Tuesday, December 3, 2013

My Italian Driver’s License Part 1: House Arrest

Gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. I’m sure you all have been just dying to know what I’ve been up to. Well, between picking olives, baking birthday cakes, surviving gale force winds and piling extra blankets on the bed…I have been driving. Yes, I finally got my Italian driver’s license, and I’ve been driving here and there, to and fro, hither and yon. I’ve driven over hill and over dale. I’ve driven over the river and through the woods.

But getting my Italian driver’s license wasn’t easy, and, like any tale of mine, it didn’t happen quickly. In fact, it took so long that I’ve had to divide the written account of the saga into two parts. You lucky readers, you!

Part 1: House Arrest

I’ve been driving a car since I was 16 years old. I’ve driven up and down the East Coast of the US countless times, once with all my worldly possessions shoved into a Nissan Sentra, another time at the wheel of a panel truck, and still more times for vacations and family reunions. I’ve crossed national borders and driven through forests, swamps and deserts, logging thousands and thousands of miles at the steering wheel, sometimes with travel companions and sometimes alone.

But for the last year, I’ve not driven past Allerona Scalo, which is 5 km from my house. It’s not because I’ve lost my confidence, or my desire to drive. It’s because for the past year, it’s been illegal for me to drive past my driveway—and even driving in my driveway was illegal. But now, after a year of what felt like house arrest, I am now legal to drive in Italy again, and I’m finally ready to share my tale of woe.
A random "papers please" stop, and yes,
one of them usually has machine gun drawn. Seriously.

Let me start by saying that my tale of woe, like so many woeful tales, is All. My. Fault. About 6 months after I arrived in Italy, I was stopped by the carabinieri, or military police (not as scary as it sounds) who set up frequent traffic stops to “check for papers”—essentially to make sure you have a valid driver’s license and current insurance. I was told then that I had until February—one year from the date that I established residency in Italy—to get my Italian driver’s license. After February, my Florida-issued US driver’s license would no longer be valid. This was 2009. I had until February of 2010. It is now near the end of 2013. Do the math. Given that by this point I was beginning to fully assimilate into Italian culture, I did as the Italians would do. Which is to say, I did nothing.
It could happen anytime, anywhere, when you least expect it.

Last summer, June to be exact, I was stopped again, this time outside Orvieto. I innocently offered my US license and hoped for the best. “Where do you live?” he asked. “Allerona,” I replied. “Do you have another car?” Odd question, I thought. “My husband has a truck for work,” I told him. “Your husband is M____?!” “Siiiii!” I exclaimed joyfully, figuring I’d just dodged a bullet and promising never again to curse my small-town, everybody-knows-everybody-else chosen lot in life. The carabiniere was an old friend of Paolo’s. 

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t in trouble. He was incredulous—incredulous—that three years had passed and I still had no Italian driver’s license. It turned out that I was no longer legal to drive with my US license, and every moment I spent behind the wheel was pushing my luck, big time. If I was ever in an accident, my fault or not, our insurance would not pay damages and I could get tossed in jail.

He admonished me to get busy and get my license right away. If I were stopped again, the car could be impounded and I could be left on the side of the road, hoping I was somewhere with cell service as I contemplated a 1000 euro traffic ticket. So I promised the officer I would get right on it, and I drove off in a flurry of waves and grazie milles. And I proceeded to do nothing.
They're not all this handsome, mind you.

A few months passed, and my parents were visiting for Naomi’s baptism. On our way back from an outing, right before the turn off to Allerona Scalo, I got stopped by the carabinieri, again. Fuuuuuuuuuucccccc*****. I even said to my parents, “Oh this is not good.”

It was the same carabiniere friend of Paolo’s who’d stopped me before at Orvieto. “You still don’t have your license?” he fumed. “I’ve been studying,” I offered weakly. And the truth was, I had looked up some information online about how to get an Italian driver’s license. Maybe I’d even looked more than once. “But I stopped you three months ago,” he said. “It was two months,” I protested, my arsenal empty.
Pleading doesn't work, sister.

He looked in the car and saw my nearly 90 year old parents. He fumed some more.

