Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sacrificing a Terrace for a Husband: A Bait & Switch That Paid Off

Daisy in not-so-rare form
In 2008, I met my future husband. I was spending the summer in Italy, partly to explore the possibility of moving there—I’d been a frequent visitor due to my doctoral studies in archaeology—and partly to reward myself for having survived a very difficult year. I’d gotten rid of a bad boyfriend, gotten my elderly parents set up in assisted living (I’d been their primary caregiver in my home prior to that), gotten my finances in order and even gotten my Tasmanian devil of a dog trained. I finally felt I could breathe again.

And that's how I found myself at 41, never married, no kids. In many ways, my life had become the epitome of my worst fears. I’d lived my whole adult life focused on finding “The One” and chasing men down one rabbit hole after another, only to wind up brokenhearted, disillusioned, and another year or two or five older. And at the end of every bad romance, I found myself right back where I’d startedjust older, and perhaps more in debt and more cynical. Faced with the choice of continuing on the same road, and waiting for the next bad boyfriend to come along (and in their defense, some weren't so much bad boyfriends as we were bad matches) or finding ways to make some radical shifts in my life, I focused on spending the summer in Italy.
Key components of my summer in Italy plans...

Moving to Italy had always been a fantasy of mine, the impossible dream that could only be made possible if I hit lotto, married well or landed some terribly exotic job. But instead of telling myself that it would never work, I decided to find out if there was a way it could work. Could I afford to move to Italy? How much money would I need? Could I find work there? And most importantly, when the fantasy of life in Italy hit up against the reality of day to day life in Italy, would I really love it as much as I imagined I would? Or would I simply find that I was just as lonely, just as longing for a spouse, and just as likely to make the same bad choices, albeit in a more romantic setting?

Orvieto, which is full of terraces on which to drink wine
Photo by Barbara Gillespie
To answer these questions, I decided to spend two months in Orvieto, a city in central Umbria that I’d visited once and fallen immediately in love with. I’ve had that experience in a few places—Vienna, Austria and Vancouver, BC, among others—where I stepped out of the train station or taxi or what have you, and felt immediately at home, that sensation of, “Yeah, I could live here.” Orvieto, a medieval hill town perched high on a plateau of tufa, or volcanic stone was one such place, and for a variety of reasons known and unknown, it called to me.

It was also important to me to choose a city where I knew no one, and where I was less likely to be surrounded by English speakers. To really test drive my move-to-Italy fantasy, I needed to be the stranger, plunked down in a place where I had no friends and no contacts, and where I’d be forced to speak Italian. (At that point, my Italian language skills were only good enough to order dinner and ask the location of the closest bathroom, and not much else.)

This is not a terrace.
I lined up a long term rental in a bed and breakfast, sent a deposit via wire transfer, and started communicating regularly with the friendly owner, Valeria. My future apartment had a terrace with a view over the rooftops of Orvieto, and I imagined this is where I’d spend the majority of my time, reading, writing and sipping wine. Expect that about a week or so before my arrival, Valeria emailed to tell me that I would be in a different apartment in a different location unrelated to the B&B. Her sister, who lived nearby, had just finished renovating a ground floor apartment below her home, and that’s where I’d be staying. It was larger and appeared more comfortable than the B&B apartment, but there was no terrace. “There’s a beautiful panorama of the hills from the apartment window,” wrote Valeria. But a window is not a terrace. I couldn’t sit at the window and drink wine and contemplate the view. Well I could, but it just wouldn't be the same. 

I tried to remain clam, but I was certain that I was falling victim to some kind of a bait and switch. Valeria kept assuring me that her sister’s apartment really was nicer than the B&B apartment. Her sister, Alessandra, emailed me a few times and Alessandra’s son sent several photos of the newly refurbished apartment. It did look nice, I had to allow. But still, no terrace.
But it did have a nice view. Photo by Barbara Gillespie

As it turned out, I got a pretty good deal in the end. At Alessandra’s apartment—my apartment, at least for those two months—I was in a neighborhood. I met my Italian neighbors, including a couple who lived most of the year in Houston and spoke English. I became friends with Alessandra and friendly with her 30-something daughter and son. I got invitations to dinners, to festivals, and I made contacts that might potentially help me in finding work or advancing my dissertation research. I met a few American couples who lived in Orvieto full- or part-time, and despite my pledge to avoid spending time just with English speakers, I was glad for their company and friendship. My Italian improved, at least a little bit.

Don't I look like I'm wondering
what the hell I'm going to do with my life?
I had all these experiences and exposure specifically because I was in that apartment, and not at the B&B, where I would have met other guests who came and went, rather than the Orvietani neighbors I saw every day. I would have spoken English with those guests and with Valeria, instead of learning Italian via the sink or swim method. And I think ultimately, I would have had a lonelier experience, sitting on my coveted terrace, drinking wine and looking over the rooftops of Orvieto, wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life.

