

I admit that I am a contributor to the demise of the market culture. I go to our weekly market just every so often, when I need something and don’t feel like driving “to town” – Allerona Scalo, just 7 minutes’ drive from us – or when I just feel like getting out of the house a little bit. But as often as not, I forget the market is there until Wednesday morning has come and gone. Instead, I go to Scalo or to Orvieto, often with my mother-in-law and an odd cousin or two in tow, and we do our “big shopping” where we can get it all done in one place.

The undeniable factor to the death of market culture is also the death – literally and figuratively – of little towns like ours. Allerona, which once housed more than 1,200 people in an around its castello walls, and brought hundreds more in from the countryside on market day, is dying. There are about 400 people living in centro now. More than half the houses in the town center stand empty, with far away owners in Rome, Genoa or Milan who inherited the homes from a late relative and have barely a passing interest in Allerona. Some come during the Christmas holidays and festas to “get away from it all,” others haven’t turned the key in a door here for a decade or more. Paolo rightly fears that Allerona, in another 20 years or so, will be a ghost town, more so than it already is.

And the accompanying truth is that in another 10 or 20 years, when the last of the generation of women who never learned to drive – and I’m shocked at how many of them there are here – are gone, even the younger women who stay at home to raise their children will still drive to the supermarket rather than frequent the weekly market here.

I spoke to Michele about this the day I took pictures of the market. He lamented the dying tradition here, but said to me, half-questioningly, “Markets are becoming popular in America now, aren’t they?” And I thought of Eastern Market in DC, of the popular Saturday farmer’s market in Sarasota, and how Americans now seem to be seeking out more opportunities to shop local and support small businesses just as Italy is abandoning the same tradition. It may ultimately be the U.S.’s fault – with our permeating pop culture that so entices and offends Europeans – that the market traditions in Europe are dying. But maybe it’s the U.S. that will bring them back, too, who knows.

The fishmonger in our driveway.
I’m happy to report that not all hope is completely lost. Roberto still comes twice a week, on Wednesday market day and on Fridays, when instead of parking at the piazza, he makes the rounds, and stops in several places around town. We he nears the cluster of houses near ours,  he sounds the horn, and by the time he’s parked and opened up the side of his truck, a small group is waiting to him.

On Saturdays, the fishmonger comes and makes his regular stops. Since I’ve purchased from him before, he now stops at the top of our driveway and honks his horn. I step out on the balcony and either wave him off if I don’t need anything, or wave him down if we want fresh fish. He maneuvers the truck down the driveway and opens up the side, to reveal a banquette of fresh fish and shellfish on ice. Our unspoken accord goes something as follows:  I ask for a half kilo of shrimp or four fillets of fish or something along those lines, and he always loads at least a third more than I want onto the scale. I yell at him to stop, he throws on a few more shrimp or another fillet, totals up the bill for far more fish than I intended to purchase, then gives me a “sconto” (discount) of a euro or two.

But really, I don't need that much fish!
I’m probably being taken advantage of by the fishmonger, in the way that Italian vendors like to prenda per il culo (basically, take for an ass) those Americans who are too busy taking pictures and oohing and aahing over the damn quaintness of the scene to realize they’re being ripped off. But that’s okay. It’s our deal, he and I. And if his selling me 10 euro more fish than I want (and discounting 2 euro, of course) means he keeps sounding the horn every Saturday, then we’ll just have to eat more fish.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Springtime in Umbria

Since it's been a while since I've written a new post, and I've got lots of ideas but little time to write, I'm taking the easy way out - I'm posting photos of springtime in Umbria. 

Spring rolled in late this year, but, like every year, it brings with it a dizzying array of wildflowers. Their color and variety make me linger a bit longer on my walks with Daisy, who is all too happy for the extra one-on-one time with Mom (as she is no longer top dog since the birth of our daughter).

Our olive trees are filled with tiny clusters of green berries, which will turn ripe and purply-black by the time  we harvest them in November. Our vines have sprouted thick bunches of tightly huddling sour grapes, which will be sticky-sweet come vendemmia time in September. 

The fruit trees in our yard are full of new fruit, and we even discovered several that didn't bloom last year - two apple trees, a peach tree, an almond tree and a cherry tree, which has fruit ready to pick now. It's almost as though the renewed life in the house - it had stood empty for 10 years - has given renewed life to the trees as well.