“You cannot drive any more until you get your license,” he said. “Basta!
This would totally be me the next time I got stopped. 

That was a little more than a year ago. From that point on, I drove only as far as Allerona Scalo, along a stretch of road where I knew the carabinieri never laid in wait. When I had to do “big grocery shopping” at Orvieto, or get my hair done or see a doctor, I had to rely on Paolo or others to take me. And while I love my little village in Umbria, it doesn’t take long for cabin fever to set in, especially when you know you can’t escape for a few hours.

A few times I ventured past Allerona Scalo, when some absolute urgency compelled me to do so. But I always timed it when it’s been very, very hot (too hot for the carabinieri to be out), pouring rain (they don’t come out in the rain) or at lunch hour (nothing, not even escaped murderers on the loose, can force the rescheduling of the sacred Italian 1-2 pm lunch hour). And even then, when I knew I was relatively safe, I drove with my heart in my throat, terrified that at the next bend I’d encounter a traffic stop and have that little paddle waved at me, ordering me to pull over. So when I was brave or foolish enough to hit the open road, I’d always stay on the tail of another car, so that it would get stopped instead of me. And when a car turned off in front of me and all I saw was empty pavement ahead, I’d pull over, wait for a car to pass and then jump on its tail. We desperate and lawless types know our tricks, after all.
The thought crossed my mind, but violence is never the answer.

Still, Paolo was getting sick of driving me where I needed to go. I was getting sick of begging rides from other people, and doing all my shopping at our local grocer, which is smaller than your average 7-11. It was time to get serious about studying for my license, both for the sake of my sanity and the sake of my marriage.

Stay tuned for Part 2: A Scofflaw No More

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Best Lie I Ever Told My Mother

Note: This post has nothing to do with my life in Italy, but everything to do with my life. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and please share if you do.

My mother died in June of this year. And several years before her death, I told her a big lie. My dad knew I lied; in fact, he was in on it. My sister and brother knew, too. Now that she’s gone, I can finally talk about the lie, and why it was the best lie I ever told her.
At their wedding in 1949

When they became engaged in 1948, my father gave my mother a diamond ring. At just under a third of a carat, it was modest, and in proportion to his salary. It was a simple solitaire, and certainly not big enough to be showy or garish. She wore it, along with her wedding band, every day of her life. If she had to take her rings off—for a hospital stay or some injury to her hand or ring finger, she wouldn’t put them back on herself. She’d give them to my father, who would slip them back on her finger, just like he did for the first time when they married in 1949.

In the late 70s we lived in Florida, and my mother was a teacher’s aide at the elementary school I attended. One day at school, she realized her diamond had fallen out of the setting. She was beside herself with grief over losing it. She posted signs at the school and offered a reward. That same evening a janitor, while vacuuming, saw a tiny glint on the carpet in some classroom—my mom’s diamond. He returned it, and my parents gave him $100, though they didn’t have it to spare. I remember how kind the janitor was and how genuinely happy he seemed that he had found the stone; I imagine he would have returned it even with no promise of reward.

Sometime in the 1990s—I don’t remember when—she lost the diamond for good and took off the ring. Years passed, and I always yearned to replace the diamond for her, maybe because it was a symbol of all the things she and my dad had sacrificed and missed out on through the years. My dad, too, longed to get her another diamond, but we just couldn’t afford it. My mom said it didn’t matter, that it wouldn’t be her diamond anyway.

In what has always been a minor footnote for our family, my father was married once before. He and his first wife, Anne, were childhood neighbors and teenaged sweethearts. They married a month before he was drafted to go to war, and they filed for divorce shortly after he came home, three years later. They didn’t have any children. He met my mom a few years later, and they were engaged after a shockingly brief courtship.