My friend Barbara came to visit me from New York, and stayed about 10 days. Barb and I have been friends since high school, and we went to college together. Our friendship has endured for nearly 30 years now, through fallings out and hurt feelings and reconciliations. She knows me and my strengths and shortcomings as well as anyone in my life, and stood by, wincing much of the time, as I plodded through one disastrous relationship after another. So she also was my biggest cheerleader when it came to me remaking my life, and she fell almost as much in love with Italy and Orvieto and my little corner of town as I was.
And we did get to drink wine on a few terraces...
photo by Barbara Gillespie

We decided to put together a party for the 4th of July, just a few days before Barb was to head home. We invited the neighbors and the American friends I’d made, and of course Alessandra and her kids. Her daughter called to ask if she could bring some friends to the party, and I said of course. That’s why, had I been tucked away in the B&B instead of at Alessandra’s apartment, Paolo would have never walked up through my door.

He showed up with bottles of his homemade wine and a big grin on his face. He was taller than anyone there, and had a personality to match his stature. Truth be told, he had eyes for Barb at first, and it wasn’t until a group dinner the next night that a little spark started to ignite between the two of us. (It probably helped that he learned Barb was happily married.)

So the apartment bait and switch turned out very differently—and much better—than my hosts or I could have possibly imagined. I was indignant at having to give up that terrace with a view. But I got a husband and now, a daughter out of the bargain. I’d say it was a pretty good trade-off, all in all.  
Who doesn't love a happy ending? 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Lazy Peasants and One Sucker of a Saint: Allerona’s Festivale di Sant Isidoro

Our statue of the miracle of St. Isidoro,
with an angel driving oxen while Isidoro prays. 
Allerona has a few traditional festivals each year. But my favorite, and far and away the most charming of them all (and hence my favorite) is the festival of Sant Isidoro, which takes places the second weekend in May. St. Isidore (Isidoro in Italian) hails from Spain, but he is celebrated in countries across the world, particularly in agrarian communities or those with an agrarian tradition, like Allerona. He’s known as the patron saint of “the fields and those who work in the fields.”

The legend goes that as a young man born into poverty, Isidoro went to work for a wealthy landowner. But he sometimes showed up late to work, as he first stopped to pray at church every morning. The landowner
accused Isidoro of cheating him out of time and labor, but Isidoro assured him that he worked harder and produced more than the other, less pious field hands. So the landowner, still suspicious, hid near the church door and sure enough, Isidoro went and prayed first thing. Still undetected, he followed Isidoro out to the fields, where legend has it that he saw—depending on the legend—somewhere between one and three angels pushing plows alongside Isidoro. The moral of the story of St. Isidoro is that if your spiritual life is in order, your earthly commitments will fall into order, also. Apparently, if Isidoro had been late to work because of frequent hangovers, the angels would not have appeared to help him.
Tractors waiting to be blessed,
to ensure a good year's harvest

In Allerona, the story of St. Isidoro varies somewhat from the original version. As Paolo has explained it to me, a bunch of contadini, or peasants, prayed to St. Isidoro for help tending their fields. While they either a) feasted b) danced c) slept or d) prayed some more—I’m not really clear based on Paolo’s version of the story—an angel appeared and plowed their fields.

So that’s right folks. The lesson here is that if you don’t have the time or inclination to do your work, just ask St. Isidoro for help, and then enjoy that second helping of pasta, extra few hours of sleep or another dance with your best girl.

Now that’s my cynical agnostic self, talking, of course. But the pugnaloni, a key feature of Allerona’s Festival of St. Isidoro, don’t do much to refute my contention that we’re talking about a bunch of lazy peasants and a sucker of a saint, who sends angels to plow fields just because some farmers don’t feel like doing it.

A pugnalone...
When Paolo first described to me what the pugnaloni were, I have to admit I was a bit confused. “They’re carts decorated with scenes from life in the campagna,” he explained. “Every year there’s a contest to pick the best one.” Decorated carts? Models? It was all sounding a little to craft-y to me. I gave him a quizzical look, one that I like to think conveys curiosity, but instead probably conveys, “That sounds fucking stupid.”

Still, I had to see for myself that first year. The festival kicks off with the blessing of the tractors in the town square. The priest comes, says a few words and waves his psalter in the general direction of the assembled tractors—and there are all shapes and sizes—and then the tractors slowly move out of the piazza. Then, the pugnaloni are brought in.

I’m happy to say that I had to eat crow yet again for a sarcastic eye-roll—or whatever one does to atone for a sarcastic eye-roll. (I should know this, given how frequently I make this type of atonement.) The pugnaloni, which can only be done partial justice in my photos, are among the most creative, charming and precious labors of love and tradition I’ve ever seen.