The wildflowers will last another couple of more weeks, then they'll give way to a hot, dry summer, that comes replete with biting flies and bloodthirsty mosquitoes. But that's okay... I'll live with the heat and the biting insects, if that's the price I pay for this dazzling annual display of flora and fecundity. 

And at least you'll know why I haven't had time to write. 


These are "broom" plants in English, but in Italian, they're called "maggio," because they bloom in May. I wish I had scent-o-rama so you could smell their sweet, delicate perfume, which blankets the hills around us. I want to swim in the smell of them!

More maggio

If you are lucky enough to stumble across a country road lined with maggio, you might not want to go home until summertime.

A magnificent cherry tree in full bloom. You can hear the low rumble of bees from 10 yards away.

Future cherries! 

Sweet little wildflowers pop up everywhere.

Even some snapdragon seeds that I tossed in the yard last summer decided to sprout

The right flower can make even a chain link fence look prettier...

Daisy gets it. She is always willing to take time to smell the flowers. And then pee on them.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Naomi’s crowded train ride to citizenship

Our daughter had her first trip to Rome the other day, and it was filled with the kind of highs and lows that Audrey Hepburn must have felt as she careened around on the back of Gregory Peck’s scooter, only to find out that her handsome suitor was really just a reporter trying to get a scoop.

This was so, so not us in Rome.
Well, okay. It wasn't quite that exciting, but it was an eventful day. 

We took Naomi to Rome to register her birth with the US Embassy. Doing so establishes her US citizenship, and eventually will provide her with easy entry and residency in the States should she eventually decide to study or live there.

Since we would be on foot once we arrived in Rome (with her stroller, but no car seat, for her, we wouldn’t be taking any taxi rides), we decided to take an early train so we’d have plenty of time to walk from Stazione Termini up to Via Veneto and the sprawling embassy compound.

But when we arrived at the train station in Orvieto, we learned that the night before, two trains had collided at Terni. The accident was minor, but the after-effects were not. For reasons not quite clear to me (since Orvieto and Terni are not on the same line), the early train was cancelled, and we had to wait nearly an hour for a night train from Vienna. 

Picture a trainload of musky 15 year old Aryan boys, all crowded a little too closely into their sleeper cars, waking, rubbing their eyes and scratching their crotches, and asking, every time the porter passed, just exactly when they’d get their a breakfast of schnitzel, brown bread, and yogurt, anyway.

Picture that since the earlier train did not depart from Florence, all the people in Florence and Chiusi that should have caught the earlier train were packed onto the Viennese train, with all those Austrians plus everyone else who thought they’d take the later train. Now picture that train arriving at Orvieto, to a platform filled with more waiting passengers than there were empty seats on the train.

Now picture a couple, venturing forth with their 5-month-old baby for her first really big outing. They haven’t opened and collapsed her stroller enough yet to do it with ease, and especially to do it quickly, when juggling train tickets and diaper bags and purses and pacifiers.

So we fumbled and stumbled and cursed, and finally found a place to stand on the sardine-packed train. At least Naomi got to lie in her stroller and take a nap.
The stately US Embassy, on Via Veneto.
No inside photos permitted!

Things improved considerably when we got to Rome. We busted a move up to the embassy – for we were now in danger of being late for our appointment – and were welcomed through security with what I have to admit was a refreshing dose of American friendliness and efficiency. The security guards might be Italian, but I think they got their customer service training from a US HR person. Even the embassy bathroom, though Spartan, was nicer than a typical Italian one. It had a toilet seat and toilet paper. Obviously, we were on US soil.

Our next stop was the photo booth on the ground floor of the embassy, as Naomi needed a passport photo. (I was 23 before I got my first passport, and this kid gets one at 5 months? Times they are a changing’…) I thought holding Naomi in my lap for the photo was sufficient, but when we showed her photo to the representative at the service window, we were promptly sent back downstairs. I’d either have to hold her in my lap with a blanket over my head or crouch down, out of sight and hold Naomi up in front of the camera. I opted for the latter. A few more false starts, with her closing her eyes or turning her head away, or yawning, and we finally got a photo of her looking right into the camera.