My dad had bought a diamond ring for Anne, too. When they divorced, she gave him back the ring. He gave it to my grandmother, who had the stone reset into a cocktail-style ring, which I inherited when she died. I never wore the ring. It was old-fashioned and not really my style, so it sat untouched in my jewelry box.
Waiting for the subway, Paris, 2002

During one of the periods when my dad and I were trying to replace the diamond, I suggested to my mom that we take the stone from my grandmother’s ring—Anne’s diamond—and have it set in my mom’s ring. Oh no, my mom said. She didn’t want anything to do with Anne’s diamond. She didn’t say so out of spite or jealousy—my mother was virtually incapable of either—but just because she had no sentimental attachment to another woman’s diamond. And maybe knowing the details surrounding my dad’s divorce made her even less enthusiastic about the swap. So we once again tabled the idea of replacing the diamond.

In 2007, when my parents lived with me, I started to notice my mom’s memory slipping. She was always a bit forgetful, but now she was making gross errors, like overdrawing their checking account by hundreds of dollars because she’d forgotten about purchases and payments she’d made, or leaving something cook on the stove and walking away, until it started smoking and set off the fire alarm.

In summer of that year, she was diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s. The news was neither a surprise nor a shock, but still very hard for us all to accept given how these stories seem to end. My mom didn’t completely absorb the significance of her diagnosis, but I repeatedly assured her that it was in the early stages, and that she’d never get as bad as her sister or mother, both of whom had developed severe Alzheimer’s.

It was at this time that my dad got back on the idea of replacing her diamond. Maybe he was afraid of losing her to the disease, and before the woman he knew escaped from him completely, he wanted to reaffirm their love and vows with a new diamond. So my dad and I took her old, diamondless setting to a local jewelry and inquired about getting the stone replaced. The jeweler was sympathetic, but really didn’t have anything close to our modest price range.
On their last trip to Italy, for my daughter's baptism, 2012.
The rings are on her necklace.

And that’s when I decided to try the lie.

One evening when my parents were in their bedroom, watching TV in their matching recliners, I walked in with my grandmother’s ring. “What if we took the diamond from Grandma’s ring and put it in yours?” I proposed.

“But that’s your ring,” my mom said. “That’s the diamond from Grandma Heath’s engagement ring.”

My dad and I exchanged a secret nod.

“But I don’t really like the style of the ring,” I told my mom. “And besides, when you don’t need it anymore, you can leave it to me.”

The jeweler was more than happy to help us with this solution. Setting the new old stone meant rebuilding the setting a bit—Anne had apparently gotten a slightly larger diamond than my mom did—but the final cost was a fraction of what we would have spent for a new stone.

When the ring was ready, I drove my parents to the jewelry store to pick it up. My mom took the ring, handed it to my dad, and had him slip it on her finger. They kissed as the ring slid into place, over her gnarled knuckle and up her arthritis-bent finger.

In the weeks afterwards, I’d catch her holding out her hand, admiring her diamond ring. She gushed like a schoolgirl about it when a neighbor came to visit, and told my siblings how nice it was to have her engagement ring back on, even if it was Grandma’s diamond. When her knuckles finally became too swollen to wear the rings safely, she wore them on a chain around her neck and when my dad died, she wore his wedding band there, too. Three months later, she no longer needed the rings. She died in the US and I am in Italy but when we go back to visit next year, her diamond ring will be waiting for me.

Alzheimer’s allowed my mom to rewrite a tiny little bit of our family history. Maybe if prodded enough, she would have remembered that the diamond was originally intended for the woman my father loved before he loved her. But neither my dad nor I, nor either of my siblings was about to remind her of that. She had her diamond. And I was more than happy to let her live with that lie.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

5 Crucial Mistakes Expats Make in Italy

Sometimes, it's like this.
I am the first person to admit that life in Italy is not always a bed of roses. Or rather, it is a bed of roses, but someone neglected to remove the thorns. So, just as you get comfy and cozy on this sweet smelling bed, you get pricked, and it hurts. Then, you curse the bed and the whole idea of the bed and whose idea was it to lie down in this stupid bed anyway and why can’t it be like all the other beds and why isn’t it like my old bed back home?

But this isn’t any old bed. It’s made of roses, after all, and that don’t make beds like that where you come from. And that’s why you laid down in it.
Sometimes, it's like this.

I know I write from a privileged position. My emigration to Italy and more importantly, my transition to life here, were made infinitely easier by the fact that I married an Italian. This enabled me—forced me, really—to learn the language, the customs and the culture. It taught me patience and perseverance, and it thickened my skin—a lot.