Why plow when you can polka?
Each pugnaloni depicts the story of St. Isidoro, but they also show a depiction of contadini life in the late-1800s, Allerona’s busiest and most populous epoch, when podere, or farmhouses, could easily house 20 or more family members, and their residents lived off what they farmed or traded for. Each pugnaloni is carefully, meticulously decorated, and each one features an angel, complete with white gown, wings and halo, pushing a plow or following an ox in the fields. The pugnaloni are decorated with fresh flowers, fruit and tiny little plants, and each has a tree in its center, decorated like a May pole and festooned with wheels of cheese, salami, bread, and other fruits of labor in the countryside. It may be a religious festival, but tell me there aren’t some pagan origins here somewhere.

After the pugnaloni are on display for a few hours, the corteo storico, or historic procession, begins. First comes the wood carving of St. Isidoro carried by several townsmen. Our priest, Don Luigi, follows closely behind and recites prayers into a loudspeaker, which is carried by another townsperson. Then comes our town philharmonic band, then the best part—about 100 or so Alleronese dressed in traditional clothes of the late 1800s. Their clothes are humble, simple and hand-sewn, so much so that you’d expect to see them piled into a horse-drawn buggy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
This guy's too busy fishing to be bothered with farm work.

The saint, the priest, the band and the costumed Alleronese walk through the town square and head downhill in procession, and one by one, the pugnaloni carts fall in line behind them, pulled by one or two people and gently guided by a few more. Crackling fireworks fire off along the procession route, and those viewers who don’t follow the procession await its return in about a half an hour. More prayers and music ensue, and then everyone heads for lunch. (This is Italy after all, and St. Isidoro may be the patron saint of the fields, but even he wouldn't dare interrupt the sacred Sunday lunch, which starts promptly at 1 pm.)

In the afternoon, the pugnaloni are placed all around our town centro, and in every corner of the town traditional farm crafts are demonstrated, from making yarn from sheeps’ wool, to making cheese to separating wheat from chaff.

Paolo and his Nonno Gino carved these wooden models
when Paolo was just a little boy.
Foods typical of life in the campagna are offered as well. These include beans with anchovies and onions, unsalted bread and simple cookies. It’s all known as cucina povera—poor cuisine—and that pretty well sums up what country life was like in and around towns like Allerona, not just in the 19th century but well into the 20th, too. And people gobble the stuff up, not so much because it tastes good, but because it is a reminder of a time gone by—the comfort food of another era. It’s much like the way my mother used to buy a slice or two of head cheese at the supermarket—to my utter disgust. She grew up during the Great Depression, when her impoverished family would have received the offal of a neighbor’s pig like it was a platter full of T-bone steak. So maybe like my mom with her head cheese, the people of Allerona scarf down their cucina povera just so they don’t forget what poor tasted like.

Sweet, beautiful scenes of farm life.
For me, the real stars of the Festival of St. Isidoro will always be the pugnaloni, which I could never have imagined I’d enjoy so much. Isidoro may or may not have sent those angels to plow the fields, but beyond the legend of the saint, the pugnaloni are a tender and lovingly tended record of an age that no longer exists, but of a time that Alleronese of all ages hold close to their hearts. They remember a simpler life, when entertainment consisted of singing, telling stories, and attending dances, and when you courted the girl who lived up the road because, well, she was within walking distance and you’d grown up with her and her siblings. And maybe their food tasted better to them, because it was produced by their own hands. They toiled on the land. They lost infants and children to disease and hunger. Son and brothers left for war and never came back. A hail storm or a late spring freeze could ruin their year. And just maybe they deserved an angel to come and ease the workload a bit.
The corteo storico, or Allerona, circa 1890...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Nonno Gino at 100

Gino, in the green hat, arriving at his mass with grandson
Paolo and "little" brother, 97 year-old Mario.

It was a day we’d all been waiting for, some of us longer than others, and Nonno Gino definitely the longest. We’d all held out hope that he would make it; that he would hang on and hang tough long enough to celebrate his 100th birthday in style.

And he did. And we did. And the whole town of Allerona did.

In the months leading up to April 27, every time Gino would start to feel low—winters are hard on him—we’d get him to talk about his party. About the food he wanted, about the music, about who would be there and who we should be sure to invite. And it worked every time—he’d rally and get excited planning his upcoming festa. What we knew for certain was that there would be porchetta—a small, whole roasted pig—and wine, lots of wine. What Gino didn’t know was that his daughter, Franca, along with Paolo’s aunts and cousins, were furiously planning a menu of antipasti to go along with the porchetta, to include a dizzying array of finger foods and so many desserts that we are still thawing and enjoying the frozen leftovers.