After our paperwork was checked and submitted, along with Naomi’s mug shot, we were told to wait for “the consulate” to call us. The title alone – the consulate – suggest a certain gravitas, no? So we waited until the Wizard – I mean, the consulate – called us up to the last window. It turns out the consulate is a guy in his late 20s or early 30s, who actually seemed a little too young for such an important-sounding title. But at any rate, with very little pomp and circumstance, he took a look at Naomi and proclaimed her a US citizen. He gave her a lapel pin to commemorate the moment – an Italian and a US flag with poles crossed. The pin, he noted, was made in China, which perhaps speaks volumes about the state of both the Italian and US economies.
She's official! Italian-American
made-in-China flag pin and all.

I felt an unexpected rush of emotion at the moment the boy-consulate proclaimed Naomi a US citizen. I just didn’t think it would be such a big deal – merely a formality to give her more options in the future and make travel a little easier for all of us. Instead, I felt a surge of pride and happiness – I even clapped my hands, for Pete’s sake, and people who know me know I’m not the ebullient type – that she was somehow officially a part of the country I thought I’d left behind more or less for good.

I've been back to visit the US three times since moving to Italy three years ago. It’s at once a strange and familiar land to me now. Where I do feel the refreshing familiarity of being back in my native culture, with all its conveniences and friendliness (and customer service!), I always feel a little bit like I’m standing on its border, looking in. The smiles, the ease of communication, the nuanced vocabulary that I know I’ll never master in Italian – all of those things feel very much like home when I am in the US. But the traffic, the assault of advertising, the giant stores with giant shopping carts and giant fountain drinks (obviously we are on US soil), that’s an America I can’t help but look on with disdain. But more than that, it’s an America that no longer feels like home.

So, I wonder what America our Naomi will find when she starts to be aware of her second homeland. Will it be enticing, or repulsive to her? Will she feel somehow different from her Italian schoolmates because she is half-American, or will her dual citizenship and dual ancestry simply be a subject of curiosity for her, something she accepts with a shrug of the shoulders but not much more. She’ll be bilingual, that much we know. But then, what will be her “mother tongue,” as the Italians like to put it? In which world will this child of both worlds find her home?
All trains lead to Termini, just not always
nearly enough of them. 

I’d love to say that I pondered all those questions on our quiet, reflective train ride back to Orvieto. But instead, we found ourselves once again on a too-crowded train, this one maybe three times as overcrowded as the morning train. The Roman afternoon heat had kicked in, and by the time we got on board, Naomi, Paolo and I were both bathed in sweat, our hair and clothes completely sticking to us. The air conditioner on the train was not working (this is Italy, after all), and there was no way to cool off or calm down Naomi, who was by this point screaming her head off.

A kind passenger (“I have a baby too,” she told me) found a single available seat and led me to it. The rest of the equally sweaty passengers looked at us, a disheveled mom and a screaming baby – wait, how did I become that mom? – with a mix of pity and contempt. It was a scene carved right from travel nightmares.

Naomi finally fell asleep, drenched, in my arms. Paolo came and found us and stood in the aisle. I tried my best Zen breathing to tolerate the heat. He and I looked at each other, with our little dual citizen dozing in my soggy lap, and smiled weakly in a kind of “what can ya do?” way. This is Italy, after all. This is our home.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Honoring the fighters, the fallen, and the really, really old

Last week, we celebrated two very special events in Allerona. April 25 was Italian Liberation Day, and April 27 was Nonno Gino’s birthday. The former is a national holiday, and the latter, well, it should be a national holiday.

April 25 is recognized as the day the partigiani (partisans), or the Italian Resistance succeeded, with Allied help, in driving the last of the Nazis from Italy. It’s also a day to remember Italy’s war dead from both world wars and to pay respect to living war veterans, though those are a rarer and rarer breed anymore.

Allerona's monument to the caduti
In Allerona, April 25 is marked with a small, sweet ceremony in the town’s piazza, or main square. In a garden adjacent to the piazza, there is a monument inscribed with Allerona’s caduti, its fallen soldiers from both wars. The surnames of the dead are the same surnames as those still living in Allerona and in many cases, it appears that whole families of brothers died fighting.
The living combatenti  (fighters) and non-combat veterans like Gino are honored at a lunch in town, which always takes place on April 25 at the same restaurant.