So maybe it’s because of this position that I can observe a lot of mistakes that I see my fellow expatriates make in Italy. And I’m not talking about the newcomers—I mean the people who have been here for years, decades even.  I doubt that it’s easy to relocate to any country, especially when that country’s language is not your mother-tongue. But I’m gonna judge my fellow Anglo-Saxons here a bit, so brace yourselves for the top five crucial mistakes expatriates make in Italy.

So maybe you're expecting this...

And instead, you get this.
Seriously scary...
1. They don’t learn the language. This one seems like it should be fundamental, and yet... too many expatriates don’t ever learn Italian sufficiently to function here, or at least to function smoothly here. Outside of cities and touristic areas, Italians as a rule, even young Italians, do not speak English. This isn’t France, after all, where they speak it and just pretend that they don’t. The result is that English speakers get frustrated, often. It’s delightful to fumble through a discussion in Italian when you’re at the bar or the produce market, and you can laugh, gesture and makes faces to help make yourself understood. Try doing that on the phone with the cable company, or the gas company, or when trying to make an appointment to get some important medical test run. Hell, it’s brought me to tears before, and that was with Comcast, in the US!

The first year I was here, every time I needed to make such a call, I’d try handing the phone to Paolo and get him to call for me. He soon started handing the phone right back to me, and I’d whine like my toddler does when she doesn’t get what she wants.  But he was right to make me talk on the phone. I have expat friends who still have to have someone—often me—call for them or be present to translate when they need to talk to the gas company or request service from their internet provider or speak to a contractor. When they try to do it on their own, as often as not, disaster ensues, because they thought they were explaining what they wanted or understood what was being told to them, and they were wrong.

This is what I call "Italian by immersion."
2. They stick to their own kind. See item #1. You can’t learn Italian if you speak English all day long. This is understandably more challenging for couples, who speak English to one another all the time. But the end result is most of them never sufficiently learn Italian. And beyond the language skills, they don’t integrate fully with their communities. In larger towns, they are the Americans next door who wave at their neighbors and say buongiorno but little else; in smaller towns, they are the curious stranieri whom the locals tolerate, may even like, but really don’t understand. And the reverse is also true. An expat who doesn’t socialize with Italians, invite them to dinner and accept invitations, participate in community festivals and pitch in and lend a hand where possible is never going to integrate into Italy. I’ll admit that stranieri in Italy are always going to be looked on as stranieri—I’m Paolo’s wife but I’m still always “la Americana.” But you don’t become part of a community while sitting in your living room talking to your spouse in English.

You can fight it, or you can embrace it...
3. They expect Italy to accommodate them. I spent several summers in Italy before moving here permanently four years ago. During those summers, I learned two things about how to cope with a culture and attitudes so very different from “back home.”  1. Accept that Italy is not a service-oriented culture, and 2. Suspend your expectations.

Expats who come here expecting good customer service, whether it’s in a restaurant or clothing store or on the phone with Sky Italia are going to get very frustrated, very quickly. I’m not saying it’s right that Italy is like this; I’m just saying that it is, and that it’s not going to change for a tableful of whiny Americans upset because they can’t get extra cheese on their pasta. In America, it is the norm to ask for extra cheese, expect free refills and happily exchange pleasantries with a bank teller, salesperson or customer service rep. But in Italy, these people do not give a fuck about you. Maybe they don’t in America either, but here, they don’t even try to fake it. 

Italy is far from perfect,
but you don't see this just anywhere...
That brings me to my second point, about suspending your expectations. Expats who come here expecting that things will go smoothly, according to their wishes and in a timely manner will be disappointed, every time. Italians themselves do not have these expectations, ever. On the plus side, when you abandon these expectations, on the rare occasion when things do happen in a smooth, timely manner and according to one’s wishes, it’s all the more gratifying since it is so rare.