Neither rain, sleet or hail would keep Gino
from celebrating on his big day.
Gino wore a crisp new suit for his party, which was to commence with a mass at our town church, but not before Allerona’s philharmonic band serenaded him on the church piazza. We drove him up to town in our car and as soon as he stepped out, both the band and the skies above opened up, and he and a few hundred townspeople stood in the rain and listened to the band’s salute. There were few dry eyes in the piazza, and not because of the rain. For as much as I felt like a bystander—after all, he’s my grandfather only by virtue of a relatively recent marriage—I was hugged and kissed and told “auguri”—sort of like “best wishes”—by dozens of people, most of them waiting in the queue to get at Gino.

Inside the church, I held our squirmy daughter in my lap as the mass began. I complained quietly to my friend Estelle that someone, while hugging me, had somehow spilled some kind of lotion or body oil on me. My arms were covered with it. Estelle gave me her scarf to sop up the oil but every time I’d look at my hands or arms, more seemed to appear. It was like I was receiving the stigmata of colorless, odorless body oil, right there in the middle of Gino’s 100th birthday mass. And it was starting to freak me out.

Gino in church with daughter Franca and grandchildren,
Anarita & Paolo. This is about when my bra started leaking. 
Don Luigi congratulates Gino, as a young admirer looks on.
The second or third time I wiped the oil clean only to see more appear, I realized, with horror, what had occurred. In order to better fill out the tight fitting blouse I had on under my jacket—I planned to doff the jacket at the after-mass party—I’d inserted two “helpers”—soft, liquid filled bra inserts that add a little oomph to one’s profile. And one of them had burst. In church. In the middle of my husband’s grandfather’s 100th birthday mass. I looked down in quiet mortification at a huge dark stain covering the left side of my viscose jacket. So every time I brushed my arm or hand against my jacket, I picked up more oil from the leaky bra insert. Seriously. (Normally I would not use such an auspicious occasion as Gino’s big day to talk about myself, but exploding bra inserts don’t just happen every day, or in the middle of one’s husband’s revered grandfather’s 100th birthday mass.)

As discretely as I could with a squirmy baby (who is also Gino’s great-granddaughter) in my arms, I ducked out of church and raced home to change. I figure if anyone asked, at least I could blame my exit on her. I completed my outfit change in record time, and made it back to the church to hear our priest, Don Luigi, read the record of Gino’s baptism in 1913, and his marriage in 1937 to his young bride, Zita, who died in 2001. Don Luigi, who recites the same funeral mass every time someone dies and merely changes the name of the deceased, really outdid himself this time, and delivered a eulogy that was personal, touching and tender.
Feted with roses, plaques and scrolls.

We drove to the Sala Aurora, our town assembly hall, where the band again played for Gino upon his entry. Our mayor, our pro loco, or cultural committee, and several other municipal organizations presented Gino with plaques, scrolls, and sashes, all as he sat in a chair, monarch-style. And for that day at least, he really was the King of Allerona. (My friend Susan Morgan, who is one of Nonno Gino’s biggest fans, wrote this loving account of his party.)

Gino lasted until about 9 pm, when he was too tired of eating, drinking, singing and being kissed to continue for much longer. I took the baby home around the same time, but the party went on until 11 pm or so until the last of the revelers, my husband included, adjourned to the bar. When he came in around 1 am, he was animated and his speech a little slurred. “You’re drunk!” I said, more surprised than outraged. “No I’m not!”  Paolo protested. “Okay, maybe I’m a little drunk, but it’s not every day that my grandfather turns 100. Everyone was buying me drinks.” I guess since they couldn't buy Gino drinks, Paolo was a good substitute. 

Singing with the fellas.
If it seems I glossed over the big party, that’s because for me, and I think perhaps for Gino, the after-party was the best part. Since the fireworks we’d planned for the 27th got rained out, Franca and her crew decided to invite everyone down to her rustico, or garage, to eat leftovers and watch fireworks the next night. Our friend Isabella drove through town with a loudspeaker, and announced to all within earshot to come to Franca’s at 9 pm.

And come they did. Just as it was getting dark, cars started pulling up, and other groups arrived on foot for a snack and pyrotechnics. There were far fewer people than the night before, so the affair took on a cozy intimacy as people talked, mingled and drank in the cool night air. Gino was brought outside and sat down, again in monarch style, to watch his fireworks show, which he gazed up at with awe. It was a fitting cap to a weekend of festivities.

Coming out to watch his fireworks.
I’d wish Gino another 100 years if I thought he wanted it. But I know that he doesn't. He is tired, and we can see him winding down. He reached his milestone. He’s buried his wife, two of his three brothers, most of his friends and even his son-in-law. He doesn't need money or gifts, and I don’t believe that he longs for more time. But we sure hope he’ll stick around a little while longer. At least for a few more birthdays...

Gazing up at his fireworks show.