Although I can imagine that it mattered a lot 50, or even 20 years ago, these days, no one worries or talks too much about whom at the lunch was a partrigiani or who was a fascist. I’m pretty sure both are present at the lunch, but as a friend used to say, “Everyone in France was a member of the resistance. Go ahead, ask any of them.” Italy is not so different. Surely not everyone jumped from the fascist ship and switched allegiances. And more than one million people still visit Mussolini’s grave each year, and someone leaves flowers, though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone admitting to it.
But back to the lunch. Paolo and I arranged to take Gino to lunch, along with our friend Susanna. (She is 30 years Gino’s younger, but suffice to say, one is never too old to have a little crush on a younger woman.) Gino was up bright and early and walked, supported by two canes but with a skip in his step, up to the church for 11 a.m. mass. He then walked in the procession, complete with our community band, down Via Centrale, for the wreath laying and brief ceremony at the memorial. 
Gino with some young fella

According to Susanna, when the ceremony was over at noon, Gino immediately started asking, °dove Paolo?” (“Where’s Paolo?”) It didn’t matter that we’d arranged to meet him at home at 12:30; he was ready to be driven to lunch… now. So instead of waiting for us, he caught a ride down to the restaurant and we found him there, already sitting with a group of his friends, all octogenarians 10-15 years his junior.

The lunch proceeded in a usual way, with a hearty antipasto, two pasta courses, platters of meat and vegetables passed, and carafes of the house wine drained and refilled. But the lunch seemed more low-key than in recent years, and even Gino seemed a little bored. Maybe because there were fewer celebrants, as is the case every year, or maybe because no one wanted to sing.

Gino greets Mario
Just as things were winding down and dessert was being served, a surprise guest appeared. Gino’s “little” brother, Mario, 96, was escorted in by his on-in-law. Mario is mostly bedbound these days and a little out of it, so to see him arrive at the lunch, handsomely dressed in a jacket, scarf and fedora, really was unexpected. He walked in to a hail of cheers and applause, and his face lit up.

Gino’s face, too, lit up when he saw his brother. He quickly (well, quickly for a nearly 99-year-old) got up from his chair and shuffled over to Mario. The brothers exchanged kisses on each cheek, and then posed for photos.

Gino, 99, with little brother Mario, 96
Mario was the real guest of honor at the event, as he is the last remaining combatenti in Allerona. An infantryman in the Italian army, he was captured by the British at the second Battle of El Alemain in 1942, a decisive victory for Allied forces. He recalls being marched for day and night through the desert, when at night the surviving prisoners would take jackets and boots off dead soldiers they passed, to stave off the cold and during day, they sweltered in deadly hot temperatures.

Mario spent four years as a POW at a British prison camp in Libya. That at 96, he seems so much less vital than Gino is no doubt testament to his time as a prisoner of war. Watching him eat dessert (a rare occasion that he can eat even semi-solid food), his daughter wiping his chin, it’s hard to imagine Mario the warrior, Mario the scared prisoner of war, or even Mario the young man.
A guy can dream, no?

Gino was once a young man himself. And we saw glimmers of that Friday night, when we celebrated his 99th birthday. If he knew we were planning a big surprise dinner for him, he had the good grace to act surprised when he walked in and everyone shouted “Auguri!” Susanna made sure to sit across from him, since she is one of his favorite people. She kept his wine glass filled too, I’m sure.
Among the gifts presented to Gino (and really, what do you get for a 99-year-old?) was a gag gift, a poster-size calendar of topless young women. That the calendar was from 2009 seemed to make little difference to Gino, who couldn’t contain his laughter as he posed for photo after photo with a different girl of the month, with Mario by his side.

At the lunch for the combatenti, I watched as these men greeted each other warmly and slowly, taking each other’s hands and speaking quietly to one another, in no rush to break the embrace. Their eyes misted over as they greeted one another or joined in song.

And as Gino and his little brother Mario sat at Gino’s birthday party and conversed in an unintelligible, mumbled dialect known only to them, I started to see them as they see, or at least remember, themselves. Perhaps Mario still remembers the hell of a desert battlefield. And Gino still remembers himself as the man who split logs with a single strike of the axe, and who never wasted a single shot when he hunted.
These old men, whom we all admire and adore with the same charmed pity that we might a baby or a new puppy, still know each other as the men they once were: fighters, lovers, hunters, drinkers. And they know they are a dying breed, and we know it too. How many more lunches for the combatenti will we have? Who will sing the songs - or know the words - after they're gone? How soon before no one is left who remembers the boys whose names are inscribed on our war memorial?

Perhaps, in a way I’m only just beginning to understand in my middle age, when we, along with them, get all misty- eyed at these gatherings, it's because we're all afraid of forgetting the past, of losing our history, and of disappearing, a little piece at a time.
Paolo at the lunch for the combatenti