4. They expect to change the culture. We all came here because we love Italy, right? And then after a while, we discover there are many unlovable things about Italy. At the top of my very long list is hunting, poor treatment of domestic animals, littering, and an every man (or woman) for himself attitude. The truth is, some of those hunters are our friends and family and while I may not like what they do, they are not monsters. So I just wince every time a shotgun goes off during hunting season—which where I live is pretty much all fall and winter—since I can’t stop the hunters from hunting.  I’ve ratted out my neighbors to the veterinary police, and I’ve picked up other people’s garbage. These are the things I can control.

Sure, there are things you can't get in Italy,
like a big American breakfast.
What I can’t control is how Italians do business, what time they eat, how complicated it is to get a driver’s license, or their exaggerated sense of the bella figura (essentially, saving face). Yet I have an expat friend who hosts his dinner parties at 6:30, wants to write letters to every state agency with which he’s been frustrated (and I’m guessing that’s a lot of letters), expects his Italian business colleagues to adjust to his very aggressive, very American style of doing business, and will regularly send restaurant food back if it’s not exactly to his liking. I’ve told him before and I will tell him again: you’re not going to change Italy, and Italy isn’t going to change for you.

5. They compare cultures—way too much. Yes, I miss peanut butter, Mexican food (fellow expat blogger Toni DeBella and I are of a like mind here), TJMaxx, air conditioning and customer service. Yes, I will, in conversation with Italians, occasionally and quite carefully say something like, “You know, in America, maybe we do ___ a little better than in Italy.” But expats who constantly wax nostalgic about how much more orderly, efficient, friendly, affordable, cleaner and less corrupt their home country is make me wonder why they left.
Or a gratuitously large burger...

I’ve noticed too that this waxing nostalgic (which is really just my nice way of saying “complaining”) has a snowball effect. Before you know it, you find yourself among a group of expats who are condemning just about everything about Italy and Italians—from how they drive, dress, smoke, drink, eat, probably even how they have sex. (For the record, in my limited experience, I have no complaints about the latter.) By doing the group lament, expats put even more space, more “otherness” between themselves and their adopted countrymen and women. It’s negative, isolating, and completely counter to their presumed mission of feeling happier and more at home in Italy.

Then again, maybe I’m lucky. Every time I start to miss the USA, another mass shooting occurs in the land of my birth, and I’m glad I live in a far less violent, trigger-happy, inexplicably prideful nation. I’m glad I live in a country and a continent that doesn’t poison bees and consider protest an act of treason. Sure, I still love the USA and I do miss it at times. But I made my bed of roses, and I’m willing—grateful, really—to lay in it, thorns and all.
But you don't get sh*t like this
just anywhere, either.

Monday, August 19, 2013

11 Things I Love About My Village in Umbria

I’ll admit it—I've been a bit down on Italy lately. I’m sure that’s attributable to a number of things, first and foremost being the loss of both my parents this year. Despite having a husband, child, house, in-laws and pets here, the deaths of my parents has left me feeling like I somehow don’t have a base. That, combined with the grueling heat of an Italian summer, my continued frustration with obtaining my Italian driver’s license and a host of other minor annoyances has left me, frankly, with very little positive to say about my adopted homeland.

But rather than write a blog post recounting all the things I don’t like about living in Italy, I challenged myself to come up with a bunch of things that I love about living in Italy, particularly in my little corner of Italy. As it turns out, if one looks through the right shade of glasses, it’s not so hard to find the good things about living here. (Cue collective awws, please.)

So in no particular order, here are some of my favorite things—at the moment, at least—about life in my little village in Umbria.

1.       Summer visitors. Allerona is a small, sleepy town where about half the houses stand empty most of the year. But that all changes in July and August, when those homeowners come for their summer sojourns. There are more of them this year, no doubt because of Italy’s economic crisis. Allerona may not seem like much of a vacation in the high heat of August, but compared to Rome, it’s downright Arctic at our elevation. All those out-of-towners fill the bar and the piazzas and they patronize our few stores and they just liven up the place. I’m sorry to see them go.
Mario the cat is among our esteemed summer guests.
Photo by Frank Clemente
All them outtatowners keep the bar jumping.

2.       The stand. On summer weekends, Allerona’s volunteer cultural group, the pro loco, opens its “gastronomic stand” adjacent to our community tennis court and soccer field. While “gastronomic” might be a bit of an overstatement, the stand is a fun place to eat dinner and socialize with friends. There are kids and dogs and balls for Naomi to play with, and someone is always willing to entertain her for a while so Paolo and I can eat.
The stand is run by volunteers,
including Paolo's sister, Anarita.

3.       The bar. While I like bars in general, I have a special affection for our Bar Antico Borgo, and I finally found the place where everybody knows my name! Whether we go for prosecco or gelato (and let’s face it, it’s usually prosecco), there’s always someone we can chat with and—are you sensing a theme here—always someone wanting to play with Naomi. When we’re at the bar and someone asks me where my kid is, my favorite response is “I don’t know.” But she’s never far away, and she’s always in good hands. And did I mention that a prosecco costs just 1.60?
Someone's watching out for her, right?
Future bartender in training

4.       The festas. Summertime in particular is the season for several nice parties in Allerona. We recently ate dinner with about 150 of our closest friends at the piazza dalla chiesa, on an evening so blessedly cool we needed long sleeves. Even better than that, the pro loco, along with our summer theatre program, organized a fairy tale festival for the little ones, which featured costumed performers acting out classic fables in the candlelit alleys and little piazzas all over town. Maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental, but it was a sweet, magical event.
At dinner in our ancient piazza.
Photo by Sonia Catania Volpi
Portrait of the artist as a young woman
 - Naomi at a children's festa

5.       My mother-in-law’s orto. Just about everyone with a square meter of free land plants an orto, or vegetable garden, in the spring and reaps the bounty come summertime. So instead of searching in vain for organic produce in the grocery store, I can just go pick my own chemical-free tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, zucchini (OMG do we have zucchini), green beans and fresh herbs in Franca’s backyard. Our uncle brings us huge bunches of red grapes, and we know where all the good plum trees and blackberry bushes are. I will admit though, I’m running out of ideas for how to prepare zucchini.
Better than Whole Foods


Fresh-picked plums from a secret tree

6.       Lake Bolsena. Sure, in Florida I had the Gulf of Mexico, which wasn’t too shabby. But here, just a half hour or so away, I’ve got Lake Bolsena, one of the cleanest, deepest lakes in Europe. When I’m standing in neck deep water I can see my toes very clearly, and it’s nice to know I’m swimming in the same water in which the Etruscans used to bathe. They probably peed in it too, but that’s okay; I’m happy to dive in anyway, as is Naomi. Check out Susan Morgan’s recent blog post, which describes all sorts of things to love about Bolsena.
Descendants of the Etruscans take a dip.
Swimming and sunning make a girl thirsty!

Under the Etruscan moon...

7.   This guy.

8. I never need look far for a babysitter. 

9. Sometimes, this is my view. 

10. Other times it's this.

11. And best of all, it's this. 
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Ladish

So, there you have it, a short and by no means complete list of the things I love about living in our village, my village. As long as it stays longer than the list of things I don’t like about living in Italy, then I’m staying put. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Orange Gelato, Dishtowels and Memories

I never used to like the combination of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, but it was always my mother’s favorite. As a kid, I’d curl my lip at her weird ice cream parlor choice, and dig into a cone of predictable old chocolate chip. And my mother was just as predictable. Whenever we’d go get ice cream, it was always a scoop of orange sherbet and a scoop of vanilla for her.
I think I spy some agrumi in there...

It wasn’t until my first extended trip to Italy in 2005 that I finally figured out what I was missing. On an unseasonably hot May day in Rome, I and a few other students stopped at a gelateria at Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, that colorful hub of an equally colorful Roman neighborhood. The weather seemed too hot and sticky for chocolate of hazelnut or caramel ice cream, so I opted for orange and, what the hell…fior di latte. Fior di latte is not exactly vanilla—it literally translates to “milk flower”—but it is flavored with vanilla bean and has the same creamy sweetness of a rich vanilla ice cream. What we would call orange gelato is called “agrumi” here; as it’s a mixture of several different types of citrus, though mostly oranges.

I don’t know what compelled me to order that flavor combination. Maybe because I was missing my mom back home, and I knew how thrilled she’d be with Italy, with Rome, and with gelato, especially her two favorite tastes together.

Looks like I found some agrumi in this shot.
And it turns out, she was on to something. The tartness of the agrumi—it has less sugar than most fruit-flavored gelatos—coupled with the creaminess of the fior di latte was an extremely satisfying combination, a ying and yang that balanced perfectly with one another. Maybe for me, it was something about being on the first day of an Italian adventure that would eventually turn into the adventure of my life; maybe it was that picturesque piazza, or the sense of freedom I felt at being, for a couple of months at least, far removed from my daily stresses and instead pursuing a long-shelved dream of studying archaeology. But that orange and vanilla gelato that day in Rome was really just shockingly good.

It also turns out the while fior di latte is a stand-by flavor in most gelaterias, agrumi is not. It’s hard to find, so much so that outside of very large gelaterias in equally large cities, a tub of the tart orange goodness shows up only every so often. Strawberry and lemon? You can always find those. But agrumi is a rarity. In the years since that first cup, I’ve had a hankering for orange gelato to go with my fior di latte (or coconut, an equally delightful combination), and I’ve walked disappointed out of many a gelateria—with some alternate flavors in hand, or…cup, of course.

My dad eating decidedly un-agrumi gelato in Orvieto, 2011.
Now, when I actually find agrumi gelato at a gelateria, it’s such a rare treat and pleasant surprise that of course I have to order it to go with my fior di latte. No one in any gelato-eating party I’ve ever been a part of has ever ordered the combination. I’ve even gotten a few strange looks for ordering it, much like that lip-curl I used to give my mom when we went to Baskin Robbins. I offer a taste, but even Paolo’s not interested in trying it. Orange and vanilla? Weird, right?

In my mom's three trips to Italy with my dad, we never found orange gelato on the daily menu. Bad timing, I suppose. My parents always visited in the fall, when bars and even gelaterias reduce their inventories and cut back on the fruit flavors so associated with hot summer days. So she never got her orange and vanilla ice cream in Italy, but I’m sure she wasn’t too disappointed. And I’m sure I was disappointed enough for her, like I was with so many things that I tried to make up for in her and my dad’s life.

Blackberries in my mom's old colander
So whenever I eat my peculiar combination of gelato, I think of my mom, the same way I think of her when I wear a dishtowel over my shoulder when I’m working in the kitchen. She always used to do that and for whatever reason, it used to drive my crazy, especially when she’d start looking all over the kitchen for her dishtowel, only to realize it was on her shoulder. It turns out, your shoulder is a pretty handy place to keep a dishtowel. I think of her whenever I bake, as I gave all her muffin and cake pans and rolling pins and cookie cutters to my sister, thinking I’d never use them in Italy. I’ve bought new of all of them, but I now miss that old wooden rolling pin, which had been her mother’s, and those battered cake pans and bent metal cookie cutters. I fortunately have her equally beat-up metal colander. It’s funny how something as simple as draining pasta can bring back such sweet memories.

Last evening, we went to our local bar, ostensibly to get Naomi a gelato. I’m dieting now in earnest and wasn’t planning to get anything. But…they had agrumi, so I had to order a scoop of it, along with a scoop of fior di latte. Naomi decided she didn’t want gelato after all and instead grabbed a lollipop formed in the shape of a whistle, and started tooting about the bar. Paolo got his usual chocolate and crema, and wasn’t the least bit interested in my tangy-creamy duo. 
My last photo with my mom, May 2013, taken right before
we headed to the airport to return to Italy. She died in June.

He didn’t know what he was missing, I told him. 

But I knew what—and who—I was missing. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Truck for Sale, Cheap: A Monument to Suffering and Neglect

You can't replicate this kind of character.
Paolo needs a new truck. This much is certain. He’s put it off and put it off, as neither of us is wild about the idea of a new monthly payment. But he works as a stonemason and general contractor. So that means for hauling rocks or hauling roof beams or hauling construction debris, he needs a reliable truck.

Let’s focus for a moment on the word reliable. See, Paolo has a truck. It’s a 2007 Mahindra, an Indian brand that is popular in Italy. And I’m sure when it was new, the truck was a gem. But then something happened to it. Paolo bought it. With much love and respect to my husband, he has destroyed that poor truck. He’s driven it across rocky creek-beds and through the narrow streets of stone-built villages. He’s loaded it with more cargo than it can handle. And he has bounced it like a rubber ball through most of Umbria.

This one's broken, but the other one still works.
Oh wait, no it doesn't.
Now that we have to sell the old truck in order to buy a new one, I know there’s someone out there who wants to give this vehicle a new lease on life. So to pique your interest, I’d like to highlight just some of the road-tested experience in the short, difficult life of this noble vehicle:
  • Once while out truffle hunting, Paolo nearly rolled the truck over into a ditch. Only a strategically placed boulder kept it from tumbling 180 degrees. He and his friend Matteo climbed out of the nearly-sideways truck and made a track with rocks in order to level the truck and drive out. You could pay big bucks for a vintage look like this, but these scratches and dents are included at no extra charge.
  • The battery dies and has to be replaced, often. Once when it was dead, Paolo tried to run the truck downhill in order to pop the clutch and get it going. But the engine still didn’t turn over, and he ran the truck into an olive tree instead. The bumper still features the original dent from the olive trunk. What character! 

  • This was caused by an olive tree. Or was it a ditch?
  • Another time, he was backing up through our yard and didn’t see a huge hole in the ground where a tree had been. The truck hit the hole, and slid against and olive tree, crushing the roof and jamming shut the driver’s side door. He tried to say that one was Matteo’s fault for not warning him about the hole. The door opens now, but the roof is still dented.
  • On a rainy day while Paolo was out truffle hunting, the truck starting sliding through a muddy field, and slide within a few meters of a cliff. Paolo had to call a friend with a tractor to come pull him out of the field. This was a few years ago, but I think the mud splatter is still on the truck.

By now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Sounds good, but what about standard features?” Fear not, Dear Future Truck Owner, this baby’s loaded:
It's kind of like looking at the world
with a Cubism mirror...
  • Both the side mirrors are cracked. They’re also broken from their mountings—this is from driving through those narrow streets and scraping the mirrors against stone walls—and held on, badly, with silicone caulk. Not only does their flexibility allow you to more easily pass through narrow village streets, their flapping in the wind as you drive will be sure to attract the envy and attention of other drivers.

  • The automatic driver and passenger side windows no longer function with those pesky buttons. In the wintertime, the windows are cleverly held in place with a putty knife. In summer, they are open all the time, to let in those cool breezes and occasional rain storms to wash the upholstery. And, we’ve taken the liberty of removing the door panel from the driver’s side, so you don’t have to.
    Would you believe it still has that
    new car smell? Probably not.
  • Who likes driving at night, anyway? No worries. The truck’s headlights, taillights and brake lights don’t function. So you can park it at the end of a long day and be secure in knowing that you can’t take it out again until daylight. Just be sure to get home before it gets dark.
    Really, those door panels only
    have aesthetic function anyway.
    No need to worry about messing
    up the upholstery...
  • Since the windows stay securely closed during winter and open all summer long, there’s no need for heat or a/c, neither of which function. However, if you want a powerful blast of hot dirt in your face, turn the heating/cooling system on full blast—it functions as a great exfoliate.
  • Don’t spend another dime at the dentist on a painful, expensive tooth extraction. With the finest Indian suspension system, the tooth-rattling ride this chariot provides will save you a mouthful of dental fees. Note: Riding in vehicle not recommended for women in any stage of pregnancy, or for individuals with back, neck, or joint pain, or at risk of heart attack, stroke, or accidentally biting off their tongue when hitting a bump in the road.

I know what you’re thinking. A peach of a truck like this has surely already been plucked. But fear not, Dear Future Truck Owner, she’s still available, and waiting just for you. That said, we're going truck shopping this very weekend, so time is of the essence. So go ahead. Don’t be shy. Make us an offer. Please. Please.
The truck even claimed a victim...Paolo
recently backed it into our